Environmental Ethics, Overview

Environmental Ethics, Overview

Environmental Ethics, Overview R Sandler, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA ª 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Subject Matter Environme...

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Environmental Ethics, Overview R Sandler, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USA ª 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Subject Matter Environmental ethics is the study of ethical relationships between human beings and the natural environment, including the nonhuman individuals that populate/con­ stitute it. The following are the core questions of environmental ethics:

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What is the proper way to understand the relation­ ship between humans and the natural environment? What values are part of or emerge from that relationship? What principles and rules of action and character do those goods and values justify? What do those principles and rules imply for how humans should interact with and treat the natural envir­ onment (and the nonhuman individuals that populate it) and live more generally? After a brief background on the origins of environmental ethics, this article treats each of these interrelated ques­ tions in turn.

Origins of Environmental Ethics Environmental ethics began to emerge as a distinct dis­ cipline during a period of increased environmental awareness and concern in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ethicists, philosophers, and Western thinkers more gen­ erally had reflected on nature and the human relationship to it throughout recorded history. However, with the industrial revolution, scientific discovery and technologi­ cal innovation, implementation, and dissemination began to rapidly and substantially alter the relationship. It led to increases in our population size, our capacity for consum­ ing and depleting environmental resources, and our geographical mobility. It also changed our understanding of the links between human health and the environment, ecological relationships, and human origins and unique­ ness. In North America, for example, thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, and Gifford Pinchot began to write of the need for restraint in our use and treatment of nature as it became clear that Earth was not in fact a boundless resource. These early environmental sentiments were amplified in the period following World War II by a number of factors ranging from the potential for nuclear environmental destruction to images of a finite Earth from space, the

emergence of modern ecology (and the publication of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac), and accumulating evidence of the detrimental ecological and human health effects of many of the rapidly proliferating pesticides and chemicals (e.g., as described in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring). By the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a robust environmental movement that was pushing for, and often succeeding in establishing, conservationist, pre­ servationist, and pollution prevention policies and regulations. Early environmental ethicists were interested in iden­ tifying and assessing possible conceptual and value underpinnings of this environmental awakening. They were also interested in whether traditional evaluative and normative frameworks were adequate for character­ izing and providing guidance regarding society’s scientifically and technologically transformed relation­ ship with the natural environment. As a result, many (e.g., Richard Routley and Holmes Rolston, III) advocated for and began to develop new ethical concepts, norms, and principles for our new ecological situation. They also began reconsidering the moral status of nonhumans, exploring the possibility of human-independent values in nature, and developing ethics capable of handling nonlocal, non-immediate, impersonal collective action problems. These features are characteristic of many environmental problems, such as global warming and pollution, but were not much addressed within Western ethical traditions that focused instead on individual, per­ sonal, immediate, and interpersonal interactions and relationships. Not all early environmental ethicists agreed that a new ethical or conceptual framework was needed. Some (e.g., John Passmore) argued that traditional ethical fra­ meworks could be adequately extended or modified. However, there was consensus that, at a minimum, the conception of nature as a boundless resource for human use needed revision, and that a full accounting of envir­ onmental values, as well as sorting out what those values imply for how we should live, was required.

The Human–Nature Relationship Are Human Beings Part of Nature? Within Western intellectual traditions, conceptions of the human–nature relationship are largely dichotomous (i.e., human being are separate and distinct from nature),



Environmental Ethics, Overview

exceptionalist (i.e., human beings, although in some respects part of nature, occupy a special or privileged place in it), or hierarchical (i.e., human beings, although part of nature, are its superior part). Some early modern philosophers, such as Spinoza and Hobbes, challenged this conception, arguing that human beings are a material part of nature just like any other part. Some ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, such as Lucretius, did so as well. However, these are exceptions. For the most part, human beings have been conceived as crucially set apart from the rest of nature. Darwinian evolutionary theory, genomics, and ecol­ ogy have provided the scientific background for reconsidering these traditional conceptions. Evolution provides a naturalistic account of the origin of Homo sapiens that is shared with all other species. It also provides an explanation for the appearance of human beings that does not involve intention and design. Even if, as some argue, evolution is compatible with guided or interven­ tionist events by a supernatural power, it does not require it. Therefore, evolution provides, at a minimum, a natur­ alistic alternative to supernatural accounts of human origins and an account in which, at a minimum, human origins have much (if not everything) in common with the origins of other species. Contemporary genomics and developmental biology provide a similar picture with respect to the human lifeform. Human physiology, psychology, morphology, cap­ abilities, and predispositions can be explained through genes operating in the environment in the same way as with any other species. In fact, the human genome is neither exceptionally large nor complex, and it is 99% similar to that of our nearest phylogenetic relatives (chimpanzees and bonobos). Again, it may be that con­ temporary genomics and developmental biology are consistent with accounts of human beings as soulendowed, for example. However, it does establish active intervention in the design and animation of each human being as unnecessary. Modern ecology has demonstrated that human beings are, like individuals of all other species, dependent on their natural environment for development, survival, and thriving. Human beings depend on the natural environ­ ment for basic goods, such as air, food, and water, as well as for natural resources that provide benefits ranging from medicines to recreation. Moreover, human beings do not stand at the top of a food chain but are just another node in the food web of nutrient and energy exchanges. Thus, ecology completes the naturalist picture of human beings: With respect to origins, life-form, and environment, humans are natural in the same ways as other species. As Aldo Leopold stated in A Sand County Almanac, from this perspective human beings are ‘‘plain members and citizens of the biotic community.’’

Complementary to the naturalistic challenge to tradi­ tional conceptions of the human–nature relationship, ecological feminism has provided robust critiques of the basic dualistic and hierarchical structure of the view that human beings have a separate, unique, privileged, or superior position in the order of nature. A crucial part of this critique emphasizes the similarities between the logic of claims of human superiority over nature and the logic of other types of exploitation, such as sexism and racism. In this ‘logic of domination,’ a dichotomy is created on the basis of a specious (or irrelevant) difference, and then the superiority of one side of the dichotomy over the other is asserted. This ‘superiority’ is then taken as a basis for the privileging or dominance of the one side over the other side. As a result, the view that humans have a superior position over nature and that humans can treat nature and the nonhuman individuals that populate it however humans please is referred to by many as ‘human chauvinism.’ Some approaches to environmental ethics, notably deep ecology, have argued that human beings are part of nature in a metaphysical sense that goes beyond the naturalistic and ecologically interconnected/interdepen­ dent sense described previously. On this view, which has similarities (and intellectual debts) to Eastern philosophi­ cal traditions such as Buddhism, the conception of individual human beings as distinct, isolated selves is a misconception. The reality is that all individuals, includ­ ing all human beings, are part of a larger metaphysical whole. Self-realization, which on this view is developed through both biological knowledge and spiritual or meditative reflection, involves seeing oneself as part of the larger metaphysical reality, and ecological awareness involves the identification of oneself with other parts of the natural world (biotic and abiotic). Nevertheless, some environmental ethicists, including many who accept a naturalistic (or deep ecologist) account of human beings, reserve the term ‘nature’ or ‘natural’ to refer to anything that is independent of the design, control, and impacts of human beings. In this sense of natural, wilderness areas are more natural than gardens, which are more natural than parking lots. The persistence of this terminology (and its associated concept), even among those who do not think there is anything non­ natural about human beings, is due to its utility. It is useful to have a term that picks out that part of the natural environment that is separate from human beings, even if human beings are (in important senses) natural too. Thus, whether human beings are properly considered part of nature depends on what one means by the notor­ iously ambiguous ‘nature.’ If by nature one means ‘everything independent of human beings,’ then human beings are not part of nature. If by nature one means ‘everything that is,’ ‘everything subject to the laws of nature,’ ‘everything that is not supernatural or

Environmental Ethics, Overview

non-natural,’ or ‘all the world’s flora and fauna,’ then human beings are part of nature. There is no singularly correct definition of nature. There are only more or less useful ones. Therefore, it is crucial in environmental ethics to clarify the sense or meaning of nature that is being used. As I use the term in the remainder of this article, something is natural to the extent that it is inde­ pendent of human design, control, and influence. Whether something has value because it is natural is a prominent question in environmental ethics and one that I discuss further later. What Is Special or Unique about Human Beings? Several of the considerations discussed previously might suggest that there is nothing special or unique about human beings. However, even if we have the same sort of origins, ecological interconnectedness, and material makeup as other species, we are not the same as them. At a minimum – that is, even if we do not have special souls or unique places in the great chain of being – we are a unique form of life (we are, after all, a distinct species). Several common claims regarding the features of human beings that distinguish us from individuals of other species have turned out to be at least partially mistaken. Human beings are not the only species that communicate through language, use tools, teach their offspring, solve novel problems, are social, enforce group ‘rules,’ or are altruistic. In a Darwinian world, differences between species tend to be matters of degree. Our form of life is distinguished by the extent to which many of these play a role in it. So far as we know, no other species has such complex languages, social systems, or technologies as we do. No other species innovates, disseminates, and accumulates knowledge, ideas, technologies, or social structures at the rate or on the scale that we do. As a result, no other species exhibits the range of ways of going about the world as do human beings. There is substantial diversity in types of foods, social systems, ways of raising young, modes of production, and forms of organizations among human societies (or populations). Again, it is not that this is only found in humans. There is diversity in the food sources and tool use of different populations of chim­ panzees, for example. However, the extent of the diversity in human society and the rate and magnitude of social and technological innovation, dissemination, and accumulation distinguish us from other species. In this way, human beings are, more than any other known species, cultural animals. The source of our capacity for culture is biological. It is due to our cognitive, psychological, and social capabil­ ities, which are the product of the standard (i.e., for most members of our species under appropriate environmental conditions) biological development of individuals with


our genome. In this way, culture is made possible by our biology. In turn, our culture affects our biology, including our genetic makeup, because culture is part of (and shapes) our environment. In these ways, our cultural capacities are not set apart from our biological nature but, rather, are made possible by and interact with it. Our cultural capacities distinguish us from other spe­ cies in several ways. We have been able to develop destructive power on a scale unlike other species (e.g., nuclear weapons). We are able to adapt to more environments (and adapt more environments to us) than are individuals of other species. Moreover, we have a broader set of goods constitutive of our flourishing than do individuals of other species. For us, a good life is not just (or even primarily) about bare survival and reproduc­ tive success. Rich and complex relationships, long-term projects, and other goods (e.g., aesthetic/spiritual) are open to us that are not to individuals of (most) other species. Finally, and crucially for environmental ethics, we are full moral agents, whereas individuals of other species are not. As far as we know, only human beings have the cognitive and psychological capabilities to raise moral questions, understand moral concepts, formulate principles using those concepts, deliberate on those prin­ ciples and how they should be applied in concrete situations, and act on the basis of those deliberations. It is for this reason that human beings can be held morally responsible for their actions, but lions and silver maples cannot. There is thus much that is distinctive about human beings, even though we are in an ecological sense plain members and citizens of the biotic community. Of course, being distinctive is nothing unique to us. Every species is distinctive (otherwise, they would not be a separate spe­ cies). The question, then, is in what ways our distinctive features are ethically significant. One commonly recog­ nized difference is that mentioned previously – that human beings (but not individuals of other species) are moral agents and therefore can be morally responsible for their actions. The more controversial question within environmental ethics is whether our distinctive features make us more valuable than individuals of other species. This topic is discussed later.

Environmental Values Types of Values A comprehensive account of environmental values involves identifying (1) the types of value that are found in nature or emerge from the human relationship to nature, (2) which entities (e.g., objects, living things, species, ecosystems, and landscapes) in the natural environment possess each type of value (and how much


Environmental Ethics, Overview

of it they possess), and (3) the basis for their possessing the value. The following is a typology of the values that are commonly discussed in environmental ethics. Different environmental ethicists often use different value termi­ nology. Thus, although the following are common uses of the terms, it is also not uncommon to find the terms used differently (or different terms used). Instrumental value is the value that something has as a means to realizing a desired or worthwhile end. Different environmental entities have different sorts of instrumental value. For example, one plant species might have medicinal value (i.e., be useful as a means to health), whereas another does not. An environmental entity can have different instrumental value to different people (or valuers). For example, some people enjoy rock climbing and therefore a rock face is instrumentally valuable to them in ways it is not to others. Economic value, medicinal value, recreational value, option value, scientific value, natural resource value, ecological value, and ecosystem services value are all varieties of instru­ mental value found in nature. Overall, the instrumental value of ecosystem processes, other species, and abiotic components of the natural environment to humans is enormous and varied. We depend on the natural envir­ onment for basic goods (e.g., food and water). It is the material source from which we produce material goods. It provides unique and diverse opportunities for human development and enrichment (e.g., knowledge, recrea­ tion, and creative activity). Valuer-dependent intrinsic value is the value that something has because we value it for what it is rather than what it can do for us. Commonly cited examples of non-environmental entities with intrinsic value are works of art, historical sites, and mementos. These things are valuable because of what they are (including their history), not because they are useful for accomplish­ ing something we desire. Many environmental entities are valued intrinsically. For example, many places are valued as religiously or spiritually significant because they are wild, historically significant, or beautiful. Inherent worth is the value that something has because it has its own interests or good that we ought to care about for its own sake. It is commonly recognized that human beings have inherent worth. A human being is valuable for what she is, and it is not permissible to disregard her interests, even if she is not instrumentally or intrinsically valuable. Many environmental ethicists have argued that nonhuman environmental entities have inherent worth as well. However, there is considerable divergence on which entities those are – for example, living things, sentient animals, species, or ecosystems. Different views on which entities have inherent worth (and the basis of their having it) are discussed later.

Intrinsic objective value is the value that something has for what it is, independent of whether anyone actually values it. It is, like inherent worth, a type of value that (if it exists) is valuer independent. This sort of value would be discovered (not created) by valuers. Some environmental ethicists have suggested that aesthetic value is an objective value. That is, they believe that some environmental entities possess properties that are aesthetically valuable, even if there is no one around to appreciate them. Valuers then discover these properties and thus the value. (As indicated previously, other envir­ onmental ethicists believe that aesthetic value is a valuerdependent intrinsic value.) The most prominent propo­ nent of intrinsic objective value in nature is Holmes Rolston, III, who has argued that species and ecological systems have intrinsic objective value due to their crea­ tive and generative capacities. Others have argued that environmental entities can have intrinsic objective nat­ ural value due to their independence of human control, design, and impacts. It is controversial among environ­ mental ethicists (as it is among moral philosophers more generally) whether there are intrinsic objective values. These types of value – that is, instrumental value, valuer-dependent intrinsic value, inherent worth, and intrinsic objective value – are not mutually exclusive. A particular environmental entity might possess more than one type (as well as several varieties of one type). For example, gray wolves in the United States have intrinsic value (many people value them for their wild­ ness and what they represent), inherent worth (on many views they have interests of their own that we ought to care about), and intrinsic objective value (on many views they have aesthetic value and value as a species). They also have ecological value (they are a keystone species in some ecosystems), scientific value (they are much studied by ecologists, conservation biologists, zoologists, and geneticists), and economic value (with respect to both tourism and hunting), so they are instrumentally valuable (in several ways) as well. Moral Standing A central value issue in environmental ethics is determin­ ing which environmental entities have direct moral standing. An entity has direct moral standing if it is morally considerable (i.e., needs to be considered in delib­ erations regarding how we ought to act) for its own sake. An entity has indirect moral standing if it is morally considerable (i.e., one cannot do whatever one pleases to it) because of its relationship to something else that has direct moral standing. It is uncontroversial that many environmental entities have indirect moral standing. For example, the trees in my backyard have indirect moral standing by virtue of being my property. Other people have duties regarding them: They cannot come onto my

Environmental Ethics, Overview

property and chop them down because in doing so they would be violating my rights (or claim) over them. In this way, others have duties regarding my trees but not to my trees. Views on which environmental entities have only indirect (or derivative) moral standing are often referred to as indirect duties views. Although it is uncontroversial that many environmen­ tal entities have indirect moral standing (e.g., because they are people’s property, are protected by national or international law, or people care about them), it is much less settled whether environmental entities have direct moral standing. Crucially related to this is the issue of determining the basis for direct moral standing. Biocentric environmental ethics are those on which all living things have direct moral standing. Albert Schweitzer and Paul Taylor are the most influential proponents of this view. Standard versions of biocentr­ ism emphasize that all living things (plants and animals) have a good of their own. It is possible to benefit or harm them, without reference to anything else. The reason for this is that they are teleologically organized. Their parts, processes, and operations are organized toward accomplishing things such as survival and reproduction. Damaging or interfering with these is harmful to them, whereas promoting conditions under which they thrive or flourish is beneficial. Biocentrists often emphasize the similarities between and among all species (includ­ ing humans) in arguing that there is no adequate reason to disregard the good of some living things and not others. Thus, we ought to care about the good of all living things – that is, they all have inherent worth. One criticism of biocentrism focuses on its implica­ tions. Some critics believe that the ethic is unlivable. It is simply not possible, or else too onerous, to live a human life without killing other living things. Another criticism emphasizes that most living things are microorganisms. The ethic appears to imply that every bacteria has inher­ ent worth and is due respect, which strikes some as absurd (as well as unlivable). Another type of criticism focuses on the argument for biocentric individualism. It points out that proponents of biocentrism often emphasize the simi­ larities between all living things (e.g., ecological interconnectedness and having a good of their own) while not attending to the differences (e.g., only some are sentient or self-aware). Biocentrists standardly respond to these concerns by arguing that to claim that all living things have inherent worth is not equivalent to the claim that all living things have rights, the same level of inherent worth, or that they should all be treated the same. It is to claim that all living things have direct moral standing and therefore are not mere things (as rocks are) that can be treated thoughtlessly or without consideration. As a result, living things are due respect, even when we appropriately use them (as we must) for our own ends. However, the response continues, what


respect toward a plant amounts to is something quite different than respect toward a sentient animal, for exam­ ple, precisely because one is sentient and one is not. Animal welfare/rights views are those on which all animals with sufficiently complex psychological capaci­ ties have direct moral standing. The most prominent proponent of such a view is Peter Singer. On Singer’s view, the criterion for direct moral status is sentience, the capacity to experience pleasure and pain. He argues that there is no morally relevant reason why some pain and suffering should be considered in ethical deliberations and some should not. Pain is equally bad for the sufferer, regardless of who suffers it (or their species membership). As a result, like pain (and pleasure) must be considered alike. There are many other types of animal welfare/rights views. However, they standardly empha­ size that to have direct moral standing an individual must be conscious and capable of psychological experience. Some also argue that an individual must in some way be capable of caring about his or her own life. Having inter­ ests is not enough to have direct moral standing on this view; an individual must also be capable of taking an interest in his or her interests. (Proponents of biocentrism challenge this claim for the reasons discussed previously.) One type of objection to animal welfare/rights views is that they are absurd because they would require us to treat animals as if they were humans. However, as with biocentrism, this is a misunderstanding of the view. Equal consideration is not the same as equal treatment. There are factual differences among species that justify different treatment; for example, the conditions under which a whale thrives are quite different from those under which a human thrives. Another common, and better informed, response to animal welfare/rights views is to challenge the claim that there is no morally relevant difference between human and nonhuman animals that would justify differ­ ential consideration. Candidates for difference-making properties include being capable of mutual or reciprocal concern and responsibility, being a member of a commu­ nity of deliberative agents, and being a moral agent. Nonhuman animals are not capable of these. Therefore, if any of them are necessary for direct moral standing, nonhuman animals do not have such standing; only full rational agents (i.e., human beings, so far as we know) do. Such views are called anthropocentric (although rationalcentric might be a more appropriate term) because on them only human beings (or rational beings) have direct moral standing. Views (e.g., biocentrism and animal wel­ fare) on which some nonhuman entities have direct moral standing are called nonanthropocentric. The standard theoretical criticisms of anthropocentr­ ism are those from biocentrism and animal welfare/rights views discussed previously; that is, anthropocentrism asserts a morally relevant difference where there is not


Environmental Ethics, Overview

one. What matters for direct moral standing is whether an individual has interests, can suffer, or cares about its own good. Anthropocentrism emphasizes the conditions necessary for an individual to be a moral agent or morally responsible for its actions. Thus, the response concludes, anthropocentrism conflates moral agency with moral standing. Moreover, if it is true that only full deliberative or moral agents have direct moral standing, then many humans (e.g., newborns and severely mentally disabled people) will not have direct moral standing. Many take this to be a problematic implication of the view. All of the views of direct moral standing discussed previously – biocentrism, animal welfare/rights, and anthropocentrism – are individualistic. On each, it is individual organisms that have direct moral standing. However, in some views environmental collectives (e.g., species and ecosystems) also have direct moral standing. According to these views, which are often called eco­ centric, it makes sense to talk about the collective being benefited or harmed, and thus having a good, separate from that of the individual organisms that comprise it. For example, predation of the weakest members of a popula­ tion is bad for those individuals, but it is good for the health of the population as a whole. On one interpreta­ tion, Aldo Leopold’s view expressed in A Sand County Almanac is ecocentric because he suggests that ‘‘a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’’ Deep ecology also favors ecocentric accounts of direct moral standing. Critics of ecocentrism typically argue that the health or flourishing of collectives such as species or ecosystems are really only derivative on the well-being of the indi­ viduals that comprise them. Moreover, ecosystems or species are not really internally organized or goal direc­ ted. Their appearance of being so is only a by-product of individual organisms pursuing their own good in response to each other and abiotic features of the system. Some environmental collectives of some species may be excep­ tions, such as ant colonies and beehives. However, for the most part, individuals within a species and within an ecosystem are competitors or predator/prey. They are not organized and do not behave for reasons related to the collective good or the good of the ecosystem. Many environmental ethicists have advocated plura­ listic accounts on which different environmental entities, such as individual animals and collectives, have different types of direct moral standing. For example, it may be that plants are due respect, but animals are due respect and compassion. On other views, there is only one type of direct moral standing, but it can be had in degrees; for example, psychologically complex animals have greater inherent worth than other living things. Weak anthropo­ centric views, for example, hold that although some

nonhuman individuals might have inherent worth, they do not have as much worth as do human beings.

Rules and Principles The Normativity of ‘Natural’ Rules and principles provide general prescriptions regarding how we ought or should act or be. In environ­ mental ethics, it is not uncommon to find the concept of nature or naturalness functioning prescriptively – for example, that we ought to follow nature, that we ought not interfere with nature, or that something (e.g., geneti­ cally modified crops) is unnatural and therefore wrong. However, it is an increasingly prevalent view among environmental philosophers that prescriptive uses of ‘nat­ ure’ are problematic. Regarding the prescription that we ‘ought to follow nature,’ the problem (which was identified by John Stuart Mill) is that there is so much in nature that would be barbaric if we were to follow it, such as predation, decep­ tion, and rape. Proponents of the prescription that we ought to follow nature might argue that these are not the parts on which we ought to model our behavior. However, if there is some standard external to nature by which we judge which parts of nature to follow, then the normativity (the prescription) is not based in something’s being found in nature but, rather, in whatever adjudicates which aspects of nature are worth following. The prescription that we ought not interfere with nature is problematic because it ultimately fails to give guidance. On any definition of nature, human beings are either part of nature or not part of nature. If we are part of nature, then everything we do is natural, so nothing we do interferes with nature. Thus, the prescription to not inter­ fere with nature is vacuous – everything we do fulfills it. If we are not part of nature, then everything we do is unnatural. Again, the prescription to not interfere with nature is unhelpful because everything we do interferes with it. In either case (whether we are part of nature or not), the prescription to not interfere with nature fails to help us distinguish actions we ought to perform from those we ought not perform. The claim that we ought not act unnaturally (or ought to do what is natural) is problematic because it assumes its conclusion or else equivocates on the mean­ ing of ‘natural.’ The following is an example of this form of argument: (1) Genetically modified crops are unna­ tural. (2) Anything unnatural is wrong. (3) Therefore, genetically modified crops are wrong. If by ‘unnatural’ is meant ‘wrong,’ then the argument does not prove its conclusion but, rather, it just asserts it; that is, premise 1 is just the claim that genetically modified crops are wrong. However, if ‘unnatural’ does not mean ‘wrong,’ then there must be some meaning of the term unnatural

Environmental Ethics, Overview

that makes both premises 1 and 2 true. It is difficult (many would argue impossible) to find any such mean­ ing, however. The upshot of these considerations is that it is proble­ matic to try to generate prescriptions on the basis of what is or is not natural. Instead, rules and principles in environ­ mental ethics need to be based on environmental values. From Values to General Principles The general principles that an environmental ethic advo­ cates are substantially informed by the values that it endorses. However, the values are not sufficient for deter­ mining the general principles. They must be set in a theoretical context, and it matters if the context is deon­ tological (e.g., rights based), consequentialist, or virtue ethics, for example. According to consequentialist ethical theories, an action is right if and only if it brings about the best (or good enough) consequences of the courses of action available to the agent in the circumstances. Therefore, on a strong anthropocentrism – that is, one on which all and only human beings have direct moral stand­ ing – set within a consequentialist ethical theory, the right way to treat the environment is in whatever way brings about the best (or good enough) consequences for human beings (e.g., maximizes human well-being or preference satisfaction). However, according to deontological ethical theory, an action is right if and only if it conforms to the moral law, and on rights based deontological theories this means respecting (i.e., not violating) the rights of others. Therefore, on a strong anthropocentrism set within a rights-based normative theory (e.g., libertarianism), the right way to treat the environment is in any way that does not violate the rights (e.g., property rights or bodily integrity) of human beings. According to virtue ethics, an action is right if and only if it expresses or hits the target of virtue. Therefore, on a strong anthropocentrism set within virtue ethics, the right way to treat the environment is in ways that are compassionate, caring, and just toward human beings. Similarly, on consequentialist ethical theory, if all human and nonhuman pain and pleasure are equally considerable, then an action or policy is right if it brings about the greatest balance of pleasure over pain for all those affected (human and nonhuman). However, within a rights-based theory, if all animals have inherent worth, then they must always be treated as an end and not a means only. On a pluralistic account of environmental values set within a virtue ethic, one ought to be respectful of living things, compassionate toward animals, and eco­ logically sensitive, for example. On an ecocentric view set within a communitarian ethical theory – that is, one on which an action is right to the extent that it promotes the good of the community – an action is right insofar as it tends to promote the integrity of the biotic community.


The previous examples demonstrate that the general principles that an environmental ethic advocates are the product of both the environmental values that it endorses (including their comparative significance) and the broader theoretical framework in which they are situated. They also demonstrate that disagreements within environmental ethics arise not only from different views about environ­ mental values but also from different theoretical commitments. For example, animal rights and animal wel­ fare theorists generally agree that animals (or sentient beings) have direct moral standing, but they disagree about what this implies because animal welfare advocates (e.g., Peter Singer) are consequentialists, whereas animal rights advocates (e.g., Thomas Regan) are deontologists. According to animal rights views, it is always wrong to use animals in experimentation (because it violates their rights), whereas on animal welfare views, using animals in experimentation is acceptable when there are sufficiently large goods to be gained and there is no alternative to achieving those goods that would cause less suffering. Environmental Virtue Ethics In the previous section, virtue ethics was presented as a distinctive theoretical framework for environmental ethics, one that is an alternative to consequentialist and deontological ethical theories. That is one conception of environmental virtue ethics. However, there is another conception on which it is complementary to consequen­ tialist and deontological ethical theories rather than a rival to them. On this conception, the rules and principles of environmental ethics are not limited to norms of action or conduct but also include norms of character. As with rules and principles of action, the virtues or vices that an environmental ethic endorses and empha­ sizes depend on the environmental values that it prioritizes. For an ethic on which the criterion for moral standing is the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, the virtue of compassion and the vice of cruelty are central. For a biocentric ethic on which all living things are regarded as having direct moral standing, the virtue of respect for nature and the vice of malevolence are crucial. One reason that norms of character are crucial to environmental ethics is that one’s character is relevant to how one behaves. Virtue is conducive to right action. For example, a compassionate person is more likely to respond well or do what is right regarding the suffering of others than is a person who is cruel or indifferent. Another reason is that virtue is conducive to realizing environ­ mental goods. Many people find pleasure, reward, beauty, invigoration, and meaning in their experiences of and relationships with aspects of the natural environment. Character traits such as wonder, gratitude, and humility open a person up to these goods, whereas character traits such as hubris, indifferences, and laziness are inimical to


Environmental Ethics, Overview

them. For these reasons, a complete environmental ethic, even if it is consequentialist or deontological, includes both norms of action and norms of character. Divergence and Convergence within Environmental Ethics On many environmental issues, different general princi­ ples have different implications. For example, sport hunting of a healthy (but not over carrying capacity) population of ungulates would not be permissible on an animal rights view, whereas it is on a strong anthropo­ centric view. Also, animal rights advocates and ecocentric communitarians often advocate different policies regard­ ing ecological restorations and non-native species when these involve culling animals. As these examples illus­ trate, sometimes there are dilemmas in environmental ethics – situations in which any policy or course of action will require compromising some environmental value. In such cases, different environmental ethics will advocate different practices or policies based on which values are prioritized within the ethic. However, on many other environmental issues and in many other situations, different general principles have very similar implications. For example, almost all theories of environmental ethics, regardless of their particular value axiology and theoretical framework, favor pollution reduction because pollution is detrimental to humans, animals, and ecosystems. There will be disagreement about how much pollution is acceptable and the means by which it should be controlled. Nevertheless, in general and in most circumstances, there is convergence in favor of cleaner air, water, and land. There is also convergence on the importance of addressing global climate change because the social and ecological effects of unchecked global climate change will be detrimental to humans, animals, plants, and ecosystems. There is often conver­ gence as well on protecting green spaces and national parks because they are beneficial to both people and their nonhuman inhabitants. As with rules and principles of action, there are some norms of character on which theories of environmental ethics converge. For example, most theories recognize hubris, indifference, apathy, greed, and laziness as envir­ onmental vices because they are detrimental to protecting and promoting many environmental goods and values; most theories recognize humility, courage, benevolence, and wonder as virtues because they are conducive to promoting a diversity of environmental goods and values. Environmental pragmatism is the view that rather than prioritizing development of and adjudication among dif­ ferent theories of environmental ethics, the focus in environmental ethics should be on identifying areas of convergence and promoting the associated goals. Some environmental pragmatists argue for this on the grounds

that environmental problems are urgent and therefore time ought not be wasted on trying to resolve theoretical (and, in some pragmatists’ view, intractable) disagree­ ments if there are no practical differences at stake. Other proponents of environmental pragmatism believe that theory-oriented approaches to environmental ethics are misguided because there is no basic foundation for ethics (including environmental ethics) or that a process or discursive approach to ethics is necessary. As a result, environmental pragmatism is sometimes associated with being antitheoretical. Critics of environmental pragmatism argue that there is in fact much less convergence than pragmatists gener­ ally believe, so adjudicating among theories of environmental ethics does have practical importance. They also argue that if we give up on identifying core values or foundations for environmental ethics, then we are left with no ethic at all, only a power struggle among people with different views.

From Rules to Implications The rules and principles of environmental ethics do not by themselves provide action or policy guidance regard­ ing our treatment of or interaction with the natural environment. In order to generate such guidance, they must be applied to concrete issues and situations. Therefore, the transition from principles to implications in environmental ethics requires identifying which rules or principles are operative in a particular situation and then determining what course of action (or policy) they favor in that situation. The latter often requires consider­ able factual knowledge regarding the situation. For example, many principles of environmental ethics converge on the conclusion that many people ought to consume far fewer (non-necessary) consumer goods than they do currently because all consumer goods involve ecological costs. They require extracting natural resources (or recycling materials), refining the raw materials, production or manufacture of the good, consumption of the good, and disposal of the good, as well as transportation along the way, and each of these has associated ecological impacts (e.g., pollution, habitat loss, or greenhouse gas emissions). Moreover, there is considerable evidence from eco­ nomics and sociology that above a certain threshold, reduced levels of consumption are not associated with lower levels of subjective well-being; and mate­ rialistic value dispositions are, in general, detrimental to a person’s well-being. However, knowledge of the resultant rule – that is, that people ought to reduce their consumption of non-necessary consumer goods, particu­ larly those with high ecological costs – does not by itself generate action guidance. Applying the rule requires

Environmental Ethics, Overview

knowledge of what sorts of goods are non-necessary, which goods have high ecological costs, and what the alternatives are (e.g., nonconsumption or alternative consumption) in a particular instance or domain. For example, a diet high in farmed meat consumption is unnecessary for most people with culinary alternatives in most circumstances (because one can get adequate nutrition and culinary pleasure from a nonmeat diet), and production of a meat-based meal has high ecological costs in comparison to the production of many non-meat-based meals (due to the inefficiency cre­ ated by the calories and nutrition the animal uses for biological processes other than growing muscle and fat). Thus, application of the principle to the case generates the conclusion that those with culinary alternatives ought to reduce the proportion of farmed meat in their diet. As the previous example indicates, the implications generated from application of a rule or principle can often depend on particulars about the case. For this reason, the details of a situation or issue can be very important in environmental ethics, and ecological, psychological, economic, and other types of empirical information can be crucial for applying rules and principles well in envir­ onmental ethics.

Conclusion Environmental ethics is rich both philosophically and practically. Philosophically, it involves issues in meta­ ethics, value theory, and ethical theory. It also concerns the nature of human beings, our relationships to the rest of the world, and the constituents of (and means to) human flourishing. Practically, it encompasses any issue for which our actions, policies, or perspectives have implica­ tions for environmental values. Because human beings are ecologically situated animals, this is a diverse and dynamic set of topics. For example, it includes agriculture and food, land use, treatment of other species, responsi­ bilities to future generations, technology innovation and implementation, human population, consumption (and thus economics), and energy. As the set of issues listed previously indicates, there is no strong separation between environmental ethics and interpersonal ethics. The philosophical issues overlap, the practical issues overlap, and human beings are simulta­ neously social and environmental agents (and dependents). Therefore, environmental ethics does not


constitute a distinctive ethical domain but, rather, is a crucial component of a complete and comprehensive human ethic. See also: Animal Rights; Anthropocentrism; Biocentrism; Vegetarianism.

Further Reading Carson R (1962) Silent Spring. New York: Fawcett World Library. Jamieson D (2003) Morality’s Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Leopold A (1968) A Sand County Almanac. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Light A and Katz E (eds.) (1996) Environmental Pragmatism. New York: Routledge. Light A and Rolston H, III. (eds.) (2003) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell. Naess A (1992) Ecology, Community and Lifestyle: Outline of an Ecosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. O’Neill J (1993) Ecology, Policy, and Politics: Human Well-Being and the Natural World. London: Routledge. Passmore J (1974) Man’s Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Traditions. New York: Scribner. Plumwood V (2002) Environmental Culture and the Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge. Regan T (1983) The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press. Rolston H, III. (1989) Philosophy Gone Wild. Amherst, NY: Prometheus. Sandler R (2007) Character and Environment: A Virtue-Oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics. New York: Columbia University Press. Schmidtz D and Willott E (2001) Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Singer P (1975) Animal Liberation. New York: New York Review. Taylor P (1986) Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Biographical Sketch Ronald Sandler is an associate professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion, a researcher in the Nanotechnology and Society Research Group, and a research associate in the Environmental Justice Research Collaborative at Northeastern University. He is author of Character and Environment: A Virtue-oriented Approach to Environmental Ethics (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Nanotechnology: The Social and Ethical Issues (Woodrow Wilson Center, 2009). He is co-editor of Environmental Virtue Ethics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005) and Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement (MIT Press, 2007). His primary areas of research are environmental ethics, ethics and technology, ethical theory, and Spinoza.