Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 1999)

Social Morals and Ethics of Nature: from Peter Kropotkin to Murray Bookchin

printable version



Abstract: The aim of this paper is to take up the problem of continuity and discontinuity in Ethics in relation to the actions taken by humanity as regards transforming both the natural environment and its own, interior Nature. This issue is explored through the writings of Kropotkin, Guyau, Reclus and Bookchin. According to the ethical naturalism advanced by Kropotkin, struggles within Nature were often limited and “mutual aid” was the dominant factor. In Kropotkin’s work, special mention is made of Jean Marie Guyau who outlined a moral that could be called “ecological”. Guyau stressed that the facts of everyday life were the basis of Ethics and that a sort of natural power exists within moral duty, a natural force that came before knowledge. Also, close to Kropotkin’s work was the work of Elisée Reclus for whom “man is Nature which has become conscious of itself”—a statement which perhaps contains one of the most efficacious descriptions of the moral feelings that link man to his environment. Finally, the work of Murray Bookchin is directly linked to that of Kropotkin, Guyau and Reclus offering an important synthesis of ethical and ecological thought.


Abstract: The aim of this paper is to take up the problem of continuity and discontinuity in Ethics in relation to the actions taken by humanity as regards transforming both the natural environment and its own, interior Nature. This issue is explored through the writings of Kropotkin, Guyau, Reclus and Bookchin. According to the ethical naturalism advanced by Kropotkin, struggles within Nature were often limited and “mutual aid” was the dominant factor. In Kropotkin’s work, special mention is made of Jean Marie Guyau who outlined a moral that could be called “ecological”. Guyau stressed that the facts of everyday life were the basis of Ethics and that a sort of natural power exists within moral duty, a natural force that came before knowledge. Also, close to Kropotkin’s work was the work of Elisée Reclus for whom “man is Nature which has become conscious of itself”—a statement which perhaps contains one of the most efficacious descriptions of the moral feelings that link man to his environment. Finally, the work of Murray Bookchin is directly linked to that of Kropotkin, Guyau and Reclus offering an important synthesis of ethical and ecological thought.


At the beginning of this century Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist geographer and philosopher, highlighted the “modern need” to elaborate the conceptual basis for a new moral. In Kropotkin’s view, the progress achieved in the fields of the natural, social and historical sciences and, also, in technology had, for the first time, placed humanity in the position of being able to go beyond the realms of necessity and scarcity and enter a period of well-being, justice and freedom. With his optimistic, positivist spirit, he convinced himself that humanity’s actions should be marked by responsible and modest behaviour:

Modern science has thus achieved a double aim. On the one side it has given to man a very valuable lesson of modesty. It has taught him to consider himself as but an infinitesimally small particle of the universe. It has driven him out of his narrow, egotistical seclusion, and has dissipated the self-conceit under which he considered himself the centre of the universe and the object of the special attention of the Creator. It has taught him that without the whole the 'ego' is nothing; that our 'I' cannot even come to a self-definition without the 'thou'. But, at the same time science has taught man how powerful mankind is in its progressive march, if it skilfully utilises the unlimited energies of Nature[1].

Almost a century later, Hans Jonas introduced an analogous principle of responsibility into his writings, but his reflections reveal a very concerned and pessimistic view of modern developments in science and technology. The new moral, which must be identified and outlined, in this case serves to keep a check on the negative effects of scientific progress:

The  Prometheus which has been uncontrollably unbound, to which science attributes a power without precedents and on which the economy imprints an unceasing impulse, demands an ethic that, through self-limitation, stops its power becoming a misadventure for man. The knowledge that the promises of modern technology have been transformed into threats, or that this threat has been indissolubly linked to the promises, is the hypothesis that underlies this reflection. [...] Dominating Nature with the aim of nurturing human happiness, with its extraordinary success which now involves the nature of humans themselves, has launched the greatest challenge to human beings regarding their own behaviour that has ever been launched. [...] The virgin terrain of collective practices, which we have entered with the advent of high technology is still, for Ethics, a no man’s land[2].

In less than one century, attitudes towards science, technology and progress had changed radically. This paper intends to take up the problem of continuity and discontinuity in thought on Ethics in relation to the actions taken by humanity as regards transforming both the natural environment and its own, interior Nature.

Ambivalence of moral feelings

Although he shared the philosophical and scientific positivism of his times, Kropotkin believed that the advance of technological and scientific knowledge would either have left unchanged or even damaged the field of Ethics, the “science of the foundations of morals”. The dilemma Kropotkin highlighted concerns the tragic ambivalence contained within the development of scientific positivism which, although it is able to offer an objective basis for social morals, is closed against any ethical interpretation The study and understanding of Nature, of the evolution of living beings, of the laws of psychic life and of the evolution of society, cannot but offer a natural explanation of the birth of moral feelings. Given these general scientific conditions, the science of morals would, undoubtedly have shown “where the forces are which are able to carry this moral feeling ever higher, thus rendering it more and more pure”.

Kropotkin identified three great moral systems: Comte’s positivism, Bentham and Mill’s utilitarianism and the altruistic evolutionism of Darwin, Spencer and Guyau. None of them were entirely able to satisfy the social and political needs of the period-- needs (and dissatisfaction) which were, at that time, expressed through the resurgence and spread of a “new mystic-religious idealism”, by Kantian intuition and even by neo-Platonism.

But it was, above all, the incoherencies and difficulties within evolutionist thought that weakened any moral reasoning which was based on real life and not on something that would transcend it.

When Darwin formulated his theory of the “struggle for existence” presenting it as the main factor in evolution, he once more raised the tricky problem of morality, or potential immorality, within Nature. Darwin’s followers considered Nature as a vast battlefield where the weakest were exterminated by the strongest, the most skilled and the cleverest. Under these conditions, as Kropotkin rightly observed, Nature could only teach human beings about hand-to-hand fighting.

On the basis of this natural philosophy, Kropotkin argued that it was impossible for human beings to have a precise idea of good and that, consequently, they would never be able to think that good could triumph over evil. A bloodstained Nature, red in tooth and claw, would never be able to give birth to any individual and social morals, thus the code of Ethics could never prescribe rules of subordination and domination otherwise it would disappear under the blows of an all-out war with everyone against everyone else.

The naturalism advanced by Kropotkin on the basis of which a new ethic could be founded, was radically different from the Darwinist concept, even though it did recapitulate the more important elements of Darwin’s theory. He was convinced that struggles within Nature were “often circumscribed, restricted to a struggle between different species, whereas within the group formed either by one species, or by more than one species cohabiting, the general rule was that of mutual help. Mutual aid is the dominant factor in Nature”.

The sheer simplicity of this statement, which today is almost risible, posited entirely different parameters for evaluating moral behaviour. The fact that mutual aid was considered crucial for the prosperity, development and preservation of each species  or eco-community, indeed so crucial that it had become a permanent active instinct  in all social animals (humans included), offered new principles to moral conscience. Even though such principles could be considered to be only rudimentary, the instinct of mutual support lay at the origins of all feelings of benevolence, justice, equity and equality. Thus, in Kropotkin’s view, Nature did not automatically offer lessons in amoralism, rather it offered a much more precise notion of good and evil, clear reasoning on the supreme good that every code of Ethics should have followed up.

Quite rightly, Kropotkin pointed out that the study of Nature and history showed that two tendencies exist: “on the one hand, the tendency towards sociality and, on the other, the desire to lead a more intense life, from which springs the idea of the greatest happiness for the individual”. The proof of this dual and contradictory aspiration within individual and moral life is not far removed from recent statements regarding the ambivalent nature of human beings. Kropotkin hoped that modern Ethics would be able to find a common ground between feelings of “domination” and feelings of “mutual collaboration”. These two groups of feelings must necessarily be in conflict, therefore, some synthesis was necessary if one did not want to pay the price of that relativism which, today, seems to dominate.

Kropotkin divided the feelings and actions that Comte described as “altruistic” into two categories. On the one hand lay those actions which were necessary in order to live in society: these cannot possibly be defined as being altruistic because they are characterised by reciprocity and are carried out by an individual in his or her own interest, as is any act which is inspired by the instinct for self-preservation. On the other hand, there were those acts which did not presuppose that any type of reciprocity would be involved. Whoever carried out such acts offered their strength, force, energy and enthusiasm, without expecting to receive anything in exchange, without presuming that there would be some reward. These acts, which permit moral perfection, are defined as obligatory.

Undoubtedly, this analytical distinction between types of moral feelings was, in his time, innovative and were adjuncts to an analytical position which had only recently been studied and articulated. The absence, in the relationship between I and the Other, of any form of reciprocity, expectation, or calculation of gain or reward, that is, the subject’s indifference to the fact that there is no  “rational” reason for the exchange, renders Kropotkin’s moral unique and close to the pre-ontological moral  impulse described by Emmanuel Levinas and by Zigmunt Bauman[3]. However, this conceptual analogy concerns the pre-social dimension morals, which belongs more to sociability than to socialisation, and to unconditional responsibility towards the Other rather than to rationally based decisions and duties.

Moral obligation towards the other based on responsibility and lacking in any expectation of reciprocity makes it possible to distinguish between the moral domain and the legislative domain. In  Kropotkin’s view, moral was beyond rules and laws. Thus the task of Ethics was not to stress the defects of human beings, admonishing them for their shortcomings or “sins”, but rather Ethics should play a positive role, focussing on humanity’s best instincts and on that moral impulse which came before any social order. Ethics could explain the fundamental principles on whose basis both animals and human beings were able to live in a society. Furthermore, such principles would appeal to higher feelings, such as love, courage, brotherhood and sisterhood and respect for oneself, characteristics which fill the pre-ontological space of moral relations. Within the study of humanity’s nature and past, Ethics, by describing the harmony between I and the Other, could indicate the truth through which the moral space could be understood. Hence, in Kropotkin’s opinion, the reason why human beings behaved in a manner which could be described as moral, lay in Nature or in history

The way in which Kropotkin outlined the idea of a private Ethic which contained no elements of coercion or imposition is surprising, and distances him from his contemporaries who saw rules and state legislation as the way in which personal interests could be protected and the moral relationship between I and the Other codified. In Kropotkin’s opinion, Ethics did not and could not offer any fixed rules of conduct, because the individual must weigh up for him/herself the value of different ethical arguments. The main purpose of Ethics was not to offer counsel to individuals rather:

it tends to offer all men a supreme end, an ideal that will guide and encourage them to act instinctively in the desired direction. [Its aim] is to create a social climate which is able to make the majority of men understand, in a completely natural, habitual way, that is without hesitation, which acts will contribute to the everyone’s well-being.

The moral theory Kropotkin was criticising was that which had isolated the individual from his/her neighbour shutting him/her up in asocial and monadological solitude. Hobbes, Locke, and other theorists imagined an individual linked to society only for his/her own ends; they believed that social institutions existed only in order to preserve, protect and defend the personal interests of the individual. Hobbes was furthermore convinced that there was a need for an authority, the Leviathan, able to create a social moral and impose it through disciplinary procedures. In this way, the individual was exempted from any obligations towards other human beings. The rights of the individual were, in reality, only defended in the economic sphere, the limits to which spontaneous economic activity could be interfered with were prescribed by the state and political, intellectual and artistic activities were subject to state control. The resulting inadequate development of the individual could not but lead to a “gregarious mentality”, marked by the lack of personal initiative and creativity. Economic individualism and ownership had failed clamourously to achieve its aims as it did not lead to “the abundant flowering of the personality”.

In Kropotkin’s opinion, sociality and mutual aid were the elements that could build a new social moral. Even as these spontaneous moral attributes developed among individuals and became social custom so they would lead to the development of the sense of justice and of its necessary corollary: the sense of equality and equity. Kropotkin was, however, well aware that the new moral would not be established without radical social transformations. His moral theory quite deliberately avoided formulating a class or party moral: it transcended all social divisions, denied that “inequality was a natural law” and could only become a reality in the context of a society of equals. The idea that the rights of the individual were as inviolable as were the natural rights of all the others would only develop with the progressive disappearance of class distinctions and with the transformation of social institutions.

Kropotkin argued that thanks to the establishment of social relations marked by the principles of equality and justice, individuals would learn to understand and evaluate the repercussions of their actions on the whole society, starting from avoiding causing any harm to others even when it meant that he/she would have to restrict  their own needs. The concepts of limits and responsibility appear in this description of the phenomenology of the new moral, concepts which reappear in the work of Hans Jonas. The subject identifies his/her feelings with those of the Others who show that they are ready to offer the subject their own energy without asking for anything in return.

For Kropotkin, the combination of responsibility and limits ― usually, though imprecisely, defined as altruism and abnegation ― was the moral itself. The moral, which was freed from social and institutional conditioning that sprang from sociality rather than from socialisation, from the anti-structure rather than from the structure; the moral which went beyond the morally adiaphorous social action of the socialised individual who has been deprived of responsibility for the Other. But the aporia in this combination ―which seeks to find the difficult equilibrium between “looking after” and “exercising power”, between responsibility and oppression, between encouragement and constriction― could not be resolved, even by Kropotkin, except by founding the origins of moral law within the moral instincts which naturally reside in humans, in those more lasting social instincts which prevail over less enduring instincts.

Thus, Mutual help, justice and morals, the ascending steps of psychic states, discovered through study of the animal and the human world, were an organic necessity.

The natural foundations of Kropotkin’s Ethics

Through his study and interpretation of Nature, Kropotkin sought to offer a solution to the problem of the foundations of the moral actions of individuals. These foundations lay in Nature and could be experienced and rendered intelligible by means of the natural and social sciences: after all, wasn’t society just one consequence of Nature? Similar convictions distanced him from the moral theory that argued that moral behaviour was the outcome of the influence of state institutions. In order to escape from the moral dilemma of his time, he identified an objective foundation for Ethics within the evolution of Nature and of humanity.

Kropotkin did not conceal the fact that he was strongly influenced by Darwin’s works. Indeed, he recognised that Darwin had opened up a new path for moral sciences and had founded a school of Ethics in the same way as had Hume, Hobbes and Kant. He also agreed with Darwin’s explanation of the origins of moral feelings: that they derived from an innate, instinctive sociality that existed in both humans and animals. For Darwin, the basis of all moral sentiments lay in that social instinct that “made men find pleasure in the company of others like himself, could make him like them and want to render them some service ”[4]. Furthermore, Darwin believed that all species of animals had developed the same social instinct as had man, and when this instinct was not satisfied that its lack would generate a feeling of discontent and suffering in the individual, especially when it was revealed that, in some cases, the social instinct had given way to another more transitory and superficial instinct. In Darwin’s opinion, moral anxiety, uncertainty about the moral judgements of his/her behaviour, the sense of incompleteness within his/her actions characterised the biological nature of the subject.

However, Darwin rejected Kant’s belief that moral sentiments were a mystic gift of unknown and mysterious origin. As Kant had said, the individual could always, at a certain point, declare “I will not permit the human dignity of my person to be violated”, but Darwin felt that this statement was none other than the expression of natural instincts, such as sociability and liking, which were reinforced by reason, experience, imitation and by the desire to gain the approval of others[5].

Basing his arguments on Darwin’s statements, Kropotkin even contested the conviction held by many theorists that the most powerful of all human instincts, and even more so among animals, was the instinct for preservation, which was wrongly identified as egotism. Under the heading of “the instinct for preservation” the moral preachers brought together, on the one hand, primordial impulses, such as defence, preservation and hunger and, on the other, derived feelings, such as passion for domination, cupidity, hate and revenge. Contemporary moral thought identified the nature of man as this chaotic mixture of instincts and feelings which had hardened into an omnipotent force that had penetrated, without meeting any resistance, into both humans and animals.

This “inconvenient” statement could not but provoke those moralists who sought to legitimise their theories of a world that fell outside or beyond Nature, suspended in a supernatural dimension. The triumph of the moral element thus appeared as the triumph of man over Nature and over his/her intrinsic egotistical and evil nature, a victory that he/she could not obtain without outside help, help from the state and intelligent legislators[6].

Kropotkin, however, shifted the interpretation of Nature diametrically. He identified mutual support within the species as the predominant factor, as the most powerful agent of social and cultural development. Nature became humanity’s first teacher, teaching Ethics and moral principles to human beings. The social instinct, innate in humans, lies at the origins of all notions of Ethics and all subsequent evolutions in morals. The altruistic social instinct, referring to the definition offered by both Comte and Spencer, in the context of natural and social evolution, can only prevail over egotistical and transitory instincts. The compromise, sought by Spencer, between the laws of aggression and of friendship, between inequality and equality, could never emerge.

The moral without obligations of Jean-Marie Guyau

In Kropotkin’s work, special mention is made of Jean Marie Guyau (1854-1888). A brilliant, young sociologist and moral philosopher, Guyau’s work was ignored for a long time, even though he had founded an original system of Ethics, and it has only recently been re-evaluated and begun to receive the attention it merits.

Guyau sought on the one hand to free moral thinking from any sort of mystic or  supernatural presuppositions, those that mark the religious conception of Ethics. That is, he sought to free it from any duty imposed from outside. On the other hand, he also sought to eliminate, from the moral domain, both any personal interest of a material nature and, consequently, the hopes and aspirations for happiness of this type, that on which the Utilitarians had founded their moral theories.

Guyau posited the facts of everyday life as the basis of his system of Ethics, and rejected both Kant’s metaphysics and the intuitions of Bergson and others like him. He argued that a positive moral, based on facts, could not pretend that good or the generosity of society was its first (prime) impulse, because what is good for society is often not good for the individual. The positive moral must, therefore, be individualist, concerned about the fate of society only to the extent that it involves the fate of the individual as well.

In Guyau’s view, an exclusively scientific moral must accept that the ends and the natural cause of human action coincide, and that this provokes the instinctive effort to maintain and nurture life:

the end that, really, determines all conscious action is also the cause that produces the entire unconscious action: hence, it is life itself, life at its most intense and most varied in all its forms[7].

Guyau argued that all the movement of being has its cause in life and its evolution, but, from another point of view, this universal cause of our actions is also the constant effect and the end of those actions. Thus, individual and social action has life itself in all its manifestations as both cause and ends. The tendency to persevere in life is the law that is necessary for life itself not only for human beings but for all living things and, perhaps, even for the “last atom of ether”, because the power inherent in life is merely an abstraction of life itself.

For Guyau, Ethics was none other than “the science whose subject is all the means for preserving and nurturing material and intellectual life”. The individual enhances the intensity of life by widening the domain of all forms of activity; the aim of the culture of human activity is action. To act is to live, which means increasing the focus of inner life. Thus, in Guyau’s eyes, the moral ideal was “activity in all the variety of its multiplicity of manifestations” to the extent that is compatible with recuperating any power dispersed in social activities.

In Guyau’s opinion Ethics should stand on the nebulous border between the sphere of rational action and that of irrational action creating a comprehensible link between the two:

Since, on the one hand, there is the unconscious sphere of instincts, habits and blind perceptions and, on the other, the conscious sphere of reasoning and the will to react, then morals must be found on the border between these two spheres: thus moral science is the only one which has neither purely conscious nor purely unconscious facts as its subject. It must therefore seek a common ground for these two categories of facts in order to be able to link the two spheres[8].

Guyau criticised the presupposition on the basis of which the “conscious” was considered to be separate from the “unconscious”: on the contrary, he argued that scientific moral should demonstrate how action, produced by the effort to act, arises from the depths of the unconscious of the individual in order to emerge within the conscious domain. Such action must find the locus where instinct and reason meet and, interacting, transform each other. 

The problems posed by Guyau were one of the main conundrums that faced sociologists in that period. Some years later, Vilfredo Pareto constructed an entire sociological system based on the life-giving centrality of non-logical action from which, fundamentally, all rational arguments elaborated both by social and moral science and by individuals derived.

Unlike Pareto, for whom the best way to push human beings to act was the myth, Guyau argued that individual and social action were the result of a moral fecundity that existed in each individual, of a surplus of life-force that should be directed towards the Other. Hence, fecundity was the basis of social life, or better, five types of fecundity: intellectual, emotional, sensitivity, will-power, and, lastly, that fecundity which could transform the environment. Because of this excess of life-force, which each individual would generously offer to Others, the ideal of individual life becomes life together: “at the heart of individual life there is an evolution which corresponds to the evolution of social life and which makes the latter possible, which is the cause rather than the result”[9].

The passage that brought the moral theory advanced by Guyau closer to a definition of a natural duty and, consequently, to a Moral that could be termed “ecological”, is clearly outlined in his criticism of Kant’s categorical imperative. Kant’s “duty” was, in Guyau’s opinion, artfully held to lack explanation. Rather, he argued, a sort of natural power/force existed within moral duty, a natural power/force that came before knowledge, a power/force that could constrain individuals to act and to produce. Thus, the fact that this “power/force” existed could offer a concrete answer to the mystery of moral duty. Natural tendencies, habits and customs, argued Guyau, were manifest proof of the fact that they themselves could oblige the individual to act without offering any further explanations. Moral obligation could thus be linked to a certain inner power/force. It could not be referred to feelings of need or of constriction: moral obligation was, above all, inner power/force, an overabundance of life that asked to be dedicated to social life, a natural inner force that permeated society even as it created that society.

The moral fecundity on which every type of moral obligation depended allowed individuals to open themselves up to society, up to the point in which the individual conscience exactly reproduced the social conscience, to the point where “the individual would feel the whole society within his/her heart”[10]. The inner power/force of each individual could not but open its sphere of action to others, reducing the distance between each “I” indeed increasing the need of every other “I” to come forward and to exist. Guyau’s analysis of the relationship between the social “I” anticipated some of the more common questions concerning educating individuals in the context of social life. Not only did Guyau admit, like other sociologists of his time, that the “mind of society” was, basically, the product of the interaction of all individual minds and consciences, which contemporaneously acquired different characteristics, he also added the remarkable statement that each “I”  is made up of an infinity of “other beings” and of small states of consciousness: thus society enters every mind[11].

The social construction of Nature

The attempt to find the principles of a universal ethic within Nature posits a series of questions that have to do with the social and cultural interpretation of Nature itself. The cultural interpretation of Nature is a way of interpreting both the individual and society. Kropotkin’s work, like that of Darwin, describes a Nature that behaves like society, animals that behave like human beings, species that have social characteristics. There is no doubt that discoveries in natural sciences, both before and at the time of Kropotkin had brought to light information and knowledge that had revealed a Nature that was regulated by its own laws and was no longer subject to divine laws. However, it would be realistic to think that the categories used to interpret and criticise the social orders of the time could also have been used to interpret the generic world of Nature, in a utopian key. A constructionist vision of Nature is very useful for understanding how it is possible to draw conclusions about individual and society in the human world from this vision of Nature. In this case we could say that Nature is the cognitive mirror of society itself, perhaps even a positive utopia, one which calls for a world of justice equality and freedom.

Nature simultaneously conceals and reveals a culture. Nature is a mask. It reveals its deepest meanings only to those who know how to look, after they have learned how to observe it. In reality, this would mean stating that everything is culture. Roland Barthes formulated the problem in these terms:

To say that culture is in contrast with Nature is ambiguous, because we do not know exactly where the boundaries of either lie: where is the human being’s nature? To call himself a man, a man needs a language, that is a culture. In biology? Today, in the living organism the same structures have been found as in the speaking example: life itself is constructed like a language. In short, everything is culture, from clothes to books, from food to images and culture is everywhere from one extreme to the other of society. Thus culture is a paradoxical object: it has no boundaries, no antithetical terms, no traces/residues[12].

If everything is culture then the Nature/culture contrast begins to vacillate and lose its meaning, until it is reduced to a simple operating distinction. If everything is culture, then how can one think about Nature in itself?

In reality it is very hard to accept this position entirely, because it would reduce Nature to a simple expression of the ‘cultural’, to an “apparent Nature” with no life other than that it is given by the cultural spirit. However, from the point of view adopted by the natural sciences, we have the opposite, a “causal Nature”, perceived as a system of molecules and electrons which act on the spirit in such a way as to elicit solicit the sensation of an “apparent Nature”. These theories of the duality of Nature have already been criticised by Alfred North Whitehead according to whom:

there is only one Nature, which is the Nature that stands before us within our perceptive knowledge. The characteristics that science has discerned within Nature are very difficult to discern, and certainly never at first sight: they are relations of relations and characteristics of characteristics. But notwithstanding all their subtlety, they are marked by a certain simplicity, thus one must take them into account when unravelling the more complex relations that exist between the more concrete characteristics of perception[13].

Nature is knowable in itself, even though such knowledge also depends on the cultural and social conditions in which it exists and takes develops. Nature cannot be separated from a given culture, but the culture cannot reconstruct it only as an apparent or imaginary Nature, it cannot attribute entirely new and separate characteristics to it, characteristics that are different from its perceivable concrete characteristics.

The combined action of man and Nature

In reality, between the domestication of animals, their selection and their training, between the education of human beings, their correction and their exploitation, between the use of natural resources and their over exploitation, there is, sometimes an imbalance, sometimes coercion and power, sometimes violence and this latter is indeed against Nature and anti-Nature.   At this point it must be recognised that not all the process of reduction to a culture are the same and that humanity must learn to evaluate them: destruction, extinction, transformation, modifications, inventions and improvement. It does not matter either what the object or the objectives are (vegetation, the Earth, raw materials, species, human beings themselves, knowledge and values); the main thing is to know what one is doing because merely to be conscious of the action is not enough.

Thus, asking what human intervention either in favour or against Nature is worth, means positing the question of the nature of humans themselves, of humanity’s condition, its destiny and its culture, since the destiny of Nature and of natural beings lies, in part, in the hands of humanity itself.

Elisée Reclus (1830-1905), a social geographer, developed a similar line of reasoning in which he gave the question of Nature a decidedly moral flavour. For Reclus, “man is Nature which has become conscious of itself”. This phrase contains perhaps one of the most efficacious descriptions of the moral feelings that link man to his environment. It highlights the intimate link that unites the succession of human actions with the energy of the Earth and shows how the life of human populations is transformed in conjunction with environmental changes, it explains the combined actions of Nature and human beings.

The mutual “agreement” that develops between the Earth and its inhabitants is, in Reclus’ opinion, made up of both analogies and contrasts, as are all the harmonies of organised bodies. It arises out of struggle and union and does not cease to oscillate around a fulcrum in an equilibrium that is in continual movement. Today, humans continuously react against the planet that is their home. After having allowed themselves to be cradled by Nature in ancient times they have slowly become emancipated and now make every effort to appropriate the energy of the Earth, to make it their own. Indeed the history of the human species is the story of  the planet acting on humanity and of humanity acting on the planet. After having, for a long period, been a simple, scarcely conscious product of Nature, human beings have become increasingly active agents in defining their own history[14].

In Reclus view, human actions can guide and improve the development of Nature, but only if humanity wants it and is conscious of it too:

The action of man, who is so powerful in draining lakes and marshes, levelling the obstacles between different countries and modifying the primitive divisions between animal and plant species, thus plays a very important role in transformations in the external appearance of the planet. Humans can make the earth more beautiful but can also make it more ugly, depending on the social status and the habits of each people: they can contribute both to the degradation of Nature or to its transfiguration. Man makes the village in which he lives in his own image: after long centuries of brutal exploitation the barbarian will have given the earth a cruel ferocious aspect just as, thanks to intelligent husbandry, a civilised man can make it glow with grace and penetrating allure, can make it human, that is to say humanise it, in such a way that a stranger passing by will feel gently welcomed by the earth and rest trustingly in its arms[15].

It smacks of banality to say that these words anticipated the current debate on ecological questions and on the problem of sustainability. Reclus’ reflections go well beyond this simple analogy. They clearly state that human beings not only have a responsibility towards Nature but also towards themselves and towards the Other,  the stranger who, when looking at Nature, will understand the degree of caring and social responsibility that can be found among those who live there. Where Nature has been rendered ugly, impoverished, denuded, imagination dies out, spirits are impoverished, routine and servile behaviour dominate the souls of people and prepare them for topor and death. In this sort of environment there can be no caring or willingness to help the Other who is passing through. Just like Nature, in that place, he/she too will be subjected to indifference, if not cruelty and exploitation.

Knowing which of humanity’s actions served to embellish or to degrade Nature was crucial for Reclus, “man himself is man’s environment”. The solution to this gnosiological problem depended on humanity’s opportunity to become the “conscience of the Earth”. A process that would unfold as part and parcel of the development of humanity itself, linked in the closest possible way to Nature and creating a secret harmony between the Earth and the peoples it nurtured. But, as Reclus noted,  when imprudent societies allow themselves to lay their hands on that which constitutes the beauty of their domain, they always come to regret it.

Thus Reclus considered that society was responsible both for Nature and for itself.   Even though it would be science that in the future would reveal the image of Nature transformed, even though science could not carry out this enormous task alone. Progress in knowledge must, in Reclus’ view as in Kropotkin’s, be flanked by progress in the field of morals and in that of social justice. A society that is not free cannot take care either of Nature or of the Other:

So long as men are struggling to shift the boundaries of their property and the false borders between one people and another, so long as the soil which feeds us is reddened with the blood of the unfortunate who struggle for a strip of land, for reasons of so-called honour or, simply, through pure anger, so long as the starving have to seek, with no guarantee of success, both their daily bread and food for their spirit, the Earth will never be the paradise that intellectuals predict for the future. The lineaments of the planet will have no harmony unless men are first united in a chorus of peace and justice.

Elisée Reclus believed that, in his Utopia, Nature was waiting and would not become truly fertile and good until Humanity, united in society, could agree and found the “great federation of free men/human beings”.

The Ethics of freedom in Murray Bookchin

To conclude this brief survey of moral thought connected to the philosophy of Nature we will introduce the work of one of today’s most original theorists of ecology. The work of Murray Bookchin (1922-) is directly linked to that of the thinkers described above and offers an important synthesis of ethical and ecological thought.

His approach could be described as being constructionist, in that it accepts that every image of Nature can be directly deduced from the image of the society that humanity, historically, has built for itself:

The way in which we posit ourselves in relation to the World of Nature is strongly conditioned by the way in which we see the social world. To a large extent the former is derived from the latter and serves, in its turn, to reinforce social ideology. All societies extend their perceptions of themselves to Nature[16].

Thus, to a large extent, a society’s image of Nature reflects the social structure of that society which has developed that image. In this, speaking sociologically, Bookchin is following in the footsteps of sociologists such as Durkheim, Weber, Mannheim and Pareto, for whom knowledge and the production of knowledge could not but be the reflection, or ideal projection, of the society itself. From the anthropological point of view he agreed with cultural anthropologists, such as Mary Douglas who argued that Nature can take on the role of a sensitive indicator of social morals, thus can be both a cruel judge and a victim of the generalised moral disorder[17]. In Bookchin’s view, societies extend their perception of themselves to Nature: such as tribal universes, built on kinship relations; feudal universes, founded on a rigid hierarchy of rights and duties; bourgeois universes, built around a market society which promote rivalry and competition between individuals; or even like techno-bureaucratic universes founded around flow diagrams and feedback systems or with hierarchies that reflect the operating systems of modern limited companies.

However, even though this image of Nature reveals community or systemic aspects, imperialist expectations regarding Nature are difficult to overcome. According to Bookchin, only a society that has found its own truth will be able to free itself from the limits posed by a hierarchical society on understanding Nature. Limits that could be summed up in that prejudice that posits Nature as the “hard kingdom of need”. A prejudice that can be found in any school of thought.

Bookchin argues that this prejudice lies behind the gnosiological dualism that has for centuries placed culture and Nature, man and woman, freedom and need and dominant and dominated in opposing positions. Within this dualism also lies the moral that has generalised a pervasive epistemology of domination, which:

classifies the difference as (the Other in all its forms) into a set or a pyramid of antagonistic relationships constructed upon command and obedience. The idea that the Other could be seen as part of the whole, whatever the degree of differentiation, lies beyond the understanding of the modern mentality which is governed by a flow of experience that only understand division in terms conflict or dissolution. Effectively, the real world is divided antagonistically: therein lies its defect[18].

Thus the division between society and Nature reflects this dualism on whose basis Nature is seen as the kingdom of necessity. In Bookchin’s opinion this ideology conceals the main feature of Nature itself, that is, the fact that it is potential freedom or liberty.  Biotic evolution as well as social evolution is characterised by an increase in the internal diversity of the eco-community a process which entails not only greater stability within this eco-community, but also an increase in liberty within Nature in the shape of the number of choices for self-management and participation of life forms within their own evolution. Freedom, or liberty, and the “incremental” possibility of choices, are the central feature of participatory evolution the concept coined by Bookchin which is different both from neo-Darwinian syntheses and from Bergson’s mystical creative evolution.

Participatory evolution lays emphasis on symbiosis rather than on struggle, on participation rather than on competition. This concept of nature marks a return to that of Kropotkin, Reclus and Geddes, or to lesser known geographers such as Ernst Friedrich and Alexander Woeikof and, at the same time, rejects all socio-biological determinism, from that of the sociologists of the Chicago School, who speak of a society of competitive co-operation[19], that of the ethologists and socio-biologists who attribute most human behaviour to the genetic pre-disposition of the individual[20]

Hence, research on the foundations of Ethics must look again at the interface, the surfaces that are in contact, between nature and society. Philosophical and sociological reflection has been built on the rational research carried out on the relationship between society and Nature after the advent of utilitarian, scientific and instrumental thought. In Bookchin’s view, the task of social ecology is to place not only the incorporation of the ecological into the economic and social on the agenda, as “ecological economics” and environmental sociology claim, but also to carry out an in depth analysis of the way in which society has emerged from Nature, of the continuities and discontinuities that exist between the two, of a science and a technology which agree with these reflections and, lastly, of an Ethics whose foundations lie both in Nature and in Human Rationality.

Murray Bookchin argues that it is possible to found an objective Ethics. His task is similar to that undertaken by Kropotkin: to found an objective Ethics that can make the latent freedom in Nature a reality within Society. An ecological Ethics that can re-establish society’s responsibility towards Nature, reawaken the evolutionary continuity between Nature and culture and lay the emphasis on freedom and participation rather than that on competition and hierarchy. In Bookchin’s opinion an ecological Ethics should associate society with ecology and culture with Nature, because only in this way can society cease to be the sui generis social fact, separated from and antagonist to Nature, as described by Durkheim.

The theoretical views of Murray Bookchin are still some of the more interesting in terms of closing the gap, re-assessing the dualism, between Nature and culture. The approach espoused by environmental sociologists such as William Catton and Riley Dunlap does not offer a credible solution to this dualism even if it turns to the social biology of Robert Park or the functionalism of Talcott Parsons[21]. The social constructionism of the phenomenologists, of the ethnomethodologists or, of sociologists such as John Hannigan is weak, in terms of its recognition of the “ecological crisis”; the degeneration of the relationship between society and the environment which cannot entirely depend on the biased perceptions of the social actors themselves[22].

Bookchin offers a more rounded argument which is very close to Whitehead’s ideas:

Insofar as order does exists in reality ― hence the very possibility of science ― and is not simply imposed upon It by mind, we can say that reality has a rational dimension. More colloquial, we can find a “logic” in the development of phenomena, a general directiveness that accounts for the fact that the inorganic did become organic as a result of its implicity capacity for organicity, that the organic did become more differentiated and metabolically self-maintaining and increasingly self-aware as a result of potentialities that made for a highly developed hormonal and nervous system[23].

In this respect, Bookchin appears to be a true follower of the best ideas of positivism developed during the nineteenth century. Philosophers and sociologists such as Jean Marie Guyau, Alfred Fouillée, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, thought that evolution should increase the awareness of society about is own ends and means. In this case, evolutionism was not completely identified with natural selection, one of the possible principles of universal evolution, as said Fouillée. The darwinism was criticised because it stated the right of stronger, its despotism and aristocracies, its apology of inequality, the masses manipulation.

But this kind of evolutionist morals is not the Bookchin’s one. For him like for Fouillée the evolution selects the best qualities of humanity as intelligence, rationality, sympathy, justice, science[24]. But, and here I end these reflections, Fouillée and Haeckel stressed the danger when we brutally transfer the scientific theories in the political domain. Ernst Haeckel claimed to have the right to ask the policy makers whether they were aware of these dangers when they embarked on an effort to draw some political consequences from natural theories[25].  They, continued Haeckel, should abstain from deriving conclusions out of these theories, which are opposite to those that raison itself can draw. Only an ethics which is independent from theology and metaphysics could develop a more fruitful relationship with nature. The words of Fouillée are very interesting in this respect: “to develop all the faculties of our Nature subordinating always those which are only the means to those which are the real goals of the humanity”[26]. In modern words, it means to subjugate the instrumental reason to the ethical values founded by objective and dialectical reason.




[1] P. Kropotkin, ETHICS,ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT (Prism Press/Unwin Brothers Ltd.), p. 4; the first edition in Bulgarian, Spanish and Russian, was published in 1922. Nature Ethics is in part made up of articles published by Kropotkin, between 1894 and 1905, in the journal “Nineteenth Century”.

[2] Jonas H., Das Prinzip Verantwortung, Insel, Frankfurt am Main, 1979; tr. it. Il principio responsabilità, Einaudi, Torino, 1993, p. XXVII.

[3] Bauman Z., Postmodern Ethics, Blacwell, Oxford, 1993; tr. it. Le sfide dell’etica, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1996, p. 54 and pp. 75-80.

[4] Darwin C., The Descent of Man, 1871; tr. it. L’origine dell’uomo, Editori Riuniti, Roma, 1966, p. 133.

[5] Ibidem, pp. 143-147.

[6] Kropotkin P., cit., p. 59.

[7] Guyau J. M., Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction, Alcan, Paris, 1913, (I ed. 1884), p. 87.

[8] Ibidem, p. 92.

[9] Ibidem, p. 102.

[10] Guyau J. M., Éducation et hérédité, Alcan, Paris,1888, p. 55.

[11] Guyau, Esquisse..., cit., p. 115.

[12] Barthes R., La pace culturale, in Il brusio della lingua, Einaudi, Torino, 1988, p. 93.

[13] Whitehead A. N., The Concept of Nature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1920; tr. it. Il concetto della natura, Einaudi, Torino, 1975, p. 38.

[14] Reclus E., La Terre, 1868-1869, now in Reclus E., L’homme. Geografia sociale, (ed. Errano P. L.) Angeli, Milano, 1984, p. 56.

[15] Ibidem, p. 59.

[16] Bookchin M., Freedom and Necessity in Nature: a Problem in Ecological Ethics, in “Alternatives”, n. 4, 1986; tr. it., Libertà e necessità nel mondo naturale, in “Volontà”, n. 2/3, 1987, p. 20.

[17] Douglas M., Risk Acceptability According to the Social Sciences, Russel Sage Foundation, London, 1985; tr. it. Come percepiamo il pericolo, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1991, pp. 77-87.

[18] Bookchin M., Freedom and Necessity in Nature: a Problem in Ecological Ethics, cit., p. 13.

[19] Park R. E., Human Ecology, in “The American Journal of Sociology”, vol. XLII, n. 1, 1936, pp. 1-15.

[20] Bookchin M., Sociobiologia o ecologia sociale?, in “Volontà”, n. 1, 1982, pp. 70-86.

[21] Catton W. e Dunlap R., A New Ecological paradigm for Post-Exuberant Sociology, in “American Behavioral Scientist”, vol. 24, n. 1, 1980.

[22] Hannigan J., Environmental Sociology, Routledge, London, 1995.

[23] Bookchin M., A Philosophical Naturalism, in “Society and Nature”, n. 3, 1993, pp. 82-83.

[24] Fouillée A., Critique des Systèmes de morale contemporaines, Alcan, Paris, 1893, pp. 9-15

[25] Quoted in Fouillée A., cit., p. 15.

[26] Ibidem, p. 71.