I often hear this, and sometimes with a dismissive tone: What relevance does environmental ethics have to me and what I do at home, work or at play? Answer: everything! The term ‘environmental ethics’ is the study, thoughts and explorations of the moral relationships, values and statuses we extend to our surroundings and non-human life. It is part of the study of Philosophy…. Just thinking, but with rigor!
To put it another way, if you exist on Planet Earth, you’ll have a relationship with nature. Our survival depends on it, we need sustenance, water, fuel, even if we buy them at the co-op, even if we just turn on the hot tap or take a breath of fresh air. But we have responsibilities. Understanding environmental ethics helps to focus our relationship with nature, reason, to set out priorities (individually and socially), and to be deliberate about our choices.
Newsworthy science is informing us everyday that our environment is changing: Climate, diversity of life, drought, flood. Underlying all thought, including scientific thought, there is philosophy. There should be no prejudice between science and philosophy. The two are bridged by organisation of thought, logic, deduction.
But sadly I see much misconception about Philosophy. It tends to fall down a deep chasm between science and policy formation. You only need to look at the ongoing furore surrounding biodiversity offsetting. To philosophise is deemed wistful, impractical, whilst Rome (or Sumatra) burns and the planet falls about our ears. Forget philosophy, action is what is required, realpolitik, economics, hands on, realism, pragmatism! Philosophy is deep, organized thought, taking in all these aspects, on which basis… if action is instead based on thoughtlessness, then God save us all!
I would agree that to philosophise can be a waste of time if, for instance, it lacks coherence, logic or is too dogmatic, but not the general subject itself. The fact is the more we understand about the basis and attitudes of people to the environment, the better.
Most people get on with their daily lives making judgments based on intuition, experience, or influenced by those that pay them. To purposefully prioritise ideas into a value system, an ethic, rather than a foggy muddle, will no doubt help to clarify arguments, strengthen debates, policies, society.
Anthropocentrism is human-centredness, an ethical framework that grants moral standing solely to human beings. Western philosophy is dominated by anthropocentrism, but environmental ethicists have provided alternative thought. As part of nature, humans are interdependent on nature, not separate. So how can we have a framework for living our lives based simply on human need, or human dominance over nature singularly for our own sake? It seems to me this type of thinking, actions and policies resulting, is what is causing climatic and ecological upheaval in the first place, from the Industrial Revolution onwards. A species selfishness.
So ethics MUST be extended beyond human need. But what of moral standing, that we must be mindful, compassionate and considerate of the needs of entities other than our own kind. Should it be offered to sentient animals or to all individual living organisms? Some feel we should extend moral standing to systems such as rivers, mountains, flood plains, landscapes, ecosystems. Determining whether our environmental obligations are based on anthropocentric or non-anthropocentric reasoning, of course, will lead to different accounts of what our responsibilities and obligations are. With a bit of luck and a fair wind, being more decisive may even move us towards a good, sustainable life here on spaceship Earth.
I also hear: Why can’t we individually hold multiple views? Because pluralistic ethical thought adds to the fog and the muddle. If we set goals, we need to be heading towards them with clarity, not deviating between ideals and changing the goal posts. So please, if you care at all, familiarise yourself with, at least, the basic enviro-ethical spectrum of thought, decide where you stand and act accordingly. We need to be more mindful, deliberate. We owe this to nature, for all that we take from it.
For further reading, try starting at Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Environmental Ethics