A2 RELIGIOUS STUDIES 2772
‘Environmental Ethics is the
relationship between human
beings and the environment
in which they live’
According to Marshall, over the last 65 million
years there has been a natural ecological
balance between the animate and the
inanimate. However, over the last 300 years
rapid industrialisation has led to a massive
ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS TODAY
Today growing concerns about global warming (the effects of which global
dimming, until now, has lead to a gross underestimation) underline the general
acceptance that environmental preservation is an obligation both for present and
future generations. However, it is the grounds upon which justifies the argument
for or against preservation that is the subject of ethical debate, and this invariably
includes the issue of non-human animal and non-animal rights.
There have been many attempts to categorize the different approaches to the
justification of environmental preservation. Alan Marshall and Michael Smith are
two recent examples, as cited by Peter Vardy in ‘The Puzzle of Ethics.’
For Marshall, three ethical approaches
have emerged over the last 20 years:
LIBERTARIAN EXTENSION (DEEP ECOLOGY)
When human-rights are extended to non-human animals (Michael Smith termed
this a bio-centric ethic, since it focuses on the rights of biotic entities) and possibly
even the a-biotic and inanimate. This argues for the intrinsic value and inherent
worth of the environment, hence it is also termed deep ecology (Naess and
Naess and his collaborator, Sessions, (deep ecology) argued that humanity has no
right to compromise the environment except to ‘satisfy vital needs.’
Ecological Humanism (Eco-humanism) falls under Marshall’s Libertarian Extension.
This is the argument that all ontological beings have ethical worth on the basis that
they exist. Andrew Brennan was an advocate.
ECOLOGIC EXTENSION (ECO-HOLISM)
Places the emphasis not on individual human rights but on the fundamental
interdependence of all biotic and a-biotic components and their essential diversity.
Lends intrinsic value and inherent worth to species or eco-systems or the environment
as a whole entity, valuable in itself. This is the same classification of the category
Smith termed eco-holism.
The Gaia Hypothesis
This category includes James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis; the theory that the planet
earth or ‘Gaia spirit’ gradually alters its own geo-physiological structure according to
some sort of imperative that ensures the continuation of an equilibrium of evolving
inorganic and organic entities. The planet is characterised as a unified, holistic living
entity with ethical worth, of which the human race is of no particular significance in
the long run.
CONSERVATION ETHICS (SHALLOW ECOLOGY)
The only value that non-human animals and plants have is extrinsic, instrumental to
the benefit of humankind. They are a means to an end – conservation is important for
the welfare of current and future generations.
Conservation Ethics formed the underlying arguments by Governments at Kyoto in
1997 and the agreements reached in Rio in 1992.
Following the bio-centric and eco-holist theory distinctions, Michael
Smith further classifies Humanist theories as those that require a
set of criteria for moral status and ethical worth, such as sentience.
This applies to the work of Peter Singer who advocated a hierarchy
of value similar to the one devised by Aristotle which relies on the
ability to reason. This was Singer’s solution to the problem that
arises when attempting to determine the interests of a non-
sentient entity such as a garden weed. See also his work on world
What Humanist theories do not allow for is the fact that a system of
ethics formulated form a human perspective may not be entirely
accurate; humans are not necessarily the centre of reality. The
philosopher Spinoza argued that we tend to asses things wrongly in
terms of their usefulness to us. Spinoza reasoned that if we were to
look at things objectively we would discover that everything in the
universe has its own unique value. Likewise, it is possible that there
is a bigger picture that we may or may not be able to understand
from a human perspective.
Peter Vardy distinguishes two
types of anthropocentrism:
Humans are at the centre of reality and it is right
for them to be so .
Reality can only be interpreted from a human
point of view; therefore humans have to be at the
centre of reality as they see it.
EXPANDING CIRCLE OF MORAL
The ‘expanding circle’ of moral worth
should be redrawn to include non-
human animals. If we do not, we are
guilty of ‘specieism.’
HIERARCHY OF VALUE
In his first edition of ‘Practical Ethics,’ Singer argued that
because plants are non-sentient, a problem arises in
trying to determine their interests in staying alive. Singer
therefore developed a ‘hierarchy of value’ similar to that
of Aristotle, according to the ability to reason.
Singer remained unconvinced by deep ecology. In his
second edition of ‘Practical Ethics’ he conceded that,
although the argument for the preservation of the
environment may be strong, arguing for its intrinsic
value is, at best, problematic.
WORLD HERITAGE SITES
Singer argues that as the unspoilt parts of the world diminish,
they acquire a ‘scarcity value’ that argues for preservation as a
bequest for future generations. These areas should be referred to
as ‘World Heritage’ sites and have been inherited from our
ancestors so should be left for future generations to enjoy. It
should be left up to them to decide whether they choose to
enjoy the unspoilt country or urban landscape.
The tropical rainforest for example is a very specialist ecosystem;
a climatic climax vegetation that has taken centuries to evolve.
Clearing the rainforest to develop farmland often fails due to the
soil conditions, and once destroyed the rain forest may never be
RIGHTS OF NON-LIVING ENTITIES
The philosopher Bernard Williams reasoned that inanimate entities
can have interests but do not have experiences.
For Singer however, the two concepts are conflated. For an entity to
have an interest it must be capable of having an experience. Singer
argued that because plants are non-sentient, a problem arises in
trying to determine their interests in staying alive. Singer therefore
developed a ‘hierarchy of value’ similar to that of Aristotle, according
to the ability to reason.
RIGHTS OF NON-HUMAN ANIMALS
All sentient creatures clearly have the capacity to
experience and ultimately do have interests. We can
begin to understand what these interests might be e.g.
food, water, comfort and affection.
The life work of St. Thomas Aquinas attempted
to bring Aristotelian thought in line with the
Christian doctrine. Aristotle formulated a
hierarchy of living organisms according to the
ability to reason.
In the creation story it is clear that the planet has been given to humanity and
humanity has control. This can be interpreted in three ways:
• Adam is given dominion over every living creature on earth. The notion of
dominion includes responsibility – hence many Christians believe they are
called to stewardship and should act as ‘stewards’ of Gods creation.
“Let us make man in our image, in our likeness: and let them have dominion
over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air”
• The hard-line approach is that the world is a gift from God for the sole use of
humanity – we may do what we like with it. Some biblical interpretations of
Genesis 1:26 use the term ‘mastery’ in place of ‘dominion.’ This illustrates this
“The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth
he has given to man”
• Creation is a gift from God to be enjoyed ‘in
partnership’ with its fellow inhabitants. It is different
from the gifts received at Christmas and birthdays,
since everything ultimately belongs to God, and God
still has sole ownership of creation.
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world
and all who live in it”
Utilitarianism is difficult to define as a single theory
since it is more of a family of theories with different
variants. Some Utilitarian approaches therefore are
more satisfactory than others when it comes to
applying them to environmental ethics. An example
follows to demonstrate this:
• Places emphasis on the collective good of society
• Its theory of goods is hedonistic with special weighting given to
higher pleasures (J.S. Mill)
• Its community is inter-generational
Qualitative Utilitarianism thus deduces that the moral course of
action is the maximisation of higher pleasures for present and
future generations. It is worth noting that Mill puts the
enjoyment and study of nature at the top of his list of the higher
pleasures – therefore environmental preservation is imperative.
• Places emphasis on individuals
• Its theory of goods is concerned with preference satisfaction
• Its community includes only the immediate generation
Preference Utilitarianism thus deduces that the moral course of
action is the maximisation of preference satisfaction for the
current generation. Assuming that neglecting the environment
bears no immediate effect on the current generation, the case for
environmental preservation is weak.
In ‘Practical Ethics,’ Peter Singer cites an example in which he
compares the benefits of building a hydro-electric dam across a
gorge that would create employment, stimulate economic
growth and provide a cost-effective energy supply with the
associated costs. Such costs would include the loss of a beauty
spot favoured by walkers, a good spot for white-river rafting and
the destruction of a habitat for some endangered species and
For the Preference Utilitarian, the preference satisfaction of a
cheap source of electricity to provide power for all of our
modern-day requirements outweighs the preferences of the
walkers, white water rafters, and the non-human animals. For the
Qualitative Utilitarian however, the long term interests of future
generations out-weight the short-term costs of higher energy
Environmental ethics seeks to
Environmental examine human relationships
within the nonhuman natural
world. In the past the focus has
Virtue Ethics been on the anthropocentric
theories based on duty and
(EVE) consequences which has made
environmental ethics both
incomplete and unbalanced.
Environmental ethics calls for a non-anthropocentric
theory of value that looks at our relationship with
natural entities and eco-systems objectively. EVE is an
emerging approach to environmental ethics of the last
50 years that meets this challenge.
An extension of Virtue ethics, an agent-centred
morality deriving from Aristotelian thought
which has become more popular in recent years,
EVE asks the question; not why environmental
preservation is important for mankind but what
characterises an environmentally good person.
It shifts emphasis from duty or consequences to
who we are and how we are to live in the
Traditional environmental ethics, as well as being
incomplete, is unbalanced. This is because it does not
fully address how environmental issues rebound on us
and shape the kind of people we are. EVE theorists see a
virtuous life in nature as a necessary condition for
human flourishing and progression towards Aristotle’s
state Eudaimonia. To achieve Eudaimonia one must
exercise and develop virtuous qualities that are most
productive for society and now the environment.
Extremes of behaviour – a vice of deficiency or excess
are unhelpful to society and the environment. A virtue is
found in the golden mean, and EVE attempts to explore
the virtuous qualities. that are required to live a
flourishing life in nature
‘Utilitarianism is the best approach
to environmental issues.’ Discuss.