Environmental ethics is a branch of environmental philosophy that studies the ethical relationship between human beings and the environment. This field has given a new dimension to the topics of conservation of natural resources and protection of the environment. For more information on environmental ethics, read this HelpSaveNature article.
Environmental Ethics Definition
Environmental ethics is the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its nonhuman contents. -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The definition of environmental ethics rests on the principle that there is an ethical relationship between human beings and the natural environment. Human beings are a part of the environment and so are the other living beings. When we talk about the philosophical principle that guides our life, we often ignore the fact that even plants and animals are a part of our lives. They are an integral part of the environment and hence cannot be denied their right to live. Since they are an inseparable part of nature and closely associated with our living, the guiding principles of our life and our ethical values should include them. They need to be considered as entities with the right to co-exist with human beings.
The concept of environmental ethics brings out the fact that all the life forms on Earth have the right to live. By destroying nature, we are denying the life forms this right. This act is unjust and unethical. The food web clearly indicates that human beings, plants, animals, and other natural resources are closely linked with each other. All of us are creations of nature and we depend on one another and the environment. Respecting the existence of not just other humans but also the non-human entities, and recognizing their right to live is our primary duty. With environmental ethics, morality extends to the non-human world.
Environmental Ethics as a Field
The Earth Day celebration of 1970 was also one of the factors which led to the development of environmental ethics as a separate field of study. This field received impetus when it was first discussed in the academic journals in North America and Canada. Around the same time, this field emerged in Australia and Norway. Scientists like Rachel Carson and environmentalists who led philosophers to consider the philosophical aspect of environmental problems, pioneered in the development of environmental ethics as a branch of environmental philosophy. Today, environmental ethics is a widely discussed topic. It covers aspects such as ethical principles that guide our use of natural resources, our duty to take efforts towards environmental protection, and our moral responsibility towards animals.
Issues in Environmental Ethics
Consumption of Natural Resources
Our natural environment is not a storehouse to rob resources from. It is a reserve of resources that are crucial to the existence of life. Their unscrupulous depletion is detrimental to our well-being. We are cutting down forests for making our homes. Our excessive consumption of natural resources continues. The undue use of resources is resulting in their depletion, risking the life of our future generations. Is this ethical? This is an environmental ethics issue.
Destruction of Forests
When industrial processes lead to destruction of resources, is it not the industry’s responsibility to restore the depleted resources? Moreover, can a restored environment make up for the original one? Mining processes disrupt the ecological balance in certain areas. They harm the plant and animal life in those regions. Slash-and-burn techniques are used for clearing land, that leads to the destruction of forests and woodland. The land is used for agriculture, but is the loss of so many trees compensated for?
Many human activities lead to environmental pollution. The rising human population is increasing the demand for nature’s resources. As the population is exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet, animal and plant habitats are being destroyed to make space for human habitation. Huge constructions (roads and buildings for residential and industrial use) are being made at the cost of the environment. To allow space for these constructions, so many trees have to lose their lives. The animals that thrive in them lose their natural habitats and eventually their lives. However, the cutting down of trees is seldom even considered as loss of lives. Isn’t this unethical?
Harm to Animals
Due to habitat loss, animals may enter human settlements, thus posing a threat to the people living there. In some cases, these animals are killed. Secondly, animals serve as food sources of humans, for which they are killed. Also, animal studies cause harm to animals and even their deaths. This destruction has led to the extinction of many animal species. The reduction in the populations of several other animal species continues. How can we deny the animals their right to live? How are we right in depriving them of their habitat and food? Who gave us the right to harm them for our convenience? These are some of the ethical environmental issues that need to be addressed.
The Inherent Value of Non-human Entities
An important point that the field of environmental ethics is concerned with, is whether non-human beings only have an instrumental value or whether they also have an intrinsic value. Aristotle said that “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”, which means non-human beings only have an instrumental value; they are meant to serve as ‘instruments’ for human beings. From an anthropocentric point of view (which lays emphasis on human beings), the use of other living elements in nature by humans is only right. Causing them harm or destroying them is wrong only because it eventually affects human life. With this view, cruelty to animals is wrong because it develops insensitivity, and not because animals should not be harmed. Or the felling of trees is wrong because it eventually causes loss of food sources for humans, and not because it is simply unethical.
Historian Lynn White Jr. published an essay in 1967, in which he criticized Judeo-Christian thinking as being a primary factor that led human beings to exploit the environment. According to this line of thinking, man is supreme and the nature has been created for him, which gives him the right to exploit it. White also criticized the Church Fathers who maintained that God created man in his own image and gave him the right to rule every being on Earth. According to White, this view promotes the idea that man is separate from nature and not a part of it. This thought leads human beings to exploit nature without realizing its intrinsic value.
A key figure in modern environmental ethics was Aldo Leopold, an American author, scientist, environmentalist, ecologist, forester, and conservationist. His ecocentric views were dominant in the development of modern environmental ethics. Ecocentrism deems the whole ecosystem as important as opposed to anthropocentrism that believes humans to be the most important in the universe. According to ecocentrism, there are no existential differences between the human and non-human entities in nature, which means humans are not more valuable than any other component of the environment. Humans as well as plants, animals, and other constituents of nature have an inherent value.
Theologian and environmental philosopher Holmes Rolston III says that protection of species is our moral responsibility as they have an intrinsic value. In his view, the loss of a species spells disrespect to nature’s process of speciation. According to him, biological processes deserve respect. Thus, any action that translates into disregard for the environment is unethical.
The concept of plant rights is worth discussing in this context. It is the idea of plants having certain rights like humans and animals have. Philosopher Tom Regan argues that animals and human beings are entitled to rights because they are ‘aware’ of their existence, which does not apply to plants. Philosopher Paul Taylor is of the view that plants have intrinsic value and that they are entitled to respect but not rights. In his 1972 paper “Should Trees Have Standing?”, Christopher D. Stone said that if corporations can be assigned rights, so should trees.
Our Moral Responsibility
Another important point in relation to environmental ethics is of our moral responsibility to preserve nature for our future generations. By causing environmental degradation and depletion of resources, we are risking the lives of future generations. Is it not our duty to leave a good environment for them to live in? Non-renewable energy resources are fast-depleting and sadly, it isn’t possible to replenish them. This means, they may not be available for the future generations. We need to strike a balance between our needs and the availability of resources, so that the forthcoming generations are also able to benefit from their use.
We are morally obliged to consider the needs of even the other elements of our environment. They include not just other human beings, but also plants and animals. It is only ethical to be fair to these elements and make a responsible use of natural resources. Environmental ethics try to answer the question of whether human beings have any moral obligation towards the non-human entities in nature. For the sake of development and convenience, is it morally right to burn fuels though pollution is caused? Is it morally right to continue with technological advances at the cost of the environment? Climate change is known to have a negative impact on plant diversity. It is a fact that the increasing pollution levels are hazardous for not only humans but also for plants and animals. Given this, isn’t it our moral responsibility to protect the environment? We have certain duties towards the environment. Our approach towards other living entities should be based on strong ethical values. Even if the human race is considered as the main constituent of the environment, animals and plants are in no way less important. They have a right to get a fair share of resources and lead a safe life.
Environmental Ethics and Religion
Different religions have their own theories of how the world was created and in their own ways, encourage the ideas of protecting the environment or preserving nature because of the association of natural elements with the Supreme Power that created them. In some religions, certain plants or animals are worshiped considering them as sacred or symbols of a particular deity. Nature worship is a part of many religious and spiritual practices. This goes on to say that all religions express concern towards the environment and lay importance on its non-human constituents.
A step further from environmental ethics is radical ecology, which says that it may not be enough to extend ethics to non-human elements of the environment and that it is necessary to bring changes in the way we live and function. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess classified environmentalism as shallow and deep. While shallow ecologists follow anthropocentrism, deep ecologists recommend the development of a new eco-philosophy. They are of the view that non-human elements have an intrinsic worth which is not dependent on their utility for humans. They believe in the need to implement ways to reduce human intervention in the non-human world that leads to the destruction of biodiversity. According to Naess, humans should broaden their idea of ‘self’ to include other life forms. In his eco-philosophy, ‘transpersonal ecology’, Australian philosopher Warwick Fox says that the field of environmental ethics is not limited to realizing our moral obligations towards the environment. It is about realizing what he calls ecological consciousness. Some may think that the principles of deep ecology are not sufficient to address environmental issues, but advocates of this ideology believe that once a state of ‘environmental consciousness’ is attained, humans will feel obligated to protect the environment.
Be it due to the scientific understanding of our environment or due to religious views that advocate the need for environmental protection, what’s most important is that human beings realize their connection with nature.