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This article draws on several others with some duplication. Underlying its developed argument is the article on purpose in nature (bioteleology) which then moves on to another article considering the relationship between purpose and value. This article here is, as it were, a consideration of the consequences of these arguments for practical ethics.

Environmental ethics


‘Nature is a community, not a commodity’


During the 1960s the Western world was experiencing the material benefits of the rapid economic growth that followed two world wars. Globalization was in full swing with nations drawn together by radio and television programs, music, and the pop culture that emanated from a thriving America. Young people rebelled against materialistic parental values and, alongside the release of the contraceptive pill, there began a re-examination of sexual relations. The second-wave (global) feminist movement was born. Capitalism, moral prudery, and conventional Western values were sometimes rejected outright as ‘hippies’ ‘dropped out’ of the new suburban society to explore alternative lifestyles.

Into this mix of Western moral introspection came a new awareness of the increasing impact of humans on the natural world. Growth in both economic activity and the human population had entered a phase that we now call The Great Acceleration and a downside to material prosperity was becoming increasingly evident.

From the environmental movement that grew out of these concerns – about pollution, hazardous chemicals, deforestation, desertification, species extinction, waste disposal, over-fishing – even climate change – came new academic disciplines like environmental history, environmental studies, conservation studies. These, like environmental ethics, were based primarily in North America.

In the 1980s this broad agenda of environmental concern began to fall under the general banner of ‘sustainability’ and in Europe environmental, or ‘green’, political parties were born as interest in environmental and ecological economics gathered.

Our global interconnectedness and interdependency is now broadly accepted, along with the recognition that many environmental problems are global in reach and therefore require a global response. Whether we approve or not, across the world there is a trend towards uniformity of lifestyle in similar city environments and with globally shared cultural experiences as (despite Brexit and other counterforces) the world edges slowly from national identity and sovereignty towards global citizenship. Climate change has brought home the wider human environmental responsibilities that humanity must address at all scales of society.

Human impact can now be detected in the global biogeochemical cycling of chemicals crucial to life: oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, and carbon dioxide. This has become what has been termed an ‘existential’ problem. Quite simply, the future of humanity and the community of life now depends on human stewardship of planet earth.

But why should we bother? By what authority (on what grounds) can I be expected to take any interest at all in the natural world?

This a matter of environmental ethics, of what we currently do, and should in future, value.

This article begins with a discussion of the value of nature itself before considering the scope of moral obligation and its relation to the environment. What is our moral relationship to the consumption of natural resources, species extinction, biological life and its habitats, the killing of animals for food, and our responsibility to future generations? And how do we address our own survival given the dilemma that the greatest negative impact humans have on nature is agriculture, our need for food?


Value denotes the degree of importance we attach to something. It is values that drive our intentional behaviour and influence our beliefs and attitudes.  When our values entail the assessment of appropriate courses of action (what ‘ought’ to be done) they are referred to as normative ethics.

It is important to distinguish between personal values – like my preference for white wine and impressionist music – and shared cultural values, like strong injunctions concerning right and wrong as in ‘thou shalt not kill’ or the weaker ‘waste paper is deposited in the recycle bin’ and to note that values can be classified in many ways, as religious, aesthetic, political, social, and so forth. The discussion in this article concerns mostly the origin and establishment of cultural values. The degree to which values are generated by our inherited biology or our reasoning faculty is a matter of keen debate.

A distinction is also often drawn between instrumental and intrinsic values. Instrumental values provide value in terms of something else; they have extrinsic (outside themselves) properties. Intrinsic values are values that make something of value in itself; it has intrinsic properties. Both may be possessed at once.

The value of nature

How can the natural world have value when values are human creations?


What distinguishes a living organism from a dead one is the presence of goal-directed processes. Our best assessment of the ultimate outcome of these processes is that they promote, mostly mindlessly, the survival and reproduction of the semi-autonomous units of matter (organisms) where they occur. So, it is not just the presence of active process that distinguishes life, but the way this process is directed towards ends. This critical difference between living and dead matter, the presence of directed process, we can call ‘vitality’. The matter of a dead body can be described in detail as we would describe the matter of a rock: but a satisfactory account of a living organism must also include reference to its vitality. Vitality is not a mystical and mysterious life force but an outcome of (mostly mindless) goal-directed processes. Vitality is immaterial . . .  but it is ‘real’, and amenable to scientific investigation.

Just as we recognize the rudiments of ‘seeing’ in the ocelli of invertebrates [19], so we recognize in the vitality of life processes the rudiments of human vitality – which include a sense of purpose, evaluation, reason, and the capacity to generate order and design. Purpose in nature is usually called functional adaptation, evaluation is present as attraction and repulsion, reason is present as the self-correction of natural selection, and natural design is all around us as the wonder of nature, its most miraculous creation being the human brain – as matter that is aware of itself.

Life is not passive matter like rock or a corpse: it is active and directed process demonstrating vitality.

The biological axiom

The advent of natural selection marked the emergence of a new kind of matter that was mindless and uncomprehending, persisting by a process of mechanical self-replication that incorporated physical modification based on feedback from its environment.[16]  In modern terminology, this was matter that, over many generations, could ‘adapt’ to its surroundings.
This characterization of natural selection, the process that created the community of life, is compelling evidence for the following biological axiom.[18]

Life is the capacity for survival and reproduction. But this is not passive existence; it is active process.

Just as human minds can represent reasons that exist in the universe independently of the minds themselves, so they can also recognize processes in nature that are independent of, but closely resemble, processes and properties of minds. So, we recognize, for example, the factual necessity of survival and reproduction for the persistence of life.

Aristotle recognized the inherent necessity of all living organisms to survive and reproduce as constituting rudimentary value – even present in mindless organisms. He also recognized that this is not a logical necessity, but a biological necessity – a biological reality that exists independently of human minds and something on which all life is predicated. He explained this value by using the normative expressions ‘It is better to exist than not exist‘ and ‘it is better to live than not live’.[17] Evolutionary biologist Armand Leroi, perhaps unaware of the normative implications, asks in his book The Lagoon (2014), which is his biography of Aristotle’s biology, ‘Why do organisms need to survive and reproduce?‘ and replies ‘Because natural selection made them so‘.

Aristotle recognized the similarity between the valuing that occurs in nature (the inherent/immanent tendency toward survival and reproduction found in plants and non-sentient animals) and the minded valuing supremely exemplified by rational and conscious humans. We now know that this is not just a similarity but part of the historical physical continuity of all life; it is the pre-conscious precursor to the minded value expressed by humans.

This is the birth of normativity as it arose in a crude primordial form about 4 billion years ago. Since then it has undergone elaboration into sentient and rational forms. Translated from the abstraction of a biological axiom into human conscious experience the drive to survive and reproduce translates into our desire for happiness and wellbeing – our need to flourish. A rearticulation of the biological axiom after 4 billion years of its physical evolution, is expressed by a conscious and rational agent and product of natural selection, Steven Pinker. At the head of this article where he expresses the biological axiom in terms of human normativity.

Things could be no other way. One objective truth about morality that flows from the theory of natural selection is that values ignoring survival and reproduction are, long-term, destined for extinction.

Natural selection is the mindless capacity of semi-autonomous replicating matter for ‘self-correction’ in relation to its surroundings – a self-correction exemplified in its most highly evolved form as, Aristotle told us, human reason, the mainspring of the cultural organization we humans have built on our biological organization.

This biological axiom is extremely powerful because it expresses both fact and value. The presence of value is not there as a logical necessity (how can we validly deduce that life is more important than non-life?) – but it is a necessity nonetheless – a biological necessity.

Darwin’s theory did not explain away the purpose, value, and design that we see in nature: it grounded them firmly in the scientific theory of natural selection. Darwin demonstrated how it is that the products of natural selection have beneficial functional adaptations – and that the purpose, value, and design demonstrated by these adaptations can exist without consciousness, foresight, intelligence, deliberation or, indeed, God.[1] Darwin, inadvertently, made this possibility compelling because he postulated the physical continuity of all life – a possibility hardly considered by his predecessors.

Value & purpose

The concepts of purpose and value are fuzzy concepts with much overlap. Significantly, purposes embody values that can be either thwarted or advanced.

Similarly, the notion of purpose is closely linked to that of design. Nature is saturated with purpose and design. Indeed, the perfection of design found in nature far exceeds anything ever created by human beings. Nature designed the human brain.

It is difficult to find anything in any living organism that does not serve some purpose. Think of all the obvious purposes of our human body parts. Ahah, an exception . . . mens’ nipples!

Purpose is self-evident in all of nature, but there is still a view prevalent in philosophy, science, and biology that only humans can have reasons and purposes because only humans are capable of conscious deliberation. But this does not explain purpose away.

The error here is to assume that only foresight can provide a reason or purpose. But reasons were present in the universe long before humans existed. There really is a reason why the spider builds its web, even though it has no conscious idea of what it is doing. Purposes and reasons do exist in nature, the point about consciousness is that only humans can represent them. Philosopher Dan Dennett has expressed this eloquently by pointing out that organisms are ‘competent without comprehension‘ and ‘reasons do not require reason-representers‘ . . . ‘humans are the only reason-representers‘[14][15] and, I might add for good measure, that the products of natural selection can be ‘for without foresight’.

We think that purposes, reasons, and magnificent designs could only emanate from God or the human intellect. But the wonder of the entire community of life arose from a mindless process ‘it bubbled up from the bottom, not trickled down from the top’. (Dan Dennett again)[14][15]

This is relevant to the discussion of environmental ethics first, as an alternative to the view that purpose is a strictly human business and, second, because of an overlap in the fuzzy concepts of reason, purpose, and value.

For a more extended account of these matters, see the article on purpose.

Top-down, bottom-up, or what?

The article on purpose and value concluded that in our daily lives we recognize five sources of our values: God, our culture, our humanity, our biology and. to a lesser degree, our place within the universe.

This relates to popular understanding and the assumptions we might bring to questions of value. As a point of perception, and the fact that we tend to think hierarchically, we might regard values as coming ‘down’ to us from positions of moral authority or ‘up’ to us from our physical constitution.

The view expressed here is that values engage all of these five sources.

The domain of value

How can rivers, mountains, forests, seas, fish, possums, and oak trees possibly have interests?

The discipline of moral philosophy today concerns itself almost exclusively with the interests of conscious and rational moral agents, with some concession to sentient creatures that can experience discomfort and pain. This circumscription of morality reflects, unsurprisingly, human interest and the extent to which human interests can be defended under law.

But the boundary we choose for our moral concern is up to us – both as individuals and communities.

Look at the following widening sphere of potential moral interest and responsibility and consider where you would draw a line:

Family, friends, and acquaintances
People of your religion or ethnic group
All humans
Humans & sentient animals
Humans, sentient animals, and ecosystems
The biosphere, including inanimate nature and future generations

We might hope that as autonomous rational agents we can work towards a rational and objective moral code. But such a code, if socially accepted, will undoubtedly be predicated on the normative drivers of human wellbeing, happiness, and flourishing. These drivers derive from biological needs at least as much as objective moral facts.

Morality targets our behaviour. Unfortunately, history has shown that striving towards a moral ideal, whether objective or not, does not overcome human nature. Far from transcending our biology, ethics is an attempt to keep it under control.

Only in recent times has humanity realized how closely its future is tied to that of the natural world.

The question to address here is not about autonomous moral reflection and reasoning (itself a product of our biology) but about the evolution of morality. And not just the emergence of human moral behavior, but its biological precedents. This has nothing to do with explaining how evolutionary facts can have normative authority for rational agents, or the nature of objective moral truth – it is about the origin of a founding or rudimentary morality in nature.

As more and more of us move into cities nature, once treated as a passive backdrop, to our lives is now being included as a necessary part of community well-being, a recognition of the interconnectedness and therefore interdependence of all things. We see, for example, that legislation of local councils is sensitive to the protection of wild animals and plants, careful disposal of waste, preservation of the beautiful natural surroundings, ‘natural land’, and green space. Communities care about urban nature and have a respect for ecological relationships that is reflected in social policies.

We make distinctions in law about those things that should have rights and therefore to which we must have duties, obligations, and commitments. In recent times there has been a growing list of these rights seemingly spinning out of the human rights movement of the Enlightenment: we have seen women’s rights, gay rights, childrens’ rights, and animal rights. We all make moral decisions but it seems that we make these moral decisions within certain boundaries.

Our moral responsibility to the environment

Ethics might not seem the most obvious place to begin when answering this question. For example values are those things we think are important in life and they seem to come before any ethical decisions, they are the basis for ethical action. But we also have beliefs which are what we regard as being intuitively true. Our evidence for this ‘truth’ might vary but, even so, beliefs play a large part in the way we behave in general so they should not be ignored. Then, just as we have beliefs, so we also have attitudes, that is, tendencies or inclinations to approve or disapprove of things. And on top of our individual values, beliefs and attitudes, what actually happens in the world might also be the result of social customs or norms, that is, collectively owned values, beliefs and attitudes – and these might be different from your personal ones. These all also seem to be mixed up together.

How do we make sense of all this?

Well it probably helps to regard ethics (what we ought to do) as a sum of all these things: they are all factors to be taken into consideration. When we make decisions about future action it is as well to look back at the history of our values, attitudes and beliefs because this is what is driving our behaviour today.

Environmental ethics investigates the place of the natural environment in human ethical theories and behaviour. This is a fairly new study, only becoming a formal academic discipline in the 1970s although it is now well established with its own international society, the Association for Environmental Philosophy, and its own journal.

Subduing nature

Aristotle (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8) maintained that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’. The value of non-human things in nature was therefore merely instrumental. This was an attitude espoused by the Bible and a dictum repeated, almost verbatim, by Linnaeus in 1749 as ‘all things are made for the sake of man’. Francis Bacon wrote that ‘the world is made for man’ and Descartes declared that animals were inferior to humans who were ‘the lords and possessors of nature’. From the 18th and into the 19th centuries it was firmly believed that nature, and people, were improved by plant cultivation.[12] Humans thus enhanced wild nature by making the world more inhabitable for themselves. Supporters of this view included the influential Comte de Buffon who favoured subduing the wilderness as a victory of civilized man over uncivilized nature. It was ‘cultivated nature’ that was ‘beautiful’.[12]

Alexander von Humboldt added a voice of caution to this anthropocentrism, making an early stand for environmental ethics by stating that ‘Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use, by comprehending her laws’.[13]

Environmental concern

For all of us in general, but biologists and environmental scientists especially, questions concerning environmental ethics are becoming progressively more pressing and urgent. What is the relationship between the academic discipline of ethics and the real world of practical ethics, the arena for those of us who are convinced that think things need to change?

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report, published in 2000, claimed that humans have been consuming and degrading natural resources at a faster rate than they can naturally replenished; that the rate of biological extinction is higher than ever before in history; and that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere produced largely by human activity are likely to have drastic consequences in future, especially for the less fortunate members of the human community. This all has major implications for humanity and yet these are just a few of the report’s major conclusions and concerns.

Intuitively we can see many reasons for respecting and protecting nature and for conserving its values: we place great value on it as a source of healthy outdoor recreation, relaxation and aesthetic enjoyment, a place for education and science where we can learn about the natural world, as a source of food, materials, medicines, and the overall ‘Ecosystem Services’ that keep our planet ticking over.

So how does a study of morality relate to nature and the way it should be treated?

Appeals for environmental concern generally entail notions like ‘well-being’, ‘human flourishing’, ‘the common good’ and ‘sustainability’ as a branch of ‘social ethics’.

The common good includes human and non-human goods. We certainly need to take care of the environment for our own well-being: it is our life-support system. But are we entitled to look after the natural world for its own sake, because nature needs respecting for itself.

Intrinsic & instrumental value

Is nature of value only insofar as it is useful to sentient organisms, or does it have value over and above this? To regard the wonder of the living world as simply a means to human ends seems unjust and human-centred. Regardless of any religious beliefs many people respect nature for its beauty, mystery, and marvel. What does ethics say about this quality of nature – this apparent intrinsic worth?

For clarity we must begin with some definitions.

Something has ‘instrumental value’ when it is a means to some other end or purpose. It is not difficult or controversial to point out that protecting nature is of instrumental value to humans. The findings of The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Report above should put any doubt out of your mind.

But does nature have ‘intrinsic value’, something we value for its own sake? To help make a decision let’s note that money is of instrumental value (its value lies in what it can do for us). Happiness is an ‘intrinsic value’ and therefore an end in itself: we are not happy in order to achieve some other goal, we are just happy because we like being happy.

Australian philosopher Peter Singer draws the boundary for moral decisions around all those things which can have interests and desires, or which can feel happiness or pain – the world of sentient beings. Environmental degradation of any kind at all can therefore only be taken into account insofar as it ‘adversely affects sentient creatures’.[p. 247]

But why isn’t the flourishing of all living things in general a good in itself, independently of its usefulness to sentient creatures in particular? Can’t we have a reverence for life that respects other living things and their pursuit of life in their own way? One difficulty is that we have no obvious way of assessing the relative value of rocks, ecosystems, trees and mosquitos. Another is that we use metaphorical anthropomorphic language for nature and then want to make it real. We say nature or plants ‘pursue’, ‘strive’, and ‘feel’ when we know that in actual they do nothing of the sort: ‘Once we stop to reflect on the fact that plants are not conscious and cannot engage in any intentional behaviour, however, it is clear that all this language is metaphorical; one might as well say that a river is pursuing its own good and striving to reach the sea’.[p. 249]

Can natural selection ‘value’? Well, as argued in the article Purpose, natural selection does not ‘consciously’ value but it does exhibit a kind of proto-value. Biological scientists have no qualms in proclaiming that the goal (value) of all living things as ‘to survive, reproduce and flourish’. This is not because all living organisms are conscious, and it is not because humans are projecting their own intentions onto the living world: it is because natural selection really does ‘select’ but in a non-conscious way as a result of the interaction between organism and environment. As Darwin and Aristotle claimed, it ‘selects’ naturally … it may be mindless but it is goal-directed. Whether we call this purposive or purpose-like need not be critical.

Various attempts to describe nature as having intrinsic value have been made and referred to under the general banner of Deep Ecology. Notable proponents are American ecologist Aldo Leopold and his ‘land ethic’, and the ‘biospheric egalitarianism’ of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, modified in the 1980s to the weaker claim that the flourishing of both human and non-human life have value in themselves. If all living things have value in their own right then they deserve our respect regardless of any uses they might have.

However, all-in-all it is difficult to know where value can come from other than humans or god(s). Beauty, mystery and marvel are human evaluations, and instrumental ones at that, albeit abstrusely so. If morality is about rights and interests then how can this apply to rivers, mountains and forests? Even the fact that nature includes integrated wholes, like ecosystems and even the entire biosphere, Gaia, as a vast self-maintaining holistic system nevertheless must confront the question as to whether it has interests or desires.

So, with this in mind, we must address the question. ‘On what grounds, if any, can the natural environment and its individual animals and plants be a matter of moral concern?’

Regardless of the debate about intrinsic worth we can, as we have already mentioned, respect nature for its instrumental values.

Our behaviour, and the moral codes that attempt to control it, must pass through a biological filter whose origins go back deep into our biological history – to the dawn of life itself.

Humans are special – anthropocentrism, speciesism

Environmental ethics begins with the fact that humans, not surprisingly, place themselves at the centre of things (anthropocentrism). We accept that in the biological business of survival and reproduction we cannot be purely selfish: we need to care for one-another and that means some individual sacrifices for the sake of the group. It also means that we must take a long term view of things. If our behaviour in the short term means long-term disaster then we need to change our short-term behaviour. This is difficult when our politics is based on short-term decision-making.

We can hardly be surprised by such sentiments but what we must ask is why, beyond self-interest, humans can claim this privileged moral status.

We do seem to be special in several ways. Firstly we can feel pleasure, pain and other emotions that we can recognise in other people. Secondly, we can use our reason to critically examine our behaviour and make choices, both in the present and in regard to the future. This cannot be said of animals, plants and inanimate matter.

If we scan the whole of human history it appears that the things that we really care about – things that have seriously modified our behaviour – have varied. this group-of-concern, which we can call the ‘sphere of moral influence’, has expanded over time. In very general terms family and tribal ties became extended at the time of the Neolithic Revolution as people from diverse backgrounds massed into cities. The course of conflict in history indicates that moral concern for others has vacillated between groups of various kinds and sizes based on geographic, racial, religious, cultural, political and other differences. Today modern cities contain people of all nationalities and races with a diversity of religious beliefs, in the main treating one-another with consideration, respect and tolerance. Though there are still many differences, there is a shared global ethic to the extent that social and economic life proceeds in a mostly peaceful way and violence across the world has never been lower (see Human nature). This we can surely regard as a moral achievement (see moral progress in Morality and sustainability) since we would surely choose not to go ‘back’ were there a choice.

Nature as independent units and how the division between humans and the rest of nature has been a feature of Western perceptions. Australian Aboriginals, for example, perceive themselves as part of nature not separate from it. Naess proposes a relational understanding of organisms: just as an individual cannot be functionally isolated from its environment so organisms are in a functional relationship during their development and through their ecological relationships.

The golden rule

Environmental ethics has tended to ignore the differences mentioned above and to focus on humans as a distinct ethical unit. There seem to be several major reasons for this. Firstly the human community shares so many features that this makes the privileging of any one person or group over another a matter of logical concern – even though there may be many practical reasons for doing so. Both moral philosophers and religions throughout history have espoused some form of the doctrine ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.

We can imagine how over much of history human the day-to-day business of survival would have been so all-consuming that concerns about animals and plants would have seemed ridiculous. It is not surprising that humans, being able to communicate in some way and knowing that as a species they shared pleasures and pains, would see themselves as a moral beings with moral obligations to one-another and nothing else.

Various historical statements supporting the idea of human solidarity have been widely quoted in the literature of environmental ethics. Aristotle, who structured the world as a Great Chain of Being with humans second only to god(s) and the supernatural maintained that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’ adding that the value of non-human creatures and nature was merely instrumental (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8). The Christian Holy Bible states that ‘God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1: 27-8) a view taken up by influential Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 3, Pt 2, Ch 112).


Naess’s view draws attention to the way that individuals and communities can be seen as structurally independent but functionally interdependent. Scientific evidence points indisputably to the precarious nature of Earth’s planetary ecology. If the purpose of morality reaches beyond survival to some form of ‘human flourishing’ then caring for our fragile biosphere is right at the heart of our morality.

Making moral judgments about animals & nature
Even regarding nature in instrumental terms there seem excellent grounds for taking it into consideration within our general behaviour, our value-systems, and even legislation. If we cannot survive or flourish without the careful management of the various organic and inorganic elements of the biosphere (ecosystem services) then our refusal to look beyond ourselves will have had disastrous consequences.


It does not seem a major move to extend our moral concerns to sentient animals. Where there are sentient beings with interests similar to ours then we should not discriminate between us and them: sentient beings that feel pleasure and pain therefore deserve moral consideration. This is sufficient reason to protect them both legally and in other ways from mistreatment. Animal rights activists point out that this is an artificial moral divide between humans and animals referred to as ‘speciesism’ akin to sexism and racism which segregates beings on morally irrelevant characteristics.

There have always been people concerned about animal mistreatment and cruelty: the issue here seems more one of overcoming indifference than providing a cogent philosophical argument in favour of animal protection (although this helps of course). Is this an argument for working on our moral intuitions rather than our reason in using the appeal of cuddly balls of fur rather than the arguments of hard-nosed ethics and science (see Moral psychology)?

The natural world

Can an argument be mounted for extending moral responsibility beyond all humans and animals: to plants, ecosystems, rivers, mountains, the planet and beyond? If the answer to this question is ‘no’ then environmental ethics may help clarify the boundaries of our moral world. And if the answer is ‘yes’ then we need to know why, and how attitudes have changed from those of the past.
(Value-laden discourse)

In Plato’s day it was thought that the world, which centred on Athens and probably Mt Olympus, the home of the Gods, floated as a disc on a giant sea, okeanos. Our knowledge of the external world now extends to explanations of space, time, matter, and life that would have had Plato dumbstruck. One of the things that we now know, that Plato didn’t, is that if humans are to ‘ flourish and reproduce’ on planet Earth they must take care of the community of life and environment that allows them to flourish and reproduce. Both for its intrinsic and instrumental value (as human resource) must, of necessity, be a part of the moral sphere.

Since the ancients the moral sphere has been said to encompass the idea of human flourishing (happiness or well-being), this is, as it were, the underlying reason for having moral systems. It therefore follows that the moral sphere entails those factors that can significantly impact on human flourishing. Until recent times, as recently as the 1960s, the environment was a ‘given’: it was the background against which human life and moral activity played out. With the advent of an increasing number of global threats to the environment, and therefore threats to human existence, it has become clear that not only particular aspects of the environment (like the atmosphere affected by climate change) but the environment in general can impact critically on human flourishing. For this reason it not only can but, for the sake of not only flourishing, but survival, must therefore be included within the moral sphere.

Moral circle (Darwin and Singer) over history our moral circle (which may be one of circumstance or choice), the people or objects we care about and feel moral obligation towards has expanded (noting that this will depend both on the particular group or moral under consideration). In general people will expect some privileging of oneself, total altruism is regarded as unnatural (donating all your organs). Privileging your own kin over others has a clear evolutionary basis but is not completely clear in practice. Proximity seems to be important as we feel little moral obligation to aid people we cannot see or those in other countries while we will generally respond to the needs of those around us.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

This article has taken a long journey towards a simple explanatory conclusion. It has been barely three generations, less than 100 years, since science in the 1930s concluded that everything in the universe arose from the Big Bang. The full intellectual consequences of this physical continuity leave much to be explored: absolutely everything – all the physical matter of the universe and every thought and idea that has ever occurred – emerged from this point source . . . space, time, design, life, purpose, value, reason, meaning . . . everything. We humans were created by a mindless universe and everything following that first moment is connected to everything else. We are made of star dust.

To ask whether this God-like Creator has, for example, intrinsic or instrumental value is a nonsense: it is like asking the same question about a God. As our distant ancestors recognized, the universe is like our mother since its natural processes – its physical laws and natural selection – gave birth to all humanity. What value should we place on this mother?

As mere humans we are unlikely to give the natural world the reverence that it deserves, but we can try.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Today we live in a highly integrated and globalised world of interdependencies where science and technology dominate most of 7 billion human lives in a way that the Greek philosophers could not possibly have imagined. But their question ‘How are we to live harmonious and flourishing lives?‘ is more pressing and relevant than it ever was in the past: it is still the fundamental question of morality and human existence. Does it make sense to speak of an ultimate end or final human purpose (telos) – that to which all humans aim: the attempt to achieve our maximum potential as human beings?

Philosophers and scientists find it advantageous to view the world as objectively as possible because we know that our human subjectivity can interfere with the way we interpret the way the world is. So, we try to see things from, as it were, ‘the point of view of the universe’. From this perspective, with subjectivity removed, the universe just ‘is’. The universe does not have values because values are added by human minds. No ‘ought’ (no values) can derive from the existence of a chair because a chair just ‘is’. Viewed from this detached vantage point humans too just ‘are’ because they, like chairs, are just objects of the universe. Any purpose or value, in such a world, is a consequence of human subjectivity.

But humans, and indeed all living organisms, clearly have ‘interests’ in a way that a chair does not. All life is founded on the assumption of survival and reproduction as an ultimate end. For self-aware deliberating humans this translates into the consciousness categories of happiness, wellbeing, and flourishing. Normative consequences flow from the fact of our living existence unless, of course, we wish to deny our humanity and to become an object in the universe with the same metaphysical quality as a chair. To claim that the fact of life has no implications of value is a philosophical indulgence.

This view of ethics founded on our biological nature is referred to as biological normativity. Since consequentialism in its most popular form as utilitarianism is based on the premise of ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’ then consequentialism (unlike deontology or divine command theory) rests on an assumption of biological normativity.

The introduction to this article posed the possibility of a universal and objective moral code that would apply to the community of life, future generations, and the planet. For ethicists the prospect of moral concern for non-sentient objects, like the planet, is bordering on the absurd for a subject that has been confined almost exclusively to humans. We do not include rocks and rivers within our moral sphere because they cannot have interests and concerns and they do not feel pleasure and pain. And yet if we do not care about these things then human flourishing is threatened. Climate change is a good example. Should we care about the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to the extent that we feel morally obliged to do something about it? The answer must be ‘yes’.

From the ancient Greeks to the utilitarians of today philosophers have suggested that from the many, often trivial, reasons for our many moral decisions and behaviour we can discerned a broad overall or ultimate goal. Though such an all-embracing goal may be ill-defined it can be uncontroversial and therefore acceptable. The ancient Greeks called this overall goal eudaimonia, for Plato this was a kind of harmony within individuals as they cooperated together within a harmonious society. Aristotle saw the goal for individuals as achieving their maximum human potential given their own particular circumstances. Today we use a wide range of loosely equivalent words like ‘happiness’, ‘pleasure’, ‘the common good’, ‘well-being’, ‘human flourishing’, ‘life satisfaction’, and ‘quality of life’ which have been taken up by ethicists and social scientists as general goals for human activity. Utilitarianism, founded on the Epicurean-like ideas of pleasure and happiness and taken up by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick and influential today through the work of Australian philosopher and practical ethicist Peter Singer. Just as ‘health’ is the acknowledged goal of medicine so ‘well-being’ or ‘human flourishing’ is an acceptable ultimate goal for ethics. With human flourishing as a universal goal for humanity it becomes possible, in principle, to develop an objective ethics directed towards this end. There will be those who do not desire such a goal, just as there are those that do not desire health, but these will be few and their existence does not negate the enterprise.

The article on happiness examines in closer detail what it means to be happy in terms of an ethical system and utilitarian ethics in particular. However, the use of a mental state as an ethical goal lacks clarity. The stated formal ethical goal of the international movement for sustainable development initiated by the United Nations is ‘human well-being’ similar to the traditional goals of utilitarian ethics such as ‘human flourishing’, ‘human happiness’. However, the program of international action based around this goal emphasises less the ‘internal’ mental state and more the ‘external’ economic, social and environmental management goals and conditions that are needed to guide humanity in the direction of universal well-being. The philosophy of human well-being does not conflict with existing religions and belief-systems.

What may be termed ‘sustainability utilitarianism’ recognises the congruence between the ancient Greek philosophical state of eudaimonia, the abstract utilitarian mental state of ‘happiness’, and the practical international program instigated by the United Nations to protect and improve human well-being. Sustainability utilitarianism translates the idea of happiness or well-being into a universal objective ethic whose practical program includes the well-being and integrity of the planet, the community of life, and future generations. In ethics, as in science, the inner must adapt to the outer if humans are to survive, reproduce and flourish.

Much of the study of morality has moved out of the realm of theology and philosophy (its traditional domain) into the realm of the psychological and behavioural sciences where some of the most exciting contemporary research is active in new disciplines like evolutionary psychology and moral psychology, not to mention the flood of general knowledge about the structure and function of the brain coming to us from neuroscience in general. Philosophers like Australian utilitarian Peter Singer are concerned with the moral foundations of decisions relevant to contemporary life in the relatively new discipline of practical ethics: issues like abortion, euthanasia, poverty, and genetic engineering. The traditional ancient Greek goal of ‘A Good Life’ can be made relevant to today’s world by providing a program for the well-being of the community of life through the protection of the planet and concern for future generations.

The discussion of ‘nature & nurture’ showed how organism and environment are inextricably intertwined both physically and psychologically as an organism-environment continuum. Though morality is clearly a matter of intentional mental activity we can ignore the integration and dependence of our mental activity on envirnmental factors. Debate about the source of our morality is generally framed in terms of the interaction of the two ‘inner’ (genetic) factors of moral intuition (passion, will) and reason. But this omits or significantly ignores the vital and inevitable role that must be played by the ‘external’ environment. This has a bearing on assessments of the overall purpose of morality.

If we accept the congruence of life-goals and moral goals then we can consider a number of the candidates for this most esteemed role. Plato’s ultimate goal was the ‘Good Life’ which meant harmony and happiness in both society and ourselves and requiring a just person living in a just state. The Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ was used to indicate this state of harmony or ‘human flourishing’. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, albeit in a different context, but still seeking an ultimate goal for our behaviour, produced a new set of moral objectives: ‘pleasure’ (perhaps following the precepts of Epicurus), ‘happiness’ and the ‘common good’. Today the word ‘well-being’ has become a popular portmanteau term meaning the same thing.

If we accept the applicability of the functional organism-environment continuum then it must be acknowledged that mental states like happiness and pleasure do not adequately convey the necessary and essential environmental component. The ‘common good’ does this job better. Concepts like human flourishing and well-being, though adequate, need fleshing out. What is it in the ‘environment’ that helps to produce a sense of well-being and flourishing? Biologically we can acknowledge that the goal of all life is to survive and reproduce and ‘flourishing’ is an integral part of this. Perhaps the ancient Greeks were nearest by expressing the desire for humans to be in harmony with their environment. But their emphasis was on the human environment and especially the political one.

Assuming that reason has evolved, like our bodies and minds, by natural selection then we can reasonably postulate that it will be orientated towards a single adaptive end – the survival, reproduction and flourishing of the species. We can also specify some requirements to achieve this: firstly, as complete an understanding as possible of the world that is external to our minds (a process that we have called science), and secondly, the making of decisions about our behaviour in relation to that understanding of the external world such that we are will flourish in the future (which we can call morality).

Today we know that our broader environment, the planet (not just people), is necessary for our survival and that the future of the planet’s biodiversity is in our hands. Modern science now shows that future human well-being, the common good, or eudaimonia, will depend on the condition of the planet. The purpose of morality then is the harmonious integration of humans with their environment. The word of today most closely approximating this idea is ‘sustainability’ and for this reason planet earth is now included within our moral sphere. This kind of morality is not the result of introspection and inner states like pleasurable happiness, it is based more on ‘outrospection’ or integration with the external world … not emotional empathy but cognitive empathy.

Human happiness as an ultimate value must take account the organism-environment dependency. Well-being involves more than a mental state it entails the integration of subject and object, humanity and the world. Social progress is a difficult idea since it calls into question the embedded and questionable values like those of nineteenth century colonialism a associated with moral ‘improvement’. Some common agreement may be reached by adopting a point of generality that will find near-universal acceptance. On this web site and elsewhere such a starting point can be found through the general moral notion of human flourishing or well-being. Such an idea is congruent with both the moral principles of utilitarian ethics and practical United Nations programs dealing with developing nations. The Social Progress Index (and similar indices) flesh out what is meant by human flourishing and happiness (see Morality & sustainability) using social rather than economic metrics by calculating the well-being of a society in terms of social and environmental outcomes. The social and environmental parameters include personal safety, ecosystem sustainability, health, shelter, sanitation, equity, social inclusion, personal freedom, and choice. These factors are uncontroversial and clearly take economic circumstances into account.

Human happiness or well-being as described here is therefore taken to entail a relationship between humans and their environment: that a state of harmony between the community of life and the environment cannot exist when this inter-relation is dysfunctional. That the changing human condition both directly and indirectly drives change in ecosystems and with changes in ecosystems comes change in human well-being. While also recognising that many other factors independent of the environment change the human condition,and many natural forces influence ecosystems.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2000) [8] provided a clear outline of the relationship between humanity and the planetary environment, pointing out how human well-being depends on natural resources or ‘ecosystem services’ and how demand on ecosystem services is rapidly increasing and sometimes outstripping capacity.

ritical to our well-being are the links between environmental management, poverty alleviation, and sustainable development. This points to the importance of consideration of biodiversity and ecosystems and the elaboration of an environmental ethic.

Scientifically we must consider organisms and their behaviour, including mental states, as a result of organism-envitronment interaction, an organism-environment continuum. This can inform the important discussion about subjective and objective ethics.Reason and evidence are the only way we’ll ever cut through the mess of conflicting gut feelings and moral intuitions. One way of viewing our behaviour is as a complex mixture of feelings, values, emotions, prejudices, desires and so on. This may be the source of our passions and will but, as Plato would probably claim, morality is the application of the moderating and taming power of reason. Indeed, we may define morality as the application of reason to appetite.)


There are no universally agreed definitions for the many of the categories listed below: the following are offered as a guide only. In the light of wide variation in the understanding of these terms I have made my own slight adjustments to sharpen the distinctions. Definitions are in two parts, the first referring to an evaluative approach to nature, and the second relating to the origin or values:

Anthropocentrism - only humans have intrinsic value. Values are the subjective products of human minds.
- enlightened (prudential) - moral duty to the environment derives from our responsibility to humanity regardless of any claims to intrinsic value
- strong - value attaches only to human beings
- weak – the greater intrinsic value attaches to human beings

Biocentrism - all living things have intrinsic value, though not necessarily in equal measure (cf. anthropocentrism, ecocentrism). Biocentric values are derived from the instinctive emotions that drive the human will as mediated through the human capacity for reason. These were inherited through evolutionary connection to our biological ancestors. At its most basic, they derive from the purposive drive of natural selection as the need to survive and reproduce

Cosmogenesis - - human values are ultimately derived from the constraint of physical constants reducing possible outcomes

Ecocentrism - extends intrinsic value to the entire natural world: there is equality of intrinsic value in nature

Biological axiom - the single major defining trait of life is survival and reproduction. Translated into human experience this most closely aligns with wellbeing, happiness, and flourishing

Sociocentrism - Values are socially derived from our culture and local communities

Technocentrism – technology can control and protect the environment by managing and providing solutions to environmental problems: it has special application in developing countries

Theocentrism – God is the source of all creation, including values that have been transmitted to humanity through codes of behaviour. Our values are obtained from codes of behaviour ordained by God

Vitality - an abstract but real property of living organisms manifested as the goal-directedness of material processes that promote survival and reproduction. In humans vitality is manifest (in reduced terms) as a sense of purpose (intention), evaluation, reason, and the capacity to generate order and design. These properties are present in all organisms but in simpler forms

Environmental history timeline

Billion years BP

3.8– Emergence of life
2.5 – Oxygen starts accumulating in the Earth’s atmosphere – probably a consequence of the photosynthesis of the cyanobacteria of stromatolites
2.2 – Great oxidation event, oxygen levels reach a fortieth of present-day levels
0.5 – Plant-produced oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere reaches present levels and animal-plant co-evolution gathers momentum

Million years BP

140 – Origin of flowering plants (Angiosperms) enticing insects and animals to pollinate colourful flowers and distribute seed with sweet energy-rich food sources of pollen and nectar and sweet fruits
6-7 – Emergence of grassy plains across the world

Thousand yrs BP

42,700 World’s earliest rock art at Carpenter’s Gap in the Kimberley pre-dating the 32,000 year old palaeolithic cave paintings of Western Europe by at least 10,000 years
It depicts animals, humans and yams, the first known pictorial representation of plants by Homo sapiens
12,000Emergence and domestication of einchorn fused-head wheat in Turkey
9,500 – Farming emerges in Near East
9,000 – Farming emerges in Central Mexico
8,500 – Farming emerges in South China (Yangtze)
7,900 – Farming emerges in North China (Yellow River)
7,000 – Farming emerges in Southern and Central Andes
4,500 – Farming emerges in E USA
4,000 – Farming emerges in sub-saharan Africa

Thousand yrs BP – Australia

c.55,000 ±10,000 – AD 1788 Aboriginal occupation with trade through a network of Dreaming trails; influence of hunting on the megafauna and the impact of this through the food chain; impact of firestick farming on vegetation patterns.
c. 50,000 Flightless giant emu-like Genyornis becomes extinct, possibly from human hunting
25,000-15,000 Increasing aridity, drought, vegetational stress and hunting pressure
4,000 Dingo brought to Australia
1686 Englishman John Ray provides the first biological definition of the species in his 1686 Historia Plantarum (History of plants) “… no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed.”
1704, 1705 Engravings of Australian plants collected in Australia by William Dampier published in his travelogues
1753 • Publication of Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum which is now internationally accepted as the starting point for the modern binomial system used for plant names.
British Museum founded as the first national museum in the world.
1768 First two Australian plants described by Dutchman Nicolas Burmann under the system of binomial nomenclature and currently named Acacia truncata and Synaphea spinulosa
1770 Sydney Parkinson completes 674 drawings on Cook’s voyage of the Endeavour including the first illustrations of Australian plants in situ.
1793-1795 Publication of Englishman James Smith’s A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland illustrated by James Sowerby: the first book devoted to New Holland flora
1801-1803 Botanist Robert Brown and botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer accompany Matthew Flinders on HMS Investigator. Flinders the first man to circumnavigate both Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and New Holland (Australia)
1804 – 1807 Labillardière’s Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, effectively New Holland’s first Flora
1839 Tasmanian Society, Hobart
1855 Department of Crown Lands and Survey established in Victoria
1861 Crown Lands Alienation Act
1869 Suez Canal opened
1880 Formation of the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria
1883 Inauguration on 22 June in Sydney of the Geographical Society of Australasia (becoming the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia in 1886) with branches in Victoria and Queensland formed later in
1886 Aboriginal Protection Law Act amended forcing people of mixed descent off missions.
1898 Wilson’s Promontory gazetted as a National Park but does not become a permanent park until 1908
1908 National Parks Association of Victoria (like the National Trust and in 1952 becoming Victorian National Parks Association). Wilson’s Promontory permanently gazetted
1912 West Australian Native Flora Protection Act (amended 1939)
1950 West Australian Wildlife Conservation Act (amended 1976, 1979)
1952 Formation of the Victorian National Parks Association
1965 Formation of the Archaeological Society of Victoria
1967 American Roderick Nash publishes Wilderness and the American Mind, a stimulus to both the study of environmental history and the environmental movement
1968 Little Desert National Park established in Victoria

Key points


  • Our behaviour is governed by moral rules and values (norms) that impact the way we manage environmental, social and economic issues: they are therefore a vital component of sustainability management
    • Metaethics deals with the foundations of the study of ethics while ethics examines the moral act, the source of our morality, and its purpose or role within society
      • Two theories dominate moral philosophy today: deontology (rule-following) and consequentialism (the morality of an act depends on its consequences) although mixed views are often held
        • Our attitude to morality is strongly influenced by whether we believe it to be subjective or objective
          • Adoption of subjective and objective ethical positions is especially evident in cross-cultural situations
            • Objective ethics makes the notion of ‘moral progress’ meaningful (possibly as a ‘norm cascade’ based on the ‘excalator of reason’) and it allows for an expanding sphere of moral commonality that can encompass other species and, some might argue, the broader environment
              • The relative roles of reason and will (emotion) in moral decision-making is contentious but an appeal to reason is evident in the cross-cultural and religious idea of the Golden Rule
                • Utilitarians regard the ultimate purpose of morality (its ultimate value) as universal happiness or human flourishing then this can only occur when humans exist in a harmonious relationship with the environment and this is why animals, plants, rivers and mountains are an integral part of the moral sphere
                  • Ancient Greek philosophers referred to human harmony or flourishing, the ultimate value of life, as eudaimonia
                    • The modern word for the harmonious integration of human consciousness with the external world (planet Earth) is ‘sustainability’

                    First published on the internet – 1 March 2019


                    Venus Bay, Victoria, Australia
                    21 February 2021
                    Image Roger Spencer

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