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Some environmental ethics

I have been engaged in trying to understand some environmental ethical issues.  Comments very welcome.

Environmental ethics and economics


Economics adopts a different approach to thinking about the desired relation between humans and their natural environment than does philosophy and environmental ethics (EE).  Economics takes an individualistic utilitarian approach as to how society should manage its natural resource environment. It bases its environmental policy prescriptions on the given preferences of the individual humans who comprise societies and then relies on utilitarian ethics to make environmental evaluations consistent with an aggregation of whatever underlying distribution of individual environmental preferences arises.  Economics then emphasizes the institutional failures, such as market and information failures as well as difficulties of aggregating the individual preferences in reaching sound evaluations. Unless addressed these problems can lead to poor environmental management decisions in the process of reaching social decisions but, apart from depending on an underlying methodological individualism and employing the utilitarianism of cost-benefit analysis, economics takes an ethically neutral stance on what individual preferences should be.   On the other hand, EE – that field of philosophy examining the moral relationship of humans to their nonhuman environment – examines the rationale for preferences towards the environment and the widespread presumption of human-centeredness (or anthropocentrism) that underlies much human thinking.  It argues that some individual and social preferences towards the environment are more morally sound than others.

The present notes are primarily addressed to economists and survey the field of EE taking the methodological precepts of economics as known. Excellent online surveys of EE are Baird Callicott (2004), Brennan & Lo (2012).  In these studies, instead of taking individual environmental preferences as given, EE examines the question of what moral considerations should be extended to animals, plants and to the nonhuman environment generally. What value does the nonhuman world have and should such value demand moral recognition? Ultimately, as with economics,  the answer to these questions – while set out in terms of individual values – seeks to determine morally sound societal decisions for using and protecting the natural environment.

EE recognizes that there are ethical problems that do not involve direct human-to-human interactions.  Environmental problems might reflect the damages humans inflict on the environment itself – so the environment has a moral status of its own – or merely the damages humans inflict on other humans because of their damages they inflict on the environment, the issue often addressed by economics.  Adopting the former viewpoint suggests the environment has intrinsic value irrespective of its value to humans – the environment is valuable in itself.

The view that only human interests matter is instrumentalism. The value of the environment is then related only to how it serves human interests. The environment is only a tool to serve human interests so nature only has interests in so far as it serves these interests. This is a product of consequentialist ethics that focus on the effects of human actions rather than their ethical ambition.  The existence of intrinsic value suggests that humans have responsibilities to the environment irrespective of whether it is being used by humans – even if they have no incentives to protect such life.    As an instance of a particular subset of EE views, Buddhists believe all life, including nonhuman life, should be respected.

The case for recognizing intrinsic values is dramatically illustrated by the Richard Routley (1973) “last man” argument.  Imagine a hypothetical situation in which the last person alive who has survived a global catastrophe but who is about to die acts to ensure the elimination of all other nonhuman living things and the destruction of all landscapes following his own demise.  From a strictly anthropocentric perspective this destruction involves doing nothing wrong since this action does not disadvantage humans who have all disappeared. The moral intuition that the imagined act is morally wrong suggests that nonhuman objects in the environment do indeed have intrinsic value.

The question here is whose interests count? Is nature a member of a moral community whose interests must be addressed?  A prerequisite for having interests is that nature is capable of existing in a state of well-being whereas other states are less favorable.  If nature has interests these interests can be overridden but they must be accounted for when making decisions that can damage these interests. There is no implication that the interests of all creatures or all parts of nature need to be assessed equally: An earthworm might possibly have interests that are assessed as less important than those of a human.  So too might particular environmental landscapes.

Anthropocentrism. The argument that only humans have interests is anthropocentrism.  Some people are anthropocentric for religious reasons. For example, Genesis 1, 28 commands people to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth“. Some see humans as having special status because humans are an evolutionary peak.  With respect to the latter it is often argued that only humans have (a) reasoning powers and (b) self-consciousness.  Thus human behavior is based on intelligence not only on instincts and individual humans can think for themselves.   

Rene’ Descartes (1649), for example, believed that animals had no capacity to think. He believed animals were conscious and so were aware of pain but this was purely instinctual and did not involve thought so that the pain was irrelevant. His followers nailed dogs by their paws to a board whereupon they were cut open to reveal their hearts beating.  The dogs howled with pain but this pain was irrelevant since, to Descartes, it was like a whining gear that needed oil.   Most people in western societies react with horror when this type of example is put before them since the absurdity of ignoring the obvious suffering is self-evident.  But is the insensitivity humans display when such pain is inflicted on animals close to the way animals are, in fact, raised today and then slaughtered for food?

Anthropocentrism can be distinguished from utilitarianism that can be understood as reflecting all of the values humans derive from the environment whatever their source – materialistic, spiritual, instrumental or intrinsic. Strictly speaking, while anthropocentrism considers only instrumental values so, for example, it is only worth conserving a species if it provides one of these sources of value there are ways of extending the notion of instrumental value so that it is highly inclusive.   For example, if people gain benefits from knowing a species continues to exist then, even if that species is not exploited for material gain, it can reasonably be supposed to serve an anthropocentric end. This can be extended to include the wide-ranging litany of values that economists conventionally ascribe to the environment – aesthetic, existence and option values, altruism – as well as conventional instrumental values that arise from the use of the environment as a productive input. Indeed from this perspective since humans make decisions with respect to the environment and animals, plants and geological formations do not, all environmental decisions can be viewed as anthropocentric.   

In the past strictly anthropocentric positions – for example those associated with Kant (1963) – found it difficult to determine fault in cruelly treating an animal unless that cruelty encouraged cruel treatment of humans.  This is, in fact, an instrumental reason for opposing cruelty.  Likewise environmental destruction now will have instrumental costs if it damages the welfare of people living now or in the future.

Sentientism. A key question is why the two key capacities of intelligence and self-consciousness alone should determine whether the human entity has a unique moral status.  An alternative ethic is sentientism that focuses on the capacity of nonhuman animals to have the capacity for subjective experience of pain and pleasure.  A rock does not experience the sensation of being smashed but animals are capable of both suffering pain and experiencing pleasure.  Moreover, animals seek to avoid pain and to pursue pleasure as demonstrated in Balcombe (2007).  Those who have dogs as pets are aware of this.   A dog will seek to avoid pain and will demonstrate the experience of pain if it is hit by howling.  A dog will display obvious pleasure when playing with a ball in the park just as do dolphins who playfully surf the waves on Australia’s east coast.

Put in this way it seems that dogs and dolphins do have interests and moral standing.  The difficulty with endorsing sentientism for many lies in the practical implications of this view.  It becomes necessary to come up with a moral case for eating animals or for conducting experiments on them.

There are further sets of ethical views that extend further the boundaries for admitting entities into that class with interests.   

Biocentrism. The biocentrists focus on the capacity for life so that all living things – including plants – have some moral status: See Nash (1989).  The basis of this claim is that any living organism has an interest or an objective of staying alive and growing normally. This goes beyond the ability to experience pain and pleasure and is a teleological argument since it focuses on the fact that anything alive is directed towards the aim of sustaining life. Thus biocentrists think about how humans should morally relate to all forms of life including plants.  A plant seeks to live and assume its proper dimensions in its maturity whereas a rock does not.  People have to eat but unnecessary destruction of nature and pollution or other activities that kill animal or plant life now becomes a serious moral concern.

Biocentrism can be distinguished from anthropomorphism by considering a life form – the smallpox virus – that probably has negative instrumental value to humans.  Biocentrists would nevertheless assign value to this life form. Similarly biocentrists would oppose capital punishment for even a convicted mass killer on the grounds that human life itself has intrinsic value. 

Ecocentrism. The ecocentrists argue that the focus of concern should be with ecosystems as a whole rather than individual living things – the soils, the water and living creatures both plants and animals – and the way these physical and biological components combine to maintain specific local environments.  Indeed the value of the ecosystem as a whole is greater than the aggregated value of its individual components.  An analogy would be to say that a whole human has greater value than the aggregated value of their hands, legs, head and so on.  The environment then is a biotic body that has living and non-living components. A famous ecocentrist was the forester Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) who wrote A Sand Country Almanac. This advocated a type of land ethic toward biotic communities – “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 did not oppose land development or hunting but believed that humans should interact with land in ways that enhance rather than detract from, biodiversity richness, stability and beauty. Species should be protected by humans when they contribute to the stability and integrity of ecosystems in which they reside so that human activities may need to be curtailed for the benefit of ecosystems as a whole.

Ecocentrism is linked to recent interest in sustainability as an ethic.  Sustainable use of resources such as a forest or a fishery does not deny their use at all but requires that use not jeopardize the long-term health of the forest or the fish population.  This is a vague notion which might account for its popularity. It becomes a more divisive ethic when defined more narrowly.  Solow (1992) defined sustainability as making sure that future generations are as well off in terms of the environment as the current generation.  Controversially, according to this view, human-made capital such as machines and buildings are substitutable for natural capital. An alternative view is that no amount of human made capital can compensate for the loss of capital or key species.  This has led some to distinguish between weak sustainability which assumes that such substitutability works and strong sustainability which does not allow for these substitutions.  On the face of it pursuing weak sustainability seems an absurdly restrictive ethic in relation to the environment as a whole – it essentially denies the specifically unique values humans derive from nature – although it perhaps makes more sense with respect to certain narrowly defined natural capital resources, such as oil reserves, which can perhaps be replaced with human capital in the form of solar panels or wind turbines.

An application: Kakadu

 The preceding views has been applied to assess the case for mining in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory by Elliot (1991).  Kakadu is a large park – 19,804 km2 – about half the size of Switzerland.  It is an area with significant and rich biodiversity (birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, plants), aesthetic values and recreational opportunities for tourism. It is diverse in terms of its geology and landforms. The area has spiritual significance to its original inhabitants the Jawoyn aboriginals.  Aboriginals have lived at the site for 40,000 years and there are 5,000 aboriginal art sites identified in the park. Kakadu is also rich in gold, palladium, platinum and uranium. The latter is already mined at Ranger an area surrounded, by but separate from, the park.  The question here is whether more mining should be allowed in Kakadu?

A major economic study using contingent valuation methods was carried out in the early 1990s to assess this argument for an area of the park known as Coronation Hill (Carson et al., 1994). Concern here is with the ethical standpoint from which such a study should be undertaken rather than drawing specific conclusions.

The anthropocentric or human-centred ethic sees environmental policies as best being evaluated in terms of how they impact on humans.  How would mining at Kakadu impact on human happiness and unhappiness? Mining would bring readily identifiable wealth to some but less readily identifiable unhappiness to those who value the pristine wetlands, the species living in the park, the lost recreational and aesthetic values and any lost spiritual values.  A utilitarian perspective would require that such costs be subtracted from any gains to derive net gains and then cost-benefit analysis applied.  There will be disagreement over the assessment of particularly the losses here but the ethic itself is purely human-centred.   With this ethic the losses only matter if they impact on humans.

The sentientist or animal-centered ethic includes the welfare of animals in making evaluations.  Thus if pollution in the park adversely impacted on nonhuman animal life those impacts must be accounted for.  The extent to which this nonhuman life should be weighted relative to human life in making such evaluations is open to controversy.  This poses difficulties given there is no presumption of equal weighting and the weights that are used in making evaluations are always set by humans.  The principle might be to respect “equal interests equally” (to avoid “speciesism”) but it is difficult to define the notion of “equal interests” and, in any event, this assessment is carried out by humans.  Adopting this ethic rather than the anthropocentric ethic makes the case for mining more problematic.

A complication in conserving biodiversity in the park is the presence of significant populations of non-native species (wild buffalo, wild pigs and cane toads).  Are these species afforded moral consideration or are attempts made to eradicate them?

The biocentric or life-centered ethic includes consideration of plants, algae and even perhaps single-celled organisms and viruses.  This extends the range of moral consideration but now weightings must also be determined between nonhuman animal life and plant and other lives.  Plants, for example, might have moral interest but not a point of view with respect to such interests. Complexity assessment will bear on this weighting. Adopting this ethic, rather than sentientism, makes the case for mining still more difficult to establish.  To some extent however sentientism implies a degree of biocentrism given ecological interdependencies between different forms of life.

Ecocentrism or “rights-for-rocks” ethics focuses on inanimate landscapes as well as life broadly conceived.  This might be based on complexity, naturalness or beauty. Mining will damage rock formations and life dependent on preexisting ecosystems.  The physical environment also has spiritual significance to indigenous people. Now moral weight must also be assigned to non-living elements both directly and indirectly through the dependence of living entities on their material environment.  This creates tough standards for establishing a case for mining but also raises more difficulty in establishing degrees of moral consideration.

If such ethics are holistic rather than individualistic – so the ethic targets ecosystems rather than their constituent parts – the weight is shifted from the conservation of individual entities to the maintenance of ecosystems as a whole.    Then this ethic is not a straightforward extension of biocentrism with ecological dependencies of life on the physical environment. Ecological holism is consistent with even species losses or particular types of physical environmental damage provided they do not create overall damage and can hence come into conflict with biocentrism.

To sum up: The general procedure for moving from one of these ethics to a succeeding ethic is to recognize possible issues of moral consideration ignored by the initial ethic.  For example a feature of rock formations might be their “authenticity”.  Does such a characteristic demand moral consideration and a shift from a biocentrism? For example, suppose the mining firm can completely restore rock formations from synthetic materials and replanted trees.  It will look as appealing as before and no ecosystem will be disrupted.  Is this morally unacceptable because the restoration is inauthentic? There are no problems in this case with a biocentrism but if authenticity is sought then an individualistic ecocentrism must be introduced. 

In short, the moral considerations at stake must be identified and their importance assessed.  

Economic and non-economic sources of environmental problems

Why do humans abuse the environment? Why do societies not act in accord with good moral standards in managing environments?

Economics. Economists naturally focus on economic issues such as market failures and ignorance that lead to an undervaluation or under-appreciation of natural resources.  This view is morally neutral – “We assume everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no matter how perverse it may appear to be” (Kolstad, 2011, p. 44) – and then proceeds to examine how social decisions are made when individuals optimize their welfare but are subject to the various market failures, ignorance and when there are problems of aggregating individual preferences into societal values.

An instance of this economic view is conservationism that sees humans neglecting certain benefits of caring for nature and the costs of environmental damages including destruction of natural environments.  This can be because environmental benefits or costs are not valued in markets for externality reasons or for strategic reasons stemming from public good issues.  There can also simply be knowledge problems so individuals may not recognize environmental costs and benefits..

Economics provides an instrumental, utilitarian view of nature that sees sustainable use as serving human interests and needs and, in addition, providing a very broad range of aesthetic and non-use values. This economic view should be based on a version of cost-benefit analysis that argues for a broad and inclusive assessment of likely costs and benefits.   Criticisms of economic ethics stem from foundational criticisms of utilitarianism.  For example that utilitarianism is consequentialist and that in most environmental contexts non-marketed items exist which are difficult or impossible to value.

Deep ecology. Non-economic arguments include the deep ecology perspective. This sees environmental problems as stemming from a deep misunderstanding of their connections with nature.  Indeed to the deep ecologists humans are part of an interconnected ecosystem and should not view the environment as something to be dominated and used to serve human interests.  Arne Naess (1989) (as well as Aldo Leopold) are credited with founding this area.  Their idea was to support a holistic rather than individualistic view of the world. Indeed the individualistic view whereby humans are seen as pursuing their interests in a neutral environment is seen as the source of environmental problems.  Humans are part of the environment not something separate from it.  They don’t live in the environment but are part of it.  Seeing this requires a radical transformation of self-understanding and, once this is established, the idea of dominating and controlling nature is absurd because it is like trying to dominate yourself.  Instead actions in relation to the environment seek to coordinate own objectives with good overall environmental outcomes.

Social ecology. Murray Bookchin, sees global environmental problems deriving from the human habit of structuring relationships in terms of hierarchies, domination and control. If these habits can be changed better environmental outcomes can be expected.

“Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today—apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes” (Bookchin, 2007).

Bookchin sees the domination of the weak by the strong as spilling over into behavior and policies toward the environment.  If everyone’s thinking is dominated by domination it is little surprise that interaction with nature is exploitative.  The path to a better environment is less about directly solving environmental problems – these are like symptoms of a disease – and more about attacking the logic of domination itself by promoting more egalitarian attitudes in social interactions. 

Eco-feminism. Eco-feminists see the primary pattern of domination in society as being that of patriarchal or male domination of women (Sherilyn, 2006).  Eliminating this, it is argued, will result in better environmental outcomes.  The eco-feminists tie patriarchy to misuse of the environment through a false dichotomies of “man versus woman” with women being less valued and hence dominated by men, “emotion versus reason” with women being associated with emotion and men keeping them in line, with “wild versus structured” being used to justify male reason being used to rule female emotion and finally with “nature versus civilization” that creates the source of environmental problems.  Specifically nature is seen as inferior to civilization because civilized societies are based on reason.  Nature needs to be ruled by men.

Thus the domination of women by men leads to the male domination of nature.  The resolution to environmental problems is to end patriarchy.

Criticizing EE

The most fundamental criticism of EE lies in its questioning of the role of anthropocentrism.  Assigning moral status to plants, animals, inanimate natural environments and ecosystems means that the values of such entities enter into societies social welfare function even when the existence of such entities does not augment human welfare in a narrow instrumental way.  However it is humans who place the values of such entities in this SWF and it is humans who assign the values ascribed to nonhuman life and who make decisions about the promotion of broadly defined social welfare. This is inevitably a human-centric view. For example, the plants, animals and inanimate environments do not vote in our parliaments.

EE can create incentives to add increased weight in the SWF to non-human life though it is inevitably humans who do assign this increased weight and make the decisions.

The difficult question however is then that if the environment does not have a value independent of humans that if humans lose interest in the environment it can be dispensed with.  A true environmental ethic might require something stronger than human-driven affection for environmental values.

Another EE criticism of “deep ecology” and, more generally, of non-human centered approaches to EE is that the emphasis on the value on the collective is Fascist because it puts control in the hands of those who manage the collective interest which can lead to a suppression of the rights on the individual.  Should, for example, the environment be protected by a policy of forced sterilizations of human individuals?

This type of query has lead to a weaker version of deep ecology with humans given a primary but not dictatorial place in assessing the interests in an ecosystem.  The interests of non-human life only then deserve moral consideration when considering environmental policy.

This type of commentary seems naïve from the perspective of economics because, at its core, economics asserts the inevitability of the need to override human liberties when there are market and information failures.   When markets fail it will not be true that the social interest can be advanced through individuals freely contacting in private property rights.  There needs to be a social decision that will necessarily override the interests of individuals.  An advantage of the economics approach is that there are theories that show when such social decisions can be derived from the preferences of individuals in society and how those whose preferences are not respected can be compensated.  But numerous environmental concerns are collective action problems and – indeed – issues such as global warming are collective action problems at the global level. 


J. Balcombe, Pleasurable Kingdom, Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, Macmillan, New York, 2007.

J. Baird Callicott, “Environmental Ethics: 1 Overview”, Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 2, 2004.  At:  (Accessed 12/11/2012).

M. Bookchin, Social Ecology and Communalism, AK Press, Oakland. 2007.

A. Brennan & Y-S. Lo, “Environmental Ethics” in E. Zalta (ed), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition). At: Accessed 12/11/2012.

R.T. Carson, L. Wilks & D. Imber, “Valuing the Preservation of Australia’s Kakadu Conservation Zone”, Oxford Economic Papers, 46, 1994, 727-749.

René Descartes, “Passions of the Soul” (1649). At: Accessed 12/11/2012.

R. Elliot, “Environmental Ethics” in P. Singer (ed), A Companion to Ethics, Blackwell Publishing,  Malden, 1991, pp. 284-293.

I. Kant, “Duties to Animals and Spirits” in L. Infield (trans) Lectures on Ethics, Harper and Row, New York, 1963.

C. Kolstad, Environmental Economics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011.

A. Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1949.

R. Nash, The Rights of Nature, A History of Environmental Ethics, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1989.

R. Routley, “Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?” Proceedings of the 15th World Congress of Philosophy, 1, 1973, 205-210.

S. Sherilyn, Beyond Mothering Earth: Ecological Citizenship and the Politics of Care, UBC Press, Vancouver, 2006.

R. Solow, “An Almost Practical Step Towards Sustainability”, Invited Lecture, Resources for the Future, Washington D.C., 1992. In W. Oates (ed), The RFF Reader in Environmental and Resource Policy, 2nd Edition, RFF Press,  2006, pp. 253-264

A. Naess, Ecology Community and Lifestyle, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989.

C. Panza & A. Potthast,  Ethics for Dummies, Wiley Publishing, Indiana, 2010.

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