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Environmental Ethics


Environmental ethics emerged as a subdiscipline of philosophical ethics in the early 1970s, following the first Earth Day in 1970 and a sharply increased awareness of environmental problems at that time. Courses began appearing in university curricula, and books, articles, and journals proliferated to meet the growing interest. To judge by student demand and university courses and programs, environmental ethics is today a mature and robust subject. To judge by intellectual content, however, it is still in the early stages of development.


The intellectual sources of environmental ethics go back at least to God's first injunction in Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." Literary discussions of the value of nature in the West, having been stimulated by global exploration and the European discovery of the Americas, go back at least to the sixteenth century. Wilderness began to appear as an allegorical theme in European and American painting in the eighteenth century. The awesome forces of nature remind us that the human condition demands the virtues of faith, hard work, and steadfastness as we negotiate the path of our lives on earth. These writings and images of course helped shape the themes of contemporary environmental ethics, and today's writers also pay homage to Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882), Henry David Thoreau (18171862), and the views of early-twentieth-century writers like Gifford Pinchot (18651946) and John Muir (18381914).

Of these early sources for environmental ethics, none is more significant than Aldo Leopold (18871948), an ecologist and wildlife manager who in his essays argued the need to reconsider our attitude toward nature. Writing in A Sand County Almanac (1949), his frequently cited classic of American nature writing, Leopold bemoaned the fact that, as it appeared to him, "there is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it," and called for an evolutionary shift in what he viewed as the traditional perspective in ethics. "All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate" (pp. 203204). Arguments for cooperation in ethics, however, had been limited in scope to other humans. Leopold urged his readers to think about cooperation in a more expansive sense, which would include the environment. This land ethic, as he called it, "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." Without much defense or argument, Leopold went on to formulate some basic principles of a land ethic, but his influence on later writers comes mainly from his vision that enlarging the scope of ethical concern is a mark of intellectual progress.

The Debate over Anthropocentrism

Following Leopold's suggestion, the central issue in the first quarter century of environmental ethics has been a debate about anthropocentrism and the idea of intrinsic ethical value. Traditional ethical theories are characterized as anthropocentric because they regard only humans or human experience (or reason) as having intrinsic ethical worth. Everything else is valuable only as a means to promoting or enhancing human interests. For Aristotle, this much is obvious. "Clearly, then, we must suppose that plants are for the sake of animals, and that other animals are for the sake of human beings. If then nature makes nothing incomplete or pointless, it must have made all of them for the sake of human beings" (Politics, 1256b1522) John Locke, writing in the seventeenth century, reflected the consensus view when he spoke of the distinction between man and nature. Mankind is "the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker," and thus the law of nature teaches us that man "has not the liberty to destroy himself," and that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions" (Second Treatise of Government, chap. 2, par. 6). But reason also tells us that, "land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting, is called, as indeed it is, waste ; and we shall find the benefit of it amount to little more than nothing" (chap. 5, par. 42). For land to have value, it must be made to serve human needs and ends.

The classical utilitarians were the first to move explicitly beyond anthropocentrism. They argued that sentience was the locus of intrinsic value, and thus the ultimate ethical end was an existence "exempt as far as possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments." Morality consists of "rules and precepts," as John Stuart Mill (18061873) put it in his Utilitarianism (1861). Its aim is to secure such an existence "to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation" (chap. 2). Although utilitarianism may provide a basis for rejecting anthropocentrism, it will not get us to anything resembling a land ethic. Even if sentience is a sufficient basis for gaining intrinsic worth or value, it gives us no reason for regarding endangered species, forests, wilderness, or ecosystems as worth preserving in their own right. Thus, philosophers who follow Leopold have rejected utilitarianism along with anthropocentric conceptions of ethics.

The problem with extending the scope of morality beyond sentience is to explain the basis for attributing intrinsic value to entities that have no inner lives and are not subjects of experience. Two ways of attempting this extension figure most prominently in the literature. The first is to identify intrinsic value with having an interest, which is interpreted in turn as having an end or a natural good. If it makes sense to say of any thing that it has an end, then we can make sense of talking about what is good or bad for that thing. And just as sentient beings have an interest in not suffering, all living things, sentient and nonsentient alike, have an interest in realizing their natural ends. It is in this sense good for any such thing to thrive (Goodpaster).

One objection to extending the scope of intrinsic ethical value in this way is that the idea of having an end or a natural good applies to more than living organisms. This might appear to be a good thing for the purposes of developing environmental ethics in the direction of a land ethic, because it would allow us to include entities like species and ecosystems within the community of intrinsically valuable beings. An ecosystem is not a living organism, but it has a good (however difficult it may be to determine it), which it is in its interest to realize. The problem is that this analysis does not allow us to discriminate among living things to exclude deadly viruses or invasive species from having intrinsic moral worth, nor does it allow us to discriminate among other nonliving entities with ends, such as gangs, terrorist cells, or corrupt political regimes. Each of these has ends and an interest in thriving, but surely they do not all have intrinsic moral worth.

A second objection to this proposal is that it equivocates on the morally relevant concept of an interest. Utilitarians extend the idea of intrinsic moral worth to sentient creatures because nonhuman animals not only have an interest in avoiding suffering, they can act in ways that show that they take an interest in seeking enjoyment and avoiding pain. If human suffering is morally relevant not merely because we are capable of suffering but because as conscious agents we care about or take an interest in avoiding suffering, then nonhuman suffering should be morally relevant for the same reason. But when we talk about the interests of nonsentient entities (and perhaps the interests of many species of lower animals, such as sponges or clams), we do so in a different sense. They may have interests, but they cannot take an interest in anything. It begs the question to suppose that having an interest in any sense that does not presuppose subjectivity or consciousness has any moral relevance of its own.

A second way to reject anthropocentrism and extend the scope of intrinsic ethical value beyond sentience is associated with deep ecology, a political movement that emerged in the 1980s in response to disillusionment with large, well-funded environmental groups that some critics saw as having been co-opted by prevailing political powers. The "shallow ecology" of these large environmental organizations, in the eyes of their critics, was associated exclusively with the fight against pollution and resource depletion, which were seen as elitist and anthropocentric goals of affluent classes living in developed countries. Deep ecology defends the idea of ecocentric identification, a form of self-realization, which calls on us humans to see ourselves not at the top of creation but as merely one part of the "web of life," on an equal footing with every other part. The deep ecology manifesto claims that nonhuman life has value in itself that is "independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes"(Devall and Sessions, p. 70) If a living, free-flowing river is a good thing to have on this planet, then it is good independently of human existence and interests, and it would equally be a good thing on a planet that never hosted conscious life.

Leaving political agendas aside, many people who have sympathy for Leopold's land ethic find deep ecology an unsatisfying way to develop the idea. It is one thing to believe that traditional conceptions of ethics have perhaps wrongly viewed nature as having no value except as resources for human satisfaction. It is quite a different matter to think that the only alternative to such a conception of ethics is ecocentric identification in the sense demanded by deep ecology.

Value as a Feature of Actions and Attitudes

Early in the twentieth century, G. E. Moore (18731958) argued that goodness was a nonnatural property that good things possessed, and although his arguments for this view have had a profound influence on the course of ethical theory, the view itself is not widely accepted (chaps. 13). There seems no satisfactory way to resolve disagreements over what things have this property or how to act and make tradeoffs when necessary. Should we preserve the redwood trees, or clear them to make room for the weeds that will thrive in their place? It will not do to identify ethical value with the products of evolution or natural processes, for humans are natural creatures and our creations are in some sense as much a part of nature as fossils and spider webs. What makes the forest more valuable in its own right than the strip malls along the highway? The idea that value is a nonnatural intrinsic property of things is mysterious, and many philosophers simply reject Moore's intuitions about what has it and what does not. Nor could the existence of such value in itself tell us much about what to do or how to act and choose. These same issues arise for deep ecology and for any attempt to move beyond anthropocentrism in locating intrinsic ethical value.

If we think about value as something we express in our actions and attitudes, rather than as an intrinsic property of objects, then the difference between anthropocentrism and its opposite seems smaller and less significant. For even those who insist that value originates in reasons and attitudes are quick to acknowledge that we value different parts of the world in different ways and for a multitude of reasons. This includes valuing things other than humans, human experiences, and reason as ends. We can realize Leopold's vision of a land ethic without rejecting anthropocentrism, by concentrating instead on the reasons we have for attitudes toward nature that see it as worth preserving in its own right. Thinking of nature as a resource for our use in promoting human enjoyment is of course one attitude we may have, and thinking about the effects of environmental change on human health is another. But we also find it reasonable to adopt attitudes of appreciation, reverence, awe, love, and fear toward different parts of the world around us, and the appropriateness of these attitudes moreover seems to be connected intimately to other aspects of morality, such as the virtues of humility and gratitude (Hill).

Ethics and Environmental Policies

The appropriateness and implications of these attitudes give rise to other substantive issues in environmental ethics because they imply that it is reasonable to value different parts of nature in ways that go beyond the distinction between valuing something instrumentally and valuing it as an end. Thus, one topic in environmental ethics concerns the appropriateness of using decision-making techniques developed by economists for determining environmental policies. These techniques are enormously flexible, and they include regarding aspects of the environment as having existence value as well as use value. But these techniques in the end measure values in terms of a willingness to pay for different levels and kinds of protection. They assume that environmental values are commensurable, but it remains an open question in environmental ethics whether this is true. Distinguishing between use value, existence value, and the addition of other values that can be measured by these techniques may also fail to address the appropriate ways to express reverence or respect, and these are the kinds of attitudes that some people believe a reasonable land ethic demands.

A related topic in environmental ethics concerns the way we interpret the value of ecosystems. An endangered ecosystem, or an endangered species within an ecosystem, may be valued differently according to whether we think of an ecosystem only as providing useful services or also as worth preserving in its own right. Debates on this issue go to the meaning of environmental protection and to the reasonableness of some statutes like the Endangered Species Act.

At least three other kinds of substantive issues have emerged recently as major topics in environmental ethics. One has to do with the nature of environmental risk of the kind one finds in issues surrounding possible climate change and global warming. What are rational decision procedures in areas involving great uncertainties but also possibilities of very large consequences and irreversible changes? Should we be aiming to maximize expected values, or should we be trying instead to develop and apply more precautionary principles? A second issue has to do with depleting nonrenewable environmental resources. What are our obligations as stewards of the environment to future generations, and what do we regard as appropriate substitutions for the resources we deplete, so that we can protect the environment in a sustainable way? A third issue concerns environmental justice. Do we need special principles of distributive justice to ensure that economically disadvantaged or politically vulnerable populations do not bear unfair environmental burdens?

These issues are often addressed by writers who express little concern with the philosophically more basic questions about the nature of environmental values, but as discussion of these substantive issues proceeds, it usually leads back to basic questions in ethical theory. For these reasons, environmental ethics is not only a popular and apparently permanent part of university curricula, it is also a subject that increasingly draws the attention of philosophers who are concerned with the more basic and theoretical parts of their subject.

See also Ecology ; Nature ; Wildlife .


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Devall, Bill, and George Sessions. Deep Ecology. Salt Lake City: G. M. Smith, 1985.

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Hill, Thomas E., Jr., "Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 211224.

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Douglas Maclean

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Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics

Environmental ethics is a branch of philosophy that considers the moral relations between human beings and their natural environment. As a field of study, it assumes that humans have certain responsibilities to the natural world, and it seeks to help people and their leaders become aware of them and to act responsibly when they do things that impact the natural world.

The need for ethics

Most people recognize that some agreed-upon guidelines or general rules should exist between individuals when they interact with one another because if they did not, nothing in our lives would be predictable or safe. In other words, people need to know that besides actual laws, there are some basic, common ethics or principles of what is right and what is wrong that everyone agrees upon and usually follows or lives by. Ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy because it is concerned with what is morally good and bad or what is right and wrong. As a specialized part of ethics, environmental ethics is concerned with the morality (right and wrong) of human actions as they affect the environment or the natural world we live in.

Global environmental problems

As a branch of philosophy, environmental ethics is a fairly recent development, having become a body of organized knowledge only in the last decades of the twentieth century. It came about as a necessary response to a growing number of very obvious threats to the physical condition of the world in which we live. The list of some of these global environmental problems is a long and familiar one, and many of them came about because of the massive increase in the growth of the human population worldwide. As populations continue to soar, the various problems caused by too many people naturally increase in both their number and seriousness. It is predicted that the 2000 world population of six billion people will rise by another one billion people within ten years. To the many problems this causes, such as increased pollution of the air, water, and soil, is also added the depletion of these and other important natural resources.

Words to Know

Anthropomorphic: Described or thought of as having a human form or human attributes.

Deep ecology: Philosophical belief system that holds that all forms of lifeplant, animal, humanhave an intrinsic right to exist in the natural environment and that humans have a direct responsibility to maintain the environment for all life forms.

Ethics: Branch of philosophy that deals with the general nature of morals and specific moral choices.

Shallow ecology: Philosophical belief system that holds that humans have a responsibility to protect the environment so it can support human life both in the present and in the future.

Today, as we face such problems as the greenhouse effect, the destruction of the ozone layer, and the presence of toxic and nuclear wastes, we can easily recognize some of their negative effects. Among these are the growing disappearance of wilderness areas, a steady loss of biodiversity (the variety of species in an area) among living things, and even the actual extinction of some species. It is safe to say that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one of the greatest challenges facing human beings is how to stop the continued harm to Earth.

Origins of environmental ethics

Many people associate the beginnings of today's environmental ethics with the first Earth Day held on April 22, 1970, in the United States. On that day (and every April since), organizers around the country rallied and demonstrated to make people and political leaders aware of the importance of caring for and preserving the environment. That first Earth Day launched the beginning of an environmental awareness in the United States and later around the world. It made many people realize that some sense of environmental responsibility should be developed and applied to our daily lives.

Most movements do not just suddenly happen out of nowhere; they are usually preceded by many other influential events. In the environmental movement, perhaps the earliest of these was the 1949 publication of a book by American naturalist Aldo Leopold (18871948). Leopold had fallen in love with nature as a youngster and eventually joined the newly established U.S. Forest Service in 1909. As a game management expert, he came to appreciate and understand how deeply humans affected the natural world. A year after he died, his landmark work, A Sand County Almanac, was published. It contained not only his strong defense of the environment but his argument that what was needed was a new philosophy about man and nature, or what would come to be called an environmental ethic. This idea was carried on by others when, two decades later, the first Earth Day was held.

Important questions

The importance of that first Earth Day was that it not only raised the environmental consciousness or awareness of many people, but it got them to start asking important questions. Once people became aware that they had some sort of a responsibility toward the natural world, it then became a matter of trying to figure out how far that responsibility extends. This naturally led to many questions, such as, does Earth exist entirely for humanity? What are the rights of nonhuman species and do we have any obligations to them? Do we have a duty to be concerned with future generations? These and many other important questions are what environmental ethics is all about. While answering them may be difficult, and people may not always agree, it is significant that they are being asked and discussed.

Schools of thought

Answers to these questions are shaped by what theory or school of thought of environmental ethics an individual believes in. One of these theories says that our responsibility to the natural environment is only an indirect one and is based on our responsibilities to other people. This school of thought is definitely human-centered or anthropomorphic (pronounced an-throw-poe-MOR-fick). While it argues that we have some sort of responsibility to the environment, it says that this responsibility is not a direct one and that the focus is on how the condition of the environment affects people, both in present and in future generations. In other words, we have a duty to make sure that Earth stays in good enough shape so that human life is supported. Some call this school of thought or philosophy "shallow ecology."

A somewhat different school of thought is described as nonanthropomorphic, which means that all forms of life have an intrinsic (essential or basic) right to exist in the natural environment. This point of view gives what is called "moral standing" to animals and plants, and argues that they, like humans, are to be considered "morally significant persons." This philosophy is called "deep ecology." It states that humans have a direct responsibility toward maintaining the environment for all forms of life.

There are many versions of these two schools of thoughtranging from the argument that what is right or wrong environmentally should be judged only by how it affects people, to one that says the environment itself has direct rights. Few agree on how far our responsibility extends. Furthermore, the real disagreements are found when actual policies have to be decided upon that will guide how we act. Despite these and other disagreements, the fact that some sort of appreciation for nature has been fostered in many of us, and that we realize that nature must be appreciated and considered for its own sake and treated with respect, marks the beginning of a real ethics of the environment. For a very long time, human beings have never even been aware that they had any sort of responsibility toward the natural world and all its members. However, the development of some sort of environmental ethic that makes us consider if our environmental actions are right or wrong marks the beginning of future progress for a better world.

[See also Ecology; Endangered species ]

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