How Far Have We Cared? Recent Developments in the

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How Far Have We Cared? Recent Developments in the Geography of Values,
                                    Justice and Ethics

                                      Audrey Kobayashi and James Proctor

Questions of ethics, values, justice, and the moral principles according to which we engage in

geographical scholarship, have always been a part of geography, but for the past two decades 

and perhaps even significantly, since the events of September 11, 2001  they have become a

central part of the lexicon of American and international geographical scholarship. The Values,

Justice and Ethics Specialty Group (VJESG) was formed in 1997 to respond to a felt need for

geographers to focus on both the ethical issues that inform our academic work, and the ways in

which that work is connected to larger societal issues.1 The concerns of the group have been less

upon a particular range of topics or approaches than with the ethical questions that cut across the

entire discipline, on the assumption that such questions are bounded neither by subject matter nor

by theoretical constraints.

        The group was formed at a time when questions of whether geographers should be

concerned about the moral, ethical implications of their work had long since been replaced with

questions of how geographers could focus attention on these issues. Concern is with the very

difficult questions that link personal commitment, or reflexivity, with larger questions of

research and pedagogy. One of the best sources of evidence of the importance of such questions,

and of the intellectual sophistication with which they are being asked, is the journal Ethics, Place

and Environment, inaugurated in 1998. This group felt a need, therefore, for a geographical

forum in which to explore the relationship between American geography and the world in which

it operates.

       At the annual meeting of the AAG in 2001, a decision was made to merge the Values, Ethics and Justice Specialty
Group with the Human Rights Specialty Group, creating a new Values, Ethics and Human Rights Specialty Group. Many if

         While a relatively small number of geographers works in a more narrowly defined field

that might be called moral philosophy (Sack 1997; Smith 1997; 1998a 2000), for the vast

majority of ethical questions connect the academic and the personal lives of geographical

practitioners, in ways that influence directly the questions they ask, the methodological and

theoretical choices they make and perhaps most importantly, their personal relations with their

research subjects and their own communities. As Hay (1998, 73) suggests, "the place to start that

process is on our [geographers'] own professional bodies." This paper is a very cursory attempt

to describe the context in which such issues are currently being taken up by geographers and,

taking our cue from David Smith (1998b) to raise some issues about how geographers have


         It would be accurate to say that ethics have always been an aspect of geography.

Immanuel Kant, for example, was fundamentally concerned with developing an explicit

understanding of ethics upon which his vision of geography could be layered. In the present, we

are less concerned with the specifics of his moral system than with the normative grid that

Kantian thought, as well as that of other Enlightenment thinkers, effectively placed over

subsequent notions of space and rationality. Most geographers today would recognize that while

most of the content of Kant's geography has long-since been replaced with new ideas, his

influence on the fundamental ways in which we think about human being, and his role in shaping

the values of colonial and imperial expansion that underlie today's political and economic

systems, was profound. Kant provides just one example of a thinker whose work is essential to

understanding today's moral landscape, as the cumulative efforts of those in a position to

influence the way in which society is ordered to set the moral guidelines and boundaries within

not all of the concerns of the two groups are cross-cutting. In this review, however, we have focussed our discussion on the
emphases of scholars focussing on questions of ethical concern to geographers.

which people regulate their lives. Although, as Burch (1997) has recently pointed out, that

normative grid does not create a simple epistemological divide between the higher pursuit of

moral philosophy and the practical concerns of the geographer, as is commonly believed, its

greatest significance lies nonetheless in the ways in which it has directed and infused notions of

correct action and proper beliefs, in both popular and scholarly contexts.

         Recent texts devoted to philosophical interpretations of geography and environmental

ethics (Light and Smith 1997; Proctor and Smith 1999) reveal a rich legacy of questions that link

human being and nature, and that question the nature of human being, in an ethical context. This

collection emphasizes the fact that ethical understanding, while it may involve a significant

amount of self-reflexivity on the part of the scholar, needs to be placed within a long and

complex history of intellectual and social development that lies well beyond the scope of this


         In the more immediate present, our work is directly a result of the so-called 'relevance

debate' of the early 1970s. What began as a rather emotional response to the influence of the

'quantitative revolution' initiated what is perhaps the most important period of social science

theorizing in the history of our discipline. The critical approaches to understanding spatiality that

are now placing geographers on the intellectual map within the wider social sciences owe a huge

debt to the questions over moral values raised by people such as Anne Buttimer (1974), Yi Fu

Tuan (1974) and Wilbur Zelinsky (1975). Furthermore, the early work of radical geographers

such as David Harvey (1973), William Bunge (1971) and Richard Peet (1975, 1978) laid the

ground for a critical morality that was to become deeply entwined with the so-called 'humanist'

work of those working under the 'values' banner, although it took some time before the links

began to be made explicitly (Kobayashi and Mackenzie 1989). Beginning about a decade ago,

however, it was clear that both these strands, the humanist and the marxist, had influenced a new

'critical' turn in geography (Sayer 1989) that both situated the discipline within emerging debates

over postmodernism (Ley 1989) and that challenged geographers to expand the limits of

discussion over normative issues. Geographers of the `baby boom' generation, the immediate

post-World War II era, grew up with the concerns of the civil rights movement, the early stages

of second-wave feminism, the ecological movement, and the 1960s anti-war movement. Students

during the turbulent times of the 1960s, they are the aging professors of the discipline today, and

their life experiences are profoundly etched upon the moral questions that we ask today as well

as on the broader set of issues that define public policy (Harvey 1974).

       From a more academic perspective, what Sayer and Storper (1997) have called the

'normative turn' in social theory and social science stems, therefore, from a refutation of the

notion that value free science is possible and upon recognizing the socially constructed nature of

knowledge and of moral values. The notion of value-free science became popular in the

immediate post-World War II intellectual environment when scholars turned to positivist

thinking as a means of removing the doubt and bias of value judgments from their work,

substituting instead universal and irrefutable `truth' as a basis for knowledge. The search for

universal truths, however, proved not only impossible, but also dangerous because it led to a

certain blindness to the biases and values that are entwined in all attempts to achieve objective

knowledge. It was that recognition, combined with their commitment to human rights, that led

geographers of the 1970s and 1980s in a new direction.

       The possibility of neutrality has in most of the past quarter century of writing by

geographers been debunked as not only improvable, but also itself a normative speculation that

informs the kinds of geographical knowledge that are possible (Gregory 1979; Pickles 1985), and

therefore also informs the values and ideological positions through which we interpret social

processes, and the languages we invoke to describe them. Debates over subjectivity and

reflexivity, and the relationship and importance of personal values over structural conditions,

have provided a central strand of geographical thinking throughout that period.

       By the early 1990s, there developed a considerable body of literature that illustrated the

ethical dilemmas inherent in epistemological choices. These are especially apparent in areas such

as cartography (Harley 1991, Monmonier 1991, Rundstrom 1993) and geographic information

systems (Wasowski 1991, Lake 1993, Curry 1994, Crampton 1995, as well as planning (Lake

1993, Entrikin 1994). Similar issues have been raised with respect to the geographer's

professional capacity as teacher (Havelberg 1990, Kirby 1991, Smith 1995, Merrett 2000), writer

(Brunn 1989, Curry 1991), and as researcher with a particular moral obligation to her or his

subjects (Eyles and Smith 1988, England 1994, Hay 1995). Although physical geography has

been less thoroughly infused with ethical questions, several physical geographers have raised

serious questions concerning the place of the geographer in ensuring environmental

sustainability (Kates 1987, Manning 1990, Cooke 1992, Reed and Slaymaker 1993), and a recent

special issue of the Annals has been entirely devoted to this theme (1998). Experts in geographic

information systems have asked questions about the ethics of data usage (Gilbert 1995), or

concerning the relationship between data manipulation and larger social issues such as the

provision of water resources (Clark 1998).

       These more or less introspective works represent a very important assessment of the how

questions of ethics and values affect the formal discipline of geography. Much more voluminous

by far is the literature that addresses the ethics and values of geographical subjects empirically.

Providing a conceptual framework for these moral concerns, Proctor and Smith (1999) have

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