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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Lesson Two

Lesson 4

Lesson 4

Who, when, where and how: the distinctiveness of environmental ethics

Keith Douglass Warner OFM and 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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

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 social ethics.

The common good includes the goods of the earth

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 own sake.

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 altered.

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

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.

Emphasis on 'wholes'

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 principle.
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 claim?

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 management.

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 and David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2009