Current Issues in Environmental Ethics

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. 

Read more about each philosophy: What Is Environmental Ethics? 

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:

  • Pollution
  • Climate change
  • Deforestation
  • Population Growth
  • Water scarcity
  • Overfishing

When attempting to address these environmental problems in a moral way, three guiding questions can help inform our actions:

  1. To act morally, what do we owe nature? How can we treat nature ethically in this situation?
  2. To act morally, what do we owe humans? How can we treat humans ethically in this situation?
  3. 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.

  1. Climate change will disproportionately impact impoverished people. (Read more).
  2. 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).
  3. Climate change will disproportionately impact women. (Read more).
  4. 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.