Ethics from the Ground Up/Ethics Being Ground Up, by Michael King

For much of philosophy, the field of ethics concerned human affairs with no substantive consideration of the land. It was not until the 20th Century that ethical systems were developed and codified with respect to the land and the environment: Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, Arne Naess’ Deep Ecology, and Murray Bookchin’s radical ecology being a few examples. The roots of these ethical systems, however, can be traced to the Enlightenment, most notably to Spinoza’s pantheism and Kant’s deontology. The latter conceptualized an ethical system founded on the idea of each human individual as an autonomous “end-in-itself,” whereas the former conceived of the world as an interconnected web and espoused an “ethics of immanence.” By transferring the noumenal essence of the human agent to the land itself (Kantian deontology transferred to the land) as well as viewing the universe as being immanent as opposed to transcendent (Spinoza’s pantheism), a preliminary foundation for the ideas of restoration and conservation was established, thereby preparing the ground from which a future “land ethics” might grow. The development of land ethics was further aided by Emerson, Thoreau, and Muir, particularly in their championing of the “natural world.” As this paper will demonstrate, though, the Transcendentalists are better construed as immersionists (as suggested by the philosopher/critic William H. Gass) plunging into matter as opposed to overcoming it. The land ethics growing out of Kant, Spinoza, and the Transcendentalists is one not of transcendence, but of immersion and immanence: an ethics from the ground up. A final consideration to be made is that of Nietzsche’s call for “an architecture for the search for knowledge,” an architecture that leaves behind the structures and strictures of the church for the open space of parkland. Contrasting with this idea as well as the overall thrust of the paper would be Nietzsche’s ethics of amor fati, which obviates the very idea of conservation. Nietzsche’s submersion of ethics into aesthetics by arguing for lives that open up to new possibilities and transformations, i.e., aesthetic or literary lives, calls into question the idea of restoring or maintaining a status quo.

In this paper, we will consider the foundations of such “land ethics”; discuss how the land came to be conceptualized as an “end in itself”; and think about the implications and ramifications of such a transformation in our conceptual thinking. The paper’s goal is to dwell on the very idea of conservation—of what it means to make space and save space.

Michael King, City College of New York, USA

Harvard Citation Guide: King, M. (2012) Ethics from the Ground Up/Ethics Being Ground Up, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 20 May 2012, Available at: [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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