Environmental Ethics

Environmental Ethics: An Overview

J. Baird Callicott
University of North Texas

As a systematic and focused field of intellectual inquiry, environmental ethics was conceived after broad recognition in the 1960s of an impending “environmental crisis.” Developing embryonically during the 1970s, environmental ethics came into its own in 1979 with the publication of the journal, Environmental Ethics.

The growth of environmental ethics was heavily influenced by cultural factors. During the mid-twentieth century, environmental degradation reached crisis proportions after technologies, developed for war, became redirected to peaceful uses. In the spirit of beating swords into plowshares, atomic weapons technology was adapted to generate electricity; DDT, originally manufactured to delouse soldiers, was indiscriminately broadcast as an agricultural pesticide; and high compression internal combustion engines designed to power military aircraft and tanks, were redesigned to power automobiles, trucks, tractors, crop dusters, and bulldozers. These developments contributed to the dramatic rise in the postwar standard of living in industrialized countries, but at a terrible cost - toxic radioactive wastes were produced, non-targeted organisms were killed, and formerly clean air and water were heavily polluted with petroleum by-products.

People were alerted to the insidious dangers of postwar technologies in two ways: through the testimony of their senses - the air and water were palpably befouled, the landscape had become deranged, and the biota had become impoverished - and through the testimony of distinguished statespersons, writers, and scientists. The most influential writings of the time included: Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Quiet Crisis by Stewart Udall (1963), and The Closing Circle by Barry Commoner (1971). A Sand County Almanac, written by Aldo Leopold (1949), had prophetically anticipated the emergence of an environmental crisis and proposed the evolution of a “land ethic” as the only appropriate remedy to these complex environmental problems.

In a widely reprinted and enormously influential article published in Science, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (1967), Lynn White, Jr. set the agenda for future environmental ethicists. His fundamental assumption, that what we do collectively depends on what we collectively think; and the corollary to this, that to change what we collectively do depends on changing what we collectively think, led us to the conclusion that if we are to change what we do to the environment, we must begin by changing what we think about the environment. White himself argued that what Westerners collectively think about the environment is ultimately derived from a few verses in Genesis (1:26-28): human beings alone among creatures are formed in the image of God, have dominion over nature, and are commanded to subdue it. White’s specific analysis of the biblical roots of the environmental crisis was cavalier and simplistic at best, but his initial, more general intellectual analysis was compelling. This analysis included three major points. First, White believed that one had to identify and criticize the inherited attitudes and values regarding the characteristics of nature, human nature, and the relationship between humanity and nature that underlie and subtly shape our behavior toward the natural world. To do this, one must recognize, that the Bible is only one of many Western sources expounding such values, and it is perhaps less important than other historical sources such as Greek philosophy, the Enlightenment, modern science, capitalism, consumerism, and patriarchy. Second, White believed that one needed to reinterpret or revise one’s inherited attitudes and values regarding the traits of nature, human nature, and the human-nature relationship. Ecologically minded biblical scholars working with White’s critiques, for example, later reinterpreted the human-nature relationships sketched in Genesis. Alternatively, one could propose new values that incorporated an understanding of the exciting new developments in the sciences (ecology, quantum theory, and big-bang cosmology) or other religious worldviews. Third, White believed that one must develop and defend a new environmental ethic in order to guide and restrain anthropocentric environmental degradation.

As scholarly discussion in environmental ethics developed, a major theoretical cleft between anthropocentrism and nonanthropocentrism became apparent. Anthropocentrists upheld the conservative Western view that only human beings are morally significant. For anthropocentrists, polluting or destroying various aspects of the environment is morally wrong because human beings are adversely affected. Nonanthropocentrists countered that an anthropocentric environmental ethic is inadequate, because, in some cases, the extinction of some scientifically unremarkable and commercially worthless species that do not seem to be vital to any ecosystem processes would not materially harm human beings. Even if anthropocentrism broadened its position to include various benefits to future human generations, nonanthropocentrists believe that many endangered species may never be considered as possible resources for pharmaceuticals, foods, fibers, or fuels, nor will they ever be of more than a passing scientific and aesthetic interest. Such species would not be well protected by an anthropocentric environmental ethic, however broadly construed.

Philosophers committed to the Western tradition of moral philosophy have attempted to theoretically extend anthropocentric ethics in order to create a nonanthropocentric ethic. Classical anthropocentrism is justified by appealing to the value-conferring property of rationalism that is allegedly possessed by all and only human beings. Not all human beings, however, are functionally rational. Thus, if anthropocentric ethical theory is applied even handedly, infants, developmentally handicapped persons, and victims of Altzheimer’s disease, would fall outside the moral pale; they would be no more morally considerable than nonhuman nonrational beings, and therefore would be treated with callous disregard. To include nonrational people within the purview of an anthropocentric ethic, we must lower the bar of moral considerability. Sentiency, the capacity to experience pleasure and pain, is the most commonly suggested property to which this bar shall be lowered. Many animals possess this capacity, and, by parity of reasoning, they too should be morally enfranchised. Yet, animal liberation, as this brand of nonanthropocentrism is called, is also an incomplete environmental ethic because it fails to encompass a great deal of the environment. Indeed, animal liberation and more expansive environmental ethics are often in conflict, especially in situations where bloated populations of feral animals threaten the extinction of rare and endangered plant species. It is, however, a way to begin extending moral consideration to the environment.

Some environmental philosophers, notably biocentrists, have recommended lowering the bar for moral entitlement even further to include any being that has interest (e.g., a good of its own; ends, goals, or purposes of its own). Thus the basic idea shared by biocentrists, as those taking this approach to environmental ethics are called, is that any being which has interests, whether conscious or not, warrants moral consideration. Biocentrism has become the end-point in this project of extending traditional Western ethics to wider and wider circles of entities. The main problem with including all living beings within the purview of ethics is not the plausibility of the theoretical project, but that most of our environmental problems remain unaddressed by this approach. The individual welfare of each and every bug, shrub, and grub is just not very high on the list of environmental concerns. We are concerned, rather, about air and water pollution; soil erosion; global climate change; and, probably more than anything else, about species extinction or the catastrophic loss of biodiversity at every level of biological organization. From this viewpoint, a species as such, is not sentient; nor has it interests (no ends, goals, or purposes). If environmental ethics is to be connected with our perceived environmental concerns, thereby allowing constructive responses to the crisis that gave birth to environmental ethics, then we must work toward a more holistic environmental ethic.

Aldo Leopold’s seminal “land ethic” has this crucial holistic quality. Leopold writes, “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such”1 (emphasis added). Indeed, when Leopold states the summary moral maxim, the golden rule of the land ethic, no mention whatever is made of “fellow-members”; only that the community as such is the beneficiary of environmental moral concern: “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.”2 A Western precedent for ethical holism can be found in Charles Darwin’s account of the origin and evolution of ethics in the Descent of Man, from which Leopold seems to have borrowed heavily. According to Darwin, ethics arose to foster the integrity of human societies (or communities), upon which human survival is utterly dependent. As Darwin put it, “No tribe could hold together if murder, robbery, treachery, etc., were common, consequently such crimes within the limits of the same tribe ‘are branded with everlasting infamy.’”3 Indeed, if a tribe disintegrated, the survival and reproductive success of its former members would be doomed. Therefore Darwin thought that “actions are regarded by savages and were probably so regarded by primeval man, as good or bad, solely as they obviously affect the welfare of the tribe - not that of the species, nor that of an individual member of the tribe.”4 Darwin, in turn, borrowed heavily from David Hume’s ethical philosophy in which there also runs a strong strain of holism. For example, Hume insists that “we must renounce the theory which accounts for every moral sentiment by the principle of self-love. We must adopt a more publick affection, and allow that the interests of society are not, even on their own account, entirely indifferent to us.”5 This holistic Leopold land ethic has a pedigree in Western moral philosophy traceable through Darwin back to Hume.

The major theoretical problem with Leopold’s land ethic is how to balance its holism with the individualism of our precious humanitarian ethics. Surely, we cannot agree that a thing is right only if it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; and that it is wrong if it tends otherwise. What about basic human rights? What are we to do when respecting human rights conflicts with preserving the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community? Leopold did not intend for the holistic land ethic to replace individualistic human ethics, but rather he wanted it to supplement them. He did not, however, provide any guidelines for resolving conflicts between human rights and environmental integrity.

As environmental philosophy has matured, a number of green ideologies emerged that united environmental ethics with various political movements. Ecofeminism, for example, unites environmental ethics with feminist politics. At the core of ecofeminism are three, not unrelated, claims. First that the dominance of nature by “man” and the dominance of women by men are similar in form. More recent thinking in ecofeminism has found the general “logic of domination” manifested in still other putatively “oppressive” relationships, such as the domination of people of color by “whites,” and the domination of the people of the South, globally speaking, by those of the North. Second, ecofeminists believe that in Western thought, all the way back to the ancient Greeks, women have been cognitively associated with nature. The Greeks identified material nature, which they regarded as chaotic, erotic, recalcitrant, and irrational, as a female cosmic principle while they identified immaterial form, which they regarded as disciplined, ordering, and rational, as a male cosmic principle. Third, ecofeminists find that patriarchy is an attempt to control and bend to the masculine the will of both women and the material natural world in which women are embedded and with which women are associated. Thus, solving our environmental problems from an ecofeminist viewpoint, requires the dismantling of patriarchy.

Similarly, social ecology unites environmental ethics with a more or less Marxist critique of capitalism, consumerism, and free-market economies. Here the key to solving our environmental problems is engaging in the dismantling of the capitalist economy through the disempowering of multinational corporations. Environmental justice focuses on the unequal distribution of environmental “bads,” which are disproportionately visited on the poor and women and children of color. Environmental justice, therefore, unites environmental ethics with political concerns about economic and racial inequities.

Among the various ideological schools of environmental philosophy, deep ecology retains its own unique perspective. Deep ecologists hold that all of our environmental problems stem from our anthropocentrism. They believe that distinguishing the manner in which different kinds of Homo sapiens (male or female, rich or poor, black or white, Northern or Southern) exploit nature is not very pertinent. Furthermore, deep ecologists do not believe that resolutions to environmental problems can be completely fashioned from the field of ethics alone. Rather, if the deeper lesson of ecology - that all things are connected - is absorbed viscerally, the distinction between self and nature will be blurred and this ambiguity between self and nature will permit people to identify with nature, thereby allowing them to perceive the destruction of nature as self-destruction. Biocide, from a deep ecological point of view, is suicide.

The most radical challenge to mainstream environmental ethics has emerged from a pragmatist perspective. Pragmatists claim that environmental philosophy has been too preoccupied with internecine disputes that are virtually unintelligible to nonphilosophers. According to pragmatists, the arcane philosophical debates about what set of entities have intrinsic value and thus moral consideration; the war of words and name-calling between deep ecologists and ecofeminists about whether the core problem is anthropocentrism or androcentrism; even the distinction between anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric environmental ethics - all are irrelevant to real-world environmental problem solving and policy making. Environmental ethicists, the pragmatist environmental philosophers argue, should not be in the business of generating a one-size-fits-all theory, but instead be engaged in casuistry. They believe that one should begin with the actual issue in its local context. This facilitates the involvement of all the various interested parties (animal rights advocates, developers, stakeholders, and environmentalists) and helps to work toward a more democratically oriented solution. It rejects the binary notion that all environmental ethics should be one thing or the other - all theory or all pragmatic casuistry - and permits the complementary interaction of both top-down theory and bottom-up problem solving.

In the span of scarcely a quarter of a century, from humble and scattered beginnings, environmental ethics has grown explosively into a multi-faceted and sometimes fractious field of inquiry. Indeed, it has overflowed the banks of ethics to constitute a more general field, “environmental philosophy.” To the surprise, and in some cases consternation, of more conservative philosophers - who thought it would prove to be an ephemeral fad - environmental philosophy promises to grow even more robust as the twentieth century gives way to the twenty-first century. Two forces will continue to drive its development. First, far from being “solved,” the environmental crisis is only getting worse, with the increasing rates of species extinction and the onslaught of global climate change. Second, despite the pragmatist’s efforts to redirect it, environmental philosophy is more than an “applied ethics,” it is a largely theoretical inquiry and thus subject to an ever widening and deepening dialectical development of its theoretical foundations.



1 Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949) 204.

2 Ibid., 224–25.

3 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: J. Murray, 1971) 93.

4 Ibid., 96–97.

5 David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1871; New York: Library of Liberal Arts, 1951) 47.


Copyright © 2000 J. Baird Callicott.
Reprinted with permission.