Position Paper

Katherine Adams


Philosophy 2300


March of the Butterflies

The migration of the Monarch butterflies is an amazing, yet completely mystifying event. Every year the butterflies move from upper North America down to Mexico, following the same path. It has been speculated that the butterflies are following a chemical signal or trace that causes the flight, but no real evidence exists as to why this occurs. A situation has arisen, negatively impacting the wellbeing of the butterflies. The forest that originally housed the butterflies at the end of their journey, has steadily been decreased due to local loggers.  The forest has been deemed protected by a wild life group, yet loggers have been illegally cutting down the trees for profit, and then burning the remaining forest regions to get rid of evidence. The dilemma in the situation asks if the loggers are acting immorally. The paper will break down the leading environmental philosophers arguments, such as Baird Callicott’s SOP’s, which is based in part on the holistic approach by Aldo Leopold. Tom Regan’s as well as Peter Singer’s theories will be applied to determine morality in the situation. The paper will then summarize the ethical results as well as address some possible solutions to the probable monarch extinction.

“Obligations have no meaning without conscience” (Leopold 209). Aldo Leopold was a environmental philosopher who approached nature in a holistic way. He believed in the land ethic, or rather a way to include every aspect of nature for consideration, not just cognitive animals.  The “land ethic changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (Leopold 204). Using the biotic pyramid, everything in nature has importance and a role to play, and altering one aspect could harm the entire community. He believed that evolution and change of a community happens gradually, yet when man interferes, he causes quick changes which can be detrimental to the environment as a whole. Leopold would believe that the loggers in Mexico are acting immorally because their actions are harming ecosystem. The butterflies are in danger due to the loss of the trees, overall creating conflicts in the balance of the biotic pyramid. The butterflies are needed to pollinate specific plants and flowers, as well as draw in tourists for the economy. The monarchs are also used as a food source for a particular group, such as birds and predator insects. With the trees cut down and the forest burned by the loggers, the butterflies have no place to spend the season, no way to repopulate their species. Long term damage cannot be predicted, but it seems if the logging continues then the Monarch population will dwindle, perhaps into obscurity. Leopold would most likely condemn those who are acting against the interest of the forest since they are creating a hole in the biotic pyramid near the base of the structure, which can cause the rest of the pyramid, or this ecosystem, to crumble.

Baird Callicott embraced the conceptual basis of the environment put forth by Aldo Leopold. He differed by the speculation as to how to determine the moral rightness of certain situations, with respect to the individual instead of just the community in consideration (Baird 68). Callicott determined that a way to prioritize individual needs if they conflicted with the holistic approach was needed. He formed two second- order principles (SOPs) to help if a conflict of interest arose. SOP 1 states that “obligations generated by membership in more venerable and intimate communities take precedence over those generated in more recently emerged and impersonal communities” (Callicott 73). In other words, the needs of family take importance over those of associates or neighbors. Second- order principle 2 “is that stronger interests generate duties that take precedence over duties generated by weaker interests” (Callicott 73). This can be taken to mean that life will be more important than entertainment, helping others live will always win out over unnecessary expenses. In terms of the butterfly situation, the loggers are acting on SOP 1, the need to have some sort of income to be able to provide for their families. The wellbeing of the family supersedes the well being of the Monarch, they are not logging for enjoyment or with destructive urges, but to feed those reliant on them. Based on the rating system he put into place, Callicott would not find the actions of the loggers immoral. They may damage the ecosystem, but the need for family life is a stronger urge than for helping others, especially an insect with no discernible cognitive function.

“Do animals have the right not to be harmed?” (Regan 114). Tom Regan believed that humans have inherent value regardless of who they are or what they can do, and this same concept needs to be pushed to encompass animals as well. A controversial question that Regan poses is “what is there about being a human being that underlies this inherent value?” (Regan 115). The answer to this question is that humans are “subjects of life” and that life is important to us, which therefore gives inherent value to humans. Regan has two main points to his rights theory that can be applied to the Monarch butterfly quandary. First is the worse off principle, which states that butterflies are insects, and insects are not as cognitively developed, meaning they garner fewer rights than a more developed creature. This theory would favor the loggers since they are upper life forms who are protecting their own needs for an income by cutting down the forests. The second theory by Regan is the miniride idea, which says it is better to harm the few over the many. This approach would most likely support the butterflies because it is an entire population that is at risk over just a few humans. Regan would probably choose to side with the people protecting the environment, sighting the loggers as immoral  in their actions.

Peter Singer was a Utilitarian who believed in the individualistic approach to nature and moral decisions. He believed that moral consideration is due to anything with sentience, or “the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness” (Singer 108). Here is where the moral rightness becomes murky, because who is the judge of how painful or pleasurable an event is for a butterfly. Butterflies do not have visible reactions to pain or any cognitive signals that we can detect. Using that approach, it is unsure as to what Singer would classify butterflies as, whether he would deem them worthy of consideration or not. Singer had an environmental theory of the greatest good for the greatest population size. He was against therapeutic hunting, or the belief that a certain amount of a population needed to be weeded out through hunting to better the overall environment, usually due to lack of resources or an invasive species taking over. Singer would most likely want to relocate the Monarchs to a new habitat, that way eliminating the overall problem. This theory is reflective of John Rawls’ difference principle, which is “be to the greatest benefit of the least- advantaged members of society” (Rawls 43). Stretching this idea to include the butterflies as members of society as posed by Leopold, the Monarchs are the most disadvantaged because they do not speak for themselves and have limited options with physical attributes. The butterflies’ rights should take precedence because it would help to protect an entire population as opposed to the few who are harming the environment.

The most logical approach to the question of the butterflies would be to figure out what is actually causing the Monarchs to make the dangerous journey to Mexico. Whey the butterflies have been relocated in the past to a new destination, they still made the journey to Mexico. Finding the motivation for the pilgrimage is ideally the number one priority to understanding the situation fully. If it is a chemical trail that the butterflies are programmed to follow, it would be something that could be reproduced to lead the butterflies elsewhere. That way the butterflies could be in a closer protected environment, without the dangers of the trip as well as the diminishing forest environment they currently have. Another possible solution would be to find the loggers alternative forms of employment. The government could sponsor new jobs for the loggers, which would be in Mexico’s best interest because the butterflies migration brings in revenues due to tourists coming to view the influx. As written by Leopold, “the usual answer to this dilemma is more conservation education” (Leopold 207). Teaching people about the ecosystem and the purpose and preservation of the environment could go a long way towards helping to end animal extinction caused by humans. As of right now, with the way the butterflies are diminishing, it seems most theorist would be in agreement that the loggers are acting immorally. In regards to the butterflies, if something is not done, then mankind and the world will be missing a species and the overall long term impact is unknown.



Works Cited


Callicott, Baird. “Holistic Environmental Ethics and the Problem of Ecofascism”. pgs 67-76.

Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic”. pgs 201-226.

Rawls, John. “Who are the Least Advantaged: Two Principles of Justice”. pgs 42-60.

Regan, Tom.” Animal Rights, Human Wrongs”. pgs 99-120.

Singer, Peter. “All Animals are Equal”. pgs 103-115.


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