Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Environmental Ethics

Environmental Ethics

  • Environmental ethics is a branch of “environmental philosophy”, and was given birth to in around the 1970s in the wake of the first “Earth Day”. It aims to assess the nature of environmental damage, the nature of human beings in respect to this, and the views of the people involved.
  • It is important, before we start, to mark a difference between the intrinsic and instrumental values of things:
    • Instrumental value is something that we assign to an object depending on its worth to us. This is subject to change from species to species and from person to person. For example: a humid atmosphere has a high intrinsic value for snails, as it makes their lives more comfortable; for us, however, it has a lesser intrinsic value as it makes us quite emphatically uncomfortable.
    • Intrinsic value is the value of something within itself; in a Kantian sense, as an “end in itself”, rather than as any means to an end.
  • Equal Intrinsic Value (or species egalitarianism) states that every creature has equal value in itself and thus, killing an ant is the same as killing a human being. This means we should only really intervene with things “at vital need”, rather than based on selfish desire (although, philosophers seem to overlook that we tend not to interfere with other human beings “at vital need”, but rather, whenever we feel like it).
  • It is commonly argued that humans have a prima facie duty toward (or a primary duty toward) something which has intrinsic value, and our duty is to protect that thing.


  • This is a “human centred” view. This view was originated, in the most part, by the industrial revolution, where the environment suffered incredibly in the pursuit of knowledge, and, as Francis Bacon said, “knowledge is power”. The race to power was a dire time for the world. Poor world.
  • Anthropocentrism is perpetuated by the empiricist capitalist view of modern times.
  • A lot of theologians argue that Anthropocentrism comes from a misinterpretation of the idea of Stewardship perpetuated in Genesis. People believe that God put everything upon the Earth for the sake of Human beings. Genesis 1:26,28 tells us
    • Then God said, “And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. They will have power over the fish, the birds and all the animals, domestic and wild, large and small”… He blessed them, and said, “Have many children, so that your descendants will love over the earth and bring it under their control. I am putting you in charge of the fish, the birds, and all the wild animals.”
  • Thus, our abuse of the environment is deemed ethical. This shows that we are the only creatures that possess intrinsic value, or that, perhaps, we possess greater intrinsic value than any other animal.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas said that “through being cruel to animals one becomes cruel to human beings… injury to an animal leads to the temporal hurt of man.”
  • Kant in “Duties to Animals and Spirits” that “cruelty towards a dog might encourage a person to develop a character that would be desensitized to cruelty towards humans.
  • A lot of people argue that as other people are harsh to the environment, they too ought to be.
    • This is famously criticised by David Hume, in saying that what is and what ought to be are two completely separate things and should never be used in order to reach personal conclusions, as embodied by the age old reprisal quoted by all parents: “If everyone else went and jumped off a bridge, would you?”
  • This can, of course, be twisted to say that, if pollution harms the environment, we ought not to pollute, and say that this is a conclusion that we should not follow, as it was dubiously reached. However, the is/ought argument cannot cast doubt on this, as the imperative outlined appears just, but the methods of getting to it are merely ones frowned upon.


  • This is the idea that we cannot act irresponsibly to the world, as we are it’s “stewards”, carers, custodian or whatever you want to call it. In the same way that a farmer cares for his land, his crops and his livestock (y’know, if you ignore the fact that they will be slaughtered and sold… heh [didn’t think this one through did I]) we should care for the whole planet.
  • We are often told that this is to preserve the earth for future generations.
  • This is a popular religious stance, especially amongst Christians, Jews and people of the Islamic faith.
  • Leviticus tells us:
    • Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis, because you do not own it; it belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it.”
  • And Job tells us:
    • Even birds and animals have much they could teach you; ask the creatures of earth and sea for their wisdom. All of them know that the Lord’s hand made them. It is God who directs the lives of his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.”

  • Aside from the anthropocentric view, we have the Non-human rights view (or the “Libertarian Extension”) and the Ecocentric (or “Ecological Extension”) view.

The 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 (existing) entities, animate and in-animate, can be given ethical worth purely on the basis that they exist.


  • Peter Singer argues that utility does not argue simply for human beings, but the greatest good for the greatest number, regardless of species.
    • If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with like suffering.”
  • Singer argues that many people suffer from “specieism”, a prejudicial preference for ones own species over another!
  • Tom Regan argues that all beings have a personal, “inherent” value, that there life is of value to them. This value has no varying degrees, as something either exists and has life, or it does not and cannot.
    • The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us – to be eaten, or surgically manipulated, or exploited for sport or money. Once we accept this view of animals as our resources, the rest is as predictable as it is regrettable.
  • Paul Taylor uses Kantian ethics in his book “Respect for Nature” and comes to similar conclusions. A respect for nature forces us to adopt the attitude of perceiving non-human nature as having “good of their own”, or in being ends in their own right. This predicates that we have a moral responsibility toward them in the similar way that we must act as though they and we were part of a “kingdom of ends”.

The Ecological Extension

  • This examines the environment as a whole, not as a sum of individual parts!
  • Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” claimed (in 1949) that we were on the cusp of a new moral advancement, one which regulates the conduct between man and nature, and one which he dubbed “the land ethic”.
    • “the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
    • This forces us to see ourselves not as hierarchical noblemen of the world, but members of an equally righteous community, a community in which were are members in just as great a part as “the land” is.
    • “Leopold argues that all species deserve consideration “as a matter of biotic right”, and offers a principle that brings into focus the broader ethical concerns of the environment:”
      • 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.

Gaia Hypothesis

  • This is pioneered for the most part by a fella by the names of James Lovelock, a technician who worked with NASA on the mars project. This is a theory that argues for interdependence between the living and “non-living” on Earth.
    • His theory was developed from the ideas of Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist, at the time, at Boston University.
    • This idea hinges on the idea that complex cells were originally developed by “endosymbiotic cell capture”, wherein, over time, cells capture other cells in order to create a very complex cell indeed! Originally, it is argued, cells just sat around. They went on to “steal” mitochondria, chloroplasts and other complex organelles. This is apparent in the idea that a lot of organelles contain separate DNA to the nucleus of a cell, and this DNA happens to be “ring-like”, like most bacterial DNA.
    • This appears analogous to the idea that the earth is, like a complex cell, something composed of a lot of interdependent items. However, rather than simply claiming that, like in a complex cell, the organic pieces appear to be interdependent, he claims all life on earth to be as such.
  • James Lovelock’s idea, in fairness, was not that revolutionary. People had been arguing for the interdependence of life for a long while. However, Lovelock made the quite profound statement that, if we are interdependent and could consider the earth itself to be a living organism in it’s own right, then who is to say that it really wants us to be here at all?
  • If the earth could be considered to just be another life form, then one could suppose that it may be just as selfish as any other life form, and one which considers its own interests and simply happens to sustain other areas of an ecosystem by accident. This “ruthlessly self-regulating” entity is one which, considering this, may not be one concerned with keeping us here at all! If we are being detrimental to the health of the planet, we could very well be ousted from the gene pool! Therefore, it may be in our best interests to be nice to the planet in an attempt to live on it as long as possible.
  • However, this view has come under a little bit of criticism. This view indicates a sort of creator and supports the teleological existence of God. However, without any God in sight, can we say it was created by him, or can it purely be used to further prove him?
  • As well as this, this theory is in contrast with current scientific ideals which state that life is just a miraculous chance.

  • Richard Dawkins, author of “The Selfish Gene” argues that, if the planet were truly an organism, it would do nothing to propagate other life on the planet, but would rather be concerned with its own fight for survival. It could be purely coincidence that it provides, in doing this, good conditions for other life, and this should be considered.
    • He claims that the Gaia theory implies, however, a “clubbing together” of life in order to create good conditions for life and to keep the planet healthy, something which seems somewhat counter intuitive.
    • He also claims that this theory implies a sort of intelligent control behind the maintenance of the planet. Without this, there could be no real foresight or planning, things necessary to propagate life so intricately on such a scale.

Deep Ecology

  • Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer coined the phrase “deep ecology” in order to describe deep ecological awareness. This does not separate humans from the world around them and sets us all an equal intrinsic value. It views us, like Gaia theory, as being part of the interdependent set of phenomena which govern existence.
  • In contrast, there exists “shallow ecology”, which is in accord with anthropocentrism and the idea of instrumental value.
  • This “deep ecology”, in cahoots with Gaia theory, when considering the idea of the human spirit and the will, we can see that, possibly, we are spiritually connected with the whole universe. This idea is mirrored in the Latin roots of the very word “religion”: religare (to bind strongly), as well as the Sanskrit yoga, which means “union”.

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