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Pragmatism, Piety, and Environmental Ethics

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image of Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology

The rise of pragmatism in environmental ethics in the 1990s was driven by several factors, including dissatisfaction with the field's dominant nonanthropocentrism and the desire to increase the political and policy influence of environmental ethics. Yet despite an emphasis on human experience as the foundation of environmental values and action, environmental pragmatists have paid little attention to the religious dimensions of human-nature interactions. In this paper I attempt to address this neglect by exploring the religious thought of John Dewey, arguably the most significant pragmatist philosopher of the classical period. I suggest that Dewey's understanding of religiosity—in particular, his concept of "natural piety"—instructs us to respect nonhuman nature as a source of human imaginative experience and self-unification. Although Dewey's naturalized approach to religious experience retains a broadly instrumentalist view toward nature, it is an instrumentality that supports a humble and appreciative attitude toward the environment and a sense of caution regarding the modification of nature for human purposes. I conclude by arguing that the recovery of Dewey's attitude of natural piety provides an important constraint on more aggressively anthropocentric approaches to human-nature relations, including those promoting sustainability as an alternative to traditional limits-based environmentalism.

Affiliations: 1: Center for Biology & Society and School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501


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