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Ecology, Ethics of

Ecology, Ethics of

Ecological (or environmental) ethics is the study of what humans, individually and corporately, ought to value, ought to be, and ought to do in relationships with all other beings and elements in the biosphere. As in normative ethics generally, ecological ethics involves evaluating, justifying (or not), and prescribing values, norms, and standards of character and conduct in view of the ecological conditions that contribute to the well-being of humans and other life forms. This discipline is diverse in types, methods, values, problems, foundational perspectives, and other elements of ethics. Ecological ethics comes in both philosophical and religious versions; the problems and values are often the same, though the methods and ultimate rationales are often different.

The topical agenda of ecological ethics is molded by contemporary environmental problems. The primary concerns are climate change, multiple forms of pollution, human population growth, scarcities of some renewable and nonrenewable resources, human-induced losses in biodiversity, the interactive dynamics of ecological degradation and economic patterns of consumption and distribution, and, increasingly relevant, the environmental effects of genetic manipulations.

Models and value systems

Much ethical thought about the environment has been an expansion of the concern in traditional ethics to cover the adverse effects of environmental conditions on human interests. Classical moral values and norms remain basically unchanged. Only humans count for direct moral consideration. Other life forms are strictly instrumental valuesmeansfor human needs and wants, such as scientific, aesthetic, and various economic purposes. The basic moral assumption has been: Humans ought to take care of the environment so that the environment can take care of humans.

In reaction to this anthropocentric model, the clear majority of contemporary ecological ethicists interpret their discipline as a reformation of moral values and duties. The bounds and rules of relationships are reshaped by a new consciousness of three fundamental facts about planetary existence: the biological, coevolutionary kinship of all life forms; the systemic interdependence of all beings and elements; and the biophysical limits of all planetary goods. Ethics itself must change to fit the reality that humans are not only social animals, as recognized in classical ethics, but also ecological animals.

Consequently, a prominent featuresome, indeed, would say a defining featureof ecological ethics is the extension of moral standing beyond the human community. The questions are perplexing: Who or what has moral claims on humans for consideration of their interests? Are animals, plants, and other biological classes included? What about individuals, species, and ecosystems as the holistic interactions among organisms and elements? Where is the line to be drawn, if at all? What are the justifications or reasons for recognizing moral status?

Some ethicists limit this extension to organisms that satisfy certain criteria, such as sentience in the case of animal rights advocates. Critics claim, however, that this limitation leaves the vast majority of the biota with the instrumental status of "things."

Most ecological ethicists now argue that all organisms have some moral claims on humans, because they are intrinsic values, goods, or ends for themselves. Many contend that species also have moral claims as genetic lifelines that carry these values. Only a few argue for equal value among species; most allow for graded valuations in accord with significant and relevant differences. An increasing number also claim that ecosystems are values for themselves that warrant direct moral consideration.

At this point, the field is split between socalled biocentric and ecocentric value systemsor, more accurately, individualistic and holistic perspectives on moral duties. The debate is sometimes confused and polemical. Biocentrists focus on protecting or promoting the welfare of individual lives, often mammals, but sometimes other species, in a given context. Ecocentrists stress systemic values, arguing that our primary or only responsibility is to the integrity of ecosystems.

These positions, however, need not be mutually exclusive. For a fully adequate ecological ethics, some in the field propose, we need a basis for respecting both life forms (individuals, populations, and species) and collective connectionsthat is, diverse and whole ecosystems in a healthy ecosphere, which alone provide the essential conditions for the good of all individuals and species. The individualistic and holistic poles may not be contraries but rather complementary sides of a comprehensive ecological ethics.


Sustainability has been a prominent norm in ecological ethicslargely because of the perception that present patterns of using the planet as source and sink are unsustainable. Sustainability is living within the bounds of the regenerative, assimilative, and carrying capacities of the planet indefinitely, in fairness to future generations. It seeks a just distribution of goods between present and future generations, without sacrificing one for the other. Human beings have obligations to future generations because what they are and do will have profound effects on them for good and ill. Since they do not yet exist but can reasonably be expected to do so, future generations can be said to have anticipatory rights, and every present generation has anticipatory obligations to them.

Sustainability is often interpreted as an anthropocentric norm, but that limitation is not at all inherent in the idea. Ecological ethicists usually interpret sustainability as responsibilities to future generations of both humankind and other kinds. This inclusive vision may significantly change the prevailing principles and practices of sustainability.

Reflecting practitioners' commitments to sustainability, social equity, and ecological integrity, two issues have been prominent on the agenda of ecological ethics: high levels of human population and consumption. From an ecological perspective, these are intertwined problems. Population and consumption are two interactive sides of a species' impact on its environmental base, whether by too many humans contending over a depleted base or by an economic elite using that base disproportionately. The basic moral questions are: What are the responsibilities of humans, individually and collectively, to the rest of humanity, other species, and future generations? What then are the material and demographic conditions that humans must respect to fulfill these responsibilities? Ecological ethicists frequently urge moral limits on both economic consumption and sexual reproduction for the sake of the social and ecological common good.


From the perspective of ecological ethicists, their discipline is not another branch or subdiscipline of ethics, such as medical or business ethics. It is rather the expansion of every branch of ethics, the wider context for every ethical focus. Business ethics, for example, must now think not only socially and economically, but also ecologicallyconsidering moral responsibilities to other life forms and their habitats, present and future, in economic planning. Henceforth, all ethics must be done in the context of ecological ethicsor else they will be distorted and constricted ethics.

The intention of ecological ethicists, with rare exceptions, is not to substitute biotic values for anthropic ones, but rather to weave these two sets together coherently for the enhancement of bothin short, to integrate the quests for social justice and ecological integrity, for the present and future.

See also Animal Rights; Deep Ecology; Ecofeminism; Ecology; Ecology, Religious and Philosophical Aspects; Ecology, Science of; Ecotheology; Gaia Hypothesis; Feminisms and Science; Feminist Cosmology; Feminist Theology; Womanist Theology


des jardins, joseph r. environmental ethics: an introduction to environmental philosophy, 3rd edition. belmont, calif.: wadsworth, 2001.

johnson, lawrence. a morally deep world: an essay on moral significance and environmental ethics. new york: cambridge university press, 1991.

nash, james a. loving nature: ecological integrity and christian responsibility. nashville, tenn.: abingdon press, 1991.

rasmussen, larry. earth community, earth ethics. mary-knoll, n.y.: orbis books, 1996.

rolston, holmes, iii. environmental ethics: duties to and values in the natural world. philadelphia: temple university press, 1988.

taylor, paul w. respect for nature: a theory of environmental ethics. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1986.

westra, laura. an environmental proposal for ethics: the principle of integrity. lanham, md.: rowman and littlefield, 1994.

james a. nash

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