Environmental Ethics in Action
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).
For more details, read: What Is Environmental Ethics?
Examples of Environmental Ethics in Action
There are an extreme amount of ethical issues and questions related to our interaction with the environment. A few examples are:
- Are humans superior to animals, and if so, why? If not, how does this change our treatment of animals?
- Is it morally permissible to use animals for meat?
- Is it morally acceptable to cut down trees? To mine the Earth for metals or oil?
- Do humans have a responsibility to protect animals?
Read more: Current Issues in Environmental Ethics
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.
Learn more about forest conservation: The Importance and History of Forest Conservation
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.