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Environmental Ethics

Author: Prof. Johan Hattingh ~ Head: Unit for Environmental Ethics, University of Stellenbosch

( Article Type: Overview )

Environmental ethics is a sub-division of professional and applied ethics that concerns itself with the responsibilities that we as humans have in our interactions with the environment.
Opinions differ as to how widely or narrowly the term 'environment' should be interpreted, but a working consensus seems to have emerged around the notion of 'objective encompassing nature', or "the biosphere".
From this broad perspective, the environment not only refers to living nature such as animals and plants, insects and microbes, but also the non-organic basis for life in general, as well as the ecosystemic interactions between all of the above.

Many interpret the environment even wider, to include the built surroundings within which humans live, so that ethical concern for the environment is seen also to include consideration of the aesthetic, cultural, historical and spiritual values that humans may attach to certain aspects of non-human nature.
Environmental ethics thus has to do with the duty of care that we have for the environment in an all-encompassing sense: the earth as a whole, or the whole of the community of life, including the ecosystemic and other processes (for instance the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle) that sustain this community of life.

Environmental disputes
Within the circle of environmental ethics a wide range of different positions are taken up on the question of the nature and extent of our duty of care towards the community of life. Views also differ strongly on the reasons we have such a duty, for the sake of whom or what we should care about the environment, what exactly the objects of our concern should be, and how we should discharge our responsibilities, through which actions or policies – while some skeptics even go further and question whether we should morally care about the environment at all.

Since these different value positions are adhered to by many as ideologies that they live by, and since the enjoyment of certain natural features of our world is strongly identified by growing numbers of people with their health, well-being, quality of life and issues of self-realisation, environmental decision-making is typically fraught with protracted and adversarial disputes. And since many parties to environmental disputes are not easily shifted from their value positions, it seems as if environmental debates often fall into stalemate, going round and round in circles, leading nowhere.

For the purpose of making sense of the different value positions underlying environmental disputes, and with a view to move beyond ideological ping-pong debates about environmental issues, it can be useful to divide the field of environmental ethics into three broad categories, namely instrumental value theories, intrinsic value theories, and radical value theories.

Different value positions
According to instrumental value theories only humans have intrinsic value (i.e. value in and of itself), while everything else only has value in so far as it serves human interests. This humancentered approach at best can lead to the protection of natural areas from consumptive use, while non-consumptive activities aimed at enjoying the recreational, aesthetic, or spiritual value of nature are allowed.

At worst, it can lead to the position of those who see nature as nothing but a resource that should be maximally developed for human consumption. Somewhere in between is the position of those who rather would like to see ecologically optimal development with a view to ensure that future generations can also satisfy their needs.

Intrinsic value theories emphasise that human use-value could not be the only consideration in environmental decision-making. Some entities in nature, or nature as a whole, or life in general should rather be respected for the value that it has in its own right, regardless of any use that humans can make of it.

The many variations of radical value theories focus on the root causes of our environmental problems, and make proposals to overcome these causes through a radical transformation of our behavior, mindsets, notions of self and self-realisation, social structures, institutions or decision-making procedures.

Implementing environmental ethics
Regardless of all the distinctions that can be made on a theoretical level amongst different value positions in environmental ethics, there seems to be a growing need in the world in which we function today to articulate a pragmatic environmental ethic that can guide our actions and decisions in individual, social, professional, corporate and public decision-making contexts. We conclude this article with a number of pointers as to how one can go about developing such an ethic. These should be treated as general guidelines to consider, and not as a recipe.

  1. Commit yourself or your organisation to the basic aim of environmental ethics. In general terms, the practical aim of environmental ethics could be formulated as the duty to take responsibility for the environmental consequences of our choices and actions. The challenge is to make sure what this means in practical terms of action.
  2. Determine who is the subject of this environmental ethics. Who is the agent that will take this responsibility on board? You, yourself, as an individual? You as a citizen, or as a professional, or as an employer, or manager in a business? Or is the agent rather a group, or an organisation, or a decisionmaking body, or a regulatory authority? The important point is that different subject positions will require different actions to discharge responsibility for environmental impacts.
  3. Determine what the impact of this subject is on the environment. The point of departure of any environmental ethics is to know what the environmental impact of our choices and actions are. Different subject positions may have vastly different impacts.
  4. Determine where exactly you have influence on the causal links between choices/actions and environmental impacts, and what exactly you can and have to change to minimise negative impacts and maximise benign impacts. As an individual, the effective range of my influence on these causal links is limited to my personal actions in direct interaction with the environment. However, I also have indirect impacts through the mediation of others - which I can influence with more or less success by collective action with others.
  5. Determine which steps should be taken to implement these changes. As an individual, one can decide to change one's own behaviour. As a member of civil society, one can form lobby groups to place pressure on corporations, government officials and politicians to take responsibility for their environmental impacts. Professionals and corporations can form associations in which they help one another to minimise the environmental impact of a product or a service throughout its lifecycle. Governing bodies can put in place policies, a regulatory framework and incentives to promote environmentally- considerate choices and actions in business, individual behaviour, and government decisions.

Advantages and obstacles
To develop an ethics of environmental responsibility along these lines has the advantage of engaging with detrimental environmental impacts in the sphere of practical decision-making and action, and has the potential to move beyond endless debates about value differences. We can legitimately differ about the ultimate reasons why we are concerned about negative environmental impacts, but we will find that a working consensus can be found about the measures to take, within a particular context, to address specific negative impacts. However, it should also be borne in mind that an ethics of environmental responsibility will always be under pressure from different angles.

First: there will always be pressure from the institutional frameworks within which we function to cut costs, to take the cheaper option -which is not always the environmentallyoptimal option.

Second: there will always be pressure from society first to satisfy human needs and then to attend to environmental considerations.

Third: we tend to take more seriously impacts that are immediate, direct and unshared, while mediated, indirect, shared impacts are neglected.

This last point puts a burden of proof on environmentalists to show why we should be concerned about negative environmental impacts. Environmentalists should take this point to heart when they produce evidence and arguments for their concerns, even if this burden of proof is often placed unfairly upon them, and in many instances should rather be reversed.

The value of environmental ethics
These guidelines may not settle things in environmental debates, but they definitely will help us to follow a line of inquiry on the basis of which we can have fruitful debates about real issues: about the environmental consequences of our actions and policies; about the reasons for our environmental concerns; about which courses of action to follow in order to improve things. They may also help us to ask critical questions about the selves that we are in fact realising through our choices, and if we, or the community of life, can really afford to be realising these selves. They may help us to start asking critical questions about the societal processes that produce the notions of self-realisation with which we so strongly identify.

The value of environmental ethics probably lies more in engaging in these debates from different points of view, than trying to provide final answers from a single point of view. It may be that it has more value to question how we formulate problems and solutions, than to have a monocular vision from which we can see only one kind of problem and one kind of solution. For that matter, the different value positions in environmental ethics together make up a rich mosaic of considerations that can help to open our eyes to the multiple dimensions of environmental problems, and the layered responses that are required to resolve them.