A Short Course in Environmental Ethics
What: Using Ethical Principles in Moral Reasoning About
By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse
There are many different principles on which to draw in moral
reasoning about specific environmental problems. This lesson reviews
three basic pairs of principles: justice and sustainability; sufficiency
and compassion; solidarity and participation. This lesson demonstrates
how environmental concerns challenge us to extend these principles
to include the well-being of the natural world and our human duties
to it. It concludes with a description of three general types
of arguments that can be used in moral reasoning about the environment.
The three classic ethical principles of justice, sufficiency and
solidarity can be traced back to many different sources: Greek
philosophy, religious teachings, and reflection on human experience.
In the face of any decision involving environmental ethics, we
should ask how each of these ethical principles - also known as
ethical norms - can be applied to the situation at hand. Ethical
principles are standards or benchmarks against which we can evaluate
our actions. They are also signposts to orient us toward the difference
between right and wrong, especially in conditions where there
are multiple problems, and the interests of more than one party.
Ethical principles are different from scientific principles in
that they are generally not as hard and fast. They are less likely
to give us one correct answer, but can be used to evaluate conflicting
claims, a decision making process, or the outcome of a decision.
Justice and sustainability
The classic formal principle of justice is that equals should
be treated equally unless there is a sufficient reason to treat
anyone (or anything) unequally. It is clearly relevant in the
field of ethics called environmental
justice, but this principle cuts across many issues. Environmental
justice is concerned with the inequitable access to environmental
resources (clean food, air and water) and the injustice of greater
pollution that often characterize lower-income communities -
not wealthy suburbs. The notion of justice underlies concern
about animal welfare. On the basis of what values are other
animals considered different from the human animal, and thus
subject to consumption by humans? Recent advances in biology
have shown that the differences between humans and other animals
are much less than many of us might think. Does the equality
of humans and animals as living creatures require far more humane
treatment of animals? Or even the total non-use of animals?
To apply justice to an environmental decision, we should ask:
Sustainability extends justice into the future. Sustainability
can be defined as meeting the needs of the present generation
without compromising the ability of future generation to meet
their own needs. We are consuming or degrading many resources
(such as fossil fuel energy, topsoil and water) today faster than
they can be naturally replenished, which means they will not be
available to people in the future. The ethical principle of justice
is at play because it underpins the need to equitably balance
the needs of those alive today (the rich and poor) with future
generations. Thus, environmental ethics takes the notion of fundamental
fairness and stretches it to include those yet to be born. To
apply the principle of sustainability to an environmental decision,
we should ask:
- Are all human beings involved in this situation being treated
equally and, if not, why not?
- Are all living creatures involved in this situation being
treated equally and, if not, why not?
- What are the immediate and long-term effects of the problem
- Who - humans and otherwise - is affected today by the problem
before us and who will likely be affected by this problem
in the future?
Sufficiency and compassion
The principle of sufficiency mandates that all forms of life
are entitled to enough goods to live on and flourish. The principle
also means no one should waste or hoard resources intended for
the sufficiency of all. Upholding the norm of sufficiency makes
demands upon individuals - to share, to live more simply, to
think creatively - and on human communities: to ensure that
everyone has access to the goods that they need to live a life
of dignity. The ethical norm of sufficiency is closely tied
to the notion of moral significance, which means that something
is worthy of our ethical concern. This means that we include
the needs of others in our consideration of what is important,
or worthy of our concern. When we consider the needs of others,
such as poor individuals in our society or poor countries in
the world, we are asserting the moral principle of sufficiency.
This principle helps us think about whom else we need to consider,
to whom we have moral duties. It underlies the practice of empathy.
This principle can conflict, at least in some people's minds,
with the notion that the Earth does not have sufficient goods
to meet everyone's needs. To apply the principle of sufficiency
to an environmental decision, we should ask:
Compassion extends the notion of sufficiency to the Earth. Environmental
ethics asserts that other animals, plants, and the elements (such
as water, soil or air) are morally significant, and that humans
have responsibilities to act so that their needs are met too.
Some environmental ethicists, such as Deep
Ecologists, assert that non-human forms of life have moral
significance equivalent to humans. Most people, however, believe
that other forms of life have some moral worth, but that humans
are of greater moral significance. Even if you think animals are
far more worthy of your concern than plants or elements, recognize
that all animals depend, either directly or indirectly on plants
for food, and that no creatures can live without sufficient clean
water. To assert that any wild animal is worthy of our moral concern
begins the process of learning about the interdependence of all
creatures on the habitat and food resources provided by other
creatures in an ecosystem.
It is simply impossible to consider the well-being of one other
creature in isolation from their environment. Ultimately, the
future of humans is tied to the well-being of all other creatures.
To apply the principle of compassion to an environmental decision,
we should ask:
- Will the decision permit all those involved, especially
the poor, to have enough resources on which to live and flourish?
- Is there any aspect of the decision that indicates the presence
of waste or excess? Or a failure to be creative?
- What duties do we have to the other creatures likely to
be affected by our actions?
- What does sufficiency mean for other creatures, especially
those threatened with extinction?
- What would it mean to extend the principle of compassion
to non-human creatures?
Solidarity and participation
The principle of solidarity invites us to consider how we relate
to each other in community. It assumes that we recognize that
we are a part of at least one family - our biological family,
our local community, or our national community - but then challenges
us to consider the full range of relationships with others.
In a globalizing economy, we participate in a vast, international
economic community, one in which goods and services are provided
for us by those on the other side of the world. Solidarity requires
us to consider this kind of extended community, and to act in
such a way that reflects concern for the well-being of others.
To apply the principle of solidarity to an environmental decision,
we should ask:
Participation extends the idea of solidarity to make it practical.
The demands of solidarity point us to the principle of participation,
so that those affected by an environmental decision can shape
how it is made. Many, many environmental problems stem from decisions
being made by private individuals or companies that have wide-ranging
implications. In some cases, in this country and others, governments
make environmental decisions without fully securing the consent
of the public. Often, those most affected are unaware of the decisions
or the long-term effects on their health and the well-being of
their environment. The ethical principle of participation requires
us to recognize all of the parties - human and non-human - likely
to be affected by a decision, and to recognize that all parties
should have a say in how the decision is made. Genuine participation
requires transparency, meaning that each individual has access
to the same information that everyone else has. To apply the principle
of participation to an environmental decision, we should ask:
- Who are all the human stakeholders involved in this situation?
- Who are all the natural stakeholders?
- Is there a community of life (ecosystem)
- Are there any stakeholders - human and non-human - who are
- Do all stakeholders in this decision actually have a say
in how the decision is going to be made?
- Are there any stakeholders who cannot represent themselves?
Or who have little power? How will their interests be represented
in the decision-making process?
Modes of Ethical Reasoning about the Environment
We now come to the "what" of environmental ethics,
in other words, to the kinds of ethical reasoning that uses
standards for environmental behavior or decisions. If we reflect
on how we already think, we can see several common modes of
ethical reasoning. For the sake of simplicity and by using a
sort of short-hand, let's consider these modes as three: moral
reasoning about commands, consequences, and character. Whenever
we consider an ethical problem, we usually find ourselves reasoning
along one or more of these lines. And this is as much the case
in environmental ethics as in any other kind of ethics.
Commands. We can use the notion of "commands"
as a shorthand way for referring to those things that we ought
to do, no matter what the consequences. This kind of reasoning
is also associated with such ethical categories as commandments,
laws, rights, and justice. In terms of environmental ethics,
perhaps the classic command is one of the classic commands in
all of ethics, "Do no harm." That is, our first general
duty toward the environment is to do no harm. Moreover, we are
reasoning in a command mode when, for instance, we think that
animals have rights and, therefore, that justice requires that
we not harm them; this is often the ethical conviction behind
those who do not eat meat.
Consequences. The ethical notion of consequences is most
often associated with the philosophical school of utilitarianism.
According to this mode of ethical reasoning, commands are not
sufficient in themselves to tell us what we ought to do. Instead,
we need to think carefully about the consequences of our actions.
Thus we can determine the correct ethical action by choosing
the one that will produce the greatest balance of good consequences
over bad consequences. This kind of reasoning helpfully invites
us to consider the totality of a situation and to identify its
positive and negative aspects. More to the point, in this kind
of reasoning, commands or laws or rights can be overridden if
doing so will yield a greater balance of benefits over harms.
This means, for instance, that something like the rights of
animals can be overridden for the sake of some perceived human
benefit. In consequential reasoning, it is often difficult to
specify what qualifies as a "benefit" and a "harm"
or, similarly, a "benefit" and a "cost,"
or "good" and "bad," etc. Frequently in
environmental cases, costs and benefits are considered only
in monetary terms. But while the assessment of such financial
costs is an essential part of many ethical analyses, it cannot
be the whole of such analyses. And it is important to try to
name what else constitutes harm and benefits. One way of doing
this might be to say, for instance, that harm is constituted
by things like premature death, undue pain, or the violation
of human economic or political rights. An environmental action
that leads or very likely will lead to such harms would be ethically
problematic. Working to protect the full diversity of life on
Earth is an example of ethical action with a positive consequence.
Character.When we speak of "character," we
are not doing so precisely in the way that we often hear the
word: As referring to a role in a play or movie. Rather, we
are referring more to the notion that "he or she has got
good character" or to the notion that "he or she is
a person of conscience." In the face of a situation of
environmental ethics, we are asking: What does this particular
action that may affect the environment mean for my character?
Or, similarly, what kind of person am I becoming by engaging
in these actions in relation to the environment? Am I becoming
more just, more humble, more generous? This mode of ethical
reasoning invites careful and honest self-reflection. It can
also be a kind of reasoning used very well by a group. The fact
is, we become what we do - whether what we do involves only
other people or also involves the natural world. This is explored
further in the lesson on environmental
The ethical principles and modes or reasoning presented in
this lesson will be integrated into a decision
making model in lesson 12.
Question: Take one important environmental issue - for
example, water pollution or endangered species - and analyze
it in light of each of the key terms in this chapter: justice
and sustainability; sufficiency and compassion; solidarity and
participation. How do different terms of analysis yield different
moral perspectives on the issue?
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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