A Short Course in Environmental Ethics
An Environmental Ethics Decision-Making Guide
By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse
This lesson presents a decision making guide that will allow
you to integrate what you have learned in the prior lessons.
The chief value of this guide is that it will challenge you
to clarify your own thinking about the various factors that
need to be weighed to make an ethical decision regarding an
environmental issue. The decision-making model has three general
steps: Analysis, Assessment, and Action. Even if you cannot
answer every one of these questions, organizing your thinking
into these three major components will help you avoid the fatal
flaw of confusing the empirical with the normative, or moral.
This guide is adapted from the excellent model proposed by
James Martin-Schramm and Robert L. Stivers in Christian Environmental
Ethics: A Case Method Approach (see the footnote below). Their
model is meant to aid a decision involving a case in environmental
ethics. We highly encourage you to consult the extensive cases
in their book. Other environmental ethics cases can be found
by searching on the Web. We also highly encourage you to use
their decision-making model on a real-life case that you may
be confronting in your neighborhood or city. You should go through
each step of the model, take notes as you go, draw on the prior
Analysis (perceive the issues)
- Personal factors: Is there anything in your personal
experience that affects how you view the case?
- Power dynamics: Among all the stakeholders in the
case, do all have relatively equal power in terms of making
a decision? If not, why not?
- Factual & scientific information: What are the
key facts in the case? Is there any dispute about what those
facts are? What is the most plausible account of the facts?
Is there indication that scientific data is being presented
in a biased way?
- Complicating factors: Is there anything particularly
unusual or complicated about the case? In terms of science?
Or of law?
- Relationships: Do any of the key stakeholders have
crucial issues of personal relationships that may affect how
they view the case?
- Ethical issues: What is the primary ethical issue
in the case? What are one or two secondary ethical issues?
- Alternatives and consequences: What are the key alternative
courses of action? How do they treat the primary ethical issue
in the case? What are the likely positive and negative consequences
of these alternatives?
Assessment (use norms to evaluate alternatives)
- Ethical vision: What would be a just resolution
to these issues? Remember: Ethics is not only about what we
shouldn't do; it's also about how we imagine things should
- Coping with imperfect environmental knowledge: how
do you evaluate the certainty with which alternatives are
presented? How great are the risks of uncertain environmental
impacts, and who bears the burden of risk?
- Ethical reasoning: Which mode appears most appropriate?
(commands, consequences, character)
- Moral principles: What key ethical principles are
relevant? (Examples: justice, sufficiency, sustainability,
solidarity, participation and precaution)
- Virtues: What kind of character traits do you want
to be reflected in your decisions? (Examples: prudence, precaution,
Action (make the decision and act on it)
- Decision: Which alternative is morally preferable?
- Justification: how do you justify it in terms of
the moral principles and the moral reasoning above?
- Communication: How will you communicate this information
to diverse audiences so it is morally reasonable?
- Reflection: Looking back on the case, are there
any aspects of it that were especially enlightening or troubling?
What new developments might cause you to reconsider your decision?
This matrix is derivative from Martin-Schramm & Stivers
(2003) Christian Environmental Ethics: A Case Method Approach
Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education,
Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University
David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
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