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K. E. Løgstrup and the virtue of travelling

An attempt to illuminate an ethical conflict in transportation issues by applying the sensation metaphysics of K. E. Løgstrup

By Assistant Professor Cand.Theol. Svein Sando [1]


Transport of people and merchandise is connected with many negative features of the manmade environment (accidents, noise, local pollution, barriers, considerable consume of space, etc.) as well as of the natural environment (great consumer of energy, global pollution, collisions with animals and so forth.). On the other hand transportation is both necessary in order to fulfil basic tasks of a modern society and attractive to individuals in their social and recreational activity. Hence, there is a conflict between a consideration for the environment (both manmade and natural) and the requests of individuals and society to have goods and peoples carried as fast and cheaply as possible.

To illuminate this conflict concerning and suggesting alternative actions, I will use writings by the late Danish philosopher and theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup (1905-81). By doing so, we are able to present one of the more recent attempts from a Christian point of view to revaluate the created nature. Through the often-cited article by Lynn White in Science 155/1967: «The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis», Christianity is blamed for the ecological crisis. The main problem with the Judaeo/Christian tradition is the passage in Genesis 1:28 where Adam and Eve are instructed to “fill the earth and subdue it”. Of all the contemporary Christian attempts to rethink the status of the nature, Løgstrup’s Christian fundament is partly concealed. He tries in his writings to reach people with other starting points than only Christian ones.

Løgstrup’s view about nature and modern man

Løgstrup has not written an explicit ethics for the environment or technology. He has however many passages in his writings that can easily be evolved to an ethic for a technological age. The material in Løgstrup’s writings that we will use in this essay is mainly from his four volumes of metaphysic published partly after his sudden death in 1981. Metaphysic III «Ophav og omgivelse. Betragtninger over historie og natur» [Source and surrounding. Considerations about history and nature] published in 1984 is important for establishing an Løgstrupian environmental ethics. Part of this book is translated to English and published in “Metaphysics. Volume II” (Løgstrup 1995). All inline references will refer to this translation unless otherwise mentioned.

1The title of his book, “Source and surrounding”, contain an important pair of notions in order to understand his view of the nature (universe). That the universe is our surrounding is something that modern western man is perfectly aware of and exploits to all what it is worth. Løgstrup reminds us that the universe is still our source as well. From a biological viewpoint, this is obvious. We need the nature for both energy and metabolism. To describe this, Løgstrup uses the expression that “we are emplaced [2] (Danish: «indfældt») in the cycle of nature” (43). He distinguishes, however, between human being as a living being («levevæsen») and human being with respect to his consciousness or understanding. As conscious beings “we have broken out of this systematic unity.” (43)

Animals as well as human beings are emplaced in nature (43). There is however one fundamental difference between human beings and animals. While the animals are more or less controlled by instincts, man’s instincts are considerably reduced (43). This reduction is compensated with consciousness and understanding that is an obligatory ability to survive in the natural world. Understanding is used to cover basic needs.

Løgstrup thinks that the reduction of instinct («instinktsredutkion») can be considered as withdrawal («tilbagetrækning») (33-43). This happens at the mental level in a manner that one may feel oneself to be outside the nature and the physical universe. The universe is just a surrounding. Løgstrup calls this the marginal existence (“randtilværelsen”) with respect to intelligence, where we are at “the edge of nature, on the margin of the universe” (5). This is “modernity’s most formidable illusion” (17).

Historically Løgstrup thinks this can be traced back to the medieval controversy about the universals. The nominalistic position claims that “the universals are the subject’s own control of reality” (4). (I would add that the Christian flirtation with Gnosticism in the late antiquity is another and older source for a subordination of the matter under the spirit or intelligence.) This is followed up by Descartes “res cogitans”, where the consciousness gains specific value at the sacrifice of the external world (“res extensa”). Kant’s transcendental philosophy aims in the same direction. The secondary qualities (colour, sound, taste etc) loose their importance with Galilee (78) and Descartes.

Løgstrup pays much attention to the notion of sensation (“sansning”). The importance of sensation is ignored in our culture, he claims. Even his disciples admit that his analysis of the sensation is both difficult to grasp and controversial (Andersen, 38). We will however, not draw heavily on this more controversial part of “his” sensation. Løgstrup is a phenomenologist and we must understand his theory of sensation in this view. He denies that sensation is perception. In stead, he claims “sensation is lack of distance “(“afstandsløs”) (6). When we look at a flying bird, the sensation brings us out to the bird out there, not the other way around. The lack of distance in the sensation is in opposition to the distance making understanding. When we in our sensation of the bird say that the bird is out there, at distance to us, that is because of the interpretation by the understanding. Pure sensation can however never be experienced. At once, the understanding interprets what is sensed and thus the distance making understanding gets the final trick in sensation as it is experienced. What brings us to the edge of the nature are thus not the sensation but the distance making understanding.

The withdrawal in the marginal existence where understanding has replaced the instincts, is ambiguous because it both offers a fantastic opportunity and a great risk:

The opportunity consists of the fact that human beings have latitude to make tools for themselves. The risk consists of the fact that we can destroy our surroundings. The more effective our tools become as technology, the greater the risk. (43)

The basic material needs demand that we make tools and strategies to survive, e.g. use our understanding upon the nature. The needs are not satisfied by themselves. The satisfaction of the basic needs thus tends to be aggressive. Nature must be conquered to deliver the basic supplies for a human life (44f).

In the western modernity, the basic needs are more than satisfied, but this seems to be no reason to cease further development of tools. Løgstrup thinks that the development of tools has emancipated itself and seeks a justification in itself.

The development moves from tool to [technique, and from technique to] [3] technology, understood as technical research, as the art of engineering, which is a science alongside other sciences. Along the way, there is a reversal of the relationship between need and tool. Once need inspired intelligence to discover tools, now it is the tools that create the need. Technique and technology discover needs no one had ever dreamed of having but which we now demand to be satisfied as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.
This is altogether in its order. It has brought us possibilities for the development of our lives in grand style. But the more this development proceeds, the more acceleration it gets and the more important it becomes that restraint keep up with it. If this does not happen, we all know what it ends with. If we do not acquire a technology that is suitable to nature and society, we are destroyed. (50)

A new important notion is presented here: restraint (“tilbageholdenhed”). Understanding and restraint are exclusive to man compared to animals. Restraint is a sort of break that moderates the understanding in its conquest of the nature. The contents of restraint may seem a bit out of date in our time: “shame and shyness, respect and recognition, bashfulness and modesty and more” (44). The ability to be ashamed seems to be the most important part of restraint. The greatest evilness is thus the lack of this, namely shamelessness or impudence:

Shamelessness, on the other hand, is totally inhuman, because the individual in it will not shrink form anything at all. (46) … Any demonstration of power in which there is shamelessness will not tolerate that anything at all should exist that is independent of us and which preserves us. One lives at its expense, even at the cost of eroding the ground from under one’s feet and that of future generations.” (47)

The ethical problem in an age of technology is when “the restraint does not keep up with technological power” (47). For an inter-human relation, Kant has formulated a rule to prohibit actions that hold another human only as a mean to our ends. In breaking this rule, Løgstrup would say that we acted shamelessly. In an analogous way, Løgstrup will allow us to use the nature as a mean, but not only as a mean. We have to use the nature as a mean in order to survive. Nevertheless, there is a limit for this conquest of the nature. This limit is broken if we regard the nature only as surroundings, and not also as our source.

Is the only thing that curbs our exploitation of nature and its living beings the fact that we risk undermining our existence? Is there only intelligence and no shame in drawing this line? Can we, in our relationship with nature, only be guilty of stupidity, never shamelessness? (48)

No, is the answer he gives. There are limits not to be trespassed. One of them is trespassed when we destroy nature “for no purpose”. It is shamelessness when we treat the nature in a way that it does not matter whether it exists or not:

If a disparity between a means and end reigns - the means wonderful, the end cheap - we exterminate nature. (48)

A common (and “shallow” to use Arne Næss’ notion from his ‘deep ecology’ writings) reason for environmental work is to “prevent erosion of the natural foundations of existence” (48). The shallow argumentation is (often tacitly) based on the conception that nature exists to the best for man only. The reason for such ideas is, according to Løgstrup, that in the Western culture, “only need counts, not sensation” (49).

Most of what is said so far can be illustrated in the figure below. It has four main notions: sensation, understanding, need and restraint. Løgstrup writes that the sensation correlates with understanding with respect of interplay. Need correlates restraint with respect of tension. In the point of intersection between all four elements, in the middle of the figure, we find the human history and culture, the place where our lives take place (45).

  • lacks distance
  • no human co-operation
  • adds distance to sensation
  • demands distance
  • withdrawal from universe, but cannot escape it completely
History and culture
  • satisfied through action and
  • conquest of nature to keep man living
  • must be restricted in order to avoid ecological crisis
  • shame, shyness, respect, recognition, bashfulness, modesty
common with animals exclusively human

Løgstrup’s critique of Western modernity is that the pair NEED--UNDERSTANDING has become too powerful because the opposite pair SENSATION--RESTRAINT is barely noticeable. Ethical and political systems that regard utility as the highest value are hit by this critique. Løgstrup does not deny that true needs have to be satisfied to maintain human life on earth. The problem arises when this utility-idea becomes the only or dominant value.

The qualities of restraint are to some extent intact in our culture. Sensation in Løgstrup’s meaning has however been neglected for centuries. The secondary qualities of sensation left the natural philosophy and made thus way for the technological success we have experienced the last two centuries. It is however easy to mix the success in itself and the reasons for this success. The technological triumph may easily be regarded as a proof of what reality is really about. It is a short way from functionality to ontology.

Løgstrup thinks that the secondary quality of sensation is of great importance for something quite different from technological success, namely if and in what way we develop technology and how we use it. The secondary quality, which the pioneer scientists got rid of, is just what we need to ensure that the products of physics, chemistry and biology will not destroy this planet as a home for human beings. Mathematical formulas make no ethical claims on us. But such come from the secondary qualities which convey destruction of the beautiful, cry of terror concerning a hopeless future, cry of pain from animals which have to suffer to fulfil some artificial human “need” and cries from starving children in a man made world where short sighted economical profit has replaced the love for the neighbour as supreme norm.

The rationality of sensation and restraint

What can Løgstrup then offer in order to build an ethics for the contemporary technological society? Is it not just yet another way of widening the scope of the Kantian imperatives to imply non-human ethical subjects as well? Albert Schweitzer, Peter Singer, Kenneth Goodpaster and Arne Næss are among those who have done just that already (Ariansen, Chap.8). Løgstrup’s argument is however rather original. His revaluation of the sensing act combined with the importance of the human character restraint is important both in person-to-person relationships, but absolutely also in the man vs. nature relationship. In a way, Løgstrup breaks with the common anthropocentric argument for the ethics, without ending in an egalitarian biocentrism (Andersen, 77).

When Løgstrup introduces notions like shame and bashfulness in facing the nature, he tries to give us a positive reason for acting to the best for the environment. The source of restraint is the sensation, not the understanding. We are not to be convinced that nature has some rights that imply some duties to fulfil. The appeal is directed to feelings and sentiments, made by the sensation that creates an attuned consciousness (40). This attuned consciousness requires a response. Our relation to the nature requires an ability to respond, e.g. “respons-ability”.

For Christian ethics, this attuned responsibility is quite familiar. In the probably most powerful ethical text in the New Testament, Jesus tells the parable about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In verse 33, it is told about the Samaritan, “he took pity on him”. This text can easily be interpreted in a Løgstrupian fashion: It is the story told by the secondary qualities about the terrible condition of this robbed person that moves the Samaritan to his beneficial actions, more than some human rights this other person might possess. In fact, the Samaritan had no obligations to help this robbed man because they were from different tribes. That is just the point made by Jesus: Despite the lack of rights and (at least positive) duties between the robbed and the Samaritan, the Samaritan showed the true meaning of “loving your neighbour”. Løgstrup would say, I think, that the only way an ethical demand could be conveyed were then through the sensation that attuned the Samaritan's mind (hearth) so that “he took pity on him”. Others might say, however, that Jesus is making loving-kindness a duty by telling this parable.

Løgstrup’s writings are no nostalgic “back-to-nature-ethics”. Understanding, cleverness and technology are not to be thrown away for the benefit of sensation, an attuned hearth and shamefulness. There is no return to a pre-modern society, neither is it desirable. We shall and must continue to make tools to maintain life. This activity, however, must be balanced with a quite different one, but of equal importance, namely the alliance between understanding, sensation and restraint where we become responsible for the universal totality. Like Hans Jonas (Jonas, 26), Løgstrup wants even more understanding and cleverness into science, but primarily to make us able to predict and stop the bad side effects of technology:

Side-effects is much more important than the aim. Not the aim, as it conceives in the laboratories changes the world. That is done by the side-effects of the pursuit of the aim.” (Løgstrup 1983, 22, own translation)

Application of Løgstrup on issues in transport

We introduced this essay by pointing out a conflict between the environment and the human need for transport of people and goods. We will now try to apply Løgstrup’s model on this conflict. To take the last topic first, Løgstrup’s model could imply that the side-effect of transport is a long term destruction or exploitation of the environment as a whole, and several local incidents of damage of landscape, etc. as well. The reason for this is the technological spiral: basic needs ? tools ? technique ? technology ? artificial needs, because we have neglected the restraint nurtured through the sensation.

The case is however not that simple. The side effect point of view points out that a lot of technological mishap, particularly long-term side effects, was not intended. The people behind the development of motorization of road transport might have had the very best intentions for doing this, having reverence and respect for both the human and natural environment. The main problem was not lack of restraint, but lack of knowledge about the effects of the technology.

The lack-of-restraint argument can be used only when at least some of the bad side effects of a technology is known, and ask why we continue using it. In transport technology, we know about these side effects today. An answer might be that we use it because we have no choice. We need these transports and as long as there are no sufficient economically sound alternatives that are to the better for the environment, we have to continue using it, otherwise, we cannot maintain our living standard, the unemployment might increase, and so forth.

In one respect, we have no choice - to some extent and on an individual (or small scale) level. As individuals, we are a piece of puzzle in a very big system. Living in a sparsely populated countryside with just a few or no public transport in the area, you just have to use a car to maintain a fairly normal life, partly because the nearest shop have moved miles away to a village or town. Our standards of living are to some extent not chosen but imposed. Children are being mocked at because of not-up-to-day clothing. Then parents have to choose between concern for own children and concern for a more invisible large-scale environment. We have obligations and responsibilities both ways. The Løgstrup model gives little help in such a conflict. This might imply that Løgstrup’s model is not very well suited when dealing with individual cases. We shall see, however, that we face many cases in our personal choice of means of transportation that the Løgstrup model really gives direction for an alternative way of living. Before doing that, we will turn to the political and global level.

If we as individuals were trapped in a bad system, then the best thing to do would be to do something with the system. The technological spiral mentioned above end up with ‘artificial needs’. This begs the question when applied to transport: How much of the transport work is necessary? To answer such a question, one have to determine what is necessary and who defines necessity for whom? Thus, one cannot determine such questions within the transport area alone, but have to consider the whole way of living. Things link together. It seems to be easier to point out some big goals to strive for in transport issues if we are to save the environment and at the same time maintain living human societies:

  1. The distance between place of production and place of consumption should be reduced drastically.
  2. It should be a massive shift from means of transport using non-renewable energy to those using renewable or less energy consuming non-renewable energy.
  3. Use of transport technology using non-renewable energy should be restricted to those with sufficient important needs.
  4. The societies should promote attitudes and develop a sufficient network of public transport so that individuals are both able to and in fact choose ways and volume of transportation that is within the sustainability of the nature.

Much could be said about these goals, but lack of space forbids it. In the remaining part of this essay, we will therefore deal with the fourth goal only, and only address the attitude-part of it.

Virtues of travelling

A proponent of virtue ethics is John McDowell. He writes that a virtuous person has «an ability to recognize requirements which situations impose on one’s behavior.» (McDowell, 333). In case of the environment, the Løgstrup model would say that “to recognize requirements which situations impose” is the same as a proper response to sensation and restraint. Løgstrup himself can hardly be called a virtue ethicist (Andersen, 86). However, his elements of restraint are virtues or at least virtuous.

The Løgstrup model tells us to evaluate our needs for travelling and to rethink what kind of means of transportation we should use, chosen among the available ones. (The content of what is available is a matter for the society to decide and bring forth.) The needs and the choices should be evaluated under an open-minded respect for the nature as our source. “Is my share in the increased pollution and my part in reducing the amount of fossil energy less important than the purpose for my journey?” This is not a utilitarian calculus, but a deliberation done by a mind that is attuned by the sensation of the nature, our source. By acting like this, we take our share of the responsibility for the future of our planet. By ignoring this, the next generations have to reduce its polluting journeys more than we need to day.

Aristotle is often reckoned as the “inventor” of virtue ethics. Virtues are more than good ideas, even more than good attitudes. It is good acting by habit (Aristotle, 28). Thus, training a habit is a way to achieve a virtue. One way to obtain these virtues of travelling, is thus to train ourselves to travel by train instead of aeroplane, for instance. When learning a new habit, some kinds of rules will be helpful until we get the good grasp at it (Dreyfus, ch.1). Helpful rules in a virtue of travel spirit, might be like this:

  • "Use your own feet or bike in stead of car whenever practically possible."
  • "Take rail transport or bus whenever possible instead of car."
  • "Do not use your car just for fun."
  • "Avoid settling in areas where public transport is difficult or impossible to obtain in order to reach job, school, kindergarten, necessary shops etc."
  • "Consider transport with train, ship, bus etc when travelling over long distances in stead of by air or car."
  • "Try to make the best out of the more time-consuming journeys, and find arguments for yourself why this is the better way of travelling."
  • "Try to consider more time-consuming journeys as a gain of time for you to fill with whatever is meaningful to you, and not as an annoying loss of time."

It is not new to talk about virtues and environmental ethics. Onora O’Neill does that in her book “Towards justice and virtue” from 1996. Under the heading “Varieties of social virtue”, she writes:

“These ‘green virtues’ are not to be identified with a determinate set of highly specific policies, projects or activities, but rather with the rejection of policies or attitudes that express indifference to natural and man-made environments in ways that are realistic rather than sentimental for actual situations.” (O’Neill, 204).

She might find my rules for virtues of travelling a bit too specific, but they are only meant as one step on the way to be virtuous with respect of travelling. She might also find the Løgstrup model both too sentimental and problematic because of his metaphysical starting points, which she rejects per se, at least for her own project (O’Neill, 203 note 15, among others). She differentiates between realism and the “sentimental”. I find Løgstrup realistic in not rejecting the technology as a whole, but rejecting only the abuse of it. Løgstrup, however, finds the sensation, and thus the attuned mind, as an important way to get knowledge about life hostile technologies. However, if she by “sentimental” means "nostalgic", I am sure Løgstrup would agree to this rejection. The metaphysical starting points are however, a real difference, even if Løgstrup thinks he is writing for a common audience, not a religious congregation only. He admits his starting points by putting the subtitle “metaphysics” on his book. The great question, however, is if it is possible to develop an ethics for a technological age without any starting points?


Andersen, Svend (1995) Løgstrup. Fredriksberg, Forlaget ANIS

Ariansen, Per (1992) Miljøfilosofi, en innføring. Universitetsforlaget, Oslo

Aristotle (1980) The Nicomachean Ethics. Translation by David Ross (1925). Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York.1980.

Dreyfus, Hubert & Stuart (1986) Mind over Machine. The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer. Basil Blackwell, Oxford

Jonas, Hans (1984) The Imperative of Responsibility. In search of an ethics for the Technological Age. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London. Orig: Das Prinzip Verantwortung. Frankfurt 1979.

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1976) Skabelse og tilintetgørelse, Religionsfilosofiske betragtninger. Metafysik IV. Gyldendal, København

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1983) System og symbol, Essays, side 246, Gyldendal, København

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1984) Ophav og omgivelse. Betragtninger over historie og natur. Metafysik III, Gyldendal, København

Løgstrup, Knud E. (1995) Metaphysics. Volume II. Marquette University Press, Milwaukee. (Translation by Russell L. Dees of excerpts from “Ophav og omgivelse” [1984], “Vidde og prægnans” [1976], “Kunst og erkendelse” [1976] and “System og symbol” [1983])

McDowell, John (1979) "Virtue and reason" in Monist 62, pp 331-50

O’Neill, Onora (1996) Towards justice and virtue. A constructive account of practical reasoning, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge


1) This paper was written for the course "Towards Justice and Virtue" 15.-19.4.1997 in the Norwegian Ethics Programme. Commented and considered "satisfactory" by Dr. Onora O'Neill, principal at Newnham College, Cambridge, UK.

2) Dees’ translation uses this rare word for the Danish ‘indfældt’. Another translation could be ‘inlayed’ or ‘inserted’. The meaning is that something fits perfectly to its environment, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle.

3) The translation is erroneous here. It has skipped the words that are placed in the brackets.

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