Ethics & the Environment, Volume 8, Number 2, Fall 2003
Special Topic Issue: Environmental Narrative
Guest Editor: Deborah Slicer
The Narrative Ethics of Leopold's Sand County Almanac
James Jakób Liszka
Although philosophers often focus on the essays of Leopold's Sand County Almanac, especially
"The Land Ethic," there is also a normative argument present in the stories that comprise
most of the book. In fact the shack stories may be more persuasive, with a subtlety and
complexity not available in his prose piece. This paper develops a narrative ethics
methodology gleaned from rhetoric theory, and current interest in narrative ethics among
literary theorists in order to discern the normative underpinnings of the stories in Part 1.
The narrative ethics approach sidesteps the need to ground the land ethic in ethical
theory -- which has been a reconstructive and problematic task for the philosophical
interpreters of Leopold -- and suggests, instead, that it emerges in Leopold's very effort to
narrate his, professional, personal, and practical experience with nature. The involves
examining the stories in terms of their emotional, logical and performative aspects. The result
is an analysis that shows not only how these stories express normative claims, but also justify
them. One conclusion of the analyses is that, in the narratives, there is less emphasis on the
problematic notion of an over-arching "community" than in the prose pieces, and more emphasis
on the metaphor of other living things as "fellow travelers" in the "odyssey of evolution."
Second, the narratives take on an ironic attitude toward the ecological order, less discernable
in the prose essays. The order itself may not be ethically admirable, but should be preserved
since it makes possible any ethical relations within it. Thus, the narrative reading suggests
some temperance to the usual holistic interpretation of his land ethic, and its concomitant
criticisms, especially the charge of ecofacism. We should not take the land ethic imperative at
its face value, in the sense that the good of the order itself is an intrinsic good. In the
narratives, individuals are shown not merely to be means to the ecological whole, but the focus
of sympathy and concern, in a manner that demands their good should also be an object of
Everyday Environmental Ethics As Comedy and Story: A Collage
In section I, I provide a brief historical sketch of tragedy and its relationship to Socratic
philosophy and comedy. II focuses on one aspect of tragedy, namely, its view that morality
transcends natural limitations. This understanding of morality is with us still. III presents
the central concerns of the world religions as evidence of a widespread feeling of alienation
from the sacred and the wild, and contrasts world religions with indigenous spirituality.
IV moves us away from the understanding of philosophy as argument and counterargument and
toward an ecosystemic, or wild, conception of philosophy as story in the mode of comedy.
V offers a Buddhist understanding of tragic alienation that sees it as expressive of something
deeply problematic about humans. This something is actualized throughout Western culture but
seems to exist only as a potentiality in indigenous cultures. This is reason enough to take
indigenous cultures-and comedy-seriously. VI brings us back to earth with a sketch of comedy
in the lives of dear friends. VII sketches some of the attributes of functional communities
that give support to comedy. I also point out a number of features of First Nations so-called
worldviews that would greatly enhance the ability of comedy to displace tragedy in the West.
VIII portrays picaresque comedy as exemplifying the lessons of comedy taught by wilderness.
Examples from indigenous cultures of Africa and Gary Snyder's The Practice of the Wild
underscore the importance of picaresque strategies and understandings of comedy. A look at Tom
Birch's enigmatic statement, "wilderness treats us like human beings," setting it alongside some
lines from Thoreau's Walden, rounds out my discussion of comedy. IX poses a challenge: Can we
survive "The News" that pours in upon us from tragic seats of power?