A Short Course in Environmental Ethics
Who, When, Where and How:
The Distinctiveness of Environmental
By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse
This lesson introduces the distinctive features of environmental
ethics by inviting you to see how environmental ethics are related
to personal or social ethics. Whether you consider yourself a
very ethical person or not, the fact is that you no doubt already
think in many ethical ways. You think about right and wrong, about
what it means to be treated fairly, about having justice done.
This lesson plan aims to extend such common thinking about personal
ethics to the field of environmental ethics. We will do this by
invoking the classic question words - "who," "when,"
"where," "how," and "what" - as
bridges by which both to see the connection between personal and
environmental ethics and to see the distinctiveness of environmental
ethics itself. At the end of each step in this lesson, there is
a question or questions to guide reflection and prompt discussion.
We invite you first to respond to these questions from what you
already know. If you have more time, we also invite you briefly
to consider each question in light of related information that
can be found on some of the Web sites provided on the list at
the end of this short course. You should take notes as you proceed
through the questions. There is no more extended writing assignment
for this lesson plan.
The "Who" of Environmental Ethics
We are used to thinking of ethics in personal or interpersonal
terms. Ethics is the field of study that pertains to how we
ought to act - toward ourselves and others. But the field of
environmental ethics has invited us to think more broadly about
who in fact are the subjects of ethics. Specifically, environmental
ethics invites us to consider:
- That ethics is not only about the personal. Rather, it may
be about how groups treat their members, or and how nations
treat each other.
- That ethics pertains as well to how we act - not only toward
ourselves and others - but also toward the natural world itself.
In the past, the natural world was often the unseen participant
in many situations of ethical significance. Humans treated it
as a passive backdrop, when in fact nature played an active
role in shaping human society. For instance, it was not uncommon
that a blind eye could be turned to the environmentally damaging
effects on a community of manufacturing or waste disposal. Now,
however, community well-being is assessed not only in terms
of such things as the quality of jobs or the provision of health
care. Rather, such well-being is also assessed in terms of the
environmental safety and health of the community. Or, for instance,
it may have historically been the case that excessive tree cutting
in forests was permitted as a way to provide for economic livelihood.
But it may not have been the case that connections were made
to the beauty and value of the trees in themselves or to how
trees in a forest affect many other living things.
All Stakeholders have some moral status
The common good includes the goods of the earth
In any ethical decision, we must always ask who are all the
stakeholders? Who are all of the persons who have an interest
in the outcome of the ethical decision? Environmental ethics
has required us to consider far more carefully the actual extent
of the range of stakeholders in any ethical decision. These
may include, of course, the immediate people involved. But the
stakeholders may also include the people of future generations
who may be affected by changes in the environment brought about
by decisions made today. The stakeholders may also include people
who live far away who may be affected via air and water by the
environmental decisions made near at hand. And stakeholders
may include the natural world itself. This concept invites us
to consider the "moral status" or the intrinsic value
of each stakeholder - whether the stakeholder is a human being
or are the animals, plants, and ecosystems of the natural world
itself. The concept of "the moral status of nature"
is a key feature that distinguishes environmental ethics from
It is always helpful to think of a decision involving environmental
ethics in terms both of the concepts of the "common good"
and of "social ethics." The common good is an ethical
concept that means that the good of each person is inseparable
from the good of all persons. To the degree that environmental
issues almost always involve actions that may have an effect on
a wide variety of persons, such issues almost always require an
assessment of our good in light of the common good. Because of
this requirement to address the common good of many persons, environmental
ethics are known as a branch of what is called "social ethics"
(which we can distinguish from the less-peopled notion of "personal
ethics"). Moreover, it is also important when engaging in
environmental ethics to consider all of the different goods that
figure in the common good. Of course, the goods of many different
men and women figure in the common good. But environmental ethics
and the concept of moral status invite us to look beyond only
human goods. Rather, they invite us to consider that the common
good includes human and non-human goods: That the common good
includes not only those environmental conditions that enhance
the fulfillment of men's and women's lives but that the common
good also includes the well-being of the natural world for its
Question: Who are all of the stakeholders in the case of
an endangered species threatened with extinction?
The "When" of Environmental Ethics
When we discussed above the stakeholders in a decision about
environmental ethics, we noted the importance of considering
the stakeholders of the future. To be sure, the future is a
category especially pertinent to environmental ethics. In many
ethical decisions, the effects of our actions are immediate
and apparent. In many environmental ethics decisions, however,
the effects of our actions may be cumulative, long-lasting and,
at least in the near term, hidden. The classic case of this
is nuclear waste, the devastating effects of which may be invisible.
But the consideration of the future in environmental ethics
applies far more broadly than to the potency of nuclear waste.
For instance, the pollution from a new residential subdivision
might flow into a nearby river. At first, the damaging effects
may be slight. But, over time, these effects may accumulate
until the character of the river is fundamentally and destructively
Think to the Seventh Generation
In many environmental ethics decisions, we always need to ask:
What is the role of the future generations in this decision?
How can we assess the cumulative effects over time on the environment
of whatever action is under consideration? How can we assess
the cumulative effects of a decision we are likely to make?
The contemporary Seventh Generation environmental movement is
founded on this concern for the future. The movement draws its
name from a declaration of the Native American Iroquois Confederacy:
"In our every deliberation we must consider the impact
of our decisions on the next seven generations."
Question: Do you think future human generations have
moral status in the debate over climate disruption?
The "Where" of Environmental Ethics
Environmental ethics invites us, then, to look far ahead in
time. It also invites us to look far afield on land and water
and air. We tend to understand our ethical encounters as strictly
interpersonal and as occurring in the home or office. But environmental
ethics invites us to consider a far broader field as the scene
of every ethical decision.
Natural World Not Taken For Granted
Emphasis on 'Wholes'
Asking the "where" question of environmental ethics
invites us to consider the interconnectedness of the natural
world as a factor in all of our decisions. This requires us
to leave the comfort of our homes or offices or shopping malls
to perceive and consider the effects of actions on a natural
world that we often take for granted or that we use without
thinking too much about.
Environmental ethics invites us to consider places far from
us. Whatever action we take may have an effect near-at-hand:
The plastic bottle we throw out the window remains sitting for
months by the side of the road. But our actions may also have
effects that occur, literally, at a remove from what we specifically
do: The used engine oil we pour down the roadside drain runs
through miles of waterways and pipes all the way down to the
faraway bay. The burning of coal in China results in soot and
ash falling on the Western U.S. The greenhouse gasses burned
in Europe and North America are chiefly responsible for raising
average global temperatures, and the impacts of those temperatures
will be affecting virtually every person and ecosystem.
The third way that environmental ethics invites us to think differently
in terms of place is in its emphasis on "wholes." That
is, environmental ethics invites us to consider decisions in light
of such living realities as the biosphere and ecosystems.
Not only, then, can an action we take have an effect emerge far
from where the action took place. But also, our isolated action
may well occur within an existing biological system in which a
small effect in one place may ripple out widely through an interconnected
and interdependent web of life. Thus, when we trace the possible
effects of a particular action, we must pay close attention to
how the initial effects near at hand may well create a chain reaction
of critical effects.
Question: Do you know where your household's waste ends
up, whether via sewage pipes or waste disposal system?
Step Four: The "How" of Environmental Ethics
When we begin the process of thinking through a decision of
environmental ethics, we should keep in mind several key factors
that inform how such reasoning is done. These factors are the
difference between the empirical and the ethical; the role of
risk, uncertainty, probability, and prediction; and the meaning
of absolute, intrinsic, and instrumental value. Ethical reasoning
on many topics may involve such aspects. But in environmental
ethics these factors have an unusually significant role.
The Difference Between the Empirical and the Ethical
The first factor is the difference between the empirical and
the ethical. Often, these two kinds of thinking are mistakenly
thought to be the same thing. But the first kind of thinking
- the empirical - is about how in fact we do live. The second
kind of thinking - the ethical - is about how we ought to live.
Thus, for instance, it is an empirical claim to say that the
United States pollutes the world's greatest source of climate
disrupting greenhouse gasses as a result of fossil fuel burning.
This claim is a fact, which may or not may not be true. But
it is not yet an ethical claim - that is, that the Federal government
should take action to address this. In environmental disputes,
many people make claims based on ideology, or a system of ideas
that people believe to be true whether or not evidence supports
it. An ideology often reflects the position: "I have made
my mind up so don't bother me with the facts." In a free
society, everyone is permitted to have their own opinion, but
that does not mean one is allowed to have their own facts. Lesson
7 describes in greater detail the role
of science in environmental ethics.
To make an ethical argument, establishing scientific data and
determining scientific conclusions are vital, but several more
steps are necessary. In particular, we need to supply a step
in the argument that says clearly why such an action to reduce
greenhouse gas pollution ought to be taken. For instance, we
would have to say: greenhouse gasses are disrupting our climate.
Actions should be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because
disrupting our climate will have terrible environmental consequences
for people and the Earth. People and the Earth have great moral
worth, and merit our protection. With these reasons in hand,
we now can make the ethical claim that actions should be taken
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More on this in lesson
9 on climate ethics.
Risk, Harm, and Prediction
Another key factor in reasoning about environmental ethics is
the role played by risk, uncertainty, probability, and prediction.
Often cases of environmental ethics involve looking at the cumulative
harms of actions stretching far ahead into the future. But how
accurate are such prediction of impacts? The Earth's ecosystems
behave in very complicated ways, and these defy human understanding
and accurate prediction. How probable is it that the predicted
harmful or beneficial effects on the environment of some action
will in fact happen? As a quick test, it is usually the case
that the more probable it is that a damaging effect will occur,
the more powerful is the ethical responsibility for managing
or mitigating the effects of that action. But it is always important
in assessing a case in environmental ethics to ask about the
quality of the evidence used in assessing risk and in making
predictions. More on this in the lesson on the responsibility
Question: How well can you tell the difference between
an opinion, an ideology, and scientific evidence? How would
you go about distinguishing between an empirical and an ethical
Absolute, Intrinsic, and Instrumental Value
A third key factor to keep in mind in thinking through a decision
in environmental ethics is to note the difference among absolute,
intrinsic and instrumental value. Something that has absolute
value cannot in any way be harmed. Many people think, for instance,
that innocent human life itself has absolute value and, thus,
that there can be no justification for harming innocent human
life. Not as many people today think that the natural world
itself has a similar, absolute value. But many people have increasingly
said that the natural world has intrinsic value or, in other
words, counts for its own sake (we referred to this idea earlier
when we spoke of "moral status").
In environmental ethics, there may be a number of reasons for
why we attribute intrinsic value to things. For instance, some
people may grant intrinsic value to animals because these people
believe that animals are created by God. Other people may grant
intrinsic value to animals because these people think that animals
have feelings of pain and pleasure that must be taken into account
in our assessment of actions taken that may possibly harm animals.
When we grant such intrinsic value to things, we do not regard
them as readily as things that can be used. Rather, such things
become protected or preserved or enhanced. Even so, however,
it is important to note that something can have intrinsic but
not absolute value: In other words, something can be precious
but not so precious that under no circumstances will we permit
it to be harmed. For instance, many people who support hunting
may think along these lines. They value animals for their own
sake but nevertheless justify hunting for reasons like wildlife
Last, we should also keep in mind the role of instrumental
value in environmental ethics. We are reasoning by instrumental
value when we say, for instance, that the natural world has
value insofar as it benefits human life. At one level, this
claim is not controversial. Almost everyone would say - when
pressed - that we do value the natural world in great measure
because of the way it shapes human life. But the key concern
here is the degree of instrumentality that we grant to the natural
world. For instance, it would be highly controversial in environmental
ethics to use a notion of instrumental value that says the natural
world only has value insofar as it benefits human life.
Question: Do you think animals have absolute, intrinsic,
or instrumental value? Does the distinction between farm and wild
animals make a difference in your opinion?
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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