How Philosophy Can Help Us Better Understand the Environment

Philosophy Professor Justin Garson asks philosophical questions about the environment to help us better understand and protect it

By: Victoria Shae

We spoke to Philosophy Professor Justin Garson about his work in bridging the fields of philosophy and the environment. He shared with us the questions we need to ask ourselves in order to determine what our moral obligations to the environment are. 

Victoria Shae: To start off, can you tell us a little about yourself and what got you interested in your field?

Justin Garson is a Professor of Philosophy at Hunter College

Justin Garson: Absolutely! I am a philosopher and my main interest is the philosophical aspects of biology. There are two main facets of this research that I’m fascinated about. The first is how we can use biology to make progress on traditional problems of human minds and human nature. By this, I mean questions like: Are people inherently selfless or are we always acting on the basis of selfish motives? What does evolutionary biology tell us about the issue of altruism? What does neuroscience say about the problem of free will?

These are questions philosophers have been asking for centuries. I’m interested in how the progression of knowledge in modern biology can help us to actually arrive at answers to these questions.

VS: What is the second interest you have?

JG: Secondly, I am interested in Environmental Philosophy. I’m concerned about the philosophical questions that arise as we think about our relationship to the natural world. It was these questions and the motivation to arrive at answers to these questions that lead to my interest in the environment and issues of sustainability and biodiversity.

VS: What was the timeline of your education and your career? How did everything lead you to where you are now?

JG: At some point in my life I knew that I wanted to be a philosopher and a philosophy professor – it was the only thing I was cut out for. So I got my PhD in Philosophy back in 2006 from The University of Texas at Austin. After that, I started working here at Hunter College in 2011, and I just got tenure in 2016!

VS: Congratulations!

JG: Thank you! It’s been really great here and I love Hunter College. In fact, I love the whole CUNY system – they really prize and value interdisciplinary work. They value connecting philosophy with biology, and in a broader spectrum: philosophy and the environment.

They also value broader questions about social justice and political science, so it’s been really terrific to work here at Hunter, and CUNY in general, for that reason.

VS: Based on your high appraisal, I’m assuming you enjoy being in the world of academia?

JG: Oh, absolutely – this is all that I’m good at! [laughs] But honestly, it’s kind of true! I knew this when I was an undergraduate, in fact. There was a certain point during that experience where I left school for a while and worked. But then I would just find myself really longing for the kind of conversations that I could have in an academic context.

This means that I was working, in food service or a landscaping company, and I couldn’t really talk to people about the things that I wanted to talk about. I would think of questions such as: Do we have free will or are we just a bunch of robots that are programmed by our genetics and our formative experience? Do we have moral obligations to trees? Do trees have rights too or do just humans have rights? Do we just protect trees because they benefit people or because we have a moral obligation to them?

I couldn’t ask these questions at the professions I was working in and whenever I wasn’t in an academic context. I just knew that I missed being able to have conversations around these questions, that I longed for them, and so it became obvious that being a professor was the only future that I was cut out for.

VS: So what is your work schedule like? What do you do on a daily and weekly basis in the world of academia?

JG: As far as being a professor goes, my time is split around half and half between research and teaching. The obvious part of being a professor is the teaching part: teaching and preparing courses, giving and preparing lectures, engaging students in discussions both in and out of the classroom, grading papers, etc.

But then there is the other part of what I do – my own research. This includes: writing books and articles, going to conferences such as environmental conferences to talk to people about my work, sharing my ideas, etc.  And honestly, I love both aspects of my career.

What are my ethical obligations to sustainability?

VS: Do you have a favorite course to teach?

JG: In fact, I have two! The first one is ‘Philosophy of Biology.’ In this course we think about how biology can help us make progress on these traditional problems of human nature, as I mentioned before. We ask questions like: Are humans fundamentally selfish? Do we have free will? What’s the role of nature and nurture in making us who we are? When it comes to human thought and human behavior, what is “normal?” What is “abnormal?” And who should get to decide those things?

It’s actually a really fun course because the students are exposed to a lot of traditional philosophy, but at the same time they are also exposed to a lot of biology. They end up doing a lot of readings in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and developmental biology. It’s so fun to straddle those two very different domains.

VS: What is the second course that you also like to teach?

JG: The other course that I really love teaching is the “Environmental Philosophy” course. In that course we really look at conceptual and ethical aspects of our relationship to the environment. So, for example, some of the conceptual questions that come up are: What is nature? What do we mean by nature? What aspects of nature do we find valuable? More specifically, when we look at specific kinds of goals, we ask: What is biodiversity? What is wilderness? What is sustainability? It turns out that these can mean very different things to different people. So it’s fascinating to reflect on these concepts and definitions.

Another aspect of the course revolves around the study of ethics. We ask: What are my ethical obligations to the non-human world? What are my ethical obligations to animals? Is it okay to eat animals? Is it okay to use animals in medical experiments? Why or why not? What are my ethical obligations to sustainability? One of the big questions that comes up that really gets the students thinking is: What are my ethical obligations to future generations?

VS: What is it about that particular question that really gets the students thinking?

Sustainability is often described as having to do with the protection of the welfare of future generations, while not harming present generations. So the questions that emerge from that are: What do I owe to future generations? What do I owe to people who don’t even exist yet? What do I owe the people who are living now?

So this course is really interesting. I really love thinking about those kinds of issues and ideas. In fact, one of the reasons why I am interested in sustainability and environmental issues is because one way I’m hoping to be able to contribute to discussions on sustainability, and to conservation more generally, is by helping think through some of these complicated conceptual and ethical issues.

VS: Do you mind elaborating a bit more about your research?

Professor Justin Garson at the Creating Sustainable Cities event (Photo: Luis Collazo)

JG: Well, I mainly write books and articles on the philosophy of biology and environmental philosophy. Two years ago I wrote a book called: The Biological Mind: A Philosophical Introduction. The book is on overview on how biology can help us make progress on these traditional philosophical problems. By traditional philosophical problems, I’m referring to the questions I mentioned earlier about altruism, free will, nature vs. nurture, mental disorders, and so on.

Last year, I co-edited an anthology called: The Routledge Handbook for Philosophy of Biodiversity. The publisher, Routledge, really wanted to a have a philosopher put together an anthology on philosophical aspects of biodiversity. It was really quite a lot of fun to do because myself and two other editors worked with philosophers, biologists, conservationists, lawyers, policy makers and more to really think about some of these complicated philosophical and ethical questions about biodiversity.

This made it very much an interdisciplinary effort. There were questions like: What is biodiversity? Why is biodiversity valuable? Why is it something that deserves to be protected in its own right? How should it be measured in the field? And most importantly: How should we protect biodiversity while respecting the rights of human communities in the process? What we wanted to know was how to protect biodiversity and at the same time respect people’s rights and the rights of communities to use their land as they see fit.

VS: Could you tell us about your department at Hunter College? What do you like best about it?

JG: Well, there are two really great things about the philosophy department here at Hunter. The first is that there is a very strong emphasis on interdisciplinary work. A lot of people here do social philosophy, political philosophy, philosophy of science (like myself), philosophy of language, and so on.

It’s a department that really prizes interdisciplinary work and one of our roles as a philosophy department is to build a bridge with other departments here. These departments can include: political science, mathematics, biology, geography, linguistics, or anything really. That’s our big goal here and it’s what makes us the opposite of a traditional philosophy department, which can get so far into abstract reasoning that just doesn’t seem to connect to anything outside of itself.

VS: What is the second thing that you love about the philosophy department at Hunter College?

JG: The second thing is less about the department itself, but more about Hunter College generally. I love its diversity. We’re a very diverse college with a lot of people coming from different economic backgrounds, from different religious backgrounds, from different cultural backgrounds, etc. And I think that the diversity is one of the things that makes Hunter such a special college too. It’s one more reason why I’m very proud to be working here.

I wonder if our social values affect science and the way we think about the environment.

VS: Do you have any advice for young people looking to get into this field?

JG: What I mainly encourage my students to do is really take their time to find out what they’re passionate about. A lot of my students feel rushed to get through college. I realize that there are a lot of financial pressures on students to finish college in a timely way and start their careers; a lot of our students are supporting families. They just don’t have the luxury of taking as much time as they want in college to figure out what they really love doing or what they’re really passionate about. 

But in general, I try to encourage students to take their time to figure out what they love and are passionate about because whatever it is, they’re going to have to do that potentially for the rest of their lives. It shouldn’t be the kind of decision that you rush through. Don’t pick that major because you feel pressure. Don’t take that course because you need the credits. Really take the time to better understand yourself.

Again, I realize that this is not necessarily the best advice for everyone because of varying circumstances, but I still want to stress it.

VS: To finish off, can you share with us what are your favorite ideas to think about moving forward, particularly in regards to its impact on the environment? 

JG: One the biggest interests I have is thinking about what is “normal” and “abnormal” in human thought and behavior. What should we consider to be healthy? What should we consider to be disordered? These are very fascinating questions.

When psychiatrists get together, they often get into big arguments with one another about whether or not a certain condition is or isn’t a mental disorder. And it always makes me wonder: How do we decide whether or not something is a mental disorder? Who gets to decide whether or not something is a mental disorder? Are mental disorders simply a reflection of our biology and neuroscience? Or are they an expression of our social values?

When thinking about these ideas regarding the human mind, I wonder if our social values affect science and the way we think about the environment. If that is the case, how can we figure out ways in which social values can positively affect the environment?

VS: Thank you for taking the time to share these ideas with us and giving everyone something to think about!

JG: My pleasure!

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