Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics is a branch of philosophy which 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…

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.

Diagram showing the definition of anthropocentrism

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.

Diagram showing the definition of biocentrism

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.

Ecoscentrist 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.

Diagram defining ecocentrism

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 about 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. 

Environmental ethics did not become a sub field of philosophy until the early 1970s. According to Katie McShane, these ethics 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 theorists, traditional ethical theories were incapable of bringing human awareness to their relationship with the environment. In response to this theory, ethical practices were implemented to help humans become accountable for their moral obligations to nature, the nonhuman world we are well-aware of and cherish. 

The better our understanding becomes of how each ecosystem and living organism helps the world thrive, the more accountable these philosophies believe we should be. 

Some Examples Of Ongoing Environmental Ethical Debates

There are a few debates that happen around the world that most people are familiar with. One of them being the debate about cutting down trees to make space for new buildings. 

Trees provide us with oxygen as well as help to get rid of carbon dioxide in the air. Trees are also homes for small creatures and animals. People often wonder if it is morally correct to cut down trees so that humans can build another shopping mall. 

Environmental enthusiasts often plant trees to help combat the effect of losing so many trees at a time. 

Another example is of course the stand of vegans saying that eating animal products to sustain humans is not morally correct. They believe that taking the life of an animal to consume it is as bad as taking the life of a human being for the same reason. 

“The Earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship. We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.”—John Paul II.

Environmental ethics have been making huge strides in recent years. A few developments have been made that affect our daily lives without us giving it a second thought. 

The first one being, reducing the use of plastic straws. Might seem like a small effort, however, a 2017 study from researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that an astonishing 9% of the plastic we use is not recycled and instead ends up in landfills or the ocean. It has now become normal for people to use plant-based straws and some have even gone as far as to buy their own reusable straws to help reduce plastic waste. 

Another great trend is cars that no longer use gas to power the engine. Did you know that each gallon of hydrocarbon-rich petroleum fuel produces nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide? This results in an annual emission of over 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide or roughly 1 third of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Greenhouse gases trap heat into the atmosphere which causes worldwide temperatures to rise. By converting cars into electric-powered engines, we can reduce greenhouse gases which will result in a cleaner, healthier air. It also helps to reduce global warming effects. 

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 sustain and preserve the environment for future generations. Without humans being accountable for their actions against ecosystems and nature, we will run out of natural resources sooner than we think.