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Hmong Spirituality, Nature, and Place

School of Philosophy, Institute of Technology Ethics for Human Future, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, China
Religions 2023, 14(9), 1127;
Submission received: 15 June 2023 / Revised: 29 August 2023 / Accepted: 30 August 2023 / Published: 1 September 2023


In this article, I show how the Hmong religion can provide the basis of a novel version of non-human-centered environmentalism. I do this by outlining some of the core doctrines in the Hmong religion and showing what they imply about the value of nature. I then situate the view that is implied by these doctrines into the traditional Western environmental ethics literature on the value of nature. In particular, I argue that the Hmong religion provides a view in environmental ethics that is non-anthropocentric, individualistic, non-egalitarian, and non-biocentric.

1. Introduction

Religion has a profound impact on a group’s social structure, status hierarchy, and understanding of the world. The Hmong religion is animistic, i.e., it is characterized by the belief that divinity resides in all objects in nature (Desantiago 2017). The Hmong are an ethnic group of people who originally came from China. With a history spanning over 4000 years, they have a unique culture and language. The Hmong are believed to have a history of migration, particularly in the mid-19th century, when they moved southwards from the southern provinces of China. This migration was likely due to violent conflicts with the Chinese authorities (Cooper 1998). Today, Hmong people mainly live in southern China (e.g., Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Guangxi); Vietnam; Laos; Thailand; and Myanmar.
The Hmong language is also known as “Hmong” and is one of the Hmong-Mien languages (also known as Miao-Yao languages) (Tapp 2003) Hmong is a monosyllabic tonal language. Because there is no Hmong written script, for a long time, the Hmong maintained a purely oral culture. This has made their culture and stories difficult to record.
There is no Hmong nation or state. In China, Hmong people are called Miao people, the term “Miao” gaining official status in 1949 as a minzu (ethnic group) encompassing a group of linguistically related ethnic minorities in Southwest China. In Southeast Asian context, words derived from the Chinese “Miao” took on a sense that was perceived as derogatory by the subgroups living in that region. For example, Vietnamese: Mèo or H’Mông, Thai: แม้ว (Maew) or ม้ง (Mong), Burmese: mun lu-myo. “Mèo”, or variants thereof are considered highly derogatory by many Hmong/Mong people and are infrequently used today outside of Southeast Asia (Lee and Tapp 2010). For this reason, I will not use Miao to refer to the ethnic group. Rather, I will use the more general term “Hmong”.
The Hmong have been members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) since 2007. In China, they are classified as a subgroup of the Miao people. There are many interesting thoughts and views among Hmong culture and ethics. For example, they believe that everything is alive and even inanimate objects are “born” and have spirits. In the folktale of Huanghe Chaotian (黄河朝天), Hmong claim that they are punished by nature because of the greediness they expressed in their excessive reclamation and farming of land (He 2020). This folktale shows that the Hmong consider the treatment of nature to be a moral issue. Thus, the Hmong have a non-human-centered perspective that is different from the human chauvinistic perspective of many modern and Western cultures. Additionally, the Hmong believe that all of their ancestors came from eggs hatched by a “mother butterfly” and so every human has moral value in their community. That is, they think that all Hmong are created equal (He and Shi 2008).
In this paper, I want to explore whether the Hmong religion can shed new light on how to understand non-human-centered environmentalism. I do this by answering three sets of questions. First, “What is the Hmong religion?”, “How do they practice their religion?”, and “Why is their religion deeply connected to nature?” Second, “How should we understand the Hmong worldview as a philosophical contribution to environmental ethics?” Finally, “How does the Hmong view of the moral status of nature fit into the current debates about the moral status of nature in environmental ethics?”.

2. The Hmong Worldview and Environmental Ethics

There are 4 to 5 million Hmong people around the world today. They live in China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Western countries like the US and Australia. Because of their migration and the influence of other cultures, the current Hmong generations might not hold traditional Hmong worldviews—in fact, they might not even know about them. It cannot be said that the worldviews I am talking about in this paper can cover all, or even the majority of, modern Hmong people’s worldviews. Rather, the worldviews I am talking about are traditional Hmong views of the world and nature as expressed in their epics (oral traditions), folk stories, ceremonies, and language.
When I speak of “worldviews”, I mean “a broad perspective on life and the universe” that is “indicative of a person’s philosophy” (Runco 2014). More specifically, we can think of a worldview as “a collection of beliefs about life and the universe … from which one sees and interprets the world” (Fitton et al. 2007). This definition of worldview is importantly different from the definition provided by environmentalist Bryan Norton (1984, 1995a, 1995b). For Norton, a worldview includes fully supported scientific theories and a metaphysical framework for interpreting those theories, as well as a set of rationally supported aesthetic and moral ideals (Norton 1984). Norton’s concept of worldview is particularly systematic and specialized, and many perspectives (including the traditional Hmong worldview) would be excluded by his definition.
Worldviews normally answer at least the following three fundamental questions: “How should we understand ourselves?” or “What is our place in the world?”, “How should we understand others?” or “How are we related to other species?”, and “How should we understand the world/environment itself?” or “What is the nature of the world or environment?” Answers to these three questions help to create a person’s worldview.
Therefore, in order to better understand the traditional Hmong worldview, we need to understand how the Hmong people have answered the above questions. Thus, in what follows, I will explain the traditional Hmong answers to these questions. To anticipate the following discussion, their answers are roughly as follows:
  • Animism: The Hmong religion is animistic. According to animism, there is divinity in all things (both animate and inanimate). According to their animistic beliefs, nature is a god or divinity, and these beliefs importantly color the Hmong perspective of the world.
  • Non-Uniqueness: Hmong people think that human beings are not unique. In other words, the Hmong do not think that humans have a unique place in the world.
  • Non-Anthropocentrism: Hmong people think that all species (including non-humans) have a spirit, and therefore have moral value independent of how useful they are to humans.
Hmong religious beliefs are animistic (Her-Xiong and Schroepfer 2018). Animism is the view that every object (both animate and inanimate) is living in the sense that it is endowed with a spirit. Thus, humans, plants, animals, and even inanimate objects, such as rocks, are endowed with a soul or spirit. As Nicholas Tapp writes, “The Hmong are pantheists, believing in a variety of natural and super-natural spiritual forces living in and animating all things. The Hmong world is inhabited by a variety of natural, ancestral, and supernatural spirits or gods” (Tapp 1989).
The Hmong religion is mainly based on the following beliefs: (1) Both humans and animals have souls, and souls are of great significance to human health or illness. (2) Household gods can protect the peace and happiness of a family. (3) Nature gods can harm people, and people can also protect each others’ health. Household gods consist of door gods (dab roog), central pillar gods (dab ncej tas), destiny gods (xwm kab), and other gods who protect the well-being of the family. These gods play an important role in keeping family members happy and healthy. House gods are also called dab nyeg (taming gods). Gods of the forest, trees, stones, and water are all called “wild gods” (“dab qus” or nature gods). Obviously, the Hmong religion is like other similar animistic views or the belief that creatures are given life by a soul (Lee 1994–1995).

2.1. Animism

We can see their animism on display in many of their practices and rituals. For example, the Hmong community adheres to conventional medicinal approaches, which encompass animistic remedies and the therapeutic abilities of shamans (traditional healer). The traditional Hmong health model attributes most illnesses to temporary soul detachment or loss. Such separation may result from an accident, a terrifying experience, or the wrath of a disgruntled or offended spirit. Shamans possess the exclusive ability to communicate with the supernatural spirits that cause such maladies and restore the lost soul (Lor et al. 2017). And the souls that can hurt or offend human beings may be inside anything in nature. Cha wrote:
… there are trails, roads, bushes, swamps, rivers, lakes, mountains, fields, and other natural land features where the wild spirits (dab qus) dwell. Smaller natural objects such as trees, ant hills and boulders can also have spirits living in them. These spirits live among us as we conduct our daily activities. They are not necessarily evil, but when their personal spaces are violated or they are disrespected, they can cause the violator harm. The violators soul will be seized, and the person becomes ill.
Second, Hmong people’s ceremony and rituals are always about achieving harmony with oneself, family ancestors, animals, nature’s elements, and the spirits of the invisible realm. Hmong spiritual practices often aim to restore this balance that may have been lost (Willcox 1986). Take the example of the ritual called Ntoo Xeeb, which is performed by the elders of Mae Sa Mai Village, located in Tambol Pong Yareng, Mae Rim District, Thailand, about 30 km north of Chiang Mai. The purpose of the Ntoo Xeeb ceremony is to mediate between various types of spirits for the benefit of the village. The shaman acts as a mediator between the four local spirits, including Ntoo Xeeb, which represents the wild forest and mountains, and the male heads of households who interact with the spirits of inhabited places. The clan elders, on the other hand, act as intermediaries for the ancestral spirits and work together with the shaman to bless the male heads of households. During important occasions, such as New Year celebrations, weddings, and funerals, the community comes together to perform the ritual system and fulfill mutual obligations. In this way, the younger generation relies on the elders for spiritual guidance and wisdom, while the elders rely on the support and participation of the younger generation to uphold the shared Hmong belief system (Huang and Sumrongthong 2004).

2.2. Non-Uniqueness

Now that we have seen aspects of animism in the Hmong religion, let us look at some evidence for the claim that the Hmong do not view humans as occupying a special place in nature. For centuries, the Hmong community has relied on their oral tradition as an essential element of their shared culture. This tradition is their sole means of preserving their collective memory and is a valuable inheritance that has been passed down through the generations (Lemoine 2009).
The epic Mother Butterfly, a collection of songs from the oral tradition of Hmong people in Southwest China, tells the story of a world where everything is alive and describes the birth of humankind.
… She courted with Wave Foam;
they played beside a clear water pool; in a muddy pool, fish and shrimp frolicked.
Butterfly and Wave Foam courted and later became a couple.
For how many years was Butterfly married?
She was married for twelve years and laid the Twelve Eggs.
… When they were all born,
they slept together in the nest.
The white one was Gha Hva;
The black one was Jang Vang;
the bright one was the Thunder God; the yellow one was the Water Dragon; the striped one was Tiger;
and the long one was Snake.
The above poems describe the birth of Butterfly Mother from the heart of the sweet gum tree and how the mother butterfly was soaked in the foam of breaking waves and laid twelve eggs on the branches of a gum tree. Over the course of twelve years, the eggs hatched into various entities (thunder, water dragon, tiger, snake, etc.), as well as a boy named Jang Vang and his younger sister, who are believed to be the ancestors of human beings. The song of Butterfly Mother was only performed by ritual specialists every twelve or seven years during sacrifices made to the ancestors.
The Hmong epic describes humans and non-humans as originating from the same source, the same mother, i.e., the Butterfly Mother. This implies that humans and non-humans are siblings and thus do not have a unique origin. This is a stark contrast with the origin stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition in which humans and animal are created separately and in different ways. According to the latter tradition, only humans are made “in the image of god”.
Moreover, it is clear that human ancestors play the same role as other eggs in the song. The birth of human beings appears in many mythological folktales, and in the Hmong stories, the birth of human beings is accompanied by the birth of other species. The most important thing is that the birth of humans is no different than the birth of the other ten species. I think it is plausible that the fact that the birth of humankind was treated as being just as important as that of other species affected how Hmong people came to think of their importance relative to other species. That is, it influenced the Hmong view that humans are not special relative to other species.

2.3. Non-Anthropocentrism

The Hmong also seem to think of non-human animals and other parts of nature as having value independent of their usefulness for benefitting human needs and desires. That is, the Hmong have a non-anthropocentric view of nature. We can begin to get a sense of this by looking at the way they talk about nature. Professor Ma writes in the paper “苗族文化习俗中的生命伦理与‘神性产权’” (Life Ethics and the View of Divine Property Reflected in Miao People’s Cultural Customs)that even Hmong languages show their respect to other beings and nature. For example, they have an expression for the act of “bathing in the river”, which is “Nghud wub”. The underlying meaning of this expression, which is used to signal the interaction between people and the river, is “to be a guest at the river house, to visit”. In the eastern (Western Hunan) dialect of Hmong, the word “Nghud” means “to visit”. More specifically, “Nghud” means to visit relatives, friends, brothers, sisters, and lovers. Therefore, Nghud wub means to visit the river just as one would visit a relative or friend. Another example is, in the Xiangxi dialect of the Hmong language, the proper term for a labor of “cutting firewood on the mountain” is Rangs deul, which originally meant “to ask (pray) for firewood to return home”. And in the Xiangxi dialect, “Rang” means “to ask for help or cooperation in accomplishing something”. For example, “Rangs zos” means to ask for help; “Rangs nex” means to ask for help to work. Hmong people also use the expression “Hox del” to refer to cutting firewood, which means “inviting or begging woods to home”. Similarly, they use the expression “Rangs mloul” when they are going down to the river to catch fish, and this expression literally means “to invite the fish home” (Ma 2017).
From the above linguistic examples, it is obvious that the Hmong culture has a direct and clear perception of natural objects (like animals, forests, or rivers) as having more than just instrumental value. That is, they treat parts of nature as if they have value over and above their value to benefit human needs and desires.
We can also get a sense of the Hmong’s non-anthropocentrism by looking at how these treat nature in their daily lives. Let us start by considering how the Hmong treat certain forests. First, there are forests in which no Hmong is supposed to enter or perform any activity. Such prohibitions apply to the Forests for Propitiating the Lord of the Land. The Hmong are supposed to protect the wildlife in this area as well. Second, there are forests that can be entered but that no one is supposed to cut down trees in or go hunting. One example of this kind of forest is the Cemetery Forests Where the People and Their Spirits Are Laid to Rest. Third, there are forests in which no agriculture or human settlement is permitted, e.g., Forests Near Three Headed Mountains. There are also general rules for extracting things from forests. For example, the Hmong are not supposed to drag anything they have cut down for firewood, as firewood should be cut neatly from the tree (e.g., branches should not be snapped off or trees pushed over), and they should not complain about the resources they have collected (e.g., by referring to a plant as “inedible”) (Highland Mapping Development and Biodiversity Management Project (HMD and BMP 2006), pp. 47–48).
Even when interacting with forests in which hunting and gathering plants is permitted, permission must be given by the Lord of the Land. For example, hunters need to make a sacrifice to the mountain god before entering the mountain to hunt. This is because they believe that the mountain god manages or owns the animals and plants on the mountain. Therefore, whether hunters are successful in hunting actually depends on whether the mountain god allows them to succeed. Similarly, harvesting plants from mountains or forests for medicine also requires nature’s consent.
According to the locals in Khun Changian, healers are always traditionalists because of a special connection they can build with nature. The way a person becomes a healer is through a collaboration with a healing spirit called Yu waaj. This spirit allows the healer to know which plants are necessary for a patient’s illness and also makes the plants powerful in their healing abilities. Because only the healers can collect the plants for medicine, it effectively prevents the plants from being overharvested. Also, the harvest of plants by others who are without the consent of nature is also seen as a taboo (Desantiago 2020).
The Hmong also have rules concerning what they must do before they can kill an animal. When it comes to wild animals, they must perform a ritual asking the Lord of the Land for permission to hunt there. After they have finished hunting, they do not need to perform any other rituals. However, if they want to kill a domesticated animal, they must perform further rituals (HMD and BMP 2006, p. 48). They are not allowed to kill unfamiliar kinds of animals that they encounter while hunting. This is because the spirit of a relative might be visiting them through that animal (HMD and BMP 2006, p. 48). They are also not allowed to kill large snakes, because they believe that the spirit of the Lord of the Land is in them (HMD and BMP 2006, pp. 48–49). They are also not allowed to kill barn owls, because they are thought of a “spirit birds”. Finally, they are not allowed to kill animals that “cry out” when they are being hunted (HMD and BMP 2006, p. 49).
Even the treatment of certain bodies of water is constrained by certain rules. For example, it is impermissible to play or throw rocks into lakes or ponds that have water year-round and the headwaters of streams. These areas house Naga, the guardian of the water, or other spirits and thus should not be disturbed (HMD and BMP 2006, p. 51).
There are also rules for agriculture. In the Hmong folktale called “Huanghe Chaotian”, it says that “黄河朝天, 黄水治死人烟; 黄河朝地, 黄水治死人意” (translation: when the Yellow River flows to the sky, the yellow water kills the vitality of the land; when the Yellow River flows to the earth, the yellow water kills the will of the people.) (He 2020). Hmong people cleared the wild land without restraint and planted what they needed without balancing natural resources. They did this so much so that they were punished by nature and lost their homes and lives when floods poured in from Huanghe (the Yellow River). The Hmong claim that they were punished by nature for their greediness. This punishment is from nature or, more precisely, the divinity in nature that is above all creatures.
In fact, if the Hmong fail to treat forests, plants, animals, and water in the prescribed ways, then they will be punished by nature (or the gods in nature). This strongly indicates that, for the Hmong, nature is not something they have dominion over and which can be subjected to their own whims. Moreover, because the Hmong seem to think the punishment for violating these rules is deserved, they seem to view the treatment of nature as a moral issue. That is, they seem to treat the rules created by the divine for the treatment of nature as moral rules that they are bound by.
All of these examples (e.g., requiring the consent of the mountain gods or nature to hunt) shows that Hmong people worship and respect nature (HMD and BMP 2006, p. 59). The Hmong people believe that human beings should respect nature and even fear it, seeing it as a god-like being whose laws and rules they are willing to live under. We can see their non-anthropocentrism even in the way they conceptualize their way of life as “living with the forest [my emphasis]” as opposed to living in or by the forest (HMD and BMP 2006, p. 59).
It is true that humans are allowed to use animals and other non-human parts of nature for their own purposes. However, this use is limited to exactly what the Hmong need. Overharvesting, overfishing, overhunting, and other wasteful behavior and so on are forbidden (HMD and BMP 2006, p. 47). If the Hmong viewed non-human nature as purely instrumentally valuable, they would not be concerned with such wasteful behavior.
Why do the Hmong treat nature this way? The answer seems to be that there is something divine (i.e., spirits) in all things (Ma 2017). Their reverence for the “divinity” in nature explains why the Hmong are respectful in their attitudes toward and treatment of nature. Because they think that the divine dwells in all of nature, they are motivated to treat nature with respect and to help it flourish.

2.4. A Caveat

Before going on to see how the Hmong view of environmental ethics fits into the conceptual space carved out by Western environmental ethics, it is important to qualify the Hmong view. The view of Hmong environmental ethics that I have been sketching here is not a systematic and conscious attempt on the part of the Hmong to construct a fully general, universal, or consistent system of ethics. As Nicholas Tapp wrote:
[T]he kind of traditional morality we might expect to find among the Hmong, should not be of an ethicised, universalistic/absolute kind; there should be no generalized, decontextualised, semantic or purely cognitive conception of absolute standards of good or evil, for example, which would be separable from the social structure of the Hmong, but that ethical standards among the Hmong would traditionally be relative to the social structure, and vary according to social distance.
In particular, the Hmong view, according to Tapp, is a kind of relativism. What a Hmong person is morally required to do or refrain from doing depends, in part, on the person to whom she is doing it or who the person acting is. For example, Tapp suggests killing a human outside of their community might not be considered murder and that while adultery committed by a female is “heinous”, adultery committed by a male is not.
However, this does not mean that the Hmong think that outsiders are allowed to do whatever they want to nature (e.g., enter or disturb the Forests for Propitiating the Lord of the Land). They seem to think that these rules apply to everyone. After all, these are sacred places, and no one is allowed to disturb them. For example, the Hmong of Qianxinan Buyei (an autonomous prefecture of Guizhou Province in China) have protected various sacred mountains and prevented outsiders from collecting firewood or grass from these mountains (He and Shi 2008, p. 68).
We should also note that how a Hmong is supposed to treat some parts of non-human nature does not depend solely on the nature of that thing but on its relationship to the environment it is part of and the relationship of that thing to the community at large. For example, while one is not even permitted to enter or engage in activity in the Forests for Propitiating the Lord of the Land, one is allowed to enter and engage in activities in other forests. And given a Hmong’s relationship with domesticated animals, it is required to perform a ritual before killing such animals, but just rituals are not required before killing wild animals (assuming one has permission to hunt in the first place). Even though how the Hmong are allowed to treat certain parts of non-human nature partly depends on their relationship with those things, not even this view is anthropocentric. This is because anthropocentrism views non-human parts of nature as having only instrumental value, i.e., value as a tool for benefiting humans. This implies that whether one should treat some part of nature well depends solely on whether it can be used to achieve some human end. But, clearly, the protected forests are respected for reasons other than what they can be used to produce.
Finally, while the Hmong do not seem to view non-human nature as below them or less morally important than them, they do seem to treat certain parts of non-human nature this way. For example, they do hunt animals for food and use them for sacrifices. However, how they treat animals is a function of which spirits are in the animals and what the nature gods require of them. For example, as we saw, they do not kill large snakes because the Lord of the Land might be in them. When they sacrifice animals, they do so because they believe it is required by the nature gods. Similar things are true about how they treat certain trees. For example, large trees are thought to have different spirits than small trees, such that they are permitted to cut down small ones but not big ones. Likewise, they are not allowed to cut down or otherwise disturb trees that are next to temples (He and Xia 2010, p. 23).
This means, among other things, that their rules about how to treat nature are not general, e.g., one rule about how to treat one animal need not apply to others. They cannot hunt barn owls, but they are permitted to hunt other kinds of owls. Therefore, as Tapp noted, their ethics are deeply contextual.

3. Hmong Environmental Ethics and Western Environmental Ethics

Unlike Hmong people, modern humans cannot have a harmonious relationship with the environment and treat themselves as having the same essence or spirit as all other beings. Today, modern humans create a lot of environmental problems that are already out of control in many ways. We even face other new, dangerous situations like e-waste and nuclear power. It looks like we cannot ignore the current problems we have concerning nature. Therefore, we need to change the “human-centered” or “human-only” ethical perspective in order to behave and act better towards nature. In sum, classic Western ethical theories are not suited for all of today’s moral issues anymore. It is urgent to look for other worldviews to ground our behavior and actions toward nature.
In Western environmental ethics, philosophers have been interested in what has moral significance or value and what kind of value it has (e.g., value merely as a tool or value in its own right. If something has moral value in its own right, we have reason to treat it with respect and to give it consideration in our practical deliberations. Environmental ethicists have defended a variety of positions concerning what has moral value or moral value in its own right. In this section, I explain the broad views that environmental ethicists have defended concerning what has moral value and moral value in its own right.
One common distinction is between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric views. Anthropocentrism is the view that only humans have moral value in their own right, and thus, non-human nature has moral value only insofar as it can be used to benefit the needs and desires of humans. Non-anthropocentrism, in its broadest interpretation, is just the denial of anthropocentrism. Thus, non-anthropocentrists might hold that nothing has moral value in its own right, e.g., because all value is subjective (McShane 2007, p. 171). However, it is also common for non-anthropocentrists to hold that nature either has non-instrumental value or is morally valuable in its own right. Thus, this version of non-anthropocentrism is not a version of holism, because it does not claim that the only thing that has moral value in its own right is nature or ecosystems. Rather, this view is that both human and non-human natures have moral values in their own right (McShane 2007, p. 171; 2009, pp. 407–8).
Another important distinction concerning what has moral value is between individualistic and holistic views. Individualism claims that it is individuals (e.g., humans, animals, plants, etc.) that have moral value in their own right and that the larger wholes that these individuals make up (e.g., species, ecosystems, the biosphere, etc.) have moral value solely by virtue of being made up of these valuable individuals. Holism claims that wholes or collections (e.g., species, ecosystems, or the biosphere) have moral value in their own right and individuals derive their moral value from the roles they play in this larger whole (McShane 2009).
A related distinction is between biocentrism and non-biocentrism. Biocentrism claims that it is living things (e.g., humans, animals, plants, etc.) that have moral value in their own right while non-living things have moral value only by virtue of being related to living things. Non-biocentrism can be seen as just the denial of biocentrism. Most often, biocentrists are individualists while most non-biocentrists are holists. For example, the most common form of non-biocentrism is ecocentrism, which claims that it is ecosystems that have moral value in their own right, and individuals have moral value only by virtue of playing a certain role in an ecosystem.
However, it is possible to hold a holistic biocentric view. In this view, the primary bearer of moral value would be some collection of living things, and individual living things would be valuable by virtue of being part of this collection. One could also hold an individualist non-biocentric view. In this view, what has moral value in its own right is individuals, but these individuals need not be living things. However, these non-living individuals would still be physical entities (e.g., rocks or gains of sand). As we will see, the Hmong view posits non-physical spirits as the bearers of ultimate value and so non-biocentric (Desantiago 2017, pp. 69, 72).
Finally, there is a distinction between egalitarianism and non-egalitarianism. According to egalitarianism, all things that have moral value in their own right are equally morally valuable. According to non-egalitarianism, some things have greater moral value than other things. For example, Paul Taylor defended a version of biocentric egalitarianism, according to which, all living things have equal moral value (Taylor 1986).
How does the Hmong view of the moral status of nature fit into the current debates about the moral status of nature in environmental ethics? I will argue that the Hmong worldview can be understood as an individualist, non-egalitarian, and non-anthropocentric view. Whether their view is non-biocentric depends on what one means by “bios”.
As I argued above, the Hmong worldview is non-anthropocentric. First, the Hmong do not treat all parts of non-human nature as if their value lies only in the fact that they can be used to benefit humans. In fact, as we saw, there are many rules against using parts of nature as a mere tool (e.g., not overhunting or overharvesting). Second, their view seems to deny that humans have moral value in their own right. Humans, just like everything else, have moral value only because they have spirits or souls that are divine. However, it is not non-anthropocentric in the traditional sense, because it also denies that non-human nature has moral value in its own right.
Support for the Hmong worldview as an individualist view comes from the idea that every individual thing in the world has a spirit or soul in it and that it is these spirits or souls that give individuals their moral value. It is not the collection of all things that has a spirit or soul, nor is it ecosystems that have them. Rather, it is the individuals that make up the natural world. Notice further that the rules that the Hmong have for treating non-human nature concern particular forests, bodies of water, etc.
This relationship between individuals in the natural world and the value-giving spirits is analogous to how Tom Regan parsed the relationship between humans and animals and what has ultimate moral value according to utilitarians. Regan wrote:
Suppose we think of moral agents and patients as cups into which may be poured either sweet liquids (pleasures) or bitter brews (pains). At any given time, each cup will have a certain hedonic flavor: the liquid it contains will be more or less sweet or bitter. Now, what we are to aim to bring about, according to hedonistic Utilitarianism, is not the best-tasting liquid for this or that particular individual; rather, what we must aim to achieve is the best aggregated balance of the sweet and the bitter among all those individuals affected by what we do; it is the best total balance of the sweet over the bitter that we aim to realize. That being so, there is no reason why it may not be necessary to redistribute the contents of any given cup among the others or, indeed, why it may not be necessary to destroy a given cup (“receptacle”) quite completely”.
According to Regan, utilitarians view humans and animals as analogous to cups and their desires or feelings as the liquid that can fill those cups. What is non-derivatively valuable for utilitarians is desire satisfaction or experiencing pleasure, and we have moral reasons to treat humans and animals well by virtue of them being containers or receptacles of desire satisfaction or experiences of pleasure. Thus, for utilitarians, humans and animals are only derivatively valuable. In particular, they are valuable only insofar as they can be receptacles of desire satisfaction or pleasurable experiences.
We can understand Hmong people’s perspective toward all things with a similar framework. For the Hmong, as for utilitarianism, objects (e.g., humans and animals) are valuable only because they are the containers or receptacles of something else. For the Hmong, humans, animals, and all of nature are valuable because they are containers or receptacles of divine spirits or souls.
Support for the claim that the Hmong worldview is non-egalitarian comes from the fact that they think it is permissible to use non-human parts of nature for their own benefit, although there are important limitations to this. For example, they are permitted to hunt wild animals and sacrifice animals during religious ceremonies. But, of course, they are not allowed to hunt or sacrifice their neighbors. This does not mean that they deny that non-human parts of nature have the same kind of value as humans. Rather, all that seems to follow is that they think there is a hierarchy of value and humans are above other non-human parts of nature.
However, there is a difference between the actual beliefs of the Hmong concerning the value of non-human nature and how they actually treat it. Their myths and language imply that they view at least certain parts of nature as kin. But the way they treat non-human nature is non-egalitarian. I think that their treatment of non-human nature is an indication not of how they view non-human nature but of how they view the requirements of nature gods.
Why think that the Hmong worldview is non-biocentric? This is because what has moral value in its own right is divine spirits, and individuals in nature have moral value only insofar as they have these souls. These spirits are non-biotic in the sense that they are not alive in the way that plants, animals, and humans are alive. For example, living beings (a) have bodies that consume nutrients and use energy, (b) grow and maintain their bodies, (c) regulate their internal environment (e.g., body temperature), (d) reproduce, (e) respond to stimuli in their environment, (f) have various processes that aim at maintaining their own health and life, and so on. It is far from clear that the spirits that the Hmong believe are in all creatures have all (or even most) of these features. Thus, what has moral value in its own right is non-biotic.
However, we need not understand “bios”, i.e., life, as only referring to physical life. For example, the Jains in India also think that everything has a soul or spirit (jīva), but they define life as sentience (i.e., the capacity to feel pleasure and pain). In this view, souls are alive, because it is souls that are sentient. Bodies are merely shells or containers for living entities. According to Jains, these souls (jīva) are a diverse array of beings in addition to humans, e.g., plants, rocks, air, water, earth, and so on (Vallely 2014, p. 40). There is even a hierarchy of beings depending on how many senses they have (Vallely 2014, pp. 41–42). Thus, if one thinks of life as being conscious, for example, then the Hmong are also biocentrists, because they think that at least human souls are conscious. It is, after all, the human soul of a deceased person that must travel to the afterlife and ask to be reborn (Her 2005, pp. 20–21).
One might be concerned that there is a conflict in the Hmong view between the fact that it is non-biocentric and the fact that it is non-anthropocentric in the traditional sense. Normally, non-biocentric views are non-anthropocentric. This is because the non-biocentric view emphasizes that non-living systems or collections (e.g., ecosystems) are the only things that have value in their own right, and thus, it is not humans (either individually or collectively) that are valuable in their own right. However, the Hmong view is non-biocentric not because it claims that systems or collections are the only things that are valuable in their own right. Rather, they are non-biocentric, on one understanding of non-biocentric, because they deny that any living thing (in the physical sense) has value in its own right. This version of non-biocentrism entails that humans also do not have value in their own right. The Hmong claim that the only things that have value in their own right are spirits. But this is consistent with claiming that everything else, including systems and living things, have value insofar as they have a spirit. It is just that the value of all non-spirits is derivative toward the value of the spirit that is in them, and thus, non-spirits are not valuable in their own right.

4. Conclusions

In this article, I explained some of the basics of the Hmong worldview influenced by their religion and showed how this worldview can serve as the basis of a novel version of environmental ethics that is non-anthropocentric, individualistic, non-egalitarian, biocentric/non-biocentric (depending on what one means by “bios”. My aim has been to articulate Hmong environmental ethics and to situate them into the larger literature on environmental ethics.
The Hmong environmental ethics that I discussed could provide non-anthropocentric reasons for policymakers to endorse environmentally friendly policies. If policymakers were to take seriously the sacredness of many parts of nature for the Hmong, they would recommend policies that treat these forests, mountains, and bodies of water as more than mere tools for human benefit. If something is sacred, then its protection is not negotiable and not subject to utilitarian maximizing calculations. For example, if some non-sacred piece of land was valuable only because of what it can produce for human needs, then it could be destroyed or harmed in order to protect another non-sacred piece of land that provided even more benefits for humans. But this is not true with sacred places. Sacred places do not allow for such trade-offs. Therefore, if environmental policymakers were to take the Hmong environmental ethics seriously, they would have to treat certain parts of nature as more than just instrumentally valuable.
Such policies would align with the values of many non-anthropocentrists. Of course, some of these anthropocentrists believe that nature is valuable in its own right and not just because it is sacred to certain people. But, at the policy level, which is concerned primarily with action and not reasons for acting, there would be little difference between the policies guided by Hmong environmental ethics and the policies guided by other non-anthropocentric views.
Of course, one important difference is that the Hmong environmental ethics outlined here have the clearest policy implications for the parts of non-human nature that surround the Hmong communities and which the Hmong treat as sacred. In this way, the Hmong environmental ethics discussed herein have narrower implications than a wider non-anthropocentrism that does not base the value of nature on its sacredness to a certain group of people. Nonetheless, the policy implications of these Hmong environmental ethics are still crucially different than those of a purely anthropocentric environmental ethics.


This research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China project “Major Issues and Strategic Responses of Chinese Research Ethics in a Global Perspective”, project number L2224015.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


I wish to thank participants of the Nature, Spirituality, and Place conference for helpful feedback. I also wish to thank anonymous references for this journal for their thoughtful comments and questions. A special thanks goes to Gao Shan for organizing the Nature, Spirituality, and Place conference and for written comments that she provided.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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