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ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
Article (2000 words): A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology, Blackwell 2007.

By Thomas Søbirk Petersen: thomassp@ruc.dk

Word-count: 2133 (without footnotes)

Version: New 28/11 2006

1. Introduction
Our use of technology has changed and continues to change the natural environment. While
technology – medicine, transportation technologies and information technology and so on – can
help us to prosper, there is also no doubt that the production and use of technology can have a
negative impact on the environment and therefore on us. The pollution of rivers, oceans and the air
poses an immediate threat to the health of humans; and the build-up of greenhouse gases, depletion
of the ozone layer, and deforestation may each pose a threat, not only to the health of humans, but
also to the survival of the human species. On the other hand, innovation within technology can also
be used to remove or mitigate some of these man-made threats, and to minimise the impact of some
non-man-made threats such as huge meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and diseases.

Our impact on the natural environment, and the way in which this affects humans, other animals
and plants, raises important ethical questions. These questions, which are often dealt with under the
heading of environmental ethics, include: Is human welfare all that matters morally when we
evaluate, say, deforestation or the elimination of a species? Should we aim to decrease the number
of humans on our planet in order to make other species flourish? Should a company be allowed to
open a mine in a national park? What ought we to do about global warming?

The relevance of environmental ethics is obvious. Since the 1960s such ethics have had a more or
less strong foothold in most societies. They are now part of the international political agenda, the
Kyoto treaty being a clear example here.1 Almost every political party and large company has
formulated policies on treatment of the natural environment.2 Furthermore, journals dedicated to
environmental ethics have emerged,3 as have NGOs like Greenpeace and Earth First.

Environmental ethics is a multidisciplinary activity. It draws on expertise in physics, biology,


economics, law, sociology, psychology and philosophy. Roughly speaking, we can distinguish
between descriptive and normative environmental ethics. The descriptive aim is to describe and
explain what attitudes people have to questions like those mentioned above. This part is usually

1
The Kyoto Treaty is an agreement reached under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC). The 164 countries (as of July 2006) which have ratified the Kyoto Protocol are, among other things,
committed to reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases, or to engage in emission
trading if they maintain or increase emissions of these gases. For details of the protocol see:
http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/kpeng.html or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto_Protocol

2
Consult e.g. the UK Labour Party official website http://www.labour.org.uk/environment04. See e.g. www.shell.com
(Shell’s official website) for examples of their views on environmental issues.
3
E.g. Environmental Ethics, Environmental Values and Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics.
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undertaken by sociologists and anthropologists.4 The normative aim is to critically assess the
attitudes people have on these issues.5 This task depends on scientific knowledge and philosophical
considerations about logic, value theory, normative ethical theory and the clarification of central
concepts like those of welfare, value and nature. In line with the title of this Companion, the focus
in this entry will be on some of the philosophical perspectives on environmental ethics.6 In what
follows, then, ‘environmental ethics’ refer to discussions of how humans ought to treat the built and
natural environment.7

2. The axiology of environmental ethics


Among philosophers and environmentalists, much discussion has centred on the problem of what
matters morally in evaluating acts with an impact on the environment. Is it only the humans that
matter, or is it also other sentient beings? Alternatively, should moral concern be extended to all
living things and perhaps also to mountains or even ecosystems? These questions concern what we
can call the axiology (or value theory) of environmental ethics. At first glance, this endeavour may
seem to be of purely academic interest. But it is not. One’s view of what matters morally has a
critical bearing on the way in which one will argue in discussions about the ethical aspects of
pollution, global warming or the extinction of species. To some extent, it affects the conclusions
one will reach. For instance, if one believes that all living things have value in themselves, a
normative discussion about the preservation of a forest will not be wholly contingent on what effect
preservation (or non-preservation) can be expected to have on human welfare.

The axiological literature contains a great variety of positions, but these fall under three general
headings: anthropocentrism, sentientism and ecologism. According to anthropocentrism (or human-
centred ethics),8 only humans have intrinsic value.9 This means that humans should not care directly
about non-human entities, although they may care if this will further their own interests (e.g. in
respect of welfare or rights). Thus anthropocentrists are only concerned with the non-human part of
nature in an instrumental way: the pollution of a river is only of moral concern if it sets back the
interests of humans, so if the fish in a river die, that is only morally problematic if people are
thereby harmed in some way – e.g. by eating them. Note, however, that it is wrong to assume that
anthropocentrism readily justifies the pollution of rivers or the destruction of wilderness – at any
rate, as long as we agree (as we surely should) that wilderness can bring humans many deep, lasting
and wonderful experiences.

A central challenge for anthropocentrism is to give a convincing answer to the question: why are
humans all that matter? One answer is to say that human welfare is alone in having value in itself
4
See e.g. Kempton, Boster, and Hartley Environmental Values in American Culture, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.
5
See e.g. Environmental Ethics: An Anthology, Light & Rolston (eds.), Blackwell, 2002 or Environmental Ethics, Elliot
(ed.), Oxford University Press, 1995.
6
For an excellent introduction to the debate about the scope and different varieties of environmental ethics, see Light
‘Environmental Ethics’, A Companion to Applied Ethics, Frey and Wellman (eds.), Blackwell Publishing, 633-49, 2003.
7
For a defence of the view that cities and not only the non-built part of the environment should fall under the heading of
environmental ethics, see Light ‘Urban Ecological Citizenship’, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 34:1, 2003, 44-63.
8
Anthropcentrism is a central part of western Christian thinking: see Genesis I:26-8. Modern adherents of
anthropcentrism include Ferry: The New Ecological Order, The University of Chicago Press, 1995 (originally published
as Le nouvel order écologique: L’arbre, l’ animal et l’homme, Bernard Grasset, 1992) and Frey, Rights, Killing and
Suffering, Blackwell, 1983.
9
An important issue that divides antropocentrists (as well as sentientists) is the moral status of future generations.
Should the welfare of future generations be taken into account in environmental ethics, and if so how? Should their
welfare be subject to a kind of discount rate? For a discussion of these questions, see Parfit, Reasons and Persons,
Oxford University Press, 1984, and Broome Counting the cost of GLOBAL WARMING, The White Horse Press, 1992.
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because humans have a morally relevant feature that differentiates humans from other beings. That
feature might be rationality. The challenges to this kind of answer are many. For instance, it follows
from the view that humans who are not rational (newborn infants, people with dementia, et al.) do
not have moral value in themselves. Furthermore, some animals, like apes or horses, seem to be
more rational than a one-day-old infant, so why not include these animals?

Another answer is to say that only humans have value in themselves, because they belong to the
species Homo sapiens. But this seems like a form of unjustified discrimination. If human welfare,
say, is what matters morally, then what is so special about humans that we should only take the
welfare of humans into account? Why not include animals that have the neurophysiological
capacity to experience welfare?10 Considerations like this have let some to adopt sentientism, which
claims that sentient beings capable of enjoying welfare (and the opposite) are the only subjects that
have intrinsic moral worth.11 When it comes to the value of the non-sentient part of nature,
sentientism coincides with anthropocentrism, as both positions imply that the non-sentient part of
nature only has instrumental value.

Some objections to sentientism ask how we know that animals have welfare and, in keeping with
one way of defining welfare, are able to feel pleasure and pain. But although we cannot directly
experience the pain or pleasure of others, including other animals, we can observe whether they
behave in a way that is evidence of pain or pleasure. Alternatively, from our scientific knowledge of
the nervous system we can infer that all mammals and birds with a nervous system like ours can
experience pleasure and pain. As we have no reason to claim that plants can feel pain, humans have,
according to the sentientist, no direct moral obligations towards plants.12 Others have argued that
the notion of harm to an entity is not captured properly by assuming that the entity in question must
have the capacity to experience pain or a reduced level of pleasure. On this view it makes perfect
sense to claim that a plant can be harmed if, say through pollution or vandalism, it is prevented from
flourishing according to its telos (Greek telos = goal) or its potential for biological development.13

Dissatisfaction with anthropocentrism and sentientism has let to a variety of positions falling under
the general heading ‘ecologism’. Ecologists believe that, apart from humans and animals, we should
also be concerned with nature for its own sake. Biocentrism (life-centred-ethics) implies that only
living organisms have inherent value.14 Ecocentrism (earth-centred ethics) implies, roughly
speaking, that entities such as rainforests, rivers and mountains have inherent value.15 Some
ecocentrists believe that the whole biosphere has value.16

A serious challenge for ecologist is to infer, in a plausible way, from the sensible-looking idea that
trees and ecosystems can have setbacks according to their natural potential for development (thus,
in one sense, being harmed) to the claim that they have intrinsic moral value. By analogy, my
computer can breakdown, and an aeroplane can crash, and in that sense they can be said to have

10
For criticism of anthropocentrism see e.g. Singer, ‘Equality for Animals’ in Practical Ethics, Oxford University
Press.
11
See e.g. Singer, ‘Environmental Ethics’, in Practical Ethics.
12
Ibid.
13
See e.g. Attfield, ‘The Good of Trees’, Journal of Value Inquiry, 15, 1981, pp. 35-54 and Taylor in Respect for
Nature, , Princeton University Press, 1986
14
Influential biocentrists include Taylor, (1986) Respect for Natureand A. Schweitzer Civilisation and Ethics, 2d ed.
1929.
15
See e.g. Elliot, ‘Faking Nature’, in Environmental Ethics, (ed.) Elliot, Oxford University Press, 1995.
16
See e.g. Lovelock Gaia – A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford University Press, 1978.
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been harmed. But would it follow from these considerations that the computer, or aeroplane, has
value in itself? Elaborating this challenge, we might add that it is not at all easy to know when a
part of nature has been harmed. Is grass harmed when a lawn is mowed? If the grass is harmed,
because it has value in itself, does it follow that we have a moral reason not to mow the lawn? And
how, in any case, could be argued that only natural entities have moral value in themselves? What
about artefacts like paperclips or pools of spilt milk? Can they also be harmed? Again, if we say
that they can, do we have a moral reason not to harm (bend out of shape?) paperclips?

3. Normative theories and environmental ethics


In order to have a fully developed environmental ethics, it is necessary to combine one’s preferred
axiology with a normative theory that tells us how to act. For axiology is concerned with what kinds
of thing are of value, and why, and not, at least directly, with how we ought to act. In other words,
axiology points to kinds of things that we have a moral reason to be concerned about, but it has
nothing to offer on the question how we ought to act all things considered. And although it is not
always obvious, people who engage in normative debate about the environment often base their
reasoning on some kind of normative theory which, in more general terms, tells us how we ought to
act. Normative theories are usually divided into three categories: consequentialism, deontology and
virtue ethics. Consequentialism is the view that an agent is morally required to perform the act with
the best consequences. Many consequentialists are utilitarians. They focus on welfare and insist that
the best consequences are those containing maximum welfare. But consequentialism can be
combined with any of the axiologies mentioned above.17 A biocentric consequentialist could, for
example, claim that the best outcome of an action or policy is the one in which there is the most
fully realised equality (of potential to flourish) between humans and other living creatures.18

Deontology, on the other hand, is the view that certain types of act (e.g. harming innocents, or
perhaps, rendering a species extinct) are morally forbidden even when the performance of those acts
would bring about the best consequences. In principle, deontologists can disagree over whether the
deontic rules function as absolute prohibitions19 or are somewhat weaker and can be broken if
enough is at stake. They can also, of course, dispute the kinds of action that are morally forbidden.
And like consequentialism, deontology can be combined with any the axiologies sketched above. In
the literature on environmental ethics, deontology has been combined with anthropocentrism20 and
with biocentrism.21 A biocentric deontologist might claim that we are morally forbidden from
killing living organisms intentionally.

In virtue theory the focus is not so much on what kinds of act are right, but what a virtuous person
would do. In environmental ethics, the virtue ethicist might claim that the moral evaluation of
something like deforestation cannot be based exclusively on consideration of what consequences
that would have, or on the question whether there is a constraint on acts which lead to deforestation.
Instead we must look at the character of the person who performs the act. If deforestation is a result

17
This also goes for utilitarianism! See e.g. Sprigge’s utilitarian defence of ecocentrism in ‘Are there Intrinsic Values in
Nature?’ Journal for Applied Philosophy 4.1, 1987: pp. 21-28. Reprinted in Applied Philosophy: Morals and
Metaphysics in Contemporary Debate, eds. Almond and Hill (London and New York: Routledge, 1991, pp. 37-44.
18
The movement known as ‘left biocentrism’ is, as far as I can see, a consequentialist position which, unlike
utilitarianism, says that we ought to be concerned about the distribution of what is valuable. For references to literature
on left biocentrism see Curry Ecological Ethics: An introduction, Polity Press 2006.
19
The german philosopher Immanuel Kant is a well-known defender of this position: see his: Grundlegung zur
Metaphysik der Sitten, 1785.
20
See e.g. Ferry (1992).
21
See e.g. Taylor (1984).
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of vandalism or vicious egoism, it is the kind of action a virtuous person would not engage in.
Ecofeminism can be interpreted as a kind of environmental virtue ethics. One can see this when its
defenders suggest that our despoliation of the environment points up problems with ‘male
character’, with its tendency to dominate, and with its limited capacity for caring and appreciation
of the aesthetic beauty of nature.22

This overview of the ethical positions available in environmental ethics will, I hope, make it easier
to understand why people disagree over the ethics of the environment. A major source of
disagreement is, of course, scientific dispute over empirical facts – e.g. the causes and consequences
of ozone depletion. Is depletion of the ozone layer caused by human activity, or just part of a natural
process in which human emission of carbon dioxide does not matter at all? But as philosophical
discussion in environmental ethics has shown, there is plenty of room for ethical debate even if
people agree on the relevant empirical data. Those engaged with environmental issues might
benefit, therefore, from raised awareness of their axiological and normative commitments. These
tend to be less apparent than the science, and in environmental matters, as elsewhere, the first step
towards a fruitful dialogue is usually to locate the source of disagreement.

22
For an example of ecofeminism, see Plumwood, ‘Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy,
and the Critique of Rationalism’ in Elliot (ed.) Enviromental Ethics, 1995.