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How Similar Are Indigenous North American and Leopoldian Environmental Ethics?

15 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2012 Last revised: 3 Jun 2015

Kyle Whyte

Michigan State University - Department of Philosophy

Date Written: March 1, 2015


Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is often compared to the ethics of many North American Indigenous communities, like Tribes and First Nations. Such comparisons can be considered important today because they are a potential option for bringing together environmentalists of all heritages in North America based on a common ethical orientation. At a theoretical level, the potential for comparison is certainly present. I argue, however, that there are at least three serious issues that must be reckoned with by any actual attempts to bring people together around the idea of a similar ethical orientation in Leopoldian and Indigenist ethics. The first issue is that Leopoldian ideas may be similar in the abstract to some Indigenous ethics, but Leopold’s own work does not provide a model of environmental stewardship that many Indigenous peoples would identify with or find useful. The second issue is that Leopold’s history of ethics is based on a narrative the plot of which goes in the opposite direction of the narratives many Indigenous peoples would provide of their ethics. The third issue is the tendency to prioritize Leopold as the interpreter and translator of Indigenous ethics, which can grant unsubstantiated and even offensive privilege to Leopold in relation to Indigenous ethics. If left unaddressed, each issue threatens to silence important dimensions of many North American Indigenous ethics that matter deeply to the Indigenous persons who adhere to them. I conclude the paper by arguing that a better exercise would involve approaching any potential comparison with a sobering acknowledgment of and openness to differences between Leopoldian and Indigenist ethics.

Keywords: Indigenous criticism of Leopold, Indigenous Environmental Ethics, Baird Callicott, Dan Shilling

Suggested Citation

Whyte, Kyle, How Similar Are Indigenous North American and Leopoldian Environmental Ethics? (March 1, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Kyle Powys Whyte (Contact Author)

Michigan State University - Department of Philosophy ( email )

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