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Justice, the Lorax and the Environment

Stuart Rosenbaum
Baylor University

A b s tr a c t : Environmental ethicists do not often notice the power of stories

to shape attitudes about our environment and its inhabitants. I argue that a
pragmatist understanding of morality enables storiesand narratives gen
erallyto shape attitudes and beliefs that have objective moral legitimacy.
The L o ra x , as well as other stories and narrative accounts, are not just chil
drens stories, but are essential tools for expressing objective moral con
cern about our environment. Michael Sandels (2009) book J u stice (along
with the moral thought of William James and John Dewey) expresses a
pragmatist perspective about justice and the good that accords with this
conclusion. The Lorax demands justice for the human environment.

I. The Lorax
Most of us are familiar with The L o ra x . The Lorax is the central character
in the story by Dr. Suess about the Onceler, the Truffula trees, the Brown
Barbaloots and the Swomie Swans. The Lorax speaks for the trees and
speechless animals who are victims of the wanton slaughter of the trees by
the Onceler and his increasingly wealthy family. The Onceler doesnt
probably cantheed the Lorax, even though on one occasion he evinces
misgivings about his savaging of the environment. The tale ends with the
trees and animals gone, the environment a mess and the Onceler family
abandoning their thneed factory, useless without the Truffula trees needed
to sustain their production of thneeds. The Lorax, having tried to save the
trees and the environment, finally lifts himself by his own tail through a
hole in the noxious clouds and is never seen again. The small human boy
who comes upon the remains of the plundered environment is left with one
remaining Truffula seed, from which presumably he has an opportunity to
bring back the Truffulas and their pristine environment for the benefit of
a future time.
The Lorax is a fairy tale with a wonderful lesson for immature
psychesand even for mature psyches. The lesson is that our human
environment has moral worth and that it depends on us humans; we must,
along with the Lorax, speak for the trees. One might embellish the lesson
of the Lorax, but for now consider the issues of what the story has to do
with justice for the environment and how it might be relevant to pragmatist
ethics. Begin with justice.

Stuart Rosenbaum

II. Justice
Justice is commonly interpreted as an understanding of how material goods
ought to be distributed among citizens in a particular society or, more gen
erally, among all humans inhabiting the global community. Thus, John
Rawls gives us two principles of justice that he at least initially believed
would be accepted by any humans who thought about them in circum
stances in which their own particular economic interests were hidden be
hind a veil of ignorance. The strategies of governance and distribution
that resulted from Rawlss two principles were supposed to produce just
distributions of the material goods produced by any society founded on
those principles. Rawlss early optimism about his two principles and the
rationality of accepting them dissipated in the flood of critiques that fol
lowed A T h eo ry o f J u stic e. No need to revisit those sometimes-technical
issues about the rationality of particular choices about those principles.
In a recent book, J u stic e: W h a ts the R ig h t T h in g to D o ? , Michael Sandel
concludes, contrary to Rawls, that justice cannot be segregated conceptu
ally from one or another understanding of the good life (Sandel, 2009, es
pecially pp. 264-269). Sandels conclusion is a pragmatist one in the sense
that he grants that justice is not conceptually available apart from some
full-bodied conception of the good from which it is inseparable. Dewey
puts a similar point in his 1932 E th ics by saying that justice is not possible
apart from benevolence or sympathy (Dewey, LW 7: 249-252). Another
way of putting this pragmatist point is to say that, apart from some con
ception of the goods humans seek to realize, the idea of justice is no more
than a rhetorical tool, one the clever among us will not allow to distract
from their own idea about the goods our societies should make available.
I dont want to draw cynical conclusions about important issues that divide
American culture morally and religiouslyAbortion, stem cell research,
gay marriage, animal agriculture, etc.and Sandel does not draw such
conclusions either. But the point remains that justice cannot be imple
mented or explicated apart from one among many conceptions of what the
good is, what flourishing is or what happiness is. And Sandel concludes
his treatment of justice as inseparable from an understanding of the good
with proper pragmatist optimism and recommends a politics of moral en
gagement based on mutual respect.
Having arrived at a pragmatist understanding of justice as informed
by understandings of the good life, we need to see how this understanding
helps inform and justify the claim that the environment needs justice from
us humans. Is The L o r a x just a nice fairy tale for politically correct parents
to spoon into their children? Or does The L o ra x have moral substance
in presenting a plausible demand for justice for the environment? One

Justice, the Lorax and the Environment

surely agrees that The L o r a x elicits sympathy for the Truffula trees, the
Brown Barbaloots and the Swomie Swans, but some people sympathize
with some things and not with others, and different people respond dif
ferently to the various plights of the flora and fauna of our environments.
The moral issue about our environment, however, goes beyond the vicis
situdes of sympathy as it waxes and wanes among various human hearts;
the moral issue is how to get beyond vicissitudes of sympathy to objective
legitimacy. How does The L o r a x impart objective leg itim a cy to the claim
of justice for the environment? An answer this question needs a pragma
tist perspective on justice and the good.

III. A Pragmatist Idea of the Good

Begin with two clear pragmatist accounts of the good, one from James
and one from Dewey, one in Deweys A C o m m on F a ith and the other in
Jamess The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.
In A C o m m o n F a ith , Dewey gives us natural piety, an idea that an
chors his thought about value. Here is Deweys account of natural piety:

Natural piety is not of necessity either a fatalistic acquiescence

in natural happenings nor a romantic idealization of the world.
It may rest upon a just sense of nature as the whole of which
we are parts, while it also recognizes that we are parts that are
marked by intelligence and purpose, having the capacity to
strive by their aid to bring conditions into greater consonance
with what is humanly desirable. Such piety is an inherent con
stituent of a just perspective in life. (LW 9: 18)

Humanitys thorough integration with the natural world is a base-line

commitment in all of Deweys work. Natural piety is the quality of char
acter, the virtue that recognizes human dependence upon our natural en
vironment. Notice that Dewey twice uses the word just in this passage,
further indicating that he intends not to separate his thought about hu
man flourishing from his thought about justice. A proper understanding
of humanitys place in the natural world brings with it a substantial moral
perspective that includes requirements of justice. About the issue of what
specifically those requirements of justice are Dewey is vague, although in
his vagueness he waxes extraordinarily idealistic as is evident through
out his work on religion and morality.1 The point here is that the human
good, however one might conceive it, in Deweys view requires at least
that ones character be infused with the virtue of natural piety along with
an understanding of justice that naturally accompanies that virtue. Dew

Stuart Rosenbaum

ey and Sandel are in substantial agreement in their thought about justice.

Turn now to Jamess essay.
The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life is Jamess principal con
tribution to pragmatist thought about morality. The distinctive feature of
the essay is Jamess insistence that all human wants or demands are claims
that generate obligations. (There is dispute among scholars about whether
or not James goes too far with this idea; surely some wants or demands,
some think, do not have the right sort of stature to generate obligations on
the part of anybody. Think of Mark Sanfords or John Edwardss obses
sive desires to have their mistresses in addition to their wives, or of the
television character, Dexter, who has pathological needs to kill people reg
ularly. These kinds of cases encourage those who believe James is wrong
to respect all desires to think James needs something like W.D. Rosss dis
tinction between dutiesp r im a fa c ie and duties proper in order to turn aside
the idea that these unconventional desires generate obligations. I disagree
with this view, but our conversation here probably does not need resolu
tion of this issue. But, see Lekan (2013). On Jamess view that all claims,
desires or wants generate obligations, the central philosophical problem
of morality becomes the problem how to negotiate effectively among all
those competing claims, not all of which can be satisfied. Thus, Jamess
characterization of moral philosophers makes them statesmen, thinkers
intent on negotiating among the cacophony of demand and desire to the
most inclusive possible whole of mutual satisfaction. Nobodys demands,
desires, claims or ideals are left out of philosophers efforts to produce
the most inclusive good; philosophers become statesmen, not conceptual
analysts or justifiers of one or another putatively correct moral view. The
following quotation captures Jamess understanding of the role of moral

[The moral philosophers] books upon ethics, therefore, so far

as they truly touch the moral life, must more and more ally
themselves with a literature which is confessedly tentative and
suggestive rather than dogmaticI mean with novels and dra
mas of the deeper sort, with sermons, with books on statecraft
and philanthropy and social and economical reform. (James,
1956, p. 210).

Philosophers responsibility, qua philosophers, is to negotiate, not to justi

fy. The business of moral philosophy becomes serious in the real-worldly
sort of way moral philosophers have not noticed; they have unfortunately
not thought of their work as having concrete significance. Moral philoso-

Justice, the Lorax and the Environment

phers work, in Jamess view, m a tters. Lives are at stakereal human

livesin philosophers success or failure to meet their responsibilities as
p h ilo s o p h e r s . (The passion with which James writes this essay signifies
his realization of his profound upgrading of the responsibility of moral
These two pragmatist philosophers prod us into recognizing two basic
dimensions of our moral lives. The f ir s t dimension James emphasizes: the
moral significance of demands/claims qua demands/claims rather than as
items that need priority ordering as morally significant or not, or as prop
er rather than prima facie. The s e c o n d dimension Dewey emphasizes:
the integrity of human unity with the natural world, an integrity that must
be respected in human characteras natural pietyand is constitutive of
virtue. These two pragmatist dimensions of our moral lives work together
to bring us back to the basic question, posed by the Lorax, about the moral
demand of our environment for justice.

IV. Back to the Lorax

The Lorax is a childrens story. How is it relevant to moral philosophy?
To think in terms of Jamess idea that all demands or claims have moral
significance and impart obligations, our question becomes, how does the
environmentthat brute, mute, earthy stuff on which our existence de
pendsdemand or desire or want anything? Isnt it just stuff we use to
sustain our own morally significant lives? The Lorax says, Vo!
The words of the Lorax to the Onceler are I speak for the trees. But
not only does the Lorax speak for the trees, he speaks also for the Brown
Barbaloots, the Swomie Swans and the fish, all of whom are suffering, dis
placed or exterminated by the Oncelers determination to produce thneeds
to meet growing market demand. And why can the Lorax not, or why may
he not, speak for these unfortunates? Why can the Lorax not be a proper
medium to express the demands, claims, desires or wants of these mute,
brute parts of our environment? If the Lorax can legitimately express
demands on behalf of these parts of our common environment, then they
become morally proper claimants that need accommodation; they become
responsibilities of moral philosophers. As James puts the point, if moral
philosophers make a mistake in their efforts to achieve the most inclusive
satisfaction of demand, the cries of the wounded will soon inform them of
that fact. The Lorax is crying out on behalf of the wounded.
The problem remains of explaining how the Lorax crying out on be
half of the environment constitutes a legitimate expression of morally sig
nificant demand. There are two problems: The Lorax is a fictional char
acter of childrens literature, and the Lorax is not himself wounded. How

Stuart Rosenbaum

does a moral philosopher overcome these unconventional dimensions of

the Lorax that seem to preclude his relevance to moral philosophy?
Consider the last problem first; its the easiest. We are accustomed
to hearing some speak on behalf of others who cannot, for one or another
reason, speak for themselves to express their own demand, claim, desire
or want. Anti-abortion activists speak for the unborn children who cannot
express their own horror at the prospect of their being aborted. Thomas
Friedman speaks from the pages of The N e w York Tim es on behalf of vic
tims of genocide in Africa who cannot express their horror at the prospect
of their own dismemberment. Margaret Marshall speaks from the bench
of the Massachusetts Supreme Court on behalf of gay people who want to
marry but who cannot themselves express their desire for legal marriage.
Speech on behalf of those who cannot express their own desires or wants
is an accepted form of moral expression, whether or not one agrees with
the moral ideas that underlie such speech. And such speech is normally
understood as reputable and appropriate; it is a common aspect of our
moral lives. No real problem there. The real problem comes from the fact
that the Lorax is a fictional character of childrens literature. Can we ac
cept the speech of such a creature as expressing legitimate moral demands
on behalf of the mute flora and fauna he sees to be suffering?V .

V. Moral Ideals
Natural piety is an ideal of character; part of its content is proper respect
for the natural world of which humans are an integral part. One might
conceive that proper respect in various ways. One Christian way of re
specting the environment is to exercise proper stewardship over it, to use
it in a respectful way that accords with our God-given dominion over it.
The problem with this way of thinking about proper respect for our envi
ronment, apart from its metaphysical and theological presumption, is that
it does not allow any real desires, demands or needs to emerge fromor
even to exist inour environment. When the Lorax cries out on behalf of
the trees and animals, he cries out because they are wounded and suffer
ing; he is expressing their moral claim against us that we must, as a condi
tion of our moral integrity, respect. The Christian stewardship model pre
cludes the Loraxs empathy for their wounds and suffering. Our natural
piety morally requires our respect for the Lorax and our respectful redress
of the injustices that produce that wounding and suffering. At least, this is
how the Lorax sees it.3
What can natural piety be as a virtue of moral character other than
at least partly a disposition to respect legitimate demands for justice that
come from all parts of our environment. We are those parts of our envi-

Justice, the Lorax and the Environment

ronment having intelligence and judgment, along with empathy for the
wounded of our world. In Jamess understanding of the role of moral
philosophers, one that accepts the centrality of Deweys virtue of natural
piety, we have the responsibility to produce the most inclusive whole of
satisfaction for all the wounded, needy claimants who come to our atten
tion. The Lorax tells us we must heed the agony of those mute, brute parts
of our world who suffer wounding by the acts of those among us who
have not heard or heeded his cries. Why should we listen to a cartoon
The quick answer to this question is that the Lorax is natural piety.
Most philosophers are reluctant to accept this answer because for philoso
phers ideals are first ideas that need analysis, after which analysis those
ideas can figure into principles to be justified, after which justification they
may be available to guide our action. Platos dialogues are the locus clas-
sicu s in philosophy for this way of thinking about ideals, and insofar as we
follow this Platonist model we are footnotes to Plato. James and Dewey,
as pragmatists, are not footnotes to Plato.
But pragmatists still need an answer to the question what natural piety
is, an answer that does not require dialectical skills that transcend human
itys biological origins. One result of pragmatists remaining rooted in
their earthy, biological stuff is that they are able to transcend the philo
sophical obsession with understanding dialectically the content of human
ideals. Another result is that pragmatists need to find ideals among the
realities they, along with their human fellows, commonly experience. The
Lorax is one of those ideals. A Christian predecessor of the Lorax was St.
Francis of Assisi who, though he respected the natural world as does the
Loraxremember the bird and the wolf stories about himdid so within
a conventionally Christian perspective.
St. Francis is a saint officially canonized by the Catholic Church in
1228. The Lorax is a metaphorical saint, unofficially canonized by Dr.
Suess in the mid-twentieth century. Both nevertheless are saints in the
relevant sense that James emphasizes in The Varieties o f R elig io u s E x p e ri

The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are

the great torchbearers..., the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the
darkness.... The world is not yet with them, so they often seem
in the midst of the worlds affairs to be preposterous. Yet they
are the impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of
potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever
dormant. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally
are, when they have passed before us. (James, 1975, p. 298)

Stuart Rosenbaum

The Lorax is one of the saints among us who are, along with some oth
ers, natural piety.4 Natural piety, being a virtue of human character, thus
requires a relationship to the Lorax. Actually, it requires nothing quite that
specific, but only some appropriate surrogate for that relation, maybe a
relation to St. Francis or Peter Singer. Justice for the environment comes
naturally out of a pragmatist understanding of morality when it is joined
with ideals like St. Francis and the Lorax.5


1 In addition to A Common Faith, Deweys commitment to democracy as an

ideal of human living is ubiquitous in his work; I am especially fond of his elegant
expression of that ideal in his 1939 essay, Creative Democracy, the Task Before
Us, in Dewey (1991). (This essay appears also in many other places, and may be
gotten online as well.)
2 In Jamess understanding of moral philosophers, there are a good number
of them who do not have PhD.s in philosophy. Nicholas Kristof, David Brooks
and Paul Krugman are good examples, for they write editorial columns for the
New York Times that intend to better the lives of real people; they see the need to
serve people in accord with our own democratic ideals. Many of their columns
serve as examples. The (Feb. 7, 2010) column by Kristof, The World Capital
of Killing, is a call to action on behalf of those suffering genocide in the eastern
Congo. Those of us with Ph.D.s in philosophy need to do better; James would be
happier with the philosophical work of these columnists than he would with that
of most philosophers these days.
3 And the Lorax concurs at this point with the view of environmental phi
losopher, Holmes Rolston, III; see Rolstons (1988, especially Chapter 6, The
Concept of Natural Value: A Theory for Environmental Ethics).
4 For an account of this pragmatist account of ideals, see Stuart Rosenbaum
(2009, especially chapter 5, Ideals).
5 James also says, appropriately in accord with the perspective taken herein,
All ideals are matters of relation (1975, p. 298).

Works Cited

Dewey, John. (1989a) The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 7: 1932, Ethics. Jo
Ann Boydston (ed.). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
--------- . (1989b) The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 9: 1933-1934, Essays,
Reviews, Miscellany, and A Common Faith. Jo Ann Boydston (ed.). Car
bondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
--------- . (1991) The Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume 14: 1939-1941, Essays,
Reviews, and Miscellany. Jo Ann Boydston (ed.). Carbondale, IL: Southern
Illinois University Press.

Justice, the Lorax and the Environment

James, William. (1956) The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Phi
losophy. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
--------- . (1975) The Varieties o f Religious Experience. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
Kristof, Nicholas. (Feb. 7, 2010) The World Capital of Killing. The New York
Lekan, Todd. (2013) A Reconstruction of Jamess Normative Ethics. William
James Studies, volume 9.
Rolston, Holmes, III. (1988) Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the
Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Rosenbaum, Stuart. (2009) Pragmatism and the Reflective Life. Lanham, MD:
Lexington Books.
Sandel, Michael J. (2009) Justice: Whats the Right Thing to Do? New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.