Three approaches to environmental ethics - 1

Environmental Ethics
Written by:critical (on Scribd.com), for Professor Annette Lee in course 32.184
(Environmental Ethics).
DEC 94

The three main approaches in environmental ethics are:

Anthropocentric, Extensionist, and Holistic (non-extensionist). Each one of these approaches deals differently with both the criteria for deciding who or what has moral standing, and the adjudication amongst those with moral standing. The Anthropocentric approach derives its criteria for moral standing from human qualities. Anthropocentric ethical theories are characterized by criteria (for moral standing) such as: the status of being human, personhood, potential personhood, rationalism, linguistic capability, and sentience.

In this conceptualization only humans can have moral standing. Non-humans are granted certain consideration in so far as they are valued by humans with moral standing. A major strength of anthropocentric theories is their amenability to methods of adjudication. To have moral standing, one must be human and that is it. Many years have been spent within Western society perfecting a procedure for adjudication, and this procedure is advanced and well-defined. None of the other ethical approaches have so well-defined a method of adjudication.

The overwhelming weakness of anthropocentric theories is their focus on humans. Being human-centred, these ethical theories are severely limiting: thus, their moral criteria are unjustifiable.

The extensionist approach derives its criteria in basically the same way as the anthropocentric approach. The only difference is that it extends moral standing (usually by analogy) to non-human animals. Within society, anthropocentric approaches grant non-paradigm humans moral standing, even though they may lack the relevant criteria (eg. self-awareness, an ability to perceive oneself in the future, or an ability to feel pain). Extensionism basically extends the category beyond non-paradigm humans to include non-humans. The extensionist approach calls for criteria that are justifiable. To be justifiable, criteria cannot be racist, sexist, ageist, speciesist, and so on (the list goes on and on). For the reason of justifiability, existentionists reject criteria which can easily be slapped with any of the above 'ist' labels (eg. speciesist). In the case of one extensionist ethical theorist, Singer, the criteria for moral standing are derived from a being's ability to feel pain. Methods for adjudicating amongst those who can feel pain are not clearly set out by Singer. Regan, on the other hand, does not even appear to ask the question of how to adjudicate. Vandeveer is another extensionist theorist who clearly attempts to deal with the adjudication problem and he has moderate success with his two-factor egalitarianism.

A major strength is the extensionist rejection of overly human-centred criteria. Its weakness lies in its failure to reject hierarchal orderings of the moral community (more on hierarchies below).


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Three approaches to environmental ethics - 2

Holism, or non-extensionist ethical theories, take an entirely different approach from the above two ethical systems: in fact holism was founded in opposition to them. Holism tries to look at ethics from as much of a non-anthropocentric point of view as possible. As mentioned above, Anthropocentrism and Extensionism take a quality found in humans and apply moral standing to all of the other creatures who have those qualities (all who meet those criteria). Holistic theories attempt to conceptualize the Earth as a single whole made up of all that exists on it. The interconnectedness of everything is one of the primary tenets of this approach and this is where adjudication is dealt with. Being a relatively new field of ethics, Holism is very ill-defined and ill-formed as of yet. Perhaps this is why moral standing and adjudication are not easily determined on the basis of many holistic theories.

One notable exception among holistic theories is Aldo Leopold's land ethic. The land ethic confers moral standing upon all parts of the Earth's ecosystem, depending on their relation to the whole. Adjudication, according to Leopold's theory, is achieved by deciding who has greater importance within the ecosystem as a whole. If one of the competing entities has no apparent value to the whole, while the other is of fundamental importance to the whole, then the latter entity would win (would remain in the lifeboat). Leopold explains:
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 (Leopold p82).
Unfortunately the actual method of adjudication is vague, and as for who decides what is more important to the whole, this is a very complex and debatable issue. The other holistic theories are as of yet too new to deal with the two questions of this course.

One of the more important strengths of holism is its rejection of hierarchy. Hierarchy, no matter on what it is based, is unjustifiable in some sense or another and therefore theories which avoid hierarchies are that much more justifiable. Holism's major weakness seems to be its exclusion of individuals from the ethical arena. This exclusion can be noted especially in the land ethic and deep ecology. It is debatable whether or not individual moral standing is relevant within holistic theories, but individual standing is a fundamental tenet of Western society and is not just going to disappear.

Yes, the fundamental goals of animal liberation and the land ethic are in conflict
-- if one accepts the belief system of dualism. The goal of the animal liberation movement, if one can generalize about such a broad movement, is to bring animals as individuals into our moral community (as characterized by Regan, Singer, and Vandeveer). While this movement focuses on individuals, it claims that the environment as a whole will be protected when its goals are accomplished.

The goal of the land ethic appears to be to provide an ethical framework on which to base our treatment of the Earth. This ethic approaches the environment holistically, recognizing the interconnectedness of all beings, and claims that all individuals are taken care of when the interests of the whole are addressed.

The land ethic attempts its goal by applying what can be called natural criteria. Using these criteria, that which is natural (e.g. the food chain) is good; that which tends away from the natural process is wrong (see the land ethic, p82). The animal liberation movement would have us interfere to a large degree with natural processes. For example, it would have us become vegetarians (see both Singer and Regan). Humans are omnivores and this is our place within the food web: to alter this would be to do wrong according to the land ethic.
These two approaches are also fundamentally opposed from a Western traditional standpoint. Dualism (dealt with more thoroughly below) is a basic belief system that western society as a whole seems to hold. It involves dualist patterns such as good-bad, black-white, male-female, and individual-whole. In its approach to the individual-whole debate, the land ethic is on the 'whole' end of the spectrum, while animal liberationists are on the 'individual' end of the spectrum. Now in reality these two approaches are not necessarily in conflict, but dualisms are a very large part of western culture and are probably not possible to overcome (in the foreseeable future).

In looking after the needs of individuals does this also take care of the needs of the whole? Conversely, does taking care of the needs of the whole deal adequately with the needs of the individual? If the individual and the whole are truly on opposite ends of a single spectrum, then perhaps the land ethic and the animal liberation movement are in fundamental conflict. In reality we cannot claim that the dualist way of seeing the world is accurate; so we must accept that perhaps these two movements are not in fundamental conflict. Realistically, one is compelled to recognize the general adoption of dualisms within our society. Perhaps these dualisms, and nothing else, are the source of conflict between animal liberationists and holists like proponents of the land ethic.

Species' do not matter. 'Species' are basically a grouping of individuals into an
arbitrary taxonomy system that humans have designed for scientific purposes. The term 'species' is basically unquestioned by Myers in his article, "The Sinking Ark." His article consists of a large listing of facts and figures that outline the past, present, and future extinction rate of 'species.' Unfortunately our taxonomical system for defining 'species' is anything but exact and precise, rendering most of Myers' facts useless. Russow, on the other hand, questions the usefulness of the term 'species' in describing groups of animals. Russow also questions the acceptability of applying moral standing or value to an entity (or complex entity) like a 'species.'

Russow begins her argument by showing that our obligations to individuals are not sufficient to account for a treatment of individuals within endangered species which is different from our treatment of individuals that are members of a plentiful species (Russow p119). She further shows that granting individual (animals) rights (such as in Regan's ethical system) can have a paradoxical result, such as the extinction of all members of a species (Russow p120). The example Russow raises is the practice of capturing all individuals of an endangered species and confining them to a zoo in order to preserve that species. Regan's individualistic approach might condemn a species of animals to extinction because he places greater moral value on the individual. Regan states in his article that at almost no time should the rights of an individual be infringed upon:

Individual rights are not to be outweighed by such considerations [as the biotic community] (which is not to say that they are never to be outweighed) {Regan p204-5} As to who decides when individual rights should be outweighed, Regan remains silent.

Regan does, however, claim that there is a "possibility" that groups or "systems" can have an "inherent value" that is distinct from both the individuals' interests and the sum of any number of individuals that comprise this group (Regan p205). In the next sentence of his article, Regan questions the viability of attributing moral rights to such a super entity like a group, because only individuals can have rights. Russow also believes that our "obligations toward species" is in no real way similar to our obligation not to cause animals pain (Russow p120).

Three approaches to environmental ethics - 3

Thus far we have two conflicting views: the view that individual rights can lead to the extinction of a species, and the view that super entities like species cannot have rights (therefore we have no means to address the problem of extinction). Russow raises some viewpoints which conflict with her own view regarding valuing species. The only ones that merit mention in this exam are the extrinsic and intrinsic value arguments she mentions in pages 123-24.

First, I find Russow's argument in general to be a very poor 'straw-person' argument. What she is really criticizing is our use of the 'term' species. When she argues against various ethical theories she does not make it clear that, with few exceptions, what she is really criticizing is the use of a single term. I find Russow's critique of the extrinsic value argument to be valid. Species which are not a major part of the ecosystem (eg. sub-species) would not be protected by this argument (see p123). In dealing with the intrinsic value argument, Russow explains that we have no non-arbitrary basis on which to place intrinsic value regarding species and sub-species. This is where the major problem with the term 'species' comes into play: without a non-arbitrary process that organizes individuals into groups, we cannot give intrinsic value to these species. Russow's solution is to place value solely on individuals, thus avoiding the quagmire of species (as she sees it). What Russow is doing though is replacing an arbitrary method (species valuation) with an equally arbitrary method, individual aesthetic valuation (what could be more arbitrary?). Russow is basically grouping together all individuals which have the characteristics that make them aesthetically valuable. Russow is merely replacing the concept of a 'species' with the concept of a 'group of individuals with certain characteristics.' She is not actually making any real change of value. This is a "straw-person" argument. A species is basically a group of individuals that have certain characteristics such that we classify them together. It is true that this classification process can at sometimes be arbitrary, but it is not clear that the arguments Russow was dealing with were actually valuing super entities like species, or just groups of individuals much like she did herself.

On the charge of speciesism toward any movement that values vanishing 'species' differently than plentiful species, what Russow has here is a 'red-herring' -- not a general argument. A species can easily be considered merely a group of individuals that share certain characteristics. A vanishing species is a group of individuals which is dying out. If we treat all vanishing species in a like manner and all non- vanishing species in a like manner, we cannot be considered speciesist. To rephrase what Russow suggests in a more revealing light consider: an individual is sickly and its strength is vanishing, while another individual is healthy and strong. Would it be an arbitrary choice to aid the sickly, individual, while leaving the healthy individual alone? Conceivably not, and the same argument holds true for groups of individuals like species. Even though each individual within a vanishing species is perfectly healthy, all of the individuals taken as a whole could be considered less healthy than a like species that is not vanishing: this then is our justification for treating endangered species differently than a normal healthy species.

To deal with the arguments involving granting moral standing to wholes, it is sufficient merely to suggest that, within the Myers, Regan, and Russow trio, no argument against granting moral standing to wholes projects beyond the very limited concept of 'rights.' Certainly it is true that a group of beings cannot be considered to have rights per se; only individuals can have rights as we perceive them in our atomistic society. But what is debatable is that granting only individual rights is sufficient to deal with the needs of the whole. The trio mentioned above (with the exception of Myers, who barely mentions rights at all) seems to believe that individual rights (or valuations) can take care of all possible needs of the whole. Holistic theorists clearly seem to believe the opposite, however, and this is the nature of the long-standing debate between society and the individual. Which side is correct? Perhaps neither is correct taken in isolation.

Some examples of dualisms as found in the Ecofeminism article by Judith Plant

are: woman-man, nature-culture, self-other, mechanistic-organic, mind-body, private sphere-public sphere, rational-emotional, and domination-submission. Dualism is the oppositional ordering of two things such that they are considered to be on opposite ends of an extreme. The importance of recognizing the way we think in dualisms is the fact that dualisms basically form a belief system: the oppositional model they provide is constructed and has no corner on the truth market. The dualism that was the focus of the greater part of this course material was that between the individual and the whole, as represented by Regan and Leopold respectively.

The hierarchies which are represented within Social Ecology are: human and nature, man and woman, and perhaps rich and poor. Social Ecology claims that the hierarchies within society are the root of our present ecological conflicts. Hierarchy is the differential ordering of groups or entities in a stratified manner. According to Social Ecology, hierarchies are forms of inequality that are unjust. Within the broader context of our course, anthropocentric as well as extensionist ethical theories organize the creatures of the Earth into a hierarchy of moral standing. Anthropocentric theorists place humans at the top, while Singer's extensionist theory places sentient beings at the top.

A presumptive duty is best understood in opposition to an absolute duty. In our society today I have a presumptive duty not to kill any human being. This duty is not absolute because in a time of war or in a case of self-defense individuals lose their right to life. This distinction is important to keep in mind when dealing with rights-based ethical theories.

Deep Ecology, according to Arne Neass (the founder), is an ecological ethical

approach that asks deeper questions than both shallow ecology, and ecology from a purely scientific perspective. Deep Ecology is deeper than shallow ecology, which Arne Neass describes as an anthropocentric ecological perspective. Deep Ecology is also deeper than scientific ecology because it asks ethical questions, like 'what should we do,' and 'how can we change our society to better maintain the ecosystem' (Simple in Means ... p 183). Deep ecology promotes respect and valuation for 'every life form.' It also promotes an understanding and spiritual acceptance of the interconnectedness of the world ecosystem. Deep ecology also promotes a rejection of hierarchies (p185). Shallow ecology is basically the anthropocentric ethical approach, as outlined above.

The 'good of a being' as dealt with in this course has been described in class as interests. To explore what is in the interests of a being one must look to the good of that being. Two distinctions of interests have been outlined within our course: a being has a well being to which good health is conducive, and a being wants good health. This exploration of interests is fundamentally important to both the anthropocentric and the extensionist theories (and also in some cases to holistic theories). This exploration of interests helps the theorist to establish moral relevance for various beings and situations.

Approaches To Environmental Ethics And Kant’S Principle

1. All of the three approaches to environmental ethics use Kant’s principle to various extents. The differences between them lie in their individual definitions of moral categories. It’s like looking at the same slide under three different powers on a microscope. Each approach relies on Kant’s principle to protect the interest of that which they deem worthy. Baxter’s anthropocentric approach clearly states that our obligations regarding the environment are to be determined solely on the basis of human interests. Our welfare depends on breathable air, drinkable water and edible food. Thus, polluting the environment to the extent that it damages the air, water and land is unacceptable because it damages public welfare. Animals and plants are considered non-rational beings and are therefore not considered in the same moral category as humans. However, Baxter does not approve of mass destruction of these objects because people do depend on them in many ways and they should be preserved to the degree that humans depend on them. Clean air and water are good for plants and animals, too, so they will benefit from humankind’s attention to environmental ethics, but their preservation will in no way take precedence over any human interests.

We change the power on the microscope to look at Rollin’s argument for a sentientist approach. With this view, the moral category includes all sentient beings, not just human beings. Rollins believes that any being possessing an awareness of the senses that does not involve thought or perception has intrinsic value and is an end-in-themselves. He contends that animal interests must also be considered when determining our environmental obligations. Thus, we might have a moral obligation to preserve some natural habitat that is of no value to human beings if its destruction would harm some non-human beings. Another adjustment to the microscope, and we can examine Leopold’s biocentric opinion of how environmental ethics should be governed. His approach enlarges the moral category to include soils, waters, plants and animals and claims our obligation is to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.

Philosophers Devall and Sessions further define the biocentric view with the concept of deep ecology. Devall and Sessions argue that “the well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.” (503)

2. Autonomy and liberty have almost the same definitions and I believe that both Nielson and Hospers were trying to convey the same point, but at the same time have different views of the two shown by the context they used them in. Nielson states, “An autonomous person is a person who is able to set her ends for herself and in optimal circumstances is able to pursue those ends”. (359) In Hospers explanation of his second classification of human rights, the right to liberty, he states “there should be no laws compromising in any way freedom of speech…There should be no censorship…by government”. (353) Comparing these two interpretations, we see that both are essentially stating that a person has the right to do anything they please, and in the case of liberty, the right not to have interference by the community or the government.

The difference can be seen clearly by using the employee example. Nielson claims that workers have the right to do what they want and Hospers declares that they have the privilege to work and the owners have the final say about what the workers do. Hence, in the eyes of these two authors, autonomy is inherent whereas liberty is earned. Anyone can be autonomous whereas if a person doesn’t respect other people’s rights then they will not earn the right to liberty and freedom.

The idea of freedom and liberty seem to embody the same principal. Nielson declares “Freedom does not only mean being autonomous; it also means the absence of unjustified political and social interference in the pursuit of one’s ends”. (359) Therefore, if one is autonomous they have the rights to live their lives to their accordance. To have liberty and freedom, however, one can live their life to their choosing, but must not negatively infringe on another person’s life. 3. “A Libertarian’s or individualist conception of justice holds liberty to be the ultimate moral ideal” (346). In regards to libertarianism, “The sole function of the government is to protect the individual’s life, liberty and property against force and fraud.” (347)

Hospers categorizes the rights of society into three groups: the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to property. These are three rights society has that should not be able to be taken away. Libertarians assume that government’s responsibility is to protect human rights and penalize those that infringe on those rights. Principal of Liberty – people should be allowed to do what they wish as long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s right to do the same. Government laws for society can be classified into three categories. “Laws protecting individuals against themselves, Laws protecting individuals against aggressions by other individuals and Laws requiring people to help one another.” (354)

Within these laws, libertarians reject the first law altogether. They feel that this is a paternalistic law and all people should assume responsibility for themselves. Libertarians also reject the third law because no one in society should be forced to help another. According to Libertarians the second law is the only law that should exist. “I may do anything I wish with my own life, liberty and property without your consent; but I may do nothing with your life, liberty and property without your consent”. (351) “All that which an individual possesses by right (including his life and property) are morally his to use, dispose of and even destroy, as he sees fit.” (351)

4. The Commission’s recommendations sited three reasons why the US should be concerned with the present state of world hunger. First, the Commission claims there is a “moral obligation to overcome hunger, based on two universal values – respect for human dignity and social justice.” (396) In the hierarchy of human needs, food is one of the most basic of all, along with air, water and shelter. If these fundamental requirements for life are not met, then higher level needs seem almost to be luxuries and unimportant. Unless all governments of the world actively strive to see that hunger is a tragedy of the past, “the principle that human life is sacred, which forms the very basis of human society, will gradually but relentlessly erode.” (397) The Commission believes the US would be the strongest leader in such a social reform “because of its agricultural productivity, its advanced food technology, and its market power.” (397) They state further that unless the US steps up to this challenge, there is no hope in the foreseeable future for an effective program to eliminate world hunger.

Also, the Commission claims that “coordinated international progress toward social justice” is the only way to global security. Huge armies and advanced warfare technology are only the tip of the iceberg when describing national security. All nations need to work together and help each other to achieve an equality of the most fundamental human rights for life, which should eventually lead to economic development and stability. With such a concerted effort, the security of our nation and, in fact, the world could be a reality. Finally, when the people of the world are not spending all their energy merely to survive, there becomes an opportunity to focus their efforts on becoming “more productive, more equitable and more internationally competitive.” (398) This fact is vitally important to the stability of the US economy. Allowing developing nations to starve to death is like cutting off our nose to spite our face. We’re only hurting ourselves in the long run because we are allowing potential trade markets to wither on the vine.

5. Garret Hardin is opposed to the creation of a World Food Bank, labeling it the new commons. The tragedy of the commons is an ethical theory that inevitably leads to a “mutual ruin.” In the analogy of the commons, “the right of each to use it is not matched by an operational responsibility to take care of it” (409). It is certain that there would be nothing to protect the commons if it is used by all of society. “If everyone would only restrain himself, all would be well; but it takes only one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint” (409) That is, if one person does something different than is expected, the whole system will be undermined. This supports Hardin’s view on the World Food Bank. In his article, Hardin describes the World Food Bank as an “international deposition of food reserves to which nations can contribute according to their abilities, and from which nations may draw according to their needs” (409) Hardin gives a couple of negative consequences of this concept. He feels that each organization should be responsible for its own well being. He goes on to say that some may endure suffering but they will learn from these experiences. A wise country should save production in good years to be used in those less plentiful. However, the majority of governments do not attempt this and they will suffer. With a food bank, these countries will never be motivated to take on responsibility because others will bail them out whenever they are in trouble.

The dependence that is obtained from the bank brings the thought that there is no reason to produce food if people will give it away. This ties into the tragedy of the commons. Some countries won’t contribute as much as they are able and some will take too much and destroy it for everyone. Hardin goes on to describe the ratchet effect that would occur with the implementation of the World Food Bank. He believes that instead of each nation going through a natural cycle of overpopulation followed by an emergency, the population would be pushed upwards with the “inputs of food from the World Food Bank preventing [the population] from moving down” (411). It is this demographic cycle that keeps the population under control. Without the emergency portion, allowing a decrease, the population would continue to grow, leading to different sorts of astronomical problems. After a while, a lack of food will reoccur and again the food bank will provide. However, this time the supply of resources will have to be larger. Overall, the problem of hunger will not be solved; a Band-Aid will just be applied until the wound resurfaces again. “The process is brought to an end only by the collapse of the whole system” (411).

Once the mistake of the food bank is realized, the normal pattern will return. Kai Nielsen, however, doesn’t quite share Hardin’s view. Nielsen is in favor of democratic socialism and would side for a World Food Bank. He feels that everyone has a right to freedom and autonomy, equality, democracy and justice. A World Food Bank would aim to supply those without these rights, the ability to obtain them. I believe Nielsen would argue that the World Food Bank moves toward more public ownership and control over the means of production. He would take a communal standpoint on this issue and declare that the control of the food would come from the masses and not only a select few. Furthermore, Kai Nielsen would believe that a World Food Bank would distribute freedom. He describes freedom as being autonomous and “the absence of unjustified political and social interference in the pursuit of one’s ends” (359). He would argue that there are those who unjustly lack that freedom without interference and are denied “an equal right to the means of life” (360) Also, he would defend that there should be a movement toward equality of condition. He states in his article that democratic socialism would move to approximate this equality. I believe he would view the World Food Bank of a step in achieving these rights that some currently don’t have.

The anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric approach

Two opposing approaches to environmental ethics became evident as the field emerged. The approach that sees the environment only in terms of what in the environment can benefit humans is called the anthropocentric approach. The nonanthropocentric approach, conversely, considers the intrinsic value in every part of the environment, from the oceans to bacteria. But there are many variations in both of these main approaches, as each seeks to expand or limit its scope for reasons of practicality and common sense. For instance, as J. Baird Callicott points out, a strictly anthropocentric view holds that humans alone are morally valuable because only they possess the property of rationalism, and they are the only inhabitants of the environment that do. However, if we follow the logic of such a point of view, infants, for example, would have no moral value and thus not merit our consideration or protection. Anthropocentrism must therefore "lower the bar" of moral consideration such that it includes groups like the one just cited.

On the other hand, an ecocentric approach that requires us to give moral consideration to every living thing on the planet would be too broad to be of any practical value, since inevitably certain human requirements will come into conflict with some parts of the environment. If mosquitoes carry diseases that kill humans (malaria, for instance), it is not practical nor would it be acceptable to claim that we should not try to eradicate the disease-carrying mosquitoes, because they deserve the same moral consideration as humans.

It is interesting to note that there are times when both approaches would arrive at the same conclusion regarding the moral justification (or lack thereof) for a certain action on the environment. In light of what we now know about dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT), its use would be wrong from an ecocentric point of view because it causes massive damage to many different species. From an anthropocentric point of view, the damage that DDT contamination causes in humans, both physically and through destruction of the beneficial parts of their environment, would make its use unjustified.

Nonetheless, DDT, although it is banned in developed countries, was still being manufactured by China and Mexico, as late as 1999, and exported to developing countries. It is mainly used to control malaria, for which scientists claim there is no economically feasible alternative, and was formerly employed to protect crops imported by the United States (though this has not been the case since 1986). Is the use of DDT to control malaria justified, in the absence of feasible alternatives? What about the protection of crops? For people living in poverty, healthy crops that can be exported mean a better life—a desirable outcome. But the environmental damage to the region that is sprayed, including its human population, is as bad as it has always been. Furthermore, importing sprayed crops reintroduces DDT into our environment. Even the anthropocentric views that strictly consider human benefits vs. risks would agree that the latter use of DDT is morally unjustified, but can the same be said about its use to control malaria? Approximately one million people die each year as a result of this disease. The problem here is not scientific—alternative control methods exist. Therefore, it seems that the only morally justified action would be to make the alternative available at a reasonable price, so that neither the environment nor the people who survive the malaria suffer the consequences of exposure to DDT.

As environmental ethics matured and expanded, so did the questions it raised. Who is responsible for the cost of cleaning up hazardous waste? Or for the harm an old dump site caused when the chemicals there leaked? What if at the time the site was created, the company dumping wastes at that location only suspected this action would present a problem in the future, but had no concrete evidence of this? A holistic view (neither anthropocentric nor ecocentric) would say that the morally correct course of action would be to err on the side of caution. The precautionary principle, as it is known, places the burden of proof on the entity trying to promote the action it says would be beneficial—for example, the DDT manufacturer—since an action cannot be reversed once it is taken. At that point, one can only control the damage, if it occurs. Another area environmental ethics expanded into is distributive justice, which calls for everyone involved in a process or decision to receive their due consideration. Distributive justice is important in siting a hazardous waste disposal site, for instance. Currently, these sites often end up in low-income or politically powerless areas, where the local population has no adequate representation. Distributive justice seeks to remedy this kind of discrimination.

Environmental ethics became the basis for many political movements with sometimes contradictory ideas, but the many successful campaigns associated with such movements improved our lives by protecting the environment and reducing pollution. However, in light of the fact that the overall global picture is not improving where the environment is concerned, it would appear beneficial to all of us to adopt personal environmental ethics and live by them day to day.

Beef Addiction

The addiction to beef that is characteristic of people in the industrialised countries is not only a moral atrocity for animals but also causes health problems for consumers, reduces grain supplies for the poor, precipitates social divisions in developing countries, contributes to climate change, leads to the conversion of forests to pasture lands, is a causal factor in overgrazing, and is implicated in the destruction of native plants and animals. If there is one issue on which animal liberationists and environmentalists should speak with a single voice it is on this issue.

(Dale Jamieson, "Animal Liberation Is an Environmental Ethic," Environmental Values 7 [February 1998]: 41-57, at 46)

Jamieson defends animal rights

Jamieson goes green!

Defining philosophy

Dale Jamieson

Interview with Dale Jamieson



Global ethical society:




















Right, wrong and green

Is it ever right to shoot goats, or spill raw sewage into a pristine stream?: the ethical complexities of saving the environment

We spend large sums to preserve endangered species. We prevent development in mountains and wetlands that earlier generations considered wastelands. We kill exotic animals to protect native plants. We sacrifice present convenience to avoid forms of pollution that will have no effect on us, but will harm future generations. In doing these things, we are making ethical choices. What are the values at stake? When there is disagreement, how can we decide which view is right? Is there even such a thing as the right answer?

Until now, it has been difficult to find a good introduction to these questions. Many books on environmental ethics are more concerned to argue a case than to introduce the reader to the issues. Often they assert the need for a completely new, holistic approach to ethics, but it is difficult to know exactly what the proposed new ethic amounts to. Attempts to make the implications of these proposals more precise either fail to achieve clarity, or lead to conclusions different from those that most environmentalists want. For example, biodiversity is often regarded as a value – but spilling a little raw sewage into a previously pristine stream may do wonders for biodiversity, as long as we include microorganisms in the total. So is it only natural biodiversity that is good? But that takes us back to John Stuart Mill’s warning, in his essay On Nature that the use of terms like “natural” is “one of the most copious sources of false taste, false philosophy, false morality, and even bad law”.

Dale Jamieson, a philosopher, and now Director of Environmental Studies at New York University, has been writing about environmental ethics since the 1980s, when he was one of the first philosophers to turn his attention to climate change. Six years ago, he brought together some of his best writing in Morality’s Progress: Essays on humans, other animals, and the rest of nature (2002), and he has edited, or co-edited, other collections of articles on environmental ethics. But Ethics and the Environment is his first book, properly speaking, and it is a very welcome one, for it can be recommended with confidence to those who know little about ethics.

It is common for books on applied ethics, in their haste to get to grips with the practical issues, to skip quickly over difficult questions about the extent to which we can reason our way to an answer on any ethical issue. Jamieson, in contrast, takes the “ethics” part of his title very seriously. He sees himself as bringing together two complex bodies of thought, each liable to their own confusions, and each, in the end, benefiting from being considered together. Environmental problems should not be seen as purely technological, nor purely economic. They are also ethical, and we understand them better by appreciating all their dimensions. Equally, however, Jamieson contends that our moral and political conceptions are challenged by the environmental problems we face. They need to adapt to a wider range of values, and a scale, both geographical and temporal, that extends far beyond that of most ethical and political issues.

Jamieson begins by showing how ethics can withstand a range of popular challenges posed by theists, amoralists and cultural relativists, before going on to consider two philosophical views of the nature of ethics, “realism” (the view that moral judgements are about something that can be true or false) and “subjectivism” (the view that there is no objective truth in morality), as well as more recent attempts to combine the virtues of each. His purpose is not to convince us that one of these positions is indubitably correct about the nature of morality, but to display the range of options. He then assesses the import of his conclusions for the notion of “intrinsic value” that is often invoked in discussions about the preservation of natural entities, whether endangered species, a rock formation, or an ecosystem. His point here is that although the idea that value is “intrinsic” to something can mean many different things, we can use it properly without being committed to a realist view of the nature of ethics.

Moving on to normative ethics, Jamieson discusses consequentialism (which holds that the right thing to do is the act that will have the best consequences), virtue ethics, which focuses on what is required to be a virtuous person, and Kantianism, the core conception of which is an insistence on treating everyone as an end, and never merely as a means – although exactly what that amounts to is controversial. He notes that environmentalists have often regarded consequentialism with suspicion, perhaps because they associate it with cost-benefit analysis as practised by economists, which has tended to ignore values on which we cannot easily put a monetary value – the loss of habitat for owls, for example. But Jamieson points out that this is a caricature of utilitarian consequentialism, which has a strong historical record of being on the side of moral progress, particularly when it comes to the moral status of animals.

When he turns to virtue ethics, Jamieson presses the point he made earlier, that environmental problems should have an impact on the way we do ethics. While it is true that many examples of environmental despoliation can be condemned as exemplifying vices like greed, others cannot. The “soccer mom” who drives her kids to sporting events and music lessons seems to be a model of virtue – yet she and millions of other equally virtuous people are, collectively, bringing about climate change. To take account of these large collective-action problems, we need a radically new set of virtues. The most serious problem Jamieson poses for Kantians is how they are to take account of the value of anything that is not an autonomous rational agent. Kant himself said unequivocally that animals are not ends in themselves, but mere means to our ends. The only reason he offers against cruelty to animals is that it may lead to cruelty to humans. That seems to miss the point. Jamieson notes that Christine Korsgaard, perhaps the leading contemporary Kantian ethicist, has stated flatly that Kant got this wrong, and we have reason for valuing animals as ends in themselves. Jamieson questions, however, whether this more benign view really can be derived from Kantian foundations.

Even after taking three chapters to develop this extensive account of ethics, Jamieson does not move directly to what is commonly thought of as environmental ethics. His next chapter is about the moral status of non-human animals. Since almost every decision we make about the environment will have an impact on animals, we need to know what weight to give those impacts. Jamieson agrees with what now seems to be a near-consensus among philosophers that “species-ism” – the view that we are entitled to take the interests of animals less seriously than we take human interests, simply because humans are members of our species – is not a defensible moral position. That still leaves many further issues to explore: does the principle of equal consideration of interests adequately ground the moral status of animals (as this reviewer has argued) or should we also attribute rights to animals, as Tom Regan contends? The way we answer that question may lead to different judgements about the wrongness of painlessly killing sentient beings who, because they lack self-awareness, have no explicitly future-directed preferences, and whose death thus seems less of a tragedy than the death of a self-conscious being who does have such preferences.

This discussion of how we may treat animals is put to good use in the chapter on the “value” of nature; here we get to the heart of environmental ethics: what value do we place on “nature” – whatever that is – and to what lengths should we go to preserve it? Among the case studies Jamieson discusses is a dilemma that arose about how to preserve endangered species on San Clemente Island, off the coast of California. The island is under the control of the US Navy, which uses it for target practice, among other things. But the threat of extinction for several species of plants, two species of birds, and one species of lizard, came not from naval bombardment, but from goats, who had been brought to the island by the Spanish in the seventeenth century and had since multiplied until they numbered about 30,000. The Navy removed thousands of goats from the island alive, but when the remainder proved too difficult to capture, began to shoot them from helicopters. Animal welfare protests led to some goats being captured with nets and helicoptered off the island, at significant expense, although some shooting continued. Twenty-eight years after the last goat on San Clemente Island was shot, none of the endangered species has recovered sufficiently to be removed from the endangered species list.

Jamieson helps us to think about such a conflict by pointing out all the distinct values at stake: animal welfare, human interests, including our aesthetic values, and our concern for what is “natural”. Tentatively, he suggests that perhaps eliminating “exotic” animals may be worse than tolerating them. The scare quotes around “exotics” are his, indicating that the line between what is an exotic animal and a native one is not always as clear as it seems. (The dingo, for example, is now regarded as a native Australian animal, having been in Australia for thousands of years, although it was brought to the continent by humans.) Jamieson buttresses his view that we are not justified in extirpating exotic animals by citing a horrific account, by a former national parks superintendent, of the deaths of pigs that were being hunted down as exotics. Given how gruesome these deaths are, Jamieson’s judgement seems reasonable. But the consequences would no doubt be the loss of some species that now survive only because we have eliminated competition from introduced animals. What is one to say to those who regard the painful deaths of millions of animals as a lesser evil than the loss of an endangered species, even when that species is an inconspicuous plant? The bigger lesson to draw from the San Clemente case is that when we are faced with a choice between such distinct, and arguably incommensurable, values, it is impossible to produce a compelling argument for one choice rather than another. The best that ethical analysis can do is make us more aware of the values we are choosing between.

In the final chapter, “Nature’s Future”, Jamieson departs from the balanced analysis of his previous chapters to give us an account of the global environmental crisis that we face over the next decade or two. He cites a study indicating that if everyone in the world lived the same way as the average American, it would take 5.3 planets with the resources of ours to support them. On that basis, he lays out three possibilities. The first is environmental catastrophe. The second is that the developed nations prevent developing people in China and India from achieving a standard of living similar to their own. The third is that the rich nations begin to live sustainably. No one wants the first option. The second is both unjust and, Jamieson argues, probably not feasible. That leaves only the third. How likely is it? Jamieson points to recent developments in Europe as giving some ground for hope, but he recognizes that what is really needed is a dramatic change of attitude in the United States.

With that the book ends – too soon. After such a solid preparation, it is a pity that the discussion of the ethical aspects of standard environmental issues is limited to a single chapter. Admittedly, actions relevant to the environment figure prominently as examples in earlier chapters, and the discussions of intrinsic value, and of what we owe to non-human animals, are highly relevant to environmental ethics. Nevertheless there are many topics that are only lightly touched on. Surprisingly, given Jamieson’s early and continued involvement in the debate about climate change, even that issue gets far less attention that it deserves – perhaps because he has written about it elsewhere. There is, for example, no detailed discussion of the ethics of the various bases that could be used for setting national carbon emission quotas. Should we use a historical principle that would require those nations that have put the carbon in the atmosphere to make the greatest cuts, or would it be fairer to allocate quotas on the basis of equal per capita shares of the atmosphere? Perhaps the deepest cuts should be made by those nations that are using the most fossil fuel for “luxury” purposes rather than to meet the basic needs of their people? Or should quotas reflect – much more favourably for the developed nations than any of the possibilities mentioned so far – the fact that the developed nations use less carbon to produce a given amount of goods than the developing nations?

Another issue on which it would have been good to have more discussion is the discount rate to be applied to future costs and benefits. This discount rate may seem like a piece of arcane economics, but once we put aside the relatively uncontroversial component of discounting (discounting done on the basis of the return we could get on an alternative investment of resources), what remains – “pure time preference”, as economists call it – is a matter of ethics, not economics. Its fundamental ethical importance is evident from the difference between the conclusions reached by Nicholas Stern in his 2007 report on climate change – which rejects discounting based on pure time preference – and the conclusions reached by models put forward by economists like the Yale Professor William Nordhaus, who does not reject it. Dale Jamieson mentions this issue in his first chapter, where it serves as an example of the way in which the environment raises value questions, but there is no full discussion of the case for and against discounting the future.

Although Ethics and the Environment could have been more comprehensive in its coverage of environmental issues, it would scarcely have been possible to do a better job of introducing the subject without making the book much longer than its roughly 200 pages. The material covered in the chapters on ethics is essential to a proper understanding of ethics and the environment, and the chapter on animals is a clear and concise account of that very relevant topic. Add those elements to the illuminating discussion of the value of nature, and the result is a book that can be recommended with confidence to anyone interested in learning about ethics, the environment and the interaction between them.



Dale Jamieson
ETHICS AND THE ENVIRONMENT
An introduction
221pp. Cambridge University Press. £15.99 (US $29.99).
978 0 521 68284 8



Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. His books include Animal Liberation: A new ethics for our treatment of animals, 1983, Practical Ethics, 1979, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and sociobiology, 1981, Rethinking Life and Death, 1995, and, with Jim Mason, Eating, 2006.

A Defence of Environmental Ethics

...is here...

The Last Man - 1

You are the last human being. You shall soon die. When you are gone, the only life remaining will be plants, microbes, invertebrates. For some reason, the following thought runs through your head: Before I die, it sure would be nice to destroy the last remaining Redwood. Just for fun.

The Last Man - 2

You are the last human being. You shall soon die. When you are gone, the only life remaining will be plants, microbes, invertebrates. For some reason, the following thought runs through your head: Before I die, it sure would be nice to destroy the last remaining Redwood. Just for fun.

Sylvan’s audience was left to ponder. What, if anything, would be wrong with destroying that Redwood? Destroying it won’t hurt anyone, so what’s the problem?

Perhaps the most fundamental question in environmental ethics is: What should be our attitude toward nature? No environmental ethicist says we should regard nature as merely a repository of natural resources, but we are divided over what kind of respect nature commands, or what kind of value we should regard nature as having. We will outline major divisions, but first, a word of caution about definitions. As in almost any field, writers use terms in different ways, so please do not assume every author you read will use these terms in exactly the same way. When we define a term, we are trying to indicate, roughly speaking, how most people use the term. Also, we will keep the discussion as simple as we can, setting aside all but the most central issues. Be forewarned, though, that beneath the (relatively!) simple surface lies a nasty tangle of extremely difficult philosophical problems that many smart people have spent years trying to untangle, with only partial success.

We can begin by noting that people value things like Redwoods in more than one way. Clearly, many objects are useful as means to further ends. We consider them valuable as tools or instruments rather than as intrinsically valuable in their own right. In environmental ethics, we refer to this sort of usefulness as an object’s instrumental value.

In contrast, an object has noninstrumental value when it has a value apart from any usefulness it may have as a means to further ends. If an object is good quite apart from what it is good for, it has noninstrumental value. The difference is a bit like the difference between an excellent paintbrush and an excellent painting. Compared to the brush, the painting has a different kind of value, not just a different amount. Likewise, even if we have no interest in that last Redwood as a source of lumber, we might value it simply because it is the majestic living thing that it is. If we value the last Redwood in that way, then we are seeing it as having a kind of goodness that is independent of what it is good for. We are seeing it as more like the painting than like the paintbrush.

One of the main tasks in the field of environmental ethics is to be more precise about noninstrumental value, but achieving greater precision is not easy. People sometimes speak of an object’s intrinsic value, and often they mean roughly what we have called noninstrumental value. For example, an art dealer might assess two paintings, and might say that while the first painting has a higher resale value under current market conditions, the second is actually the better painting when judged on its intrinsic merits. The painting has a kind of value simply because of its intrinsic beauty, independent of any usefulness it may have when used to raise money. In different words, we attach instrumental value to an object when we value what we can use it for, or exchange it for; we attach intrinsic value when we value what the object is, period.

Does that last Redwood have intrinsic value?

Valued Objects and Valuing Subjects

Saying an object is valued presupposes that some subject is doing the valuing. All valuing, it seems, is a relation between valued object and valuing subject. Instrumental value is one kind of relation; intrinsic value is another. An object has instrumental value to me when it is useful to me. It has intrinsic value to me when I see it as valuable in its own right, independently of what it is good for. Both are values to me, although not in the same way.

One note of clarification. We are tempted to think of "intrinsic" as a synonym for "really important." Likewise, we are tempted to speak of instrumental values as "merely" instrumental, as if instrumental values were necessarily small. Both of these assumptions are false. A souvenir postcard from the Grand Canyon can have a small intrinsic value while a kidney transplant can have a large instrumental value. The systematic difference between intrinsic and instrumental is not a matter of one being bigger than the other. The real difference is more subtle, a matter of the type (rather than the amount) of respect the different values command.

After the last person is gone, there will be no valuing subjects left, therefore no one to whom the last Redwood can be useful, and therefore no possibility of the Redwood having instrumental value. Must we say the same about the Redwood’s intrinsic value, since no one is left who can value the last Redwood for its own sake? When no one is left to value it, does that mean it will have no value?

Is Value Subjective?

We will come back to these questions, but first, a note about objectivity. To say valuing is a relation between valuing subject and valued object is not to say value is purely subjective. For example, when I say vitamin C has instrumental value to me, my judgment can be correct or incorrect. It can be objectively true that vitamin C serves the purpose I think it serves, thus objectively true that vitamin C has that kind of value to me. I choose whether to care about my health, to some degree, but given that I do in fact care, my valuing vitamin C is grounded in reality in a way it would not be if my beliefs about vitamin C were inaccurate.

The objectivity of intrinsic values is less obvious. On one hand, it is objectively true that Redwoods have the properties that inspire me to think of them as intrinsically valuable. They are alive; they truly are as old and as huge as I think they are, and so on. On the other hand, reasonable people can remain unconvinced that a Redwood’s aesthetic (intrinsic) value is as objective as vitamin C’s nutritional (instrumental) value.

We said all valuing seems to be a relation between valued object and valuing subject. Sometimes, when we value an object, we seem to be creating the relationship. (When I decide to start collecting stamps, stamps suddenly have a value to me that they did not have before my decision.) Other times, we seem to be recognizing a pre-existing relationship rather than creating one. The pre-existing relationship consists of the fact that, given our nature and given the object’s nature, we have reason to value the object even if we do not know it. Thus, ascorbic acid had value to us even before we discovered that it is an essential vitamin (i.e., vitamin C). Given what ascorbic acid is, and given what we are–we are beings who want to remain healthy and who need ascorbic acid to remain healthy–it is an objective fact that we have reason to value ascorbic acid.

What about the last Redwood? Is it like ascorbic acid? Is it an objective fact that we have reason to value Redwoods? Insofar as we have reason to value Redwoods, is our reason something we discover, or something we create?

Does Value Presuppose a Valuer?

Now suppose, when the last person is gone, nothing will be left that needs ascorbic acid. Will it continue to be an objective fact that ascorbic acid has value? No. Ascorbic acid has value to us here and now, but in a world without animals that need it, there is nothing to whom it could have value.

Again, what about that last Redwood? Does it make sense to say the last Redwood would command respect? In a world without sentient beings, whose respect would it command? Are Redwoods the sort of thing that have value to us here and now, but would not have value in a mindless world?

To this last question, some theorists would answer yes, and would add that we should not find this troubling. What matters is whether the last Redwood commands the last person’s respect, which is independent of whether the tree will have intrinsic value after the last person is gone. Others will say something is missing from this picture: the fact that Redwoods have value, period. They will insist that the world would be a better place with that last Redwood in it, regardless of whether anyone is left to appreciate it. But why insist on this? Practically speaking, what difference does it make?

There is no easy way to settle this debate. The problem, in part, is that we use the word ‘value’ in more than one way. Sometimes, we use the word as a verb. We say, "I value Redwoods." In that sense, value clearly presupposes a valuer–objects are valued only if valued by a valuing subject. Other times, we use the word as a noun, and then the relation between value and valuer is less clear. When I say, "Redwoods have value," that may simply be another way of saying, "I value Redwoods." Or, I may be saying something different, such as, "I have reason to value Redwoods." When I say Redwoods are intrinsically valuable, I seem to be saying the latter. When I say the mindless planet would be a better place with that last Redwood in it, I am saying I would have reason (and so would you) to value the last Redwood. I cannot be saying the last Redwood would be valued by beings on that planet, because in the thought experiment valuing subjects no longer exist on that planet. For the same reason, I cannot mean anything on that planet has reason to value the last Redwood: the thought experiment stipulates that subjects capable of having reasons no longer exist. Presumably, what I really mean is, valuing subjects such as you and me, here and now, have reason to value Redwoods (even when they have no instrumental value), and therefore, in the world we are imagining, we would have reason to value the last Redwood.

Where does that leave us? We are in deep and treacherous philosophical waters here, but the upshot appears to be twofold. First, when I tell you the last Redwood has intrinsic value, I am not saying you or I or anyone else actually is there to respect it. But second, I am saying that if we were there, it would be true that we ought to respect it. When the last person is gone, there will be no perspective in that world from which the last Redwood would have value, but it remains true that the last Redwood would have value from my perspective, here and now. So if you ask me whether the last Redwood would have value, you are asking me here and now for my perspective on the last Redwood’s value, and that is what I am giving you when I answer, yes, it would have value.

Suppose the last person is a painter. The last person might reason as follows: My paintbrushes have value because they are useful. After I am gone, there will be no one to use them. Therefore, they will no longer be useful. Therefore, they will no longer have instrumental value. My paintings, though, are different. My paintings have value because they are beautiful. After I am gone, they will still be beautiful. (They are beautiful to me, and after I am gone, they will continue to be the kind of thing I would find beautiful if I were still around.) Therefore, won’t they still have value even after I am gone? To answer yes is to see the paintings as having intrinsic value.

If this still seems too abstract, then think about everyday analogs of the same problem. If I tell my insurance agent I want my children to be financially secure when I die, the agent does not say, "You’re confused. The fact is, when you’re dead, you’re dead. You will no longer be a sentient valuing creature. Therefore, you won’t care. So why not spend the money on something you care about?" If my agent said that, I should reply, "No, you’re the one who is confused. I am not saying that after I die, it will matter to me then what happens to my children. What I’m saying is, it matters to me now. I am imagining a world in which I no longer exist, so when I say I value my children’s financial security in that world, I’m not saying I value it from a perspective that exists in that world. I’m saying I value it from my perspective here and now. Here and now, I see my children’s security as having a value that will survive my death. In other words, my attitude toward my children is that their value does not depend on my attitude. From my perspective, here and now, they are worthy of my love and respect, and they will continue to be worthy even after I am gone."

In a way, then, valuing does presuppose a valuer. Intrinsic valuing, though, presupposes a special kind of valuer, namely a kind of valuer who can see the valued object as having value, period–who can see the object as intrinsically worthy of respect.

Moral Standing

The fundamental question is, as we said earlier: what should be our attitude toward nature? In particular, many theorists have pondered whether it is possible for nonhumans to have the sort of moral standing that humans have. As we understand the term, a being has moral standing just in case it has a right to be treated with respect. Things with moral standing are things to whom (or to which) we can have obligations. We can have obligations regarding a painting, but not to a painting. We ought to treat beautiful paintings with respect, but not because we have obligations to the paintings. We ought to respect them because they are beautiful (or because their owners have rights), not because they have rights.

What about plants, then? Does a Redwood command respect in the way excellent paintings command respect? Or does it command respect in the way persons command respect? Is it enough for us to have obligations regarding Redwoods, or must we think of ourselves as having obligations to them as well?

What is your view? If we destroyed that last Redwood, just for fun, would it be like destroying a person for fun, or would it be more like destroying a beautiful painting for fun?

Perhaps we should seek an intermediate position. Could we argue that moral standing comes in degrees? There are serious thinkers who view moral standing as a switch with only two settings. The switch is on or off. You either respect an entity or not. Other thinkers, equally serious, see moral standing as coming in degrees. Trees have some standing; people have more. Fish have some standing; dolphins have more. Mice have some; chimpanzees have more. Accordingly, if it seems preposterous that a mouse could have the same moral standing as a chimpanzee, it might be possible to argue that a mouse has a lesser, yet still real, moral standing.

What Kinds of Things Have Moral Standing?

Anything we can put to use is a potential bearer of instrumental value. Equally clearly, anything we can value simply because of what it is, independently of what it can be used for, is a potential bearer of intrinsic value. Paintings can have intrinsic value. Plants can have intrinsic value. Persons can have intrinsic value. But being a bearer of value (even intrinsic value) is a long way from having moral standing.

Almost everyone agrees that persons have moral standing, although different theorists explain that obligation in different ways. Quickly put, some would say what separates plants from paintings is that plants have lives. What separates animals from plants is that animals have perspectives. What separates humans from other animals is that humans have principles. Humans have a unique or virtually unique capacity for self-conscious moral agency. (Do all humans have this capacity, though? Do all nonhumans lack it?)

What is the connection between having the capacity for self-conscious moral agency and having moral standing? That capacity is the paradigmatic case of what most theorists consider sufficient for moral standing, but is it necessary?

Suppose we say that it is. Would that imply that only humans have moral standing? (Again, be forewarned: these are difficult issues on which consensus may never be achieved.) Anthropocentrism is the view that the answer is yes. Nonanthropocentrism, in contrast, is a view that at least some nonhuman life has moral standing, either because some nonhumans have a capacity for self-conscious moral agency, or because the capacity for self-conscious moral agency is not the only basis for moral standing. (Weak anthropocentrists stress that while only humans have a full-blown right to be treated with respect, various nonhumans ought to be treated with respect not because they have rights but because they have intrinsic value.)

Nonanthropocentrists say at least some nonhuman life has a full-blown right to be treated with respect, but they do not agree on which nonhuman life has such standing, or why. Animal liberationists such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan depart from anthropocentrism in one direction. Rejecting the view that self-aware moral agency is the only proper basis for claiming moral rights, animal liberationists say sentience–the ability to feel pain and pleasure–would be a more properly inclusive basis. They say the realm of moral standing extends to all sentient animals. Further, everything within that realm has equal standing.

Other thinkers would extend moral standing literally to all living things. Where animal liberationists accuse anthropocentrists of being "speciesists," animal liberationists are in turn accused of speciesism or "sentientism" by biocentrists who see sentience as an arbitrary cutoff and who endorse an even more radically inclusive view that simply being alive is the proper basis for moral standing. Among biocentrists, Paul Taylor (in this volume) says not only that the realm of moral standing extends to all living things, but also that literally everything within that realm has equal standing. Gary Varner (in this volume) agrees that all living things have standing–they all command some respect–but denies that they all command equal respect. Thus, while Taylor and Varner are both biocentrists, only Taylor is a species egalitarian.

We have distinguished different varieties of anthropocentrism and nonanthropocentrism. We also can distinguish between individualism and holism. Individualism is the view that only individual living things can have moral standing. Gary Varner thus calls himself a biocentric individualist. Opposed to individualism is holism, the view that individual living things are not the only kind of thing that can have moral standing. Can species have moral standing? How about fragile ecosystems? Biocentric holists such as Aldo Leopold and Holmes Rolston III believe the most serious environmental issues concern not the suffering of individual animals, and certainly not respect for individual plants, but rather the preservation of species and whole ecosystems: in a word, the environment. Clearly, holism and individualism are real options. Each should be taken seriously by those who seek to understand the world and their place in it. Likewise, anthropocentrism and nonanthropocentrism are real options. You may be more attracted to one perspective rather than another, but each captures key insights in its own way.

When we commit to one view or the other, we risk losing sight of what is valuable in opposing views. We will be tempted deliberately to distort opposing views, reducing them to cartoon caricatures. For example, we could have defined anthropocentrism as the view that only humans have intrinsic value and that anything nonhuman must have merely instrumental value at best. But that would be a caricature, not a serious theory. No one should deny that a vast array of objects, including Redwoods, are intrinsically valued. The genuine division between anthropocentrists, animal liberationists, and biocentrists, the issue that leaves us with serious thinkers on each side, is the question of whether (or which) nonhumans command respect in the same way (if not to the same degree) that self-aware moral agents do. If certain nonhumans do command respect, is it because certain nonhumans (dolphins, chimpanzees) are self-aware moral agents, or is it because self-aware moral agency is not necessary for moral standing?

We are human, of course, and therefore our values are human values. That is, our values necessarily are the values of human subjects. But that does not make us anthropocentrists, for anthropocentrism does not say merely that we are human. Instead, anthropocentrism is a theory about which objects have moral standing. In particular, it is the theory that nonhumans do not belong in that category. Should we be anthropocentrists? Perhaps, but the bare fact that we are human does not make us anthropocentrists. It does not commit us to thinking that only human beings have moral standing. We have a choice.

Whether we should be holists or individualists, and why, is an ongoing matter of hot debate. Whether we should be anthropocentric, or how far beyond humanity the realm of moral standing should extend, is likewise a matter of hot debate. However these debates are resolved, though, the fact remains that there is much to be gained from cultivating a more biocentric appreciation of nature. Simply appreciating nature–appreciating it for its own sake, treating it with respect–is how most of us begin to develop an environmental ethic. We learn that we live–and learn how to live–in a world of things worth appreciating.

What Really Works

At the same time, we must also learn that we live, and how to live, in a world of never-ending disagreement about what we owe to each other and to our environment. For better or worse, we are, in many ways, free to choose how to live, and for the most part we choose as individuals. No person or government is in any position simply to decide how "We" are going to act. As individuals, we must decide how to live in a world full of people trying to decide how to live, each coming to different conclusions. Therefore, after we come to our own conclusions about what really matters, we still have a long way to go before we figure out what really works. Each of us needs to figure out how to live in peace–an environmentally friendly peace–with people who have come to different conclusions about what really matters.

The Challenge of Environmental Ethics

Suppose that putting out natural fires, culling feral animals or destroying some individual members of overpopulated indigenous species is necessary for the protection of the integrity of a certain ecosystem. Will these actions be morally permissible or even required? Is it morally acceptable for farmers in non-industrial countries to practise slash and burn techniques to clear areas for agriculture? Consider a mining company which has performed open pit mining in some previously unspoiled area. Does the company have a moral obligation to restore the landform and surface ecology? And what is the value of a humanly restored environment compared with the originally natural environment? It is often said to be morally wrong for human beings to pollute and destroy parts of the natural environment and to consume a huge proportion of the planet's natural resources. If that is wrong, is it simply because a sustainable environment is essential to (present and future) human well-being? Or is such behaviour also wrong because the natural environment and/or its various contents have certain values in their own right so that these values ought to be respected and protected in any case? These are among the questions investigated by environmental ethics. Some of them are specific questions faced by individuals in particular circumstances, while others are more global questions faced by groups and communities. Yet others are more abstract questions concerning the value and moral standing of the natural environment and its nonhuman components.

In the literature on environmental ethics the distinction between instrumental value and intrinsic value (meaning “non-instrumental value”) has been of considerable importance. The former is the value of things as means to further some other ends, whereas the latter is the value of things as ends in themselves regardless of whether they are also useful as means to other ends. For instance, certain fruits have instrumental value for bats who feed on them, since feeding on the fruits is a means to survival for the bats. However, it is not widely agreed that fruits have value as ends in themselves. We can likewise think of a person who teaches others as having instrumental value for those who want to acquire knowledge. Yet, in addition to any such value, it is normally said that a person, as a person, has intrinsic value, i.e., value in his or her own right independently of his or her prospects for serving the ends of others. For another example, a certain wild plant may have instrumental value because it provides the ingredients for some medicine or as an aesthetic object for human observers. But if the plant also has some value in itself independently of its prospects for furthering some other ends such as human health, or the pleasure from aesthetic experience, then the plant also has intrinsic value. Because the intrinsically valuable is that which is good as an end in itself, it is commonly agreed that something's possession of intrinsic value generates a prima facie direct moral duty on the part of moral agents to protect it or at least refrain from damaging it (see O'Neil 1992 and Jameson 2002 for detailed accounts of intrinsic value).

Many traditional western ethical perspectives, however, are anthropocentric or human-centered in that either they assign intrinsic value to human beings alone (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a strong sense) or they assign a significantly greater amount of intrinsic value to human beings than to any nonhuman things such that the protection or promotion of human interests or well-being at the expense of nonhuman things turns out to be nearly always justified (i.e., what we might call anthropocentric in a weak sense). For example, Aristotle (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8) maintains that “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man” and that the value of nonhuman things in nature is merely instrumental. Generally, anthropocentric positions find it problematic to articulate what is wrong with the cruel treatment of nonhuman animals, except to the extent that such treatment may lead to bad consequences for human beings. Immanuel Kant (“Duties to Animals and Spirits”, in Lectures on Ethics), for instance, suggests that cruelty towards a dog might encourage a person to develop a character which would be desensitized to cruelty towards humans. From this standpoint, cruelty towards nonhuman animals would be instrumentally, rather than intrinsically, wrong. Likewise, anthropocentrism often recognizes some non-intrinsic wrongness of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) environmental devastation. Such destruction might damage the well-being of human beings now and in the future, since our well-being is essentially dependent on a sustainable environment (see Passmore 1974, Bookchin 1990, Norton, Hutchins, Stevens, and Maple (eds.) 1995).

When environmental ethics emerged as a new sub-discipline of philosophy in the early 1970s, it did so by posing a challenge to traditional anthropocentrism. In the first place, it questioned the assumed moral superiority of human beings to members of other species on earth. In the second place, it investigated the possibility of rational arguments for assigning intrinsic value to the natural environment and its nonhuman contents.

It should be noted, however, that some theorists working in the field see no need to develop new, non-anthropocentric theories. Instead, they advocate what may be called enlightened anthropocentrism (or, perhaps more appropriately called, prudential anthropocentrism). Briefly, this is the view that all the moral duties we have towards the environment are derived from our direct duties to its human inhabitants. The practical purpose of environmental ethics, they maintain, is to provide moral grounds for social policies aimed at protecting the earth's environment and remedying environmental degradation. Enlightened anthropocentrism, they argue, is sufficient for that practical purpose, and perhaps even more effective in delivering pragmatic outcomes, in terms of policy-making, than non-anthropocentric theories given the theoretical burden on the latter to provide sound arguments for its more radical view that the nonhuman environment has intrinsic value (cf. Norton 1991, de Shalit 1994, Light and Katz 1996). Furthermore, some prudential anthropocentrists may hold what might be called cynical anthropocentrism, which says that we have a higher-level anthropocentric reason to be non-anthropocentric in our day-to-day thinking. Suppose that a day-to-day non-anthropocentrist tends to act more benignly towards the nonhuman environment on which human well-being depends. This would provide reason for encouraging non-anthropocentric thinking, even to those who find the idea of non-anthropocentric intrinsic value hard to swallow. In order for such a strategy to be effective one may need to hide one's cynical anthropocentrism from others and even from oneself.