Environmental Ethics

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. Environmental ethics seeks to answer questions such as:

  • Should we value human life over all other forms of life on earth? Or, are they equal?
  • How should we treat non-human parts of our earth, like rocks and water?
  • Is it moral to kill an animal or a plant?
  • And much more…
Watch this environmental ethics video to get a quick overview of what environmental ethics is and why it’s important.

Breaking It Down

Ethics is the area of study seeking to understand what is moral. Also known as “moral philosophy”, those who engage in ethics attempt to define what behavior is right or wrong.

Environment, in the context of environmental ethics, most often refers to the natural environment of the world: the health of natural resources, biodiversity, and earth’s natural processes.

Environmental Ethics takes the philosophy of what is moral and applies it to our environment to try to make sense of our relationship with the world. There are many different approaches to studying and thinking about environmental ethics. Here we will give you an introduction to the three main camps and link you to resources where you can learn more about each.

The 3 Main Types of Environmental Ethics

The three main philosophies that help us think about our relationship with nature and what type of actions we should consider moral lie on a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is the belief that humans are the most important and everything else in our environment should serve to benefit us. On the other side of the spectrum is the belief that all aspects of the environment, including animals, plants, and elements like rock and water, should be regarded as valuable and should be treated as such.

The names of these three philosophies are:

  1. Anthropocentrism – Value human life
  2. Biocentrism – Value all biological life
  3. Ecocentrism – Value all forms of environment

Here’s a quick explanation of each philosophy:

Anthropocentrism:

Anthropocentrism is an environmental philosophy that believes humans are the only beings worthy of moral standing. This philosophy places humans not only as separate from nature, but as more important than nature. Anthropocentrist viewpoints assign value to other parts of nature based on value to humans, rather than a belief in the intrinsic value of a natural thing. 

Under anthropocentrism, it is morally acceptable for humans to exploit other parts of nature such as animals, trees, or water in order to benefit themselves. For example, anthropocentrism would argue that trees can be cut down in order to provide wood to keep humans warm. 

Anthropocentrism can result in preservation of natural resources, but this preservation is based on the idea that we should preserve the resource so that humans can continue to rely on it. Returning to the example above, anthropocentric viewpoints would argue for preserving a forest in order to protect the supply of wood for humans, rather than to preserve the forest’s inherent value.

Anthropocentrism in environmental ethics

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. If something is living, then it should be morally valued.

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.

biocentrism in environmental ethics

Ecocentrism

Ecocentrism is one of the most all-encompassing environmental philosophies, as it extends moral value to all parts of the ecosystem, including humans, living organisms, and non-living things. In other words, ecocentrism believes moral consideration should be extended to non-living parts of the ecosystem like rocks and water.

Ecocentrist viewpoints are nature-centered, rather than human-centered (anthropocentrism) or life-centered (biocentrism). Ecocentrists do not place some ecosystems (or parts of ecosystems) above others in importance. Rather, ecocentrism argues that all parts of the ecosystem have intrinsic value.

Ecocentrism in environmental ethics

Comparing The 3 Philosophies

Here is a comparison of these main 3 philosophies:

Table comparing the eco philosophies anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism
The three main types of eco philosophies

A Brief History of Environmental Ethics

The philosophy of environmental ethics has a long history. Philosophers have been debating the role humans should play in conserving the environment and the various ecosystems the world supports for hundreds of years. 

Despite the long history of thinking about questions related to ethics and the natural environment, environmental ethics did not become an “official” subfield of philosophy until the early 1970s. According to Katie McShane, the field came about, “as a result of the growing environmental consciousness and social movements of the 1960s, public interest increased in questions about humans’ moral relationship with the rest of the natural world.”

According to many environmental theorists, traditional ethical theories were incapable of bringing human awareness to their relationship with the environment, and instead, focused solely on the moral relationships between humans. In response to this theory, ethical philosophies such as the ones described above were theorized, in order to help humans become accountable for their moral obligations to the nonhuman world.

What Issues Does Environmental Ethics Help Us Address?

The main concern of environmental ethical philosophies is how humans treat the world around them. While some environmental ethical philosophies, like anthropocentrism, don’t believe we owe anything to nature or other non-human entities, others may take the opposite approach. For example, as discussed above, ecocentrists believe that all parts of the ecosystem deserve moral respect. Finally, many ecophilosophers, generally called biocentrists, take a more middling approach, arguing that we should respect other living beings.

These philosophies impact how we interact with natural resources. Take, for example, the issue of eating meat. While an anthropocentrist would likely take no issue with this, as they believe humans are superior to other living beings, a biocentrist or ecocentrist is likely to reject this argument. On the other hand, anthropocentrists and biocentrists may not be as concerned as an ecocentrist about damage to the Earth through mining (although biocentrists certainly would be concerned about the resulting impacts on wildlife!).

The reality is that humans are dependent on natural resources for survival, from food to wood to water. Environmental ethics helps us make choices about how to use those resources in a moral way. Many environmentalists come down somewhere in the middle, arguing that while we are reliant on natural resources, we must also work to conserve it for future generations’ use (conservation), to protect wildlife, and to preserve the Earth’s inherent value (preservation).

Read more: What Is the Difference Between Conservation, Preservation and Restoration?

Conclusion 

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” –George Bernard Shaw.

The purpose of environmental ethics is to help us come to a moral understanding of how we interact with the world around us. This understanding is a crucial aspect of environmentalism, as environmental ethics often lead us to a desire to protect the Earth around us, even if our motivations for doing so are different. In a way, the guidelines that environmental ethics provide helps guide us towards moral actions and holds us responsible for sticking to our principles. Without humans being held accountable for their actions against ecosystems and nature, we will run out of natural resources sooner than we think.