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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Twelve

An Environmental Ethics Decision-Making Guide

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and 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 lesson plans.

Analysis (perceive the issues)

  1. Personal factors: Is there anything in your personal experience that affects how you view the case?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. Complicating factors: Is there anything particularly unusual or complicated about the case? In terms of science? Or of law?
  5. Relationships: Do any of the key stakeholders have crucial issues of personal relationships that may affect how they view the case?
  6. Ethical issues: What is the primary ethical issue in the case? What are one or two secondary ethical issues?
  7. 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)

  1. 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 be.
  2. 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?
  3. Ethical reasoning: Which mode appears most appropriate? (commands, consequences, character)
  4. Moral principles: What key ethical principles are relevant? (Examples: justice, sufficiency, sustainability, solidarity, participation and precaution)
  5. Virtues: What kind of character traits do you want to be reflected in your decisions? (Examples: prudence, precaution, courage)

Action (make the decision and act on it)

  1. Decision: Which alternative is morally preferable?
  2. Justification: how do you justify it in terms of the moral principles and the moral reasoning above?
  3. Communication: How will you communicate this information to diverse audiences so it is morally reasonable?
  4. 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 (Orbis Press).

Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education, Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009