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Environmental ethics

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Environmental ethics --or more properly designated, 'environmental philosophy'-- considers the ethical relationship between human beings and the natural environment. It exerts influence on a large range of disciplines including law, sociology, theology, economics, ecology and geography. There are many ethical decisions that human beings make with respect to the environment. For example:

  • Should we continue to clear cut forests for the sake of human consumption?
  • Should we continue to make gasoline powered vehicles, depleting fossil fuel resources while the technology exists to create zero-emission vehicles?
  • What environmental obligations do we need to keep for future generations?
  • Is it right for humans to knowingly cause the extinction of a species for the (perceived or real) convenience of humanity?

Environmental ethics is properly but a sub-section of environmental philosophy, which includes environmental aesthetics, environmental theology, and indeed all the branches of philosophical investigation (e.g., epistemology, metaphysics, philosophy of science, etc).

The academic field of environmental ethics grew up in response to the work of scientists such as Rachel Carson and events such as the first Earth Day in 1970, when environmentalists started urging philosophers to consider the philosophical aspects of environmental problems. Two papers published in Science had a crucial impact: Lynn White's "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis" (March 1967)[1] and Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" (December 1968).[2] Also influential was an essay in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, "The Land Ethic," in which Leopold explicitly claimed that the roots of the ecological crisis were philosophical (1949).[3]

In the Journal of Applied Philosophy Alan Marshall writes of a natural ecological balance between the animate (living entities) and the inanimate (non-living entities) that existed for centuries (1993).[4] For Marshall however, the rapid industrialization of the last 300 years has led to a major imbalance. Today growing concerns about global warming underline the general acceptance that environmental preservation is of vital importance. However, it is the grounds upon which one justifies the argument for or against preservation that is the subject of ethical debate, and this invariably includes a personal stance on non-human animal and non-animal rights.

There have been many attempts to categorize the different attempts to justify the importance of the preservation of the environment. Alan Marshall and Michael Smith are two recent examples of this, as cited by Peter Vardy in "The Puzzle of Ethics".[5]

For Marshall, three ethical approaches have emerged over the last 20 years; the Libertarian Extension, the Ecologic Extension and Conservation Ethics.

Libertarian extension

Marshall’s Libertarian extension encompasses those theories that extend human rights to non-human animals and possibly even the inanimate. Michael Smith classified the extension of rights to non-human animals a biocentric ethic, since it focuses on the rights of biotic entities. Andrew Brenmann however was an advocate of ecologic humanism (eco-humanism), the argument that all ontological entities, animate and in-animate, can be given ethical worth purely on the basis that they exist. The work of Arne Næss and his collaborator Sessions also falls under the libertarian extension, although they preferred the term "deep ecology." Deep ecology is the argument for the intrinsic value or inherent worth of the environment – the view that it is valuable in itself. Their argument, incidentally, falls under both the libertarian extension and the ecologic extension.

Peter Singer's work can be categorized under Marshall's ecologic extension. He reasoned that the "expanding circle of moral worth" should be redrawn to include the rights of non-human animals, and to not do so would be guilty of speciesism. Singer found it difficult to accept the argument from intrinsic worth of a-botic or "non-sentient" (non-conscious) entities, and concluded in his first edition of "Practical Ethics" that they should not be included in the expanding circle of moral worth.[6] This approach is essentially then, bio-centric. However, in a later edition of "Practical Ethics" after the work of Naess and Sessions, Singer admits that, although unconvinced by deep ecology, the argument from intrinsic value of non-sentient entities is plausible, but at best problematic. We shall see later that Singer actually advocated a humanist ethic.

Ecologic extension

Marshall's ecologic extension places emphasis not on human rights but on the fundamental interdependence of all biological and a-biological entities and their essential diversity. This is the same classification of Smith’s eco-holism, and argues for the intrinsic value inherent in eco-systems or the environment as a whole entity.

This category includes James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis; the theory that the planet earth alters its geo-physiological structure over time in order to ensure the continuation of an equilibrium of evolving organic and inorganic matter. The planet is characterized as a unified, holistic entity with ethical worth of which the human race is of no particular significance in the long run.

Conservation ethics

Marshall's conservation ethics looks only at the worth of the environment in terms of its utility or usefulness to humans. It is the opposite of deep ecology, hence is often referred to as shallow ecology, and argues for the preservation of the environment on the basis that it has extrinsic value – instrumental to the welfare of human beings. Conservation is therefore a means to an end and purely concerned with mankind and intergenerational considerations. It could be argued that it is this ethic that formed the underlying arguments proposed by Governments at the Kyoto summit in 1997 and three agreements reached in Rio in 1992.

Humanist theories

Following the bio-centric and eco-holist theory distinctions, Michael Smith further classifies Humanist theories as those that require a set of criteria for moral status and ethical worth, such as sentience.[citation needed] This applies to the work of Peter Singer who advocated a hierarchy of value similar to the one devised by Aristotle which relies on the ability to reason. This was Singer's solution to the problem that arises when attempting to determine the interests of a non-sentient entity such as a garden weed.

Singer also advocated the preservation of "world heritage sites," unspoilt parts of the world that acquire a "scarcity value" as they diminish over time. Their preservation is a bequest for future generations as they have been inherited from our ancestors and should be passed down to future generations so they can have the opportunity to decide whether to enjoy unspoilt countryside or an entirely urban landscape. A good example of a world heritage site would be the tropical rainforest, a very specialist ecosystem or climatic climax vegetation that has taken centuries to evolve. Clearing the rainforest for farmland often fails due to soil conditions, and once destroyed can never be replaced.


Main article: Anthropocentrism

What Humanist theories do not allow for is the fact that a system of ethics formulated from a human perspective may not be entirely accurate; humans are not necessarily the centre of reality. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza argued that we tend to assess things wrongly in terms of their usefulness to us.[citation needed] Spinoza reasoned that if we were to look at things objectively we would discover that everything in the universe has a unique value. Likewise, it is possible that a human-centred or anthropocentric/androcentric ethic is not an accurate depiction of reality, and there is a bigger picture that we may or may not be able to understand from a human perspective.

Peter Vardy distinguished between two types of anthropocentrism.[citation needed] A strong thesis anthropocentric ethic argues that humans are at the centre of reality and it is right for them to be so. Weak thesis however argues that reality can only be interpreted from a human point of view, thus humans have to be at the centre of reality as they see it.

Status of the Field

Environmental ethics became a subject of sustained academic philosophic reflection in the 1970s. Throughout the 1980s it remained marginalized within the discipline of philosophy, attacting the attention of a fairly small group of thinkers spread across the US. Only after 1990 did the field gain institutional recognition at programs such as Colorado State, the University of Montana, Bowling Green State, and the University of North Texas.

These programs began to offer a masters degree with a specialty in environmental ethics/philosophy. Beginning in 2005 the Dept of Philosophy and Religion Studies at the University of North Texas offered a PhD program with a concentration in environmental ethics/philosophy.


  1. ^ White, Lynn (March 1967). "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis". Science.
  2. ^ Hardin, Garrett (December 1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science.
  3. ^ Leopold, Aldo (1949). “The Land Ethic”, A Sand County Almanac.
  4. ^ Marshall, Alan (1993). "Unknown title". Journal of Applied Philosophy.
  5. ^ Vardy, Peter. The Puzzle of Ethics.
  6. ^ Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics, 1.

See also

  • Bioethics
  • Conservation ethic
  • Conservation movement
  • Deep Ecology
  • Environmental movement
  • Environmentalism
  • Environmental skepticism
  • Human ecology
  • Sustainability
  • Terraforming
  • Van Rensselaer Potter

External links

  • EnviroLink Library: Environmental Ethics - online resource for environmental ethics information
  • EnviroLink Forum - Environmental Ethics Discussion/Debate
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Center for Environmental Philosophy
  • UNT Dept of Philosophy
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