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Year : 2005  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 479-500

Environmental Values through Thick and Thin

Philosophy Department, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YG, United Kingdom

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John O'Neill
Philosophy Department, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YG
United Kingdom
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Date of Web Publication11-Jul-2009


A tension is sometimes evident between some philosophical and anthropological approaches to environmental values, in particular between philosophical aspirations for a thin, cosmopolitan moral language that tran­scends local culture, and anthropological aspirations to uncover a thick nor­mative vocabulary that is local to particular cultures. The potential dangers in the philosophical project of presenting specific local understandings and evaluations of nature as universal are illustrated in other papers in this vol­ume. However at the same time they also highlight a false assumption that underpins the apparent conflict between the two disciplinary approaches, the assumption that wider cosmopolitan conversations require abstraction from thick normative vocabulary. Examples of local resistance to the imposition of particular understandings of nature point in the opposite direction, illustrat­ing the way in which it is as one moves to thicker descriptions with greater in­terpretative depth that the possibility and actuality of shared conversation around values emerges. The project of engaging in more universal ethical re­flection is quite compatible with the project of uncovering interpretative depth. The general critical project of philosophy is enriched by engagement with the anthropological project.

Keywords: environmental philosophy, wilderness, conservation, indigenous exclusion, environmental valuation

How to cite this article:
O'Neill J. Environmental Values through Thick and Thin. Conservat Soc 2005;3:479-500

How to cite this URL:
O'Neill J. Environmental Values through Thick and Thin. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2005 [cited 2020 Aug 11];3:479-500. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2005/3/2/479/49323

   Though Thick and Thin Top

PHILOSOPHICAL and anthropological discussions of environmental values can sometimes stand in an uneasy relation with each other. The source of the tension between the two disciplinary approaches lies in a prima facie conflict between the aspirations of many philosophers for thin and cosmopolitan moral language that transcends local culture, and the aspirations of disciplines like anthropology to uncover a thick normative vocabulary that is local to particu­lar cultures. In this paper I will attempt to undo atleast some of that tension. I will argue that while there are real dangers in the philosophical project of pre­senting as universal what is a culturally specific and local set of values, a danger that I will illustrate in the appeals to wilderness in recent environ­mental ethics, there is no incompatibility between a universal and objective ethical reflection of the kind many philosophers aim for and the project of un­covering interpretative depth in ethical life of the kind anthropology offers. The problem lies rather in particular misconceived conceptions of that phi­losophical project and certain false assumptions about the nature and possibility of conversation across the thick ethical vocabularies. The general critical project of philosophy is enriched by engagement with the anthropological project.

Philosophy often makes claims to aspirations to be part of general reflec­tion on human values and predicaments that transcend particular times and places. Those claims are often greeted with scepticism from other disciplines in the social sciences, not least from anthropology, a scepticism that has par­ticular impact in the more general current climate of doubt about any reflec­tion that can transcend particular time and places.

What are the sources of the cosmopolitan aspirations of at least some phi­losophers? There are a variety of sources for this cosmopolitanism. [1] However, one is a set of emancipatory values that are part of an enlightenment inheri­tance. According to one version of cosmopolitanism, the possibility of an emancipatory politics is taken to require the adoption of a critical standpoint that transcends what is local. Local cultural practices are often oppressive to particular individuals and groups, for example to women and subordinate castes and classes. To develop a critical perspective on those practices, the ar­gument runs, one needs a standpoint and set of normative concepts that tran­scends the local and from which sceptical questions about those social practices can be formulated. According to at least one major strand of recent philosophical argument, such a standpoint requires a form of minimal moral language. It requires an ethical discourse in which terms have 'thin' or mini­mal meanings, that employs general abstract terms of rights and goods that are universal, transcending the specific ethical understandings of local culture. These contrast with thick concepts whose understanding requires immersion in particular local practices. A thin vocabulary of the right and the good is a condition of being able to raise a question about specific thick moral con­cepts, for example, of being able to ask with Nietzsche of the virtue of humil­ity-'is humility good?'

This cosmopolitan strand in philosophy has had a particular influence in re­cent work in environmental ethics for two reasons. First, the need for cosmo­politan language of universal thin concepts that can transcend local conversations has been taken to be of particular significance in the environ­mental sphere: environmental problems are global and hence it is argued re­quire an ethical language in response that crosses local cultures. Hence recent environmental philosophy has often eschewed more specific thick ethical con­cepts in order to articulate an ethic that is not tied to a particular time and place. Second, the need for some perspective external to particular local prac­tices is taken to be particularly significant given that a central part of the pro­ject is to gain recognition of the ethical standing of non-human individuals and groups who currently lack proper standing in most existing social prac­tices. [2] The project is typically presented as one of creating a new environ­mental ethic that acknowledges the ethical standing of individuals and groups currently ethically invisible. The cosmopolitanism is reflected in the way that most attempt to extend morally minimal vocabularies found in Kantian and utilitarian frameworks to incorporate the non-human world.

Anthropological reflection often appears to move in the opposite direction to this philosophical project in cosmopolitan ethics. It typically aims to re­cover and articulate the thick local vocabularies and understandings employed by individuals and groups in relation to the particular environments they in­habit. The focus on the thick is sometimes taken to define the anthropological enterprise. Consider Clifford Geertz's, characterisation of the anthropological project in The Interpretation of Cultures: 'What defines [anthropological analysis] is the kind of intellectual effort it is: an elaborate venture in, to bor­row a notion from Gilbert Ryle, "thick description"' (Geertz 1973: 6). The project aims at uncovering layers of interpretative depth. Recent environ­mental anthropology insofar as it expresses that view of the anthropological project can appear to move in the opposite direction to the more universal and cosmopolitan tendencies of much environmental philosophy, and indeed from much of the ethical reflection that is to be found expressed by international environmental NGOs.

This project in uncovering local understanding can have its own political agenda in criticism of the ways in which power is employed against those who are socially marginal and invisible. Anthropology has its own complex his­torical relation with colonialism. However, recent critical anthropology often characterises itself, at least implicitly, as representing the voice of local and often marginalised groups against what has been referred to as a 'globalocen­tric discourse' (Escobar 1998). One expression of that discourse is that found in the alliance that is sometimes forged between nature conservation bodies and global centres of power. In global environmental policy and international treaties the use of the language of science and market economics serves the purpose of offering a language that transcends the local-hence the references in international policy directives to 'biodiversity', 'nature' and 'sustainabil­ity', where sustainability is understood as the maintenance of 'natural capital'. In this context, global discourse far from offering a standpoint to criticise ille­gitimate power and injustice embodied in local social practices, becomes rather a way in which global economic and political power is itself expressed. This theme is implicit in a number of papers in this volume (Campbell 2006; Green 2006; Krauss 2006; Lund 2006). The attempt to reduce the language of public discourse to some thin moral language carries its own forms of margin­alisation of voices. As Joan Martinez-Alier has argued, a significant dimen­sion of environmental justice is the question of which language of valuation is to be employed in environmental disputes: 'Who has the power to simplify complexity, ruling some languages of valuation out of order?' (Martinez-Alier 2002: 271).

There appears, then, to be a deep theoretical and political opposition be­tween on the one hand the kind of cosmopolitanism found in much philoso­phical discourse on values, and in particular environmental philosophy, and on the other the appeal to specific and local understandings of the anthropolo­gist. However, the view that there is some straightforward opposition between the two is a mistake. Anthropological work which has a political position in defence of local cultural understandings often implicitly appeals to some of the same emancipatory values of the enlightenment as its opponents. For ex­ample, without an implicit appeal to some version of the value of equality in standing, voice and power, arguments about the ways in which particular voices and perceptions are silenced lack critical power. How, then, might the apparent tensions between the two perspectives be overcome? One major source of those tensions lies in the shared assumption that any venture to­wards thick ethical description is at the same time a shift away from universal values to those that are purely local, and hence unable to make claims on those outside a particular shared set of practices. That assumption leads easily to the stark choice between a thin cosmopolitanism on the one hand or a thor­ough-going relativism on the other, which involves a loss in the possibility of critical reflection.

A diagnosis of the source of the problems can be partly ascertained by not­ing the ambiguities that are to be found in the ways that the terms 'thick' and 'thin' are used in philosophical and anthropological literature. The concepts are used in a variety of different senses that need to be kept analytically dis­tinct. Geertz traces his own use of the terms back to Ryle, specifically to two essays in the philosophy of mind (Ryle 1967, 1968). In those essays Ryle's uses the terms to capture differences in the interpretative depth of action descrip­tions. The thinnest description of action is description of physical behaviour:

'Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or thinnest level of de­scription the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From a cinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, was a mere twitch. Yet there remains an immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink.' (Ryle 1968: 480)

Descriptions become thicker the more we add to interpretative depth. Hence Ryle offers a series of examples of successively thicker descriptions: a boy contracts his eyelid; a boy is winking; a boy is parodying another's attempt at winking; a boy is practising a parody of another's attempt at winking. This use of thickness to refer to the interpretative depth of action descriptions needs to be kept distinct from other more recent uses of the terms in philoso­phical discussion. A second influential use of the terms thin and thick is that articulated by Rawls to distinguish between theories of the good (Rawls 1972). The thin theory of the good specifies those primary goods that any ra­tional individual will require to pursue whatever plan of life they might have. A thick theory specifies the particular ends and life plans individuals may pursue. The thin theory of the good is taken to be required to define a set of goods to be governed by principles of justice that are neutral between differ­ent particular conceptions of the good life. A third use of the terminology of thick and thin is that introduced by Bernard Williams between different ethi­cal concepts. Thick ethical concepts are specific reason-giving concepts whose application is world-guided-determined by what the world is like; typical examples are concepts like brave, cowardly, kind, pitiless. Thin ethical concepts are in contrast general, abstract concepts like 'good', 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong', whose application is not world-guided (Williams 1985: 129-131 and 140). A final use of the term which explicitly refers back to Geertz (Wal­zer 1994) is one that Michael Walzer employs in his book Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad. However, as the subtitle of Walzer's book indicates, he employs the terms primarily to distinguish ways of talking that are specific to particular cultures and historical contexts, from ways of talking that can cross culture and historical context. Local ways of talking and arguing are thick, the more general cross-cultural concepts are thin. In picking up from Geertz's Rylean usage of the concept Walzer is assuming that inter­pretative depth comes with cultural specificity, that the anthropological pro­ject of uncovering layers of depth in understanding will take one at the same time to that which is particular to place and time. As we talk across cultures we move to terms with minimal meanings.

The claim that Walzer articulates here is the basis of the apparent tension between certain versions of the philosophical and anthropological projects. If interpretative depth necessarily comes together with cultural specificity and moral minimalism with common conversation, then there appears to be an un­avoidable conflict between the anthropological project of recovering depth and the more universalising aspirations of some parts of philosophy. How­ever, I want to suggest in what follows that there are good reasons to question Walzer's claim. I do not want to deny that in some cases understanding the local context in which concepts have emerged can undermine certain kinds of attempts to make universal ethical claims. I will argue that there are versions of the conception of nature as wilderness that emerged with a specific colonial context of appropriation that illustrate the point. However, I want to suggest that an examination of some versions of what appear to be culturally local re­sistance to the imposition of that understanding of nature, that are illustrated in this volume, point in the opposite direction. The relation between interpretative depth and cultural specificity is often, although not always, the other way around. As one moves to descriptions with greater interpretative depth, the possibility and actuality of shared conversation around shared values also emerges.

Nature, Culture and Wilderness

Katrin Lund starts her paper for this volume with a reference to Raymond Williams' often quoted observation: 'Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language' (Williams 1976: 184). The observation is apt. It is an ob­servation that has its own history. It echoes a remark of David Hume about the concept of nature: 'there is none more ambiguous and equivocal' (Hume 1978). Hume himself attempts to disambiguate a number of different senses. He notes the way nature is used in a number of distinct contrasts: with the mi­raculous, with the artificial, with the civil and with the rare and unusual. The first three of these have remained central to subsequent discussion. The oppo­sition of the natural and the miraculous can be understood as an aspect of the more general contrast between the natural and the supernatural. As the idea of the supernatural is rejected in the naturalising strand of the enlightenment tra­dition, then in this sense everything is natural. As John Stuart Mill comments in the general sense 'nature' 'means all the powers existing in either the outer or the inner world and everything which takes place by means of those powers' (Mill 1874: 8-9). Nature in this general sense needs to be distinguished from its more specific senses when it is used in contrast with the artificial and the civil.

The opposition of the natural to the artificial is often articulated in terms of human agency. Again as Mill puts it, the natural contrasts with 'what takes place without the agency, or without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man'. (Mill 1874: 8-9). That contrast is a complex one, a complexity to which I will return below. [3] It also has its own subsequent history that has been cen­tral to both the natural and social sciences. It underpins for example the dis­tinction that Darwin draws between natural and artificial selection. Hume distinguishes the contrast between the natural and the artificial and the con­trast between the natural and the civil. The contrast of the natural with the civil is central to modern political theory. The contrast of the natural and the civil clearly belongs is in the same field as the kindred contrasts of the natural with the cultural and the social (Soper 1996). Hume's version of the distinc­tion picks up on its use in political theory. The distinction between the 'state of nature' and 'civil society' was central to the contractarian tradition from Hobbes to Rousseau, albeit used clearly to very different effect. Whereas in Hobbes the state of nature is presented as a permanent possibility of insecurity which contrasts to the peace of civil society, in Rousseau the distinction is used to opposite effect. At least in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality civil society is taken to be a realm of artificiality disconnecting us from our original, benign state of nature. The latter theme is developed within the ro mantic tradition: the natural is where we find what is authentic and right in contrast to the social artificialities and contrivances of the social world. Of this latter theme Raymond Williams notes the following:

'[O]ne of the most powerful uses of nature since the eighteenth century has been this selective sense of goodness and innocence. Nature has meant the "countryside", the "unspoiled places", plants and creatures other than man. The use is especially current in contrasts between town and county: nature is what man has not made, though if he made it long enough ago - a hedgerow or a desert - it will usually be in­cluded as natural. Nature-lover and nature poetry date from this phase'. (Williams 1976: 188).

This use of 'nature' to refer to the non-urban countryside tends however to have a specifically European focus. In the United States and Australia the term 'natural' is often used much more starkly to refer to 'wilderness' marked by, in John Muir's words, the absence of 'all . . . marks of man's work'.[4] The concept is built into the US Wilderness act in which wilderness is defined as 'an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor' (Wilderness Act 1964, Section 4c). Nature in this very specific sense has been the central focus of environmentalism as it has developed in the new world contexts of the USA and Australia. Some­thing of it also pervades the nature conservation movement even in the Euro­pean context, albeit accompanied with some ambivalence-there is very little if any 'wilderness' in this sense in Europe. The ambivalence is noted in a num­ber of the papers in this volume. For example, Werner Krauss notes the shift in the strategy of some nature conservation agencies from the 'classic nature protection strategy by setting aside and protecting stretches of "unspoilt" wil­derness' to the extension of the 'concept of nature protection to include the protection of "cultural" landscapes' (Krauss 2006). In the tourist literature 'there are almost no signs of humans in the iconography-with the exception of "cultural" activities in the above sense, such as the production of pottery or traditional fishing' (Krauss 2006). A similar story is told by Sarah Green. A model of minimal human impact predominates. The influence is also evident for example in the way that conservation agencies will talk of 'semi-natural' landscapes as having particular value, but not of 'semi-cultural' landscapes. The concept of 'nature' is a complex one that features in a variety of con­trasts. However, it is the concept of nature as wilderness in which human ac­tivity is minimised that dominates a great deal of conservation policy.

A central theme in many of the papers in this volume is the way that this specific conception of nature as wilderness has been exported and imposed on populations who have a very different understanding of their relation to the natural world (Campbell 2006; Green 2006; Krauss 2006; Lund 2006). The theme picks up on a topic that has been central to the wider politics of nature conservation over the export of the wilderness model of nature parks. The problems raised by this export have been at their starkest in the conflicts over the eviction of the indigenous populations from nature parks in Africa and Asia. In Africa consider the fate of some of the Masai who have been ex­cluded from national parks across Kenya and Tanzania. [5] The eviction of the indigenous populations from the Kalahari reveals the influence of the same wilderness model: 'Under Botswana land use plans, all national parks have to be free of human and domestic animals'. [6] The history of exclusion is illus­trated in the conflicts surrounding the Batwa in Uganda. They were 'offi­cially' excluded from forest reserves during the British colonial period of the 1930s, although in practice they continued to use forests as a means to liveli­hood. Since the establishment of National Parks in 1991, their exclusion was made effective, which has led to continuing conflicts (Griffiths and Colchester 2000). In Asia the alliance of local elites and international conservation bod­ies has lead to similar pressures to evict indigenous populations from their traditional lands. In India there has been a series of much discussed evictions and resettlements of local populations in the creation of park and sanctuaries. Consider for example the resettlements of Maldharis in the Gir National Park (Choudhary 2000), the proposed and actual exclusions of local populations in the Melghat Tiger Reserve and Koyna Sanctuary in Maharashtra, and the con­flicts around the Nagarhole National Park where there have been moves from the Karnataka Forest Department to remove 6000 tribal people from their for­ests on the grounds that they compete with tigers for game (Guha 1997; Grif­fiths and Colchester 2000; Jayal 2001). The moves are supported by international conservation bodies. Hence the remark of one of experts for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Nagarhole case-'relocating tribal or tra­ditional people who live in these protected area is the single most important step towards conservation.' (cited in Guha 1997: 17)

Where populations are not excluded their activities are controlled and curtailed. The theme is central to Ben Campbell's paper in this volume. Consider the comments for example of a person in the Makalu-Barun National Park and Conservation Area in Nepal: 'This park is no good. They don't let you cut wood, they don't allow you to make spaces for paddy seed-beds, they don't permit doing khoriya [a form of slash and burn agriculture]' (Campbell 2006). The wilderness model fails to acknowledge the ways parks are not wilderness, but a home for its native inhabitants, the degree to which the landscapes and ecology of the 'wilderness' were themselves the result of human pastoral and agricultural activity, and the cultural significance of particular landscapes, flora and fauna to the local populations. Insofar as the indigenous populations are rec­ognised they are often themselves treated as a kind of exotic fauna, who are a part of nature, rather than human agents who also transformed their landscapes.

As other papers in the volume also illustrate the conflicts between the at­tempts to create nature parks that embody wilderness or 'semi-natural' land­scapes and the local often marginalised populations who have lived and worked in that wilderness are not confined to the third world. They are to be found in the more marginalised areas of Europe (Green 2006; Krauss 2006; Lund 2006; Mazzullo 2006). As I noted above the wilderness model is used uneasily back in the European context. The specifically human shaping of at least some rural landscapes is acknowledged and forms the object of conser­vation. However, a model of minimal human impact does still remain as do certain forms of resistance to those models. One of the most powerful expres­sions of the conflict is to that found in the comments of a local living by the natural park of Sierra Nevada and Alpujurra reported by Katrin Lund:

'[Miguel] pointed out the stonework he had done on the floor and lower parts of the wall which were all made from flat stones found in the Sierra. I asked him if he had done this all by himself and he said "Yes, and look, this is nature" ("Si, y mira, esto es la naturaleza"), and he pointed firmly at the stone carved wall, and he repeated this ac­tion by pointing first in the direction of the Sierra [national park] be­fore pointing at the wall again. Then, stressed his point by saying: "This is not nature, it is artificial (the Sierra) this (the wall) is nature" ("Eso no es la naturaleza, es artificial (the Sierra) esto (the wall) es la naturaleza")'. (Lund 2006: 382, this issue)

The power of the passage partly resides in the way it redeploys the contrast between the natural and the artificial we noted above back against the devel­opment of the park. The nature park qua park from which certain activities are excluded is itself a legal artifice. Miguel's inversion of the normal opposition of 'natural' and 'artificial' has some rhetorical force in virtue of the way a le­gal act removes him from traditional life activities that draw on local materi­als within the park, such as the building of housing from local stone. The house is an artifice, but one that belongs to the life-history of humans dwell­ing in a place. And the stonework embodies not simply human skills, but a particular working relationship with the natural world.

What partly emerges here is the way that the concept of nature as wilder­ness has been implicated in the control of often marginal populations, in ways that conflict with their own working relation to the natural world. It is worth noting here that there is something of an historical irony in the way that the concept of wilderness has been caught up in the appropriation of land of mar­ginalised groups who live within it. The image of the land as 'wilderness' in the 'new worlds' of North America and Australia is itself a residue of the per­ceptions of European colonial settlers of an unspoilt pristine terrain dramati­cally different from the domesticated environments of Europe. This image was associated with claims that were made for the appropriation of that land from its native population precisely on the ground that the land remained un­cultivated.

Consider the uses of the concept of wilderness in the work of John Locke. Locke's characterisation of the 'wild woods and uncultivated waste of Amer ica left to Nature without any improvement, tillage or husbandry' (Locke 1988: 2.37), which is contrasted with the improved and cultivated lands of Britain, should be understood in terms of his role in the American colonies. Locke, through the patronage of the Earl of Shaftesbury, was the secretary to the Lord Proprietors of Carolina and the Council of Trade and Plantations. His theory of property needs to be understood in the context of arguments of co­lonialists for an ethical justification to appropriate the land of the native American population, particularly justifications that appealed to the rational use of land that had remained wild and unimproved. [7] Locke's justification of private property in land given the Christian premise of original common own­ership is voiced in terms of its appropriation through labour:

'God gave the World to Men in Common, but…it cannot be supposed He meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rational (and Labour was to be his Title to it)…' (Locke 1988: 2.34).

The indigenous population had rights only to what they had appropriated through their labour, and given the European image of the population as hunt­ers and gatherers, their appropriation extended only to what they caught and collected. The land uncultivated and unenclosed remained in common. '[T]he wild Indian who knows no Inclosure…is still a Tenant of the common' (Locke 1988: 2.26). [8] Hence the 'vacant places of America' could be rightfully settled without the consent of previous inhabitants or with their having 'rea­sons to complain' (Locke 1988: 2.36). [9]

The colonial picture of America as a wilderness-a 'wild common of nature' uncultivated and unshaped by the pastoral activities of the indigenous popula­tion - formed part of the justification of the appropriation of native land. The picture is also false. The land had been shaped by its native populations. However, it is a myth that survived and brought its own problems in conserva­tion management policies which ignored or actively suppressed the impact of indigenous pastoral and agricultural activities. Consider for example in the well-discussed problems in the history of the management of one of the great symbols of American wilderness, Yosemite National Park in their suppression and subsequent mimicking of 'Indian style' burning in order to recreate 'the grass parkland' that 'prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man'. (Leopold et al. 1963: 4 cited in Runte 1987: 198-199. For a discussion see Olwig 1995 and O'Neill 2002, forthcoming, ch.7). The 'vignette of primitive America' was not a wilderness, but a cultural landscape with its own history. The 'grass parkland' was in part the result of the pastoral practices of the in­digenous population who had used fire to promote pastures for game and black oak for acorns. Talk of restoring a park to a 'primitive', 'natural' or 'wilderness' condition simply disguises the nature of the problems. Reference to wilderness suppresses one part of the story that can be told of the land scape: the non-European native occupants of the land are themselves treated as part of the 'natural scheme', of the 'wilderness', without history and not as dwellers in a landscape which embodies their own cultural history.

Attitudes to wilderness, however, have clearly shifted between Locke and recent nature conservation. It is now landscapes that are taken to lack the marks of cultivation that form the object of protection, not the cultivated land­scapes that Locke praises. The dominant perceptions of land and landscapes have shifted under the influence of the romantic shift in the conception of na­ture we noted earlier. The irony now is that where before wilderness was em­ployed to appropriate the land in virtue of its being uncultivated, wilderness is now being redeployed to exclude populations on the grounds that they do cul­tivate the land.

Doing without Nature?

There is a great deal of power in the criticisms of a particular conception of nature as wilderness free of the marks of human activity. It appears to be a historically and socially local understanding of the lands of the 'new worlds' that was implicated in the colonial appropriation of land that was uncultivated and unenclosed. Now, in the different local conditions of post-romantic Europe, it is now implicated in nature conservation polices that involve the exclusion or control of often poor and powerless groups that live in lands too marginal to sustain intensive agricultural activity. One response might be that the natural landscape itself is just another particular cultural landscape, one that has a particular social and cultural history. Landscapes themselves are sometimes materially transformed and populations excluded to conform to the pattern expected of 'natural landscapes'. Where landscapes are not themselves directly transformed and managed, the perception and representation of the landscapes as 'natural' or 'wilderness' is a culturally specific phenomenon. Thus the conflicts outlined in the last section should be understood as con­flicts between different cultural landscapes. Some of these are direct material conflicts on how landscapes themselves should be transformed by human ac­tivity. However, they can also be conflicts in ways of seeing and understand­ing landscapes. Similarly, the conflicts over the appropriation of land can be conflicts over who has legitimate powers to determine the material future of landscapes, with property rights and economic and political power to shape a landscape (O'Neill 2001). However, conflicts about appropriation can also have a cultural and symbolic dimension, as to which perceptions and under­standings of environments predominate. [10] Both dimensions are to be found in the conflicts between Miguel and the park authorities in Andalusia discussed by Katrin Lund and between the peasants and park authorities in Nepal dis­cussed by Ben Campbell. Part of the conflict is about who has the power to direct and control the land. However, they are also about how the land is to be described and perceived. On this view then environmental conflicts are con­flicts between different cultural landscapes.

Pushing the line of argument further, certain forms of constructivism some­times argue that we should drop the notion of nature altogether from environ­mental discussion (Vogel 1996). There are a variety of versions of that view. One radical version of the response that is found in some of the stronger forms of constructivism has been to reject the very idea that there is some­thing called nature which is independent of our particular concepts of nature. As two typical expressions of this view go: 'Nature per se does not ex­ist...Nature is only the name given to a certain contemporary state of science' (Larrere 1996: 122); 'It is fair to say that before the word was invented, there was no nature...' (Evernden 1992: 89). Once we are made aware of the cul­tural origins of our representations and responses we realise that there is no 'nature' there, that we are surrounded by a world of cultural objects.

What should we make of these arguments? The arguments for the stronger constructivist rejection of the very idea of an independent nature should I think be rejected. Many, like those in the passages from Larrere and Ev­ernden, are based on simple use-mention confusions which the judicious use of quotation marks would have avoided. [11] More generally there is a distinc­tion to be drawn between the sources of our representations and attitudes, which are economic, political and cultural, and their objects which can still remain non-cultural. Our capacity to represent and respond to the non-human natural world in particular ways may be a cultural achievement, the outcome of social and cultural processes. However this does not entail that the object of our attitudes is a cultural object. To make this point is consistent with rec­ognising that many landscapes that are presented as 'natural' or 'wilderness' are cultural in a real material sense-they have been materially transformed by human activity. However, there are limits to such transformation. The envi­ronments we inhabit are the result of interplay of human and non-human agency. Moreover, at the level of processes rather than objects or end-states, the limits of human agency are still more apparent. We live in a world in which unintentional non-human natural processes proceed regardless of hu­man intentions and indeed which often thwart them. This is a source of both human sorrow, for example of life and land lost in flood, but also of human delight, for example at the plant or bird that arrives uninvited in an industrial wasteland. There is a need for more care in order to not to deny the existences of an independent natural world in which our lives take place. [12] Nor do the cultural sources of values entail that non-human objects and being are not a proper object of our values. A culture can foster appreciation of non-human objects that themselves are not cultural-to maintain a sense of the otherness of non-human nature and our place within it. The picture of a world in which humans can see nothing but the reflections of themselves is itself a peculiar modern human conceit that our constructivist times tends to encourage. There is a core of environmentalism that is properly critical of that conceit. We live in a larger world of which human life is just a part (Goodin 1992).

Strong constructivist arguments against the very idea that there is some­thing called nature should not be confused with more specific problems with the use of the term. The first is the ambiguous and equivocal nature of the concept which we discussed in the last section. The different senses of the concept do need to be kept separate. For example the specific conception of nature as wilderness that dominates much of the nature conservation move­ment needs itself to be kept distinct from the nature understood as that which is opposed to what is artificial. As David Wiggins puts it, nature understood as 'that which is free of all traces of our interventions' needs to be distin­guished from nature as 'that which has not been entirely instrumentalized by human artifice...' (Wiggins 2000: 10). Second is the specific empirical ques­tion as to whether an area described as wilderness in the sense of the term as that which is free of all human interventions is really so. This is a question not of how we choose to describe a place but of its actual history. Thus given the pastoral uses of the land prior the 'visit of the first white man' it is simply false in a straightforward realist sense to describe the land as wilderness. The specifically human processes that went into the shaping of the landscape are not being acknowledged. However, the rejection of the claim that an area is wilderness is not the same as the claim that nature disappear altogether from discussion.

It is worth adding here that the concept of 'wilderness' itself has had a more ambivalent role in the politics of nature than the discussion in this paper and others in the volume might suggest. In the UK the denial of property rights to uncultivated land has operated not to open land to appropriation but rather to criticise the privatisation of land and to defend public access. Typical is Mill's comments on restrictions on access to land in the highlands of Scotland:

'[T]he exclusive right to the land for purposes of cultivation does not imply an exclusive right to it for purposes of access; and no such right ought to be recognised, except to the extent necessary to protect the produce against damage, and the owner's privacy against invasion. The pretension of two Dukes to shut up a part of the Highlands, and exclude the rest of mankind from many square miles of mountain scen­ery to prevent disturbance to wild animals, is an abuse; it exceeds the legitimate bounds of the right of landed property. When land is not in­tended to be cultivated, no good reason can in general be given for its being private property at all; and if any one is permitted to call it his, he ought to know that he holds it by sufferance of the community, and on an implied condition that his ownership, since it cannot possibly do them any good, at least shall not deprive them of any, which could have derived from the land if it had been unappropriated.' (Mill 1994 Book II, Ch.2, section 6)

Mill's comments are reflected in the unsuccessful attempts in the nineteenth century to extend access to uncultivated land to introduce rights of access in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: ' no owner or occupier of uncultivated mountain or moor lands in Scotland shall be entitled to exclude any person from walking on such lands for the purposes of recreation or sci­entific or artistic study, or to molest him in so walking' (Clause 2, Access to Mountains (Scotland) Bill 1884). Similar themes are echoed in the struggles in the UK by the urban working class for access to mountains and moors in the nineteenth and twentieth century that culminated in the mass trespass movement. The provisions in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, 2000, for access to 'open land' defined as land that consists 'predominantly of mountain, moor, heath or down' belong to the same heritage.

Similarly in the United States one strong motivation for the defence of wil­derness has been to protect parts of the natural world from unregulated com­merce. Consider John Muir's much cited description of his opponents in the conflicts around the Hetch Hetchy Dam: 'These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains lift them to the Al­mighty Dollar' (Muir 1912: 716). Similarly the legal designation of an area as wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act specifically includes limitations on commercial activities: 'Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enter­prise...within any wilderness area designated by this Act...' (Wilderness Act Section 4c). Unsurprisingly defenders of unregulated markets in the US have for that reason typically opposed such wilderness designations and the very appeal to the concept of wilderness. For example both the 'Wise Use Move­ment' and 'Property Rights Movement' take the appeal to wilderness to be a block to the proper expansion of market activity and a restriction on the exer­cise of property rights (Brick and Cawley 1996). Hence, for example, one of the movement's principle advocates, Arnold places deep ecologists alongside 'eco-socialists' and 'establishment interventionists' as opponents of free mar­kets (Arnold 1996). Hence one of the worries of defenders of wilderness in the specifically US context is that its critics remove constraints on the com­mercial development of currently protected areas.

For the reasons outlined here and in other papers in this volume, it is diffi­cult to sustain the view that the concept of wilderness, in the sense of places relatively untouched by human intervention, is the appropriate concept to use in the context of either defending public access or protecting parts of the natu­ral world from the consequences of unregulated markets. There is little if any wilderness in this sense. However, the defence of public access and the main­tenance of boundaries against commerce are entirely proper-and there are good reasons to hold that this should include places in which the albeit cultur­ally specific experience of the otherness of nature is possible. That cultural experience itself has been developed in part through the arts and sciences through which the human senses have been educated to allow humans to re­spond to qualities that natural objects possess in a non-instrumental fashion (O'Neill 1993). Moreover much of the rest of the ethical vocabulary which environmentalists call upon to criticising features of some of our contempo­rary relations to the non-human world does not depend upon the acceptance of any wilderness model of nature: for example, reference to the cruelty inflicted on fellow creatures, of the failure of care involved in the wanton destruction of places rich in wildlife and beauty, of the pride and hubris exhibited in the belief that the world can be mastered and humanised, of our lack of a sense of humility in the midst of a natural world that came before and will continue beyond us. What remains true is that these responses and attitudes have a par­ticular local cultural origin. As Bernard Williams comments: 'a self-conscious concern for preserving nature is not itself a piece of nature: it is an expression of culture, indeed of a very local culture (though that of course does not mean it is not important)' (Williams 1995: 237).

Local Nature and Cosmopolitan Conversations

Does the fact that these attitudes have a particular local cultural origin matter? And does it offer reasons for scepticism about any general or universal claims of the kind to which many philosophers have traditionally aspired? There are certainly occasions when reference to local cultural origins does appear to matter. Consider a personal recollection I have discussed elsewhere where it clearly did. Returning from a winter climbing trip in Glencoe in Scotland, two friends and myself were passing Loch Lomond. It was a day of bright sun­shine and without wind. There was not a ripple on the Loch and the mountains were reflected without flaw in the water. Two of us made the kind of com­ments full of expletives you'd expect on such occasions. The third who had a training in the history of art then began an account of the development during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the aesthetic responses to the land­scape which we had just exhibited. And it completely ruined the moment. Should his comments have undermined our appreciation?

Sometimes the very fact of reflection can ruin a moment. This may be what occurred on this occasion. More seriously, some forms of historical reflection clearly shift our understanding of the object of reflection in ways that trans­form our normative responses to it. Genealogical criticisms of social practices and attitudes have this character. Consider for example the history of the use of the concept of wilderness we have discussed above. However, the mere fact that our attitudes, understandings and perceptions have some local cultural origin cannot matter as such. They could have no other origin. Nor does their local origin entail that they cannot belong to some wider conversation. Gell­ner once commented that anthropologists sometimes tend to be liberals at home and conservatives abroad (Gellner 1973: 29). The comment raises im­portant methodological issues for anthropology-most notably whether the suspension of criticism of those with whom one is engaged is a condition of understanding, and if not what the principles of interpretation ought to be (Gellner 1973: 38ff). I will not pursue those methodological issues here. A variant of Gellner's point is that anthropologists are also sometimes celebra­tory abroad and deflationary at home. It may be that particular responses to landscapes have historically and socially local origins-they could have no other. It does not entail that they do not have their own virtues that make a contribution to a wider conversation about values. And significantly this is as true for the contributions to that wider conversation from abroad as it is for those at home. Indeed, those contributions gain their critical power at home in virtue of doing so.

I noted in first section of this paper that a great deal of philosophical and more general environmental discourse calls for a cosmopolitan language that transcends particular local cultures. Any such language, the argument goes, is necessarily a minimal language in which thicker local meanings are stripped away. I suggested at the end of section 1 that this need not be the case-that greater depth need not be associated with a shift away from claims that make wider contributions to global conversations about value. We need to distin­guish here between a good that is specific to a local culture and a local cul­tural specification of a good. The claim that goods are specific to local cultures raises the spectre of relativism; what is a moral good in one culture is not in another. Ethics becomes a matter of manners. Cruelty just something one happens not to do around here. To talk of a local cultural specification of a good is different. The good can be a universal one-it is the particular speci­fication of the good that is local. The common assumption that is made ex­plicit by Walzer, that thickening descriptions in the Rylean sense of adding interpretative depth take us to goods that are specific to a local culture, grounds the view that the anthropological project moves in opposite direction to the more universalising aspirations in ethical conversation. However, that assumption needs to be questioned. Rather, engaging in the venture of thick descriptions can take us to local specifications of some shared good.

Against the view that the thick moves us to merely local goods and moral terms, I want to suggest that many of the conversations reported in papers in this volume suggest that is often, although not always, the other way around. It is as one moves to descriptions with greater interpretative depth that values, practices and goods that are shared emerge. It is at the thin level of descrip­tion that radical differences are apparent. Consider the passages describing the practice of khoriya. It is as one moves from thinner to thicker descriptions- from 'burning a forest' to 'clearing the land' to 'maintaining the agricultural land of a family'-that common understandings and goods begin to emerge. The thin level of description is likely to occasion a judgement that the act is one of mere destructiveness. It is as specific meanings and goods are uncov­ered, for example the very concrete and particular ways land embodies the life of a community that shared goods are made apparent. Similar points apply with respect to the practical working relation to nature that is expressed by Miguel in the paper by Katrin Lund. That interpretative depth often takes us to what is shared is not an accident. Shared practices and values are a condi tion of common action and communication. This is not to deny the possibility of disagreement or of social and moral practices that are radically different. However, disagreement and dialogue are possible only against a shared back­ground of understandings (cf. Midgley 1981: 72-73).

The conversations reported in the papers in this volume do not just speak to a local audience, but a wider potential audience. And their expression in these papers, for better or for worse, takes them into a wider conversation. And it is in virtue of this fact that they should be an occasion for critical reflection on nature conservation and deep green attitudes to nature. Thus one effect of conversations with peasants of the kind quoted is that through their expression of shared understandings and goods, our attitudes and perceptions of the natu­ral are challenged. We look upon a nature park and see not the protection of nature, but the disruption of a community's lived relationship with its envi­ronment through a state artifice. Correspondingly one failure of respect lies in a blindness to the specific meaning relationships, objects and places have to others. As I noted above what is absent in the case of the wilderness model is the acknowledgement that these are the homes of others, not a wilderness.

There is a more general point to be made here. One oddity about debates about globalisation is that there are very few in what is called the anti­globalisation movement that are against globalisation as such. It is particular forms of globalisation that form the object of criticism, in particular those as­sociated with neo-liberalism. One part of that discussion is the nature of the global conversation to be held. In the environmental sphere anthropologists have articulated criticism of the ways in which very specific global vocabular­ies of nature have been employed against groups who have different under­standings of and relations to the environments they inhabit. In doing so it recovers a richer thick vocabulary. However, it does not follow that we are thereby tied to local conversations. The retreat to relativism is not an option. As Bernard Williams notes radical relativism always comes too early or too late (Williams 1985: 158-159). It is too early when conversations between cultures have not yet taken place and too late when they already have. Global conversations are taking place at a variety of places, from the centres of na­tional and international policy making to the variety of fora and networks that make up the project that is sometimes described as 'globalisation from be­low'. The important political and ethical questions concern the nature of those conversations, the institutional contexts in which they take place, of who can speak and more significantly, who is heard. At least one part of the project of globalisation from below is the attempt to recapture the richness of the norma­tive concepts that are lost in the more minimal languages of dominant forms of globalisation. It is a matter of resisting the power to simplify the languages of valuation (Martinez-Alier 2002: 271). However that is a very different pro­ject from denying the existence or value of the more cosmopolitan conversa­tions of which they form a part.

The tensions between the philosophical and anthropological projects that I outlined at the outset of this paper can be overcome. The project of engaging in some more universal ethical reflection is quite compatible with the project of uncovering interpretative depth. The apparent incompatibility has its basis in one version of the cosmopolitan project which assumes that ethical reflec­tion requires us to abstract from a thick normative vocabulary. According to this view, we require a minimal language of 'the right' and 'the good' in order to be able to take a stance outside particular ethical practices to formulate sceptical questions about them-say to ask the question 'but is x good?', for example 'but is humility before nature good?' It is this particular version of the cosmopolitan project that needs to be questioned. It is a mistake to assume that thick concepts rule out theoretical reflection and general principle in eth­ics. Rather that is where ethical reflection always in the end takes place. To answer the question 'Is humility before nature good?' is not a matter of ascer­taining as to whether it has some property of goodness. Nor is it merely a mat­ter of expressing some preference or attitude one might happen to have. It is rather a matter of placing the ethical concept in the critical company of other evaluative thick concepts, for example of understanding the relationship of such humility to other particular human goods and accomplishments. Particu­lar thick ethical concepts have the reason-giving force here, not more abstract thinner concepts. Cosmopolitanism that takes the form of a moral minimalism cannot be sustained. Insofar as the conversation between anthropological and philosophical perspectives on the environment are concerned, this is some­thing to be welcomed. It allows both to enrich each other and the wider public conversations to which both should understand themselves as contributing. [13] [49]

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