There are many different philosophies when it comes to how we should protect the environment. Is it acceptable for humans to use natural resources to meet their own needs? Should we take the needs of other animals into account, and if so, when?
Biocentric preservation is one philosophy that tries to answer the question of how we can most ethically protect the environment. In this article, we’ll explore the definition of biocentric preservation and how it compares to another environmental protection philosophy, utilitarian conservation.
Biocentrism is an environmental philosophy that believes all life deserves equal moral consideration. Under biocentrism, not just humans, but all living beings are considered to have intrinsic value. If something is living, then it should be morally valued simply for existing, rather than because of its use for humans.
Biocentrism argues that all life should be valued intrinsically, as every living thing has its own purpose and is working towards its own goals. Because every living being has moral value under biocentrism, it is morally wrong to harm another living being or stop it from pursuing its own goals, even if it is for a human’s benefit.
Preservation is the protection of nature from any use or human interference. Preservationists push to protect areas of land from any alteration. This contrasts with conservation, which argues for the protection of nature through proper use. Conservationists believe that natural resources, including animals, can be used, but they must be used in a way that is sustainable and responsible so that we can continue to use those resources.
Biocentric preservation is the idea that we should protect the environment not because it offers us resources, but because living things have an inherent value that must be preserved. In other words, while conservation focuses on protecting the environment so we can continue to use it, biocentric preservation argues for protecting the environment simply because it has intrinsic value. We must allow nature to continue to flourish and pursue their own self-interests (sometimes referred to as “pursuing their own good.”)
Biocentric Preservation vs. Utilitarian Conservation
In environmentalism, there are two major schools of thought when it comes to why we should protect the environment: biocentric preservation and utilitarian conservation.
Biocentric preservation directly contrasts with utilitarian conservation. Utilitarian conservation is the idea that we must protect nature through proper use of resources so that we can continue using those resources to fulfill human needs in the future. It is a “utilitarian” philosophy because it focuses on the utility, or usefulness, of nature to humans. Classical utilitarianism argues that resources should be used to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Therefore, nature can be conserved for utilitarian purposes.
Biocentric preservation, on the other hand, is the idea that we must protect nature from any human use, and rather, should protect nature because every organism has a right to exist and flourish.
For example, utilitarian conservation would argue for protecting a game animal population, like deer, so that we can continue to hunt deer for food and other resources. This hunting would help meet human needs. On the other hand, biocentric preservation would argue that the deer have an inherent value that we cannot harm, and that it is morally right to allow the deer to continue pursuing its own self-interests. Harming the deer even to meet human needs is not morally acceptable under biocentric preservation.
While many of us are aware of the many environmental problems we face, from climate change to endangered species, we often overlook the ethical issues that these problems raise.
Environmental ethics is a field of study focused on what is moral when it comes to the human relationship with nature, and helps us understand how we can ethically address environmental problems. In this article, we’ll review environmental problems through the lens of environmental ethics. What environmental problems do we face today, and what ethical issues must be considered when addressing these problems?
How Does Environmental Ethics Solve Problems?
The formal field of ethics has existed for centuries, and has historically been focused on what humans owe other humans when it comes to moral treatment. It was only in the late 19th and 20th centuries that we began to see the growth of an academic field dedicated to what humans owe the environment and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, the beginnings of the environmental ethics field were closely intertwined with the beginnings of the modern environmentalist movement. As we strive to solve human-caused environmental problems, such as degradation of natural land or loss of biodiversity, environmental ethics provide us with a roadmap for how to balance human needs with treating nature morally.
There are a number of different ethical philosophies, but there are three main camps: anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism. Anthropocentrists place human needs above nature, while biocentrists believe all life is equal and equally deserving of moral standing. Finally, ecocentrists believe that all parts of nature, including non living things, are equally deserving of moral consideration.
Each ethical environmental philosophy can lead you to different conclusions about how to treat nature – and thus can lead us to different solutions for how to answer environmental or ethical questions. For example, anthropocentrists may argue that it’s morally acceptable to kill animals for meat, while biocentrists and ecocentrists would argue that it is not acceptable to kill animals simply to meet human needs.
Alternatively, these philosophies can all lead to the same conclusion through different reasoning. For example, anthropocentrists may argue for conserving coastal mangrove forests because they provide humans with vital anti-flooding services. On the other hand, an ecocentrist may also argue for conserving coastal mangrove forests not because the trees meet human needs, but because the trees have value in and of themselves.
Environmental Issues with Ethical Implications
Many environmental issues today raise ethical questions, which environmental ethics can help us answer. Examples of these environmental issues include:
When attempting to address these environmental problems in a moral way, three guiding questions can help inform our actions:
To act morally, what do we owe nature? How can we treat nature ethically in this situation?
To act morally, what do we owe humans? How can we treat humans ethically in this situation?
How can we balance our moral obligation to nature, if one exists, with our moral obligation to humans?
If you subscribe to an anthropocentrist viewpoint, then your answer to question one is like, we don’t owe anything to nature. Therefore, we must pursue actions that will help us act ethically towards humans.
If you subscribe to a biocentric viewpoint, however, your answer to question one is different and must consider how we can treat living things ethically, not just humans. And if you subscribe to an ecocentric viewpoint, your answer must consider how we can treat all parts of nature, even nonliving things like rocks or water, ethically.
Let’s look at the example of one of the greatest environmental issues we face, climate change, and its ethical implications.
Climate Change and Ethics
The challenge of climate change is clearly an environmental problem, as the climate warmign is impacting natural systems and wildlife. Climate change is also a social problem, as it is already affecting (and will continue to impact) living conditions around the globe. This leads to a major question when designing or weighing climate change solutions: whose needs should we focus on, humans, nature, or both?
Here are a few examples of ethical issues raised by climate change.
Climate change will disproportionately impact impoverished people. (Read more).
Climate change is caused mainly by developed nations, but poorer nations are feeling the impacts more. Do developed countries have a responsibility to act on climate change before poorer countries? (Read more).
Climate change will disproportionately impact women. (Read more).
Climate change threatens the biodiversity of life on Earth. (Read more).
When making decisions about how to deal with the effects of climate change, these ethical questions are ones we must grapple with. While conventional ethical theories can help us understand how to act morally towards other humans, the field of environmental ethics helps us bring nature into the ethical equation.
There are also ethical questions involved with the solutions we choose to address climate change. For example, geoengineering solutions to climate change, in which humans alter the planet’s natural systems in some way to reduce warming, are extremely controversial because of their ethical implications. Geoengineering raises questions such as, do humans have the right to “experiment” on natural systems to provide for their own survival? While we can model the results of geoengineering with some degree of accuracy, there is no way to know what the actual results will be until the action is carried out – there’s no second Earth to test these solutions on. This raises ethical concerns about whether it’s moral to carry out these “experiments” if we don’t know for sure how it will impact anyone or anything.
Environmental ethics is the field of study that focuses on what is moral when it comes to how humans interact with the environment. While there are many books written by numerous philosophers in the field, we’ve pulled together a list of 5 books that have shaped environmental ethics and the environmental movement as a whole.
A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, one of the most influential books about environmental ethics, was written by the founding father of wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold. The book describes Leopold’s expeditions and observations through the wilderness of Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona, Sonora, Oregon, Manitoba, and other regions of North America. It explains in detail how wonderful and important the coexistence of wildlife and the natural world is, and how humans are destroying it for selfish gain. Leopold describes his theory of a “Land Ethic“ in the final part of the book, which calls for an extension of our “community” to include humans and all other parts of nature, including plants and animals, and even soil and water (what he called “the land.”). Leopold was amongst the first modern philosophers to argue that humans are not superior to nature, and thus, are obligated to treat nature morally.
Silent Spring is one of the most important books in the history of the environmental movement. Written by marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson, the book describes how the use of chemical pesticides, particularly aerial spraying of DDT for insect control on farms, is tremendously harmful to the environment. Carson blames chemical pesticide companies for the disinformation they provide to the public regarding the true negative effects of the pesticides. The book also emphasizes the importance of the relationship between humans and the environment, which complimented many of the biocentrist arguments put forward by emerging environmental ethical philosophies at the time. Silent Spring argues that because humans are immensely dependent on the resources provided by the environment, it is irrational to neglect the conservation of the environment. While this is an anthropocentric viewpoint in many ways, as it values nature mainly for the resources it provides humans, it still leads to the conclusion that we must protect nature.
The publication of Silent Spring in the 1960s sparked an environmental movement that prohibited the use of DDT and pushed for the creation of laws and regulations that supported a conservation-based approach to our environment.
Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature
Editor: William Cronon
First Published: 1995
Uncommon Ground is one of the most thought-provoking environmental ethics books, as it provides new perspectives on our place in nature. Edited by environmental historian William Cronon, this collection of essays by numerous authors responds to early environmental conservation goals such as the creation of the national parks and city parks, evaluating how these movements place humans in relation to nature. The first essay, The Trouble with Wilderness, written by Cronon himself, describes how politically and logically misguided our environmental preservation goals are. Cronon believes that humans are part of the natural world regardless of how modernized or urbanized they are. According to Cronon, this makes environmentalists’ goals of creating laws and regulations that separate humans from the natural world for the protection of wilderness extremely pointless. Cronon argues that the concept of wilderness is a myth, and instead, we must appreciate all kinds of nature, including the more accessible kinds of nature like a home garden. Uncommon Ground shows us that instead of separating humans from the natural world, environmentalists should aim to educate people on how to become more sustainable and strengthen their ethical relationship with the environment.
Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics
Author: Paul Taylor
First Published: 1986
Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics, written by Paul Taylor, an American environmental ethics philosopher, is known to many as the seminal defense of biocentric ethics, the idea that all living things have moral value.The book highlights the concept of biocentrism through biology, moral philosophy, and environmental science, arguing that life should be the sole criterion of who deserves moral standing. Taylor discusses the significance of humanity’s relation to the world and how this relationship demands equal respect. Respect for Nature advocates for humans to cease treating plants and wildlife as mere resources for human needs and amusement.
You can buy access to a digital version of Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics at SCRIBD.
The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment
Author: Mark Sagoff
First Published: 1988
The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment is one of the most influential books relevant to environmental philosophy in the late 1980s. Written by professor of philosophy Mark Sagoff, the book provides insights that focus on the balance between nature’s intrinsic value and its value for human and economic gain. Sagoff believes that through delicate balancing, humans may still achieve a successful economic state using the resources provided by nature while also protecting its inherent value. However, he rejects traditional economic analyses, such as cost-benefit analyses, as appropriate ways to make decisions about environmental choices, arguing that assigning monetary value to nature results in environmental decisions that satisfy private interests, rather than the public good.
You can download a full PDF version of The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment at Cambridge University Press.
We often see environmental activism geared towards protecting animals. While saving the whales and protecting endangered elephants certainly feel like the right things to do, many of us haven’t stopped to consider why this feels right. Do we have a moral obligation to protect animals?
In environmental ethics, animal rights is the belief that animals have moral value separate from how useful they are to humans, and thus have certain rights that must be afforded to them. Like human rights, animal rights are inherent rights intended to protect the basic interests of animals.
In this article, we’ll review the philosophy of animal rights in environmental ethics in order to better understand the moral questions at play in humans’ relationship with animals.
What Are Animal Rights?
Animal rights in environmental ethics is a theory that animals deserve rights just like humans do.
Traditionally, modern societies believe in affording rights to humans based on the understanding that all humans inherently deserve rights. As the U.S. Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” According to this belief, humans inherently deserve rights to pursue their best interests.
The animal rights movement seeks to extend moral rights to animals. Animal rights philosophers argue that animals also have basic interests (for example, the right to live free from suffering) that must be protected. Just like humans, animals have inherent value (regardless of whether the animal is useful to humans) and inherently deserve to be able to pursue their own best interests. Animal rights protect animals’ ability to pursue their best interests.
Animal rights activists support the idea that animals should not be used to meet human needs. For example, animal rights activists would argue against using animals for medical research, cosmetics and other product testing, or sport hunting.
Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare
Animal rights is often confused with a similar term, animal welfare. Animal rights, as we discussed above, is the belief that animals have value in-and-of themselves, and therefore deserve rights to protect their interests. This leads to the argument that animals should not be used to meet human needs like food, clothing, or experimentation. Animal rights activists seek to protect animals from any use by humans.
On the other hand, animal welfare refers to an animal’s quality of life. Animal welfare proponents work to ensure animals have positive experiences in their lives, but do believe that animals can be used by humans as long as it’s in a humane way. For example, while an animal rights supporter might argue for a vegan diet, an animal welfare supporter would argue that we can eat animals and animal products as long as the animals live a pleasant life.
While animal welfare activists focus on reducing animal suffering, they don’t take any moral stance on whether it’s ethical to use animals to meet human needs. Animal rights activists, on the other hand, take a more philosophical stance, arguing that it’s immoral to use animals, and that they have a right to avoid suffering.
Environmental Philosophers on Animal Rights
Most of the field of environmental ethics is focused in some way on animal rights, as all of environmental ethics is concerned with the human relationship with the natural world. However, there are a few environmental ethicists that focus primarily on animal rights.
While all of these philosophers ultimately agree that we should not cause animals harm simply to meet our own needs, each philosopher has a different reasoning for this conclusion and interprets animal rights a little differently. Here, we’ll review a few of the most famous thinkers and their views on animal rights.
Jeremy Bentham: Jeremy Bentham, a famed English philosopher from the 18th-19th century, was one of the first philosophers to argue in favor of animals. He argued that while we can morally use animals to serve our own needs, we should do so in a way that avoids causing any unnecessary harm. He argues against earlier philosophers who said that only rational animals (i.e. only humans) deserve moral treatment; instead, Bentham argues, we shouldn’t decide who gets treated well based simply on whether they can think or reason (after all, he argues, human babies are not rational), but based simply on whether or not they can feel pain. Thus, Bentham’s basis for who deserves moral treatment is whether or not that animal can suffer. If the animal is capable of suffering, as most are, then they deserve “rights” that help protect their interests.
Bentham was one of the first western philosophers to argue that the suffering of animals is just as important as that of humans. It’s important to note, however, that Bentham believed it was still morally permissible to use animals to meet necessary human needs, as long as it was through a painless process (similar to today’s animal welfare supporters). Bentham believed in utilitarianism, or the idea that we should do whatever results in the greatest amount of “pleasure” for the greatest number of creatures – including humans and animals.
Peter Singer: Peter Singer, an Australian eco-philosopher, argued for animal liberation, but against the theoretical framework of “rights.” He argued that we don’t actually need the concept of rights in order to ethically consider our treatment of animals. In his 1985 book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, Singer argues (similar to Bentham) that any being with sentience, or the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, is deserving of moral standing.
Rather than awarding animals with specific rights, Singer argues, we should simply include animals’ interests when making ethical decisions. Singer recognizes that human rights and animal rights cannot be entirely the same. He says, “There are obviously important differences between humans and other animals, and these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each have” (Animal Liberation, p.2). Because human and animal rights are different, we should simply focus on avoiding causing pain to the greatest number of beings, both human and animal.
Tom Regan: Tom Regan was an environmental philosopher who is most famous for his animal rights theory. In fact, he’s known to many as the intellectual founder of the animal rights movement. His 1983 book The Case for Animal Rightsoutlines his argument for animal rights. He argues for an extension of rights to “other-than-human” animals. Like Bentham, Regan rejects the idea that only rational beings (i.e. humans) deserve to be treated morally. Instead, Regan argues that animals who are “subjects-of-a-life” are deserving of moral consideration. He defines “subjects-of-a-life” as animals that are not just conscious, but animals that:
“have beliefs and desires; perception, memory, and a sense of the future, including their own future; an emotional life together with feelings of pleasure and pain; preference- and welfare-interests; the ability to initiate action in pursuit of their desires and goals; a psychophysical identity over time; and an individual welfare in the sense that their experiential life fares well or ill for them, logically independently of their utility for others and logically independently of their being the object of anyone else’s interests. Those who satisfy the subject-of-a-life criterion themselves have a distinctive kind of value – inherent value – and are not to be viewed or treated as mere receptacles. (The Case for Animal Rights, p.243)
Put simply, any animal that meets the criteria for “subjects-of-a-life” is inherently valuable, regardless of whether or not they serve a purpose for humans or other animals. Any “subjects-of-a-life” are thus deserving of rights to protect their interests. It’s important to note that, under Regan’s theory of animal rights, extending rights to animals must include actually formulating rights under a “social contract.”
Finally, Regan critiques Singer and Bentham’s utilitarianism, arguing that just because an action creates positive outcomes for a larger number of people, if that action is extremely harmful to just one person (or animal), then it’s not morally right. He gives the example of murdering a wealthy person in order to gain their fortune, and then distributing some of that money to charity. While this would result in a greater good (the loss of one life to help many), this is clearly not morally justifiable. This metaphor is used to explain Regan’s belief that killing an animal is such a great harm that it is justified only if it’s necessary and will create a large positive outcome for many people. Regan argues that animal exploitation in modern society, such as meat farming, is often not actually necessary; while killing an animal may bring mildly positive outcomes to many humans, it causes greater harm to the animal, when many of us do not actually depend on meat for health.
The Animal Rights Movement
While the animal rights movement has gained much momentum in the past century, it hasn’t resulted in the creation of many legal rights for animals. Animal rights activism has certainly pushed us to reassess how we view animals and how we treat them – but has not led to codified legal rights for animals in most western countries. However, we have seen some improvements in laws governing animal welfare. For example, the U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is a federal law that governs how animals in research facilities must be treated.
As more and more people begin taking animal welfare into account, we can likely expect to see more laws concerning the wellbeing of animals spring up. In large part, we have the philosophers of the animal rights movement to thank for helping us begin to view animals as more than basic resources to meet human needs.
Learn more about related environmental ethics:
What Is Biocentrism? Learn the basics about biocentric environmental philosophies, which argue that humans and living creatures deserve equal moral consideration.
What Is Deep Ecology? Learn about another environmental philosophy that takes the rights of the environment, not just living creatures, into account.
John Muir was a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, and a strong preservationist in the United States. Muir believed that nature must be protected from the destructive hands of people. He fought for the preservation of nature, which led to the establishment of the national parks we enjoy today. This is why he is known as “The Father of National Parks”.
In this article, we will explore John Muir’s environmental philosophies, including what he believed about the human relationship with nature and how his beliefs differed from other environmental philosophers..
Summary: The Basics of John Muir’s Environmental Philosophy
John Muir is most famous for being a preservationist. This means that he wanted to protect nature from all human interference, including responsible use. In his mind, nature was something separate from humans, and human use would harm nature’s pristine, untouched state.
Muir’s environmental ethics are ecocentrist, as he believed nature had intrinsic value separate from the value humans get from nature. In other words, because nature has its own inherent value, regardless of whether humans find use from it or not, nature must be protected.
However, Muir’s environmental philosophies are also somewhat anthropocentrist, as he did value nature for one value it brought to humans: emotions of happiness and wonder. This belief derived from Muir’s involvement in the transcendental movement of the mid 19th century, which emphasized the spiritual power of nature. Muir’s interpretation of transcendentalism heralded time spent immersed in nature as the ultimate spiritual experience.
Let’s review some of John Muir’s beliefs that form his environmental philosophy.
All of life is connected
John Muir believed that all life is connected. At a very young age, he had already developed his interest in the natural world, and continued to study the interconnection between plants, animals, and their environment as he grew.. Muir recognized the importance of these connections and how they maintain the balance of life on our planet, arguing that disrupting this link could disrupt the balance of life. Muir’s early biocentric ethical perspective, or the idea that all life is important and connected, served as a foundation for his life mission of protecting the natural world.
This concept of the interconnectedness of life is perhaps best summed up in John Muir’s 1911 book, My First Summer in the Sierra: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Nature is divine and must be protected from the destructive hands of people
Deeply influenced by transcendentalism, John Muir viewed the natural world as divine and untouchable, and argued that it must be preserved in its original state. He believed that humans are inherently separate from nature, and that nature should be spared from the insatiable demand of human exploitation. This made him a strong preservationist, encouraging both political and social movements to preserve the natural world. In fact, Muir’s philosophy reached President Teddy Roosevelt, who worked to establish American national parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia, and the Grand Canyon.
While Muir’s belief that nature is divine and must be preserved in this pristine state was crucial to the founding of the National Parks System, it also led to some harmful policies when it came to people already living on this “wilderness” land: Indigenous people. Muir’s argument that land must be preserved separate from any human interference, combined with the creation of national parks, worked to push many Native Americans out of their traditional homelands.
Muir’s belief that humans are separate from nature is also where Muir diverges from other biocentrist and ecocentrist philosophers. For example, Aldo Leopold also argued that all of nature has intrinsic value and, like Muir, argued the best way to encourage people to protect nature is to have them see it. However, Leopold believed that humans are part of nature, and placed less emphasis on nature as a pristine landscape separate from all human interference. Instead, Leopold argued that “conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.”
The way to encourage people to protect nature is to make them see and experience its beauty
John Muir was undoubtedly one of the greatest admirers of the wilderness. He not only dedicated his life to protecting it but also encouraged people to see the beauty of nature as how he sees it. He believed that in this way, people would be effortlessly inspired to protect the environment, for it is in human nature to protect what they love. In one of his letters to a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Ezra S. Carr, Muir said, “I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness,” emphasizing Muir’s unwavering commitment to making the public see the beauty and value of the natural world to save it from industrialization and urbanization.
The fight for preservation should always continue because it is a part of the universal war between right and wrong
John Muir believed that the battle for environmental preservation was crucial and should continue indefinitely. He believed that nature is a place to recharge our mind, body, and soul, and must be protected to serve as an important heritage for future generations. Although preservation may not always win over the needs of a growing nation dependent on natural resources, Muir believed that a sustainable approach to how people utilize natural resources should always be the next best thing to do.
One of John Muir’s greatest legacies is the establishment of the Sierra Club, a non-profit organization that continues to promote environmental advocacies rooted in John Muir’s environmental philosophies and ethics today.
An Overview of Aldo Leopold’s Contributions to Environmental Ethics
Aldo Leopold was an author, philosopher, and ecologist famous for his contributions to the field of environmental ethics. He was also a founder of the science of wildlife management, and was a leader in the early environmentalist movement.
In this article, we’ll review Aldo Leopold’s philosophies in relation to environmental ethics to help us understand his famous “land ethic” philosophy that has greatly impacted how we think about the environment today.
Aldo Leopold is considered the “father of wildlife ecology,” as his work in ecology has changed the way we carry out conservation projects today. Born in Iowa in 1887, Leopold felt a strong connection to the natural world from a young age. After getting a degree in forestry from Yale University, he went on to join the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwestern United States. It was during his time that he became a stalwart advocate for wildlife restoration and conservation, and also began to develop his understanding of the land as a living organism (an idea that would later serve as the basis for his environmental ethical philosophy). He began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1928 as the leading expert in wildlife management, with a focus on forestry, biology, zoology and ecology. In 1935, he helped to found The Wilderness Society, a nonprofit focused on land conservation that still operates today.
In addition to his work in wildlife management, he contributed many ideas to the field of environmental ethics, a field of study focused on what is ethical when it comes to the human relationship to the environment. His philosophical ideas were heavily influenced by his background in ecology, as his ideas are inspired by the scientific concept of an ecological “community.”
Aldo Leopold’s Contributions to Environmental Ethics
Leopold’s environmental ethical philosophy is primarily concerned with understanding humans’ place in nature. He created the idea of a “land ethic,” or an ethical philosophy that helps us understand our ethical responsibilities to nature. He argued that we must extend our “community” to include humans and all other parts of nature, including plants and animals, and even soil and water (what he called “the land.”) Humans are simply another member of the natural world, rather than superior to it. Leopold explained that a land ethic “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community.” In this way, Leopold’s philosophy is an ecocentric philosophy, one that believes all parts of an ecosystem, including non-living things, deserve to be treated with moral respect.
By recognizing ourselves as part of an interconnected community, Leopold argued, we are morally obligated to to act ethically towards nature. He argued that the most morally “right” actions are those that preserve the stability of the community as a whole, including nature. He also argued that humans must respect the land not because it fulfills our own needs, but because it has intrinsic value, and inherently deserves moral treatment.
Aldo Leopold Quotes: Understanding His Eco-Philosophies
One of the best ways to truly understand Leopold’s philosophy is to read it in his own words. As a famed writer, he spoke of his ideas eloquently and persuasively. Here are a few Aldo Leopold quotes that best display his viewpoints and straight-to-the-point writing style.
We can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in.
A Sand County Almanac
This quote emphasizes Leopold’s belief that having a relationship with nature is the best way to spur us towards ethical treatment of nature as a whole. He argued that spending time in nature is the best way to help us begin to see beyond ourselves and offer nature ethical respect.
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.
A Sand County Almanac
This quote sums up Leopold’s idea that the most ethical actions are those that promote the wellbeing of the community (which he defined as all living beings and the land) as a whole. Preserving “integrity, stability, and beauty” for all parts of the community is moral, while ignoring one part of the community is not.
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth…. The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other.
A Sand County Almanac
Here, Leopold explains his “land ethic,” or the idea that all parts of an ecosystem (“land”) can be considered a living organism that deserves respect. This quote speaks to Leopold’s belief that protection of the environment will come from an understanding that humans are simply another part of the “land.”
Aldo Leopold’s Books
Readers around the world love Leopold’s writing for its simple, direct style and focus on nature. In fact, his most famous book, A Sand County Almanac, has sold more than two million copies and has been translated into fourteen different languages. Today, A Sand County Almanac is known as one of the most influential books in the environmental movement. Here is a list and brief summary of Aldo Leopold’s books.
This report, commissioned by the hunting industry, is focused on restoring game animal populations. The report discusses changes in abundance in certain animal populations, and is known as one of the most important historical texts on wildlife management.
This book is one of the seminal texts in wildlife conservation, and is known as “the text that established Leopold as the founding father of Wildlife Ecology.” The book discusses population dynamics of game animals, food chains, and habitat restoration practices.
This book is a collection of essays outlining Leopold’s thoughts on conservation and the human relationship to the environment. Most famous is his essay “The Land Ethic,” which outlines his argument for human moral responsibility to the environment. The book is based on Leopold’s home county in Sauk County, Wisconsin.
This posthumously published collection of Leopold’s journal entries feature notes and essays written while he explored nature while he camped, fished, and hunted. Edited by Leopold’s son, Round River helps us understand where Leopold got many of his ideas that eventually led to his land ethic.
Aldo Leopold left quite a legacy, with everything from awards to trail systems named after him. You can learn more about him through the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
While philosophers have focused on the human relationship with nature for nearly all of human history, questions of how humans should treat the environment were “formalized” by the academic field of environmental ethics. This article will provide an overview of some of the world’s most well-known environmental ethics philosophers.
Known as the founding father of wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, forester, philosopher, environmental educator, writer, and outdoor enthusiast.
Born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887, his interest in nature began when he was young as he spent time exploring the natural world near his home. Leopold pursued his passion by studying at Yale Forest School. After graduating in 1909, Lepold began his career with the United States Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico, where he became a supervisor of the Carson National Forest of New Mexico, and eventually a conservation leader who proposed, developed, and managed the first Wilderness Area of the United States, the Gila National Forest.
In 1933, Leopold published his first book, Game Management, which discusses wildlife population dynamics, food chains, and habitat restorations. Considered the first wildlife ecology book published in the United States, Game Management gave Leopold his reputation as the founder of the field of wildlife management. Much of Leopold’s writing is related to his conservation projects, such as a reforestation experiment Leopold undertook with his family in Wisconsin, where they planted thousands of trees to restore and study the different biomes in the area.
A Sand County Almanac, a compilation of Leopold’s articles and other works, was published a year after his death in 1948. The final and most notable essay in the book, “The Land Ethic”, emphasizes Leopold’s call for people to embrace moral responsibility for the environment. His main argument is that we must extend our “community” to include humans and all other parts of nature, including plants and animals, and even soil and water (what he called “the land.”) In this way, Leopold’s philosophy is an ecocentric philosophy, one that believes all parts of an ecosystem, including non-living things, deserve to be treated with moral respect.
Known as the father of national parks, John Muir was a naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, botanist, zoologist, glaciologist, and a strong preservationist in the United States.
John Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, but emigrated to Wisconsin when he was 11 years old. In 1860, Muir studied at the University of Wisconsin for three years where he was deeply inspired by transcendentalist thinkers like Emerson.
In the 1860s, Muir set out on a mission to explore the natural world, and traveled to Mexico, Cuba, Panama, and Isthmus until he sailed back to San Francisco and settled in California in 1868. Muir fell in love with the beauty of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite, where he spent much time exploring and writing.
In 1874, Muir released his book Studies in the Sierra, a series of articles about different rock types, geological formations, and conservation in the Sierra Nevada. Following the success of the book, Muir ventured further, exploring Alaska, Australia, South America, Africa, Europe, China, and Japan. In total, Muir wrote about 300 articles and 10 books about his exploration.
Inspired by what he saw on his travels, Muir’s writings spotlight the beauty of the natural world as well as the destruction of mountain and forest ecosystems caused by the increasing amount of sheep and cattle farming in his time. This led Muir to his preservationist environmental philosophy, which focused on protecting wilderness from any kind of human interference. Unlike Leopold, Muir saw humans as looking upon nature, rather than being active participants in nature. He argued that the key to protecting wilderness is getting more people to visit natural places.
Partially as a result of Muir’s writing, Congress enacted legislation that led to the creation of Yosemite National Park, and eventually, Sequoia, Mount Rainier, Petrified Forest, and Grand Canyon National Parks. Muir went on to found the Sierra Club in 1892.
Known as the founder of deep ecology, Arne Naess was a mountaineer, activist, and the most important Norwegian environmental philosopher of the late 20th century.
Born in Slemdal, Norway in 1912, Arne Naess developed his interests in nature and mountain climbing at a young age. By the age of 17, he had already climbed 106 of the highest mountains in Norway. In 1933, at the age of 21, Naess completed his Master of Philosophy at the University of Oslo, and eventually became the youngest (and the only) professor of philosophy in Norway at the time. After pursuing his PhD, Naess served as a professor at the University of California Berkeley before returning to become the department head of philosophy at the University of Oslo. During this period, around 1938, Naess built a hut on Mt. Hallingskarvet, called the Hut Tvergastein. He stayed there occasionally to isolate himself, and to start developing the idea of “deep ecology”, which would become the foundation of his environmental commitment.
In 1973, Naess released his article “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement: A Summary”, where he explained his concept of deep ecology for the first time. Deep ecology is a movement and philosophy that argues that we must value nature for its intrinsic value, rather than for the resources or other value it provides to humans. Thus, all parts of nature deserve equal moral treatment. The article explains that the deep ecology movement requires a significant shift in how communities and big industries value and utilize our environment. A year later, Naess published another book called Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, where he elaborates on his ecocentric insights into the relationship between people and the environment.
In 1984, Naess, together with the American philosopher George Sessions, listed the basic principles of the deep ecology movement, called the “Deep Ecology Eight Point Platform”, which serves as a guide for people to practice and sharpen their deep ecological principles.
In 1988, Naess, together with other philosophers and activists, wrote the book “Thinking Like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings.” Inspired by the founding father of wildlife ecology, Aldo Leopold, the book emphasizes that environmental protection is as important as protecting ourselves.
Naess was also a fervent environmental activist who supported and participated in the rising “green politics” in European countries in the late 60s and 70s. Naess took part in the protests against the development of hydroelectric power projects in Mardola and Alta in the 1970s, where he chained himself to the rocks of the Mardalsfossen waterfalls and refused to leave until the dam project was withdrawn. The protest strengthened and inspired other environmental activists in Norway at the time.
Known for his contributions to the philosophy of science and technology, Bruno Latour was a French philosopher, anthropologist, and sociologist.
In 1973, at age 26, Bruno Latour was posted to Côte d’Ivoire as an alternative to military service, where he participated in a program similar to the “French Peace Corp.” This is where he developed an interest in anthropology, science, and technology philosophy. He then pursued a doctorate in philosophical technology at the University of Tours and completed it in 1975.
In 1979, Latour, together with the sociologist Steven Woolgar, wrote the book Laboratory Life, which is the result of more than a year of observation of the scientists of the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences. The famous book focuses on how scientific work is undertaken, exploring how “scientific facts” are constructed and what cultural assumptions influence what we take as fact versus opinion.
Latour’s most important work in relation to environmental ethics is a book called Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, which focused on “political ecology.” Latour argued for an end to the dichotomy between society and nature, and instead, pushed for the creation of a collective community between humans and nonhumans. Latour argues for a radical shift in how we manage nature through policies, arguing that nature cannot be controlled or even protected, and that we must rethink what we accept as “fact” when it comes to the natural world.
Throughout his career, Latour wrote over 150 articles and published over 30 books.
Donna Haraway is a professor, author, and philosopher known best for her feminist take on environmental ethics and her rejection of anthropocentrism.
Donna Haraway was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1944. Her early interest in writing was inspired by her father who was a sportswriter for The Denver Post. After studying Zoology, Philosophy, and English at Colorado College, Haraway decided to continue her studies in Paris, where she pursued evolutionary philosophy and theology at the Fondation Teilhard de Chardin. In 1972, Haraway completed her Ph.D. in biology at Yale at the age of 28.
Haraway became a teacher of women’s studies and the history of science at the University of Hawaii and at Johns Hopkins University until 1980, when she decided to move to Santa Cruz, and serve as a professor in feminist theory at the University of California Santa Cruz.
In 1985, Haraway published the essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s”, which focused on biases in scientific culture that value males above females. She uses the metaphor of a cyborg to represent human culture and societal biases intruding into how we view nature. In Haraway’s view, it’s difficult to understand what is “objective fact” in nature, and what is simply an interpretation of nature through a biased human lens. In her 1991 updated essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Haraway argues that men have exploited women’s reproduction labor. This led to “ecofeminism,” a set of philosophies focused on comparing men’s exploitation of women to human exploitation of the environment.
Haraway’s later works, such as The Companion Species Manifesto and Making Kin Not Population focus on the human relationship with other species, exploring the deep connections between humans and other “critters.” She argues for “making kin” with other species, an idea that requires humans and critters to feel a mutual moral obligation to each other.
Environmental ethics is a field of study that seeks to understand what is right and wrong when it comes to the human relationship with the environment. There are many different philosophies within environmental ethics, and each one argues for a different way of understanding our moral obligation to the natural world.
Environmental ethics can shape how we respond to a variety of issues we face today, from agriculture and meat production to housing to industrial manufacturing. Today, we’ll review a few examples of how different environmental ethical philosophies might respond to a specific issue in environmental ethics.
What Is Environmental Ethics?
Environmental ethics are a series of philosophies that are concerned with where humans stand in relation to the environment, including animals and ecosystems. Environmental philosophies (“ecosophies”) help us make moral decisions when it comes to our treatment of the environment.
Most environmental philosophies are based in a slightly different understanding of where humans stand in relation to the environment. Answers to ethical questions concerning the environment can then be answered based on this understanding.
For example, if you believe that humans are superior to animals (an anthropocentric viewpoint), then you believe that it’s morally acceptable to use animals to meet human needs. However, if you believe that humans and animals are equal, then it would not be morally acceptable to kill an animal to meet human needs (like killing an animal for meat).
Let’s take just a single issue in environmental ethics, the morality of cutting down trees, and review what different environmental ethical philosophies would say about this example.
Environmental Ethics Case Study: Is It Morally Permissible to Cut Down Trees?
Today, deforestation is one of the biggest environmental issues we face.Trees are a major habitat for a huge number of species and provide humans with wood and other ecosystem services, such as prevention of flooding or erosion. Additionally, as a major carbon sink, maintaining forests around the world is extremely important to fighting climate change.
We know trees are important and, practically, we shouldn’t cut them all down. But is it ethical to cut down any trees, even if we cut them down for helpful purposes? Let’s explore this question by reviewing how prominent environmental ethical philosophies view the morality of cutting down trees.
Anthropocentrism: Anthropocentrists believe that humans are morally superior to other living things and the environment. This helps justify using natural resources to meet human needs. Anthropocentrists would argue that it is not morally wrong to cut down trees because they are not deserving of moral consideration. However, anthropocentrists may still argue that we should protect some trees in order to continue to use them as a natural resource in the future – or to prevent climate change’s impacts on human societies.
Biocentrism: Biocentrism is an environmental philosophy that believes all life deserves equal moral consideration. Under biocentrism, not just humans, but all living beings are considered to have intrinsic value. Therefore, cutting down trees is not morally justifiable under biocentrism because trees are living beings with their own interests, such as growing and thriving, that must be protected.
Utilitarianism: Utilitarianism argues that the most moral actions are those that result in the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.While an anthropocentric reading of this philosophy would argue that cutting down trees is morally acceptable because it results in helpful resources for people, you could also argue that cutting down trees results in an overall negative if you account for the long term impacts of deforestation, such as increased climate change.
Some environmental ethical philosophers interpret utilitarianism through a biocentric lens, arguing that the most moral actions are those that create the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of living things. Under this view, you’d have to weigh the harm to trees (a living being) against the potential benefits to humans of cutting down the trees. For utilitarians, the question is not “is it ethical to cut down trees,” but rather, “does the harm to trees outweigh the benefits trees provide to humans?” This is a question that each utilitarian must answer for themselves.
Ecocentrism: Ecocentrism is an environmental ethic that argues that all parts of an ecosystem, including non-living things like land or water, have inherent value. The interests of all parts of the ecosystem must be considered in any moral question. Ecocentrists would likely argue that the interests of trees are equally important to human interests, and that it is not morally acceptable to cut down the trees.
Deep Ecology: Deep ecology is an ecocentrist philosophy that focuses especially on the interconnected workings of an ecosystem, arguing that every part of the ecosystem plays an equally important role in keeping the ecosystem functioning. The philosophy notes that because all parts of an ecosystem must function as a whole, with any part of an ecosystem dependent on another, we should seek to protect all parts of an ecosystem from harm, and allow each being to pursue what is in its own best interest. Thus, cutting down trees cannot be morally justified, because trees play an important role within the ecosystem.
It’s important to note that there’s no simple answer to the question of whether it’s ethical to cut down trees, even within one single ethical philosophy. While these philosophies answer the question of how humans relate to the environment (i.e. whether humans are equal to nature), it’s up to the individual to decide how these relationships actually impact our decision making. For example, while biocentrism may argue that trees are living beings with their own inherent value that’s equal to the value of humans, it’s up to us to decide how to balance those relationships in a practical way when we apply the ethic to real life.
Environmental ethics is a field of study focused on understanding the human relationship with nature and how we can act morally when it comes to the environment.
Deep ecology is an environmental ethical philosophy (also known as an “ecosophy”) that argues that non-human life has inherent value, regardless of whether or not it is useful to humans. It aims to extend respect to all parts of nature, not just resources that provide value to humans.
In this article, we’ll review what deep ecology is and how it relates to environmental ethics, the principles of deep ecology, and the main criticisms of deep ecology.
The philosophy of deep ecology was first theorized by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in 1972. Deep ecology argues that we must value nature for its intrinsic value, rather than for the resources or other value it provides to humans. Put most simply, deep ecology says that the entire environment has the right to exist and flourish just as humans do.
Deep ecology is an ecocentric philosophy; it focuses on extending moral consideration to all parts of an ecosystem, rather than just humans. In other words, in order for any decision to be ethical we must also consider the wellbeing of animals, plants, and non-living (abiotic) things, such as land or water. The philosophy notes that because all parts of an ecosystem must function as a whole, with any part of an ecosystem dependent on another, we should seek to protect all parts of an ecosystem from harm, and allow each being to pursue what is in its own best interest.
Deep ecologists contrast themselves with “shallow ecologists,” or ecologists who believe that nature is only valuable because it serves the interests of humans. This is often referred to as an “instrumental” value of nature, rather than an intrinsic value. Unlike deep ecology, shallow ecology is an anthropocentric viewpoint, as it places the needs of humans above other parts of the ecosystem.
Deep Ecology and Preservation
Under deep ecology’s principles, we have a moral obligation to preserve nature in order to preserve its inherent value, rather than exploit it for human use. Some deep ecologists describe this as an obligation to help all aspects of nature pursue their own interests.
Naess referred to deep ecology as a movement, not a philosophy, as he believed that deep ecology’s principles should be used to inspire a revolutionary restructuring of societal values. Naess argued that we must restructure our societies based on these ideas in order to reduce the threats humans currently pose to the environment. Because humans view themselves as “apart” from nature, Naess argued, they feel morally justified in exploiting nature. In order to conserve the environment, we need to re-evaluate our understanding of the self as part of nature. Only after this realization of the “ecological self” can we begin to work in harmony with nature, rather than in opposition.
Principles of Deep Ecology
In 1984, while on a camping trip in the natural wonder of Death Valley, Arne Naess and fellow philosopher George Sessions created a list of 8 of the basic principles of deep ecology. Many of these principles are purposefully vague and can be left up to your own interpretation, and the interpretations of philosophers following Naess and Sessions.
1. Inherent value: The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman Life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
Here, Naess and Sessions establish the founding principle of deep ecology: all parts of an ecosystem have value outside of their value to humans. It’s important to note that in other writings, Naess clearly defines “nonhuman life” as any nonhuman part of the ecosystem, including abiotic parts like land or water. Thus, despite conventional understandings of the word “life,” this principle is saying that the well-being of human and nonhuman entities (not just living organisms) have intrinsic value.
2. Diversity: Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
This point emphasizes the fact that all parts of an ecosystem, even those seen as lower life forms like worms or bacteria, contribute to the wellbeing of the rest of the ecosystem and to the richness and diversity of the world. All parts of an ecosystem thus have value in themselves. Biological diversity also promotes healthy ecosystems.
3. Vital Needs: Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
If humans are part of nature, and have the same amount of inherent value as all other parts of the ecosystem, they have no inherent right to harm nature. Naess and Sessions do acknowledge that some human needs are vital, and thus, it’s okay to use nature to fulfill these needs. However, the exact definition of what constitutes “vital needs” is left up to interpretation.
4. Population: The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
Concerns about overpopulation began to come to the forefront in 1984 after the UN Fund for Population Activities released their State of World Population Report, which stated that increasing populations were “diminishing the quality of life” for people around the world. Naess and Sessions argue that human quality of life will only improve when human populations decrease.
5. Human Interference: The present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
While Naess and Sessions are not necessarily advocating for non-interference with the natural world, they do argue, correctly, that overuse of natural resources and other forms of interference is causing extreme damage to the environment.
6. Policy Change: Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
This principle argues for policy change in order to reverse how we value nature and how we treat it. A shift to valuing nature for its inherent value, rather than its instrumental value, can come about in part due to government or NGO policies. For example, today, we value things mainly due to instrumental commodity values. Economic structures will shift if we begin assigning value in a different way.
7. Quality of Life: The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent value) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
This point argues that we live in a consumerist society that assigns value to the wrong things. Rather than attempting to attain ever higher standards of living, we should focus on attaining quality, rather than increasing quantity through more consumption. In this way, Naess and Sessions argue, we can attain increased happiness. It’s important to note that they don’t define “life quality,” and rather leave that up to the reader.
8. Obligation of Action: Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary changes.
This point is quite simple: if you believe in the principles of deep ecology, you have an obligation to carry out changes that will lead to a more ethical valuing of nature (and more fulfilling lifestyles for humans). This point raises many questions, as it leaves much up to the interpretation of the reader about what changes are “necessary” to bring deep ecology’s principles to fruition.
Criticisms of Deep Ecology
One criticism of deep ecology is simply that it’s either too vague or too idealistic. If there is no practical outline for how we can achieve a restructuring of society around deep ecology’s values, is it truly a useful philosophy? Are humans capable of this rethinking of our relationship to nature, and if so, how can this actually be brought about?
Some critics like Jonathan Bate go so far as to describe deep ecology as a “utopian” belief system, arguing that the world Naess describes, a so-called “state of nature,” cannot practically exist. Bate also argues that if humans are part of nature, then the industrial world we’ve built is also part of nature. Therefore, the industrial world is just as deserving of protection as what we traditionally call “nature.”
A more practical criticism is that humans cannot know the true interests of nature, and thus, cannot actually protect these interests (or help nature pursue those interests). How can a human understand what a bacterium desires without understanding it through a human lens, based on what humans need and desire? These critics argue that we can’t necessarily protect every aspect of the ecosystem’s interests from human interference simply because we don’t actually know what these interests may be. However, deep ecologists respond that we can safely assume survival, reproduction, growth, and flourishing are among the chief interests of every part of an ecosystem.
Another critique of deep ecology, primarily espoused by ecologists Guha and Martinez-Allier, is that it could push us to ignore human problems like war, overconsumption, or racism. Finally, some have argued that deep ecology’s fourth principle, which argues that human overpopulation must be stopped, leads to genocidal beliefs. However, deep ecologists argue that Naess was not advocating for extreme measures to reduce human populations, and rather, recommended a slow decrease in human population sizes over time.
To learn more about deep ecology through the work of its founder, Arne Naess, we recommend these articles:
The Deep Ecology Movement: An Introductory Anthology, by Arne Naess, collection edited by Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue. This collection of essays brings together Arne Naess’ writings on deep ecology with the writings of other environmental thinkers responding to the theory. This is a helpful resource for understanding how deep ecology is linked to other social, technological and institutional issues.
Read more about related environmental philosophies:
Environmental ethics is a branch of philosophy that tries to help us understand what is right when it comes to our relationship to the environment. Different environmental philosophies (sometimes known as eco-philosophies, or “ecosophies”) espouse varying beliefs on where humans stand in relation to nature, and what is moral when it comes to our treatment of the natural world.
Utilitarianism is a philosophy that argues that the only moral way to act is in a way that brings about pleasure, as opposed to pain, for the greatest number of people. These acts that bring about pleasure, or the greatest good, are thus the most utilitarian.
How does this relate to environmental ethics? In this article, we’ll review what utilitarian environmental ethics are, what the eco-philosophy argues, and the implications utilitarianism has for how we treat the environment.
How Does Utilitarianism Fit Within Environmental Ethics?
Utilitarianism was not originally a philosophy applied to environmental ethics, and thus, there are a few different interpretations, or trains of thought, that have changed over time. We’ll review how utilitarianism was adopted by environmental ethics by first examining the basics of what utilitarianism is.
The philosophy of utilitarianism argues that the most moral actions are those that increase pleasure (or freedom from pain, also known as utility) for the greatest number of people. In other words, acts that have the most utility are those that promote the greatest good, and are thus the most moral. Any actions that promote pain or suffering are morally wrong.
Utilitarianism is known as a “consequentialist” ethic, as it focuses on the outcome of actions (pain vs. pleasure) in order to define what is morally right. It’s important to note that utilitarianism was not originally an environmental ethic, but rather, a general moral philosophy. Its origins did not consider the environment, but focused entirely on what was most useful to humans.
Under utilitarianism, pleasure, or utility, is defined as satisfying one’s needs or interests. It follows that classical utilitarianism is often associated with acting in pursuit of personal pleasure, as only individuals, not groups, can really experience pleasure or satisfy personal interests. Under traditional utilitarianism, other parts of nature can morally be used to satisfy human needs so long as it brings about the greatest good for the most number of people.
Utilitarianism in Environmental Ethics
In the 1970s, the academic field of environmental ethics took off, with many philosophers beginning to argue for an expansion of our moral consideration to include nature, and not just humans. Many ethicists argued that we cannot extend moral treatment to humans alone, and instead, must take the environment (including living things and non-living aspects of the ecosystem) into account. Taken further, a belief that nature deserves moral standing led many ecosophists to contend that nature, such as animals, plants, or even parts of the ecosystem like water or soil, should be valued for its intrinsic value, rather than for its utility to humans.
Classical utilitarianism has generated much criticism from eco-philosophers who believe that utilitarianism is an inherently anthropocentric viewpoint, one in which human needs (and pleasure) are valued above those of other living things and the natural world. They argue that utilitarianism, as it has traditionally been applied, only recognizes the pain of humans, ignoring pain and suffering of other creatures. However, some philosophers took utilitarian thinking and applied it to the environment, resulting in an environmental ethic of utilitarianism that is not anthropocentric.
An environmental ethic of utilitarianism argues that the most moral acts are those that promote the pleasure (freedom from harm) of more than just humans alone. For example, in 1974, eco-philosopher Peter Singer argued that any being with sentience, or the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, is deserving of moral standing (a biocentric argument). If you take this belief into consideration, then this theory of utilitarianism requires all sentient beings to be included in “the greater good” – in other words, an act would only be moral if it helps meet the needs and satisfaction of all sentient beings, not just humans.
It’s important to note that Singer’s version of utilitarianism doesn’t argue that all sentient beings should be treated equally, but rather, that every living being’s interests should be given equal consideration. For example, not every species must be given the right to free speech, as most animals have no interest in free speech. However, each species’ interests must be taken into consideration when making decisions. Satisfying the most possible number of interests (and avoiding causing harm to the greatest number of beings) is how to act most morally.
Critiques of Utilitarianism in Environmental Ethics
As noted above, many environmental ethicists critiqued classic utilitarianism for being too focused on fulfilling human needs, and ignoring the “pleasure” of non-human beings.
Even Singer’s utilitarianism (that argued that the most moral actions are those that enhance the pleasure for the greatest number of sentient beings) came under criticism from other eco-philosophers. For example, like Singer, philosopher Tom Regan argued that all conscious living beings deserve moral standing. However, Regan argued that all beings have an intrinsic value, and we must avoid harm to them at all costs (even if harming a few would bring positive benefits to the greatest number). Regan argues that there are limits to how you can treat any living being, even if the overall consequences of harming a single being stand to bring about a greater good.
Finally, some philosophers critique Singer’s utilitarianism by arguing that it doesn’t go far enough in extending moral consideration. Singer only takes into account conscious beings, which would exclude trees and other aspects of the ecosystem vital to natural processes. The idea that non-living beings also deserve moral consideration is known broadly as ecocentrism. Ecocentrists would argue that any truly moral philosophy must include the interests of non-conscious, non-human beings, such as plants. Thus, an ecocentrist utilitarian environmental ethic would argue that the most moral actions are those that take into account both non-conscious life forms, like plants, and even non-living parts of the ecosystem like water, soil, or air. This is often referred to as a “holistic” utilitarian ethic because it takes into account entire species and ecosystems, rather than the interests of individuals.
Implications of Utilitarianism: Environmental Utilitarianism in Practice
Following the principles of classic utilitarianism (again: moral actions are those that increase pleasure for the most people) has the potential to lead to environmental destruction and conservation, depending on how it’s interpreted. If we believe that the only beings deserving of moral consideration are humans, then it follows that we can use natural resources however we like in order to fulfill human needs. This certainly has the potential to lead to extreme environmental degradation through overuse of resources. For example, if killing animals for meat creates the greatest amount of pleasure for humans, then it’s morally acceptable.
However, if we accept that overuse of resources eventually leads to destruction of human societies that are dependent on those resources, then utilitarianism can lead to an ethic of conservation. Conservationists argue that we must protect the environment in order to sustain resources necessary to human life; in other words, we should protect nature in order to continue using it. (This is in contrast to preservation, which argues we must protect nature from any human interference). Conservationism falls in line with classical utilitarianism, as preventing the depletion of resources leads to the greatest good for humans: the ability to continue meeting human needs. For example, protecting clean water is ultimately good for humans, so we should continue to protect clean water in order to provide utility to humans.
Under an environmental ethic of utilitarianism, we must make decisions that consider not only consequences for humans, but also for animals. In other words, we must balance how our actions impact the environment, and seek to act in ways that bring about the most positive outcomes for the greatest number of people, animals, and plants.
This is a far more nuanced view that can lead to different outcomes depending on how you interpret it – and raises many questions. For example:
How can we balance human needs for sustenance without harming animals?
If we take every living being’s needs into account, which takes precedence?
How can we make any of these decisions without a hierarchy of moral standing?
How can we really measure what the greater good is?
Making decisions based on a utilitarian environmental ethic becomes even harder if you take holistic entities like ecosystems into account – how can we practically take the needs of an entire ecosystem into account?
As we continue to face environmental challenges such as biodiversity loss and climate change, we will continue facing questions similar to those raised above. Utilitarianism can help guide us in making decisions based on ethics. Whether you interpret utilitarianism to be focused on meeting only human needs, or focused on promoting the greatest good for all sentient beings, is up to you.
You can learn more about utilitarianism in environmental ethics through these essays:
“Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction”, by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer. Originally published in 2017, this booklet, as the title suggests, provides an overview of all forms of utilitarianism, including its historical origins, and how the philosophy relates to environmental ethics.
“Environmental Studies and Utilitarian Ethics,” by Brian Wolff. This essay, published in Bioscene: The Journal of College Biology Teaching in 2008, discusses how utilitarianism should be taught to environmental studies students, and provides a helpful overview of the philosophy.
“All Animals Are Equal,” by Peter Singer. This classic essay describes Singer’s theory of utilitarianism as it relates to animal rights. You can find it in Tom Regan and Peter Singer’s 1989 series of essays entitled Animal Rights and Human Obligations.