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Environmental ethics


To win the human race, everyone must succeed!
Since the 1960s we have become aware of the world’s increasing interconnectedness and interdependency in a historical trend that has now become known as globalization.

So, economically we are integrated into a global economy. Socially, in spite of day to day conflicts, violence is decreasing, and ‘us vs them’ is diminishing in significance as we look and sound progressively similar, adopting similar lifestyles in similar city environments, edging slowly from national identity towards global citizenship.

Many environmental issues too are becoming more global: population, climate change, alterations to the world’s biogeochemical cycles; food security; water availability; waste disposal – none of these fully understand political boundaries.

The future of humanity depends on its stewardship of planet earth – and that is a matter of environmental ethics.

How should we manage 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

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.

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?

Grounds for moral concern

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.

The expanding moral sphere

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.

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


Family, friends and acquaintances
All humans
Humans & sentient animals
Future generations
Humans, sentient animals, ecosystems & all living things
The total environment including inanimate nature

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.

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 1883
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

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