A Short Course in Environmental Ethics
The Role of Science in Environmental Ethics
By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse
Science is a powerful way of knowing that has transformed the
relationship between human society and the natural world. Drawn
from the Latin word for knowledge, in the broadest sense, science
means a systematic way of gathering information and drawing
conclusions. In a more restricted sense, science refers to information
gathered using the scientific method, a systematic approach
to gathering empirical (observable and measurable) data and
determining facts about nature or society. A scientific approach
to studying the natural or social world asks clear, specific
questions, makes predictions (proposes hypotheses), tests the
accuracy of those predictions, and draws conclusions based on
measurable evidence. The natural sciences use the scientific
method to investigate the natural world, and social scientists
use it to research social issues, in other words, in human society.
When conducting experiments with natural phenomena, scientists
using this method can determine cause and effect relationships.
The scientific method attempts to determine knowledge by eliminating,
so far as possible, the potential for our own interests and
desires to influence the results. This has increased the sophistication
of our understanding of how the plants, animals, nutrients and
energy are related in the environment.
Astonishing benefits, but not without problems
Science, technology and engineering have brought terrific benefits
to society, and have made astounding wealth and material comfort
possible. Yet upon closer analysis, many people have observed
that these forces have had ambivalent effects. Tremendous benefits
made possible by scientists and the scientific method have not
been without negative impacts on the Earth, and in some cases,
for the poor. The automobile has brought us convenience in transport,
yet we have paved over much fertile farmland to make roads.
Fossil fuels, such as oil and gas, have made possible all manner
of industry and devices, yet the carbon dioxide emissions from
their burning play a significant role in disrupting our atmosphere
and climate. Nuclear technologies can promote health, for example,
through radiation treatments for cancer. Yet these same when
used for war could bring about indescribably horrific suffering.
Nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gasses, which is good,
but its waste products are radioactive (acutely dangerous) for
10,000 years or more. The wealthy nations of the world have
generated great economic benefits through technology, but at
times these technologies have extracted goods from poorer countries,
and further frustrated their economic growth.
Science and the scientific method do not, by themselves, indicate
what humans should do. By working to minimize bias, scientists
are better able to determine knowledge of the natural world.
But the "exclusion" of human values from the scientific
method - which might bias the results - also means that its
products are considered by most people to be amoral, in other
words, neither ethical nor unethical. This has resulted in the
widespread perception that scientific and technological developments
should continue without considering the ethical implications
of their products. The scientific method attempts to be free
of bias, but the technological products of science have tremendous
implications for social and environmental ethics.
The contributions of ecology
But "science" has many branches, or disciplines; it
is not a single, homogenous entity. Physics, chemistry and biology
all share the scientific method, but they have differences as
well. The Biological sciences, and especially the discipline
of ecology, play a particularly strong role in explaining humanity's
relationship with the natural world. Biology was developed in
the 19th Century when scientists discovered that all living
organisms share characteristics. In a modified form, Charles
Darwin's discovery of evolution is still a foundational principle
of biology. Evolution provides a coherent and unifying explanation
for why life on Earth is biologically diverse, why our planet
hosts so many different kinds of species. A "species"
is the basic unit of biological classification, generally defined
as a group of organisms sufficiently similar that they can sexually
reproduce and generate fertile offspring. For several reasons,
there is no agreed upon number of species on Earth (between
two and a hundred million, depending on how they are estimated
and how much uncertainty is considered).
Ecology is the study of the distribution and abundance of living
organisms and the interactions among organisms and between organisms
and their environment. This scientific discipline addresses
the challenges of researching complex data in the natural world.
Over the past few decades, biology has largely conducted studies
with living organisms in laboratories. This allows for very
precise research, but usually at the expense of considering
the broader environmental context in which organisms naturally
live. The great investment in laboratory work is part of a broader
trend in science: reductionism, or the study of complex phenomena
by analyzing only their individual components.
Ecology takes a different approach, because it studies living
organisms in dynamic systems. Thus, it tackles the big picture
questions in environmental science. This ambition is admirable,
but makes the gathering of consistent data very difficult. Biological
research restricted to a laboratory is better able to determine
cause and effect relationships, but usually disregards the broader
and more complex environmental implications. Ecologists investigate
the dynamic changing relationships between populations, groups
of organisms, and food and energy flows, over time and in response
to various stresses (such as pollution). They often research
the impact of human behavior on natural communities.
The science of ecology has contributed a most important concept:
the ecosystem. An ecosystem is an association of organisms and
their physical environment, interconnected by the circulation
of energy and nutrients. An ecosystem may be any size, from
a drop of water to our entire planet. All creatures live within
some kind of ecosystem and relate or influence each other -
and their environment - by their behavior. The idea of an ecosystem
is critical to understanding the patterns of life on earth,
and points to the inescapable inter-relatedness of all life.
The extinction of species is considered an event of special
ethical concern because it is an irreversible act, much like
murder or execution. Each species is the result of an irreproducible
process of evolution and speciation (the evolutionary process
by which species arise). The passage of the U.S. Endangered
Species Act in 1973 was landmark legislation that reflected
environmental ethical concerns that had been expressed over
the prior decades. Conservation Biology (also known as Conservation
Ecology) is a special subfield interested in the preservation
of life's full diversity, and the ecosystems necessary to support
their conservation. It is an example of a scientific field that
has an explicit ethical orientation: the conservation of biological
diversity. This is an example of the ethical notion of consequence.
The special relationship of ecology and environmental ethics
Ecology plays a privileged role in environmental ethics. Aldo
Leopold and Rachel
Carson were two pioneering environmental ethicists with
advanced training in ecology, and this profoundly influenced
their moral vision of the natural world. Leopold was an ecologist,
farmer, forester and conservationist who wrote explicitly about
human moral duties to nature. He was the first to articulate
a land ethic, or to describe moral responsibilities for land.
His most important book was "A Sand County Almanac"
(Leopold, 1949). In his chapter on a land ethic he claimed:
"a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity,
stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when
it tends otherwise." This appears to be the first explicit
ethical statement about the importance of an ecosystem. Leopold
expanded the boundaries of what was morally considerable from
human society to include biological communities.
The philosophy of Deep Ecology, first named and articulated
by Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss, builds on Leopold's
land ethic and the science of ecology to articulate a vision
for how humans should live in relationship to the Earth. Deep
Ecology begins with the proposition that humans are a part of
the earth. Many Deep Ecologists assert that humans have no more
rights than other forms of life, and that a radical reorientation
in human society is necessary to live within the limits of what
the Earth's ecosystems can provide. They reject the very notion
of "natural resources" because that statement assumes
that elements and organisms are important only as economic commodities
for humans. Deep Ecology asserts that nature, the environment,
and ecosystems have intrinsic value, meaning that they are deserving
of moral consideration and protection merely because they exist.
They do not have value because they meet human needs, but because
they are a part of the Earth.
Deep Ecology argues that a human-centered worldview, known
as anthropocentrism, is at the root of our environmental crises.
This line of critique links exponential human population growth
and environmental degradation as being symptoms of a worldview
that does not value other forms of life, and ignores the consequences
of disrupting ecosystems. It proposes biocentrism, or an eco-centric
approach, as the antidote, although there are several variations
of these. Some propose that humans have no more rights than
other forms of life, although this is easier to say than to
actually live out. A more practical biocentric philosophical
approach argues that the Earth's ecosystems deserve our respect
This principle of the Earth and its creatures having intrinsic
value is particularly strong in Deep Ecology, but is in no way
limited to this philosophical approach. Concern for threatened
and endangered species is based on the principle of intrinsic
value. Most species of organisms in the environment do not provide
economic value, or at least we do not have clear evidence of
how they provide direct benefits to humans. Restraining human
activities that harm the earth, when undertaken for non-economic
reasons, can be traced back to some kind ethic, whether it is
beauty (an aesthetic ethic) or just because it is (intrinsic
value). Many arguments for the conservation of biological diversity
reach an impasse because proponents assume that other forms
of life have intrinsic moral value, while their opponents do
not. Finding ways to move beyond this impasse is an essential
task for environmental ethics.
The idea of the ecosystem has contributed to the philosophical
idea of holism, or the idea that a system has properties that
can only be perceived by looking at components, their inter-relationships,
and the functioning of the whole system. For example, a scientist
can examine individual organisms in a laboratory setting, but
they may behave differently in their natural environment. The
ethical implication of holism is that entire systems have moral
significance, meaning that we have duties to consider not merely
individual members but the entire set of relationships and attributes
of whole ecosystems. This proposition has a certain philosophical
appeal, but translating it into an applied ethical practice
is challenging. Few people appear capable or disposed to actually
consider the well-being of ecosystems in their moral decision
making. Finding an appropriate way to apply the concept of holism
is on the frontier of environmental ethics. The science of ecology
has made visible the inner workings of the ecological bases
of holism. It is the task of environmental ethics to propose
what how we should live in order to conserve the ecological
processes upon which all life depends.
1. Do you believe that the diversity of life has intrinsic value?
Why or why not? How do you assess the beliefs of those who disagree
2. Imagine you were asked to make an argument for protecting
an endangered species, but at the cost of restricting economic
development. How would you combine scientific and ethical principles
to do so?
3. Have you ever heard or made an ethical argument based on
holism? Have you thought about the relationship between the
concept of an ecosystem and an ethic of holism? How might you
use these ideas in an ethical argument?
For more reading:
Devall, W. and Sessions, G., 1985. Deep Ecology: Living As if
Nature Mattered. Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., Salt Lake City.
Leopold, A., 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University
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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