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Current Issues In Environmental Ethics Essays

 Paper Assignment, Environmental Ethics, Fall 2007

The paper should be 5-7 pages (double space, typewritten) and explore the ethical and/or philosophical dimensions of an environmental issue. (Please use recycled paper or print your paper on the back side of already used paper, if at all possible.) The paper counts for 34% of your course grade and so it should be a significant effort. You choose the topic.

A one page paper proposal is due Friday, October 19, at 1pm, in my mailbox, 1st floor 14 Glebe. It should include a title, characterization of your topic, the major lines of argument you intend to pursue, tentative thesis, and a brief review of one key philosophical article you will use in your paper (including how you will use it) The paper is due on Friday, November 16, 1pm, 1st floor mailbox of 14 Glebe. Staple the paper description (with my comments) to the back of the final paper, and keep an extra copy of the final paper for yourself.

The paper can either focus on a specific issue (such as why preserve endangered species, the morality of hunting, or property rights and environmental regulations) or evaluate more general issues (such as anthropocentric environmental ethics, animal rights, or the tensions between an animal welfare ethics and environmental ethics). You could write a paper developing your own coherent environmental ethic, in response to those we have studied.


1.          This paper should be a philosophy paper in which you focus on normative, evaluative, or conceptual issues. For some topics, factual and scientific information will be necessary. But focus on the ethical and conceptual dimensions and on the questions of public policy involved. (Always ask: What should we do concerning this issue and why? What are the philosophical, ethical, and conceptual questions which must be answered if this issue is to be resolved?)

2.          Tie your paper into the central themes of the course. The paper must show that it was written by someone who took this course. Someplace in your paper you should (probably) indicate how the various environmental ethics we have considered (e.g., anthropocentrism, sentience-centrism, individual biocentrism, holistic ecocentrism) bear on your topic. Which of these are you assuming (or rejecting) in your argument, if any, and why? In other words, what position(s) on the question of moral standing are you assuming (or rejecting) and what are your reasons? Are you accepting (or rejecting) individualism or holism, egalitarianism or inegalitarianism? If the issue you are discussing (and the position you are taking on it) would be illuminated by addressing these issues, you should do so. Additionally, if an assigned article has bearing on your topic, you must discuss what it says about it and your response.

3.          At least one outside (not assigned in the course) philosophical reading is required for this paper. (For example, you can use a philosophical article from our text that has not been assigned for the course.) Those who write on a topic not specifically covered on the schedule of assignments will have to do more library work. I suggest using the journals Environmental Ethics, Environmental Values, Ethics and the Environment, Ethics, Place and Environment,Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, and Between the Species (all are in the library and the second, third, and forth are available electronically). The library has excellent holdings in most areas of environmental philosophy; you should be able to find something on almost any topic you choose. I can help you find specific articles relevant to your subject if you are having trouble finding them. A tremendous Internet resource is available at the following web site: http://www.phil.unt.edu/bib/. This bibliography (kept by the International Society for Environmental Ethics) summarizes articles in the field and can be searched by key word. Also, my own personal bibliography (containing mainly environmental material) will be on the class website. You can also use the reference (in the Library Reference section) called “Philosophers Index” which lists by subject, title, and author most philosophical articles that have been published. Don't get bogged down on this dimension of the paper. I want you to think for your self; the outside reading is meant only to help stimulate your own thinking. But I want every paper description to include such an article and a discussion of how you will use it.

Talk with each other (and me) about your ideas. Read ahead for topics on the syllabus we have not yet discussed. Make sure you write on an issue you want to spend some time thinking about. Use the College Skills Lab and the Philosophy Writing Lab (both in 216 Education Center). See the flier on the Philosophy Writing Lab.

Possible Paper Topics, Environmental Ethics

(These are suggestions only; their aim is to stimulate your own creative energies in choosing your topic. Consider topics in the second half of the course as well.)

1.               Should we or should we not let nature take its course in national parks?

2.               The morality of field research on animals. Is it morally permissible to sedate, capture, radio collar, take blood samples from, etc. (say) grizzly bears? What sorts of ethical guidelines must field researchers follow in the interference with and handling of wild populations of animals? Is killing birds (and other animals) for museum specimens morally justifiable?

3.               Discuss the aesthetic value of nature. How is the aesthetic appreciation of nature different from the aesthetic appreciation of art objects? Is nature always beautiful? Does nature's aesthetic value provide adequate support for strong environmental protection?

4.               Moral issues concerning pets. The propriety of pet-keeping. Companion animals, paternalism, and community. Are pets degraded wild animals with less value than their wild counterparts? Should someone who believes in animal rights reject the institution of pet ownership? Is having a pet an anthropocentric way of relating to nonhuman nature? Describe and evaluate from your own perspective Gary Varner’s views on pets. Which animals may be kept as pets?

5.               Animal/environmental ethics and zoos. Are zoos morally acceptable? Can we justify putting animals in "prisons" for our viewing pleasure (or even for educational purposes)? Are zoos an anthropocentric way of relating to other animals? More specifically, should we allow the confinement of marine mammals (or other mammals?) in "zoological parks?"

6.               An analysis and critique/defense of Julian Simon’s views of the environmental crisis.

7.               Consumerism and the environment (including issues raised by Peter Wenz and the Afluenza Video).

8.               The use of animals in teaching (e.g., frog or cat dissection).

9.               An ethical evaluation of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

10.             How ought animal activists think about and respond to predation in the wild? How do Sagoff, Everett and Hettinger answer this question?

11.             A moral evaluation of hunting in light of Brian Luke’s article.

12.             Compare and contrast the morality of fishing vis-a-vis the morality of hunting. Is fishing acceptable even though hunting is immoral? Do hunted animals feel pain while fish do not? Is fishing just as morally legitimate/illegitimate as hunting? Is catch and release fishing more legitimate (or less illegitimate) than fishing for one's dinner? How does fishing morally compare to other human uses of animals?

13.             The promise and limits of the movement to restore the environment. Is restoration a big lie, involving the further domination of nature?

14.             Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism: What is it? Does it exist? What are the moral issues involved? What should be done about it, if anything? (Use Peter Wenz’s article.)

15.             Property rights and the environment. Do environmental regulations unfairly "take" private property without just compensation? If government/community regulations which decrease property values require compensation to the property owners, then does government/community actions that increase property values require compensation from the property owner to the community? Why or why not? Are property rights natural or created by the community? Does a community's right to environmental integrity (or the environment's right to environmental integrity) outweigh an individual human's property rights? Does the right of an endangered species to exist outweigh a human's property right?

16.             Beachfront management: Morally evaluate the legitimacy of South Carolina's attempt to control construction on the beach. Include a discussion of the recent (Lucas) Supreme Court case and its implications on environmental regulations in general. This is a subset of the property rights and environmental regulations issue.

17.             Duties to Endangered Species: Would it matter if the spotted owl went extinct? Ought we to preserve all or only certain species? Do other species have inherent value independent of their usefulness to human beings? Do they have a right to exist? Is it worse to kill members of endangered species than to kill equally psychologically sophisticated members of common species? Why?

18.             Philosophical, ethical, and policy evaluation of the Endangered Species Act: Does the act need to be revised? Why or why not? If so, how should it be revised? What moral/ethical basis underlies your recommendations?

19.             Is environmentalism (and environmental ethics) an elitist concern of the rich and of the developed world--one that is irrelevant to the poor and the peoples of the developing world? Does the developing world have legitimate criticism of the environmentalism of the developed countries?

20.             Should we preserve wilderness? Why or why not? Is the ideal of wilderness (as a place humans visit, but do not remain) flawed since it fails to realize that humans are a legitimate part of nature? Is the idea of wilderness flawed since it ignores that ancient humans (as well as modern society) has so affected the landscape that no pristine wilderness remains to be preserved? Isn't wilderness preservation simply adding recreational facilities for rich elitist college kids (and their professors) who have the time, money, and energy to backpack into it? Is putting the focus on wilderness to miss a more important focus on sustainable development, as Callicott suggests. What is Cronon’s critique of wilderness and what is Rolston’s response?

21.             Do we have duties to ecosystems and natural processes? Do they have intrinsic value? Evaluate the possibility of seeing ecosystems and natural processes as morally considerable in their own right. Do we have duties to rain forests or to evolution (or only indirect duties regarding them)? Why or why not?

22.             The meaning and value of the natural: What does it mean for something to be natural? Is the natural better than the unnatural, artificial, cultural? Are humans part of--or separate from--nature? In what sense can or should humans follow nature? Does the fact that something is natural give us a reason to imitate it? Should we, as Aldo Leopold suggests, "reappraise things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free?"

23.             Should we manage nature? Must we manage nature? Does managing nature destroy the value of nature? Must we manage nature to protect nature?

24.             What is the proper religious perspective toward the nature? What does religion have to say about environmental issues. What should it say? Are the new eco-theologies on the right track? Is Christianity responsible for the environmental crisis or does it provide a strong ethic for responsible treatment of the environment? Would other religious views (e.g., those of Native American's) foster a better environmental ethic? What view of moral standing does the proper religious approach to the environment take?

25.             What are the Native Americans attitudes toward nature? How are they different from the traditional Western European approach toward nature? What can we learn from the Native American's approach, if anything? What should we reject?

26.             What has moral standing (=is morally important in its own right)? Do (certain or all) animals? Do plants? Microbes? Do ecosystems? Land forms? Natural processes? In virtue of what does something have moral standing?

27.             Is egalitarianism in environmental ethics a preferable approach to various inegalitarian approaches (including moral hierarchies)?

28.             Are humans superior to other animals and to plants? Explain and evaluate Taylor's views on this issue.

29.             Environmental individualism versus holism: Is intrinsic value (and/or moral standing) located in organic individuals or in biological communities? What are some of the different practical implications of these styles of environmental ethics? Consider, for example, the morality of hunting, saving of endangered species, and the importance of human individuals.

30.             A critique or defense of anthropocentric environmental ethics. What are the different versions of anthropocentrism? Are some stronger than others? Is anthropocentrism the best environmental ethic?

31.             Do we have any duties to future generations of people? Why or why not? What are these duties? How much nature do we owe to future generations? How can we harm future generations by destroying the environment, if they wouldn't have existed but for this destruction?

32.             Can animals feel pain? Why or why not? Which animals? Assuming they do feel pain, does their pain count morally? Does it count equally with the same pain of a human animal? Can animals feel the same sort of pain a human can feel? Discuss the implications of your views for our treatment of animals.

33.             What is speciesism? Is it a morally acceptable or not? Is it morally analogous to racism and sexism? Why or why not?

34.             The morality of eating (e.g., meat eating versus a vegetarian diet or hunting for one's meat versus buying it in a grocery store). What do animal and environmental ethics suggest about ethically appropriate eating? (Compare and evaluate the views of Singer, Regan, Causey, Taylor, and Rolston)

35.             Should we constrain or eliminate factoryfarming of animals? Is "old McDonald" farming of animals a morally permissible use of them?

36.             Are wild animals more morally important than domesticated animals? Are there any morally relevant differences between them? Why or why not?

37.             Describe, evaluate, and adjudicate the alleged incompatibility between animal liberation and environmental ethics. (Are Sagoff and Causey right that these movements are not compatible? Does Taylor manage to combine the two sorts of moral concerns?)

38.             Is human population (growth?) an environmental problem? Should government regulate population? Do we have an obligation to stop increasing the world's human biomass? Why or why not? What sorts of methods are morally allowable and practically feasible to control human population, if any?

39.             The moral justifiability (or unjustifiability) of civil disobedience for environmental causes (e.g., Greenpeace). The moral justifiability (or unjustifiability) of ecological sabotage: Spiking trees, putting sand in earth-movers, etc. to prevent destruction of natural areas (e.g., Earth First!).

40.             The justifiability of Animal Liberation Front activities.

41.             Deep ecology: What is it; how is it different from shallow ecology; what is to be said in its favor and against it; what changes in our lifestyle does it require?

42.             Ecofeminism: What is it and is it an important or necessary approach to environmental issues?

43.             Social ecology: Is the root cause of environmental problems the capitalist economic system in which businesses make decisions which effect public environmental quality on the basis of private economic self-interest?

44.             Biotechnology and genetic engineering(The moral significance (if any) of genetic engineering or other biotechnology): What are the moral and environmental ethics issues pertaining to this technology?

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Three Challenges For Environmental Philosophy

Jim Moran explains why saving the planet will be an uphill struggle.

The recent development of the branch of philosophy called ‘environmental philosophy’, or as it is sometimes referred to, ‘environmental ethics’, has been characterized by a variety of theoretical disputes about the best way to provide a philosophical basis for engagement with the environmental problems facing us, now and in the future. Many of the early writers hoped that a new environmental ethics would emerge, embodying a set of principles that could help us deal with our relation to animals and the natural world in a way that traditional ethical theories seemed to have overlooked.

One of the early contributors to this project was Aldo Leopold, who was not a philosopher but a professor of forestry and land management. His famous essay ‘The Land Ethic’, found in his 1949 book The Sand County Almanac, has stimulated a great deal of discussion about the kind of principles we need to guide us on environmental issues. Leopold argued for the extension of what we see as worthy of our respect from the human community to include animals and the natural world, or what he referred to as ‘the biotic community’. His famous principle, briefly expressed, was, ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’.

Leopold carried forward a discussion by nineteenth century conservationists about whether nature should be preserved only because of its economic and practical benefits for humans or because it provides value beyond merely supplying natural resources. He mentioned the songs of birds and the beauty of flowers as being part of nature’s bounty. He also brought into focus the importance of the interconnection of things in nature, defending the kind of holistic perspective which has since played such a crucial role in scientific ecology. He insisted that environmental ethics should focus on systems and not just on individual things. Our human dependence on nature cannot be understood without a deep ecological study of the interconnectedness of life. Rachel Carson’s famous 1962 book Silent Spring, which was so important in stimulating environmental awareness, is a good example of this approach to conservation.

Since Leopold’s early contributions, the field of environmental philosophy has expanded, with many new voices entering the debate about where we stand in relation to nature, and what metaphysical and ethical principles should shape our thinking. Some thinkers, such as J. Baird Callicott and Holmes Rolston III, have tried to develop and clarify Leopold’s insights, whereas others, such as Bryan Norton and Paul Taylor, have put forward their own approaches. I want to highlight three challenges faced by environmental philosophy which have emerged from recent debates. The first is the struggle to overcome an anthropocentric view of nature – the view which sees all of nature as serving human interests, and overlooks what has been called the ‘intrinsic value’ of nature. The second challenge is the question of how to define the place of humans in nature; are we to be regarded as equal to other natural beings, with no special privileges or rights, or do we have a higher role in shaping and managing nature? The final challenge is saying on what basis we should assign moral status, or what is sometimes called moral considerability, to animals and natural objects.

Each of these topics has been the subject of considerable discussion among environmental philosophers, and yet to this point no consensus has emerged on how best to deal with any of them. This shouldn’t really be a surprise. Most of us are aware of various disputes that have shaped environmental policy, for example between animal rights advocates and some environmentalists over the rightness or wrongness of hunting; or the purposes of wilderness preservation; or the ethics of meat-eating, etc. Philosophers seeking the theoretical foundations of environmental ethics have faced similar disagreements.

First Challenge: Overcoming Anthropocentrism

At a conference in the 1970s, to challenge human-centered attitudes towards nature, the philosopher Richard Routley (who later called himself Richard Sylvan) described the following thought experiment. Suppose you’re the last person alive after a global catastrophe, and you have the power to destroy all that’s left of nature. You realize that no other person would ever be affected by its loss, since there’s no one else left. Routley argues that our clear intuition is that it still would not be right to destroy the natural world. This suggests that natural beings and objects have intrinsic value, regardless of their practical value to humans. We need to respect nature because it is right to do so, not because of some benefit it bestows on us.

Routley’s attempt to overcome anthropocentrism by asserting the intrinsic value of nature brought forth a complex debate about what exactly we mean by ‘intrinsic value’, and whether such a concept is needed to defend the things in nature we want to be respected. Some environmental philosophers have challenged Routley’s suggestion that something can have value without any people around to value it. Many other environmentalists have agreed with his claim that ethics requires us to respect nature even when it has no human use. This principle, it is argued, applies to animals, biological systems and natural places, each of which might call for somewhat different moral duties.

I won’t trace all the complexities of the debates which have proliferated over the meaning of ‘intrinsic value’ and the rejection of anthropocentrism. However, at the core of this discussion are elements of a debate in the nineteenth century I’ve already mentioned, in which some, like the conservationist Gifford Pinchot, thought that the central reason for preserving natural places is that they will provide humans with the rich diversity of resources we need to survive, and some, like the naturalist John Muir, argued that nature provides a great many satisfactions and pleasures for humans which are not merely instrumental. For example, why should we preserve the rainforests? Some point to the many valuable medicinal cures the rainforests might provide, or the fact that they protect the global environment from carbon build up, while others view the rainforests as valuable in themselves. This distinction is important. But both views are anthropocentric in that human values determine what is valued in nature. This has led some philosophers to distinguish between a narrow anthropocentrism and one that opens up the full range of values nature provides. Recently, environmentalists adopting a form of pragmatism have argued that it is difficult to determine what practical environmental goals are lost or gained by adopting a philosophical theory based on intrinsic value versus a theory which affirms a more holistic human-centered value system. William James might characterize this as a dispute without a difference.

Second Challenge: Our Place in Nature

In his famous 1967 essay, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’, Lynn White assigned some of the blame to the Judeo-Christian doctrine found in Genesis, that we humans are created in the image of God and have been placed in charge of nature, and thus can use animals and natural objects for our own purposes. As a result there emerged a certain arrogance toward nature, which White argues was bolstered by the growth of science and technology. White acknowledges that there was a gentler, more respectful tradition of stewardship, often associated with Saint Francis of Assisi, but also found in Biblical passages.

While there has been much debate about White’s claims by historians, many environmentalists have found it necessary to challenge the supremacy assumed by humans, believing that many environmental problems are the result of our arrogant disregard for the rights of other living things. They have sought to promote a more egalitarian or holistic view of the place of humans in nature, one which sees humans as a part of the biological environment and not above or outside of nature. For example, in his carefully-argued 1986 book Respect For Nature, Paul Taylor defends a biocentric egalitarianism in which all living organisms have rights claims. He even attempts to outline moral principles (referred to as ‘priority principles’), which will help to guide us in cases of conflict between ourselves and things in nature. By way of illustration, Taylor claims that hunting and fishing for sport are wrong, but taking space from animals to build a library or airport is justified, because these serve the higher needs of humans and thus justify this intrusion on the space of other biological rights-bearers.

Taylor has been challenged on these assertions because such human-excusing value-judgments seem at odds with biological egalitarianism, and they point to the tension between assigning humans an equal place in nature and assuming that we guide our actions by standards that seem contrary to the natural way followed by other biological creatures.

Some environmentalists have wanted to describe humans as part of nature, doing what all creatures do, but at the same time try to limit our actions regarded as a threat to the environment. However, beavers build dams that disrupt other habitats, for instance; and all biological creatures pollute through their waste. This raises the question of just what are the proper limits to impose on our ‘natural’ intrusion into nature. Nature itself does not provide a definite answer.

A further illustration of the tension of placing humans in nature and yet assigning us special rights and duties is found in the claim that we should preserve species. Nature has eliminated many species over time, and it might very well be the case that some species cannot coexist with other species. Moreover, it seems that if the larger animals are to survive in the future, it will be because humans undertake to protect their living space. This places us in the role of stewards of nature, not just biological creatures acting in ways fixed by evolution. But if humans are placed in charge of species’ survival, it seems we are assigning ourselves a very special role in nature – a somewhat dominant role at odds with biocentic egalitarianism.

In short, how should we define our place in nature? This remains a challenge.

Third Challenge: Defining Moral Status

In arguing about whether to include animals in the moral realm, and thus reduce the suffering and exploitation of animals, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) commented, “Can they feel? If they can, then they deserve moral consideration.”

While the animal welfare and animal rights movements have not always had the same goals as environmentalists, they do have a shared concern to find a philosophical basis for assigning moral status to organisms and natural places. In an essay from 1972 entitled ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’, the legal philosopher Christopher Stone argued that natural places should have the legal right to be protected from improper use. Stone was responding to the case of Disney versus the Sierra Club. Disney wanted to build a resort in an unspoiled area of wilderness. Stone argued that the courts should recognize the claims of natural places to be protected.

The question of just what moral status animals, biological areas and natural places should have has been the subject of much discussion by environmentalists. Aldo Leopold’s land ethics was an attempt to affirm the moral status of ecological areas, and Paul Taylor’s biological centrism assigns moral status to all living things. In the case of animals, many have agreed with Bentham’s claim that unnecessary suffering should not be inflicted on beings who can experience it.

Many philosophers have come to accept that ethical traditions have not adequately dealt with the moral claims of animals. Through his 1975 book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer has been the most important contemporary spokesperson for the moral status of animals. Yet how Bentham’s or Singer’s claims apply to various levels of animal life raises complex issues of animal psychology. Many would agree that the great apes, who are so close to humans, deserve much the same moral regard as humans, while fleas, ants and bacteria do not. In his 1923 book The Philosophy of Civilization, Albert Schweitzer defends the doctrine of ‘Reverence for Life’. He states that all living things are worthy of respect, arguing that one should not kill bugs, ants or even plants if this can be avoided. This extension of moral consideration might strike some as problematic, in that it might seem at odds with our condition as biological creatures who live at the expense of other living forms. Schweitzer leaves himself some room for qualifications by saying we should not engage in ‘unnecessary’ exploitation of living things. By contrast, many environmentalists and environmental organizations have not always been sympathetic to moral claims that challenge natural or evolutionary patterns. This explains their hostility to anti-hunting or fishing philosophies which are not justified on ecological and preservation terms.

The last topic to briefly mention is the moral status of natural places. Places do not experience pleasure or pain, so what would be wrong with defacing a mountain ridge or an old-growth tree? We might say that the aesthetic violation here would spoil the beauty of nature for others, and thus cause harm. Many of the environmental debates about preserving natural places involve a conflict between those who want to use places for economic ends, and those who want to preserve the aesthetic values of nature. Of course, other considerations enter the debate as well, such as ecological balance, the importance of biological systems, etc.

In short, the extent and nature of the moral status of animals and nature remains a challenge. Yet the question of how to weigh differing values, and what moral status to assign to nature, has been the stimulus for environmental philosophy.

© Dr James A. Moran 2012

Jim Moran is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Daemen College in Amherst, New York.

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