Environmental ethics

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Consequentialism / Deontology / Virtue ethics
Ethics of care
Good and evil | Morality


Medical ethics / Bioethics
Business ethics
Environmental ethics
Human rights / Animal rights
Legal ethics
Media ethics / Marketing ethics
Ethics of war

Core issues

Justice / Value
Right / Duty / Virtue
Equality / Freedom / Trust
Free will

Key thinkers

Aristotle / Confucius
Aquinas / Hume / Kant / Bentham / Mill / Nietzsche
Hare / Rawls / MacIntyre / Singer / Gilligan

Environmental ethics is a branch of applied ethics and a part of environmental philosophy. It developed out of three insights: first, that ethics cannot be built without the consideration of natural beings, nature, or the Earth because all beings on Earth are interconnected; second, that the scope of ethics should include future consequences, and so ethics should have an inter-generational outlook; third, that proper ethics cannot be built without recognizing that human life is only possible given the proper condition of the Earth.

While traditional ethics had an exclusive focus on human beings, environmental ethics is based on concern for nature. Environmental ethics often contains criticisms of man's abusive or exploitative practices with regard to nature. Some theories argue for the intrinsic value and rights of natural beings, while others argue from an anthropocentric utilitarian perspective. Furthermore, some theories contain critical examinations of human nature, modernity, civilization, and culture. Environmental ethics influences a large range of disciplines including law, sociology, theology, economics, ecology and geography.



Modernity, including the Industrial revolution, radical development of technology and science, and reason-based social organization, brought about tremendous improvements in human life and many believed that the modernity would result in perpetual material prosperity and the spiritual enlightenment of mankind. The framework of modern thought was based on two presuppositions: that human beings are the center of all being (anthropocentric); and that reason is the only trustworthy faculty of mind. Belief in the myth of progress and in the linear development of human history emerged from these presuppositions.

Major ethical theories in Western philosophy such as Utilitarianism, Kantian deontological theories, and virtue ethics, were equally anthropocentric, presupposing the primacy of human reason with little attention to spirituality. These theories discussed ethical issues for the betterment of humanity but ignored certain basic realities: that human beings are spiritually and physically interdependent and interconnected with nature; that exploitation and abuse of the natural world is just as problematic as exploitation and abuse of other human beings; that human happiness cannot be realized without proper care of the natural environment; that ethical obligations are intergenerational; and that the faculty of feeling, and that emotion-based virtues such as benevolence, forgiveness, and compassion, are equally central to ethics.

The myth of progress assumed that two basic functions of the Earth, reproduction of life and the cleansing of wastes, were permanent; and that natural resources were abundant. Modern production paid little or no attention to the fundamental mechanisms of the Earth. In the latter half of the twentieth century people began to realize that development was no longer sustainable without consideration for these functions of the Earth; and that environmental damage and pollution, which exceeded the natural capacity of the Earth, are harmful to humans.

Traditional ethical theories could not adequately account for, or provide an effective ethical framework for, the conditions that humans now encountered. Some ethicists tried to modify existing theories to cope with the problems. Peter Singer, for example, developed environmental ethics from a utilitarian perspective. Others, however, questioned the entire intellectual framework of modernity and its presuppositions, and developed environmental ethics on different ontological grounds. Ethicists developed two different models: anthropocentric and ecospherical. Each theory has a different ontological understanding about the relationship between humans and nature. Ecospherical theorists often find affinity with non-Western philosophies such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Native American religions that regard the human being as an integral part of the nature and believe that the cultivation of human spirituality involves developing emotion-based virtues including respect and concern for nature.


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."[2][3] Also influential was Garett Hardin's later essay called "Exploring New Ethics for Survival," as well as an essay by Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac, called "The Land Ethic," in which Leopold explicitly claimed that the roots of the ecological crisis were philosophical (1949).[4] The first international academic journals in this field emerged from North America in the late 1970s and early 1980s–the U.S.-based journal, Environmental Ethics in 1979 and the Canadian based journal The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy in 1983. The first British-based journal of this kind, Environmental Values, was launched in 1992. Environmental ethics is thus still at an early stage of development and many theories are still experimental. As with the case of other applied ethics, it is getting more attention in the twenty-first century.

Tragedy of the Commons

The Tragedy of the Commons is an influential article written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.[5] The article describes a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen.

Central to Hardin's article is a metaphor of herders sharing a common parcel of land (the commons), on which they are all entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin's view, it is in each herder's interest to put as many cows as possible onto the land, even if the commons is damaged as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from the additional cows, while the damage to the commons is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational decision, however, the commons is destroyed and all herders suffer.

"The Tragedy of the Commons" can be applied to environmental issues such as sustainability. The commons dilemma stands as a model for a great variety of resource problems in society today, such as water, land, fish, and non-renewable energy sources like oil and coal. When water is used at a higher rate than the reservoirs are replenished, fish consumption exceeds its reproductive capacity, or oil supplies are exhausted, then we face a "tragedy of the commons."

In the metaphor, competing farmers can be replaced by a national government or corporate entity. Primacy of national interests creates devastating damage to the natural environment which is a common sphere of humanity.

General perspectives

Environmental ethics attempts to develop theories based upon three major concerns: preservation of natural environment; development of inter-generational ethics; and recognition of the Earth as a unique, indispensable environment.

Primary theories are anthropocentric and they focus on the sustainable development of nature, which is the basis of various efforts at the United Nations. Others are more experimental in nature and seek alternative framework of ethics. Some radical environmentalists use the latter theories as a political ideology.

Types of environmental ethics

There have been a number of scholars who have categorized the various ways in which humans value and preserve their natural environment. Alan Marshall and Michael Smith are two recent examples of this, as cited by Peter Vardy in "The Puzzle of Ethics".[6] For Marshall, three general ethical approaches have emerged over the last 20 years. Marshall uses the following terms to describe them: Conservation Ethics, Libertarian Extension, and the Ecologic Extension.

Conservation ethics

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

Humanist theories require moral agents a set of criteria for moral status and ethical worth, such as sentience. 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," 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 unspoiled 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.


Anthropocentrism simply places humans at the center of the universe; the human race must always be its own primary concern. It has become customary in the Western tradition to consider only our species when considering the environmental ethics of a situation. Therefore, everything else in existence should be evaluated in terms of its utility for us, thus committing speciesism.

Peter Vardy distinguished between two types of anthropocentrism. A strong thesis anthropocentric ethic argues that humans are at the center of reality and it is right for them to be so. Weak anthropocentrism, 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.

Critics of anthropocentrism argue that environmental studies should include an assessment of the intrinsic value of non-human beings.[7]

Libertarian Extension and Ecologic Extension

Marshall’s Libertarian Extension echoes a civil liberty approach (a commitment to extend equal rights to all members of a community). In environmentalism, though, the community is generally thought to consist of non-humans as well as humans.

Andrew Brennan was an advocate of ecologic humanism (eco-humanism), the argument that all ontological entities, animate and inanimate, 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 also 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-biotic 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.[8] This approach is essentially 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.

Ecologic Extension places emphasis not on human rights but on the recognition of the fundamental interdependence of all biological and abiological entities and their essential diversity. Where as Libertarian Extension can be thought of as flowing from a political reflection of the natural world, Ecologic Extension is best thought of as a scientific reflection of the natural world. Ecological Extension is roughly the same classification of Smith’s eco-holism, and it argues for the intrinsic value inherent in collective ecological entities like ecosystems or the global 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.

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, attracting the attention of a fairly small group of thinkers spread across the English-speaking world.

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. In 1991, Schumacher College of Dartington, England, was founded and now provides an MSc in Holistic Science.

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.

Due to a growing concern about the environment, environmental ethics is becoming a key field in applied ethics.


  1. L. White, 1967, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science, 55: 1203-1207; reprinted in Schmidtz and Willott 2002.
  2. "The Tragedy of the Commons" (December 1968). Retrieved February 25, 2009.
  3. Hardin, Garrett (December 1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162: 1243.Retrieved February 16, 2009.
  4. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949).
  5. Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons", Science, 162(3859) (December 13, 1968): 1243-1248. Also available here and here. Retrieved February 25, 2009.
  6. Peter Vardy, and Paul Grosch. The Puzzle of Ethics. London: Fount, 1999. ISBN 9780006281443
  7. Peter Singer, " Environmental Values. in Marsh, Ian. The Environmental Challenge. (Melbourne, Australia: Longman Cheshire, 1991. ISBN 9780582871250), 12-16.
  8. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. ISBN 9780521297202

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Hardin, Hardin. The Tragedy of the Commons, Science, (December, 1968). 162: 1243. Retrieved February 9, 2022.
  • Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1949.
  • Marsh, Ian. The Environmental Challenge. Melbourne, Australia: Longman Cheshire, 1991. ISBN 978-0582871250.
  • Nash, Roderick. The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. History of American thought and culture. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0299118402
  • Palmer, Clare. Environmental Ethics. Contemporary ethical issues. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 1997. ISBN 978-0874368406
  • Shrader-Frechette, K. S. Environmental Ethics. Pacific Grove, CA: Boxwood Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0910286756
  • Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. ISBN 978-0521297202
  • Vardy, Peter, and Paul Grosch. The Puzzle of Ethics. HarperCollins Publishers, 1999. ISBN 978-0006281443
  • Wenz, Peter S. Environmental Ethics Today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0195133844
  • White, L., 1967. The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science. 55 (2002):1203-1207; reprinted in Schmidtz and Willott.

See also

External links

All links retrieved February 13, 2024.


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