Environmental Ethics Written by: critical (on Scribd.com), for Professor Annette Lee in course 32.184 (Environmental Ethics).

DEC 94 The three main approaches in environmental ethics dealt with by this course are: Anthropocentric, Extensionist, and Holistic (non-extensionist). Each one of these approaches deals differently with both the criteria for deciding who or what has moral standing, and the adjudication amongst those with moral standing. The Anthropocentric approach derives its criteria for moral standing from human


Anthropocentric ethical theories are characterized by criteria (for the status of being human, personhood, potential linguistic capability, and sentience. In this

moral standing) such as: personhood, rationalism,

conceptualization only humans can have moral standing. Non-humans are granted certain consideration in so far as they are valued by humans with moral standing. A major strength of anthropocentric theories is their amenability to methods of adjudication. To have moral standing, one must be human and that is it. Many years have been spent within Western society perfecting a procedure for adjudication, and this procedure is advanced and well-defined. None of the other ethical approaches have so well-defined a method of adjudication. The overwhelming weakness of anthropocentric theories is their focus on humans. Being human-centred, these ethical theories are severely limiting: moral criteria are unjustifiable. The extensionist approach derives its criteria in basically the same way as the thus, their

anthropocentric approach. The only difference is that it extends moral standing (usually by analogy) to non-human animals. Within society, anthropocentric

approaches grant non-paradigm humans moral standing, even though they may lack the relevant criteria (eg. self-awareness, an ability to perceive oneself in the future, or an ability to feel pain). Extensionism basically extends the category beyond non-paradigm humans to include non-humans. The extensionist approach calls for criteria that are justifiable. To be justifiable, criteria cannot be racist, sexist, ageist, speciesist, and so on (the list goes on and on). For the reason of justifiability, existentionists reject criteria which can easily be slapped with any of the above 'ist' labels (eg. speciesist). In the case of one extensionist ethical

theorist, Singer, the criteria for moral standing are derived from a being's ability to feel pain. Methods for adjudicating amongst those who can feel pain are not clearly set out by Singer. Regan, on the other hand, does not even appear to ask the question of how to adjudicate. Vandeveer is another extensionist theorist who clearly attempts to deal with the adjudication problem and he has moderate success with his two-factor egalitarianism. A major strength is the extensionist rejection of overly human-centred criteria. Its weakness lies in its failure to reject hierarchal orderings of the moral community (more on hierarchies below).

Holism, or non-extensionist ethical theories, take an entirely different approach from the above two ethical systems: in fact holism was founded in opposition to them. Holism tries to look at ethics from as much of a non-anthropocentric point of view as possible. As mentioned above, Anthropocentrism and Extensionism take a quality found in humans and apply moral standing to all of the other creatures who have those qualities (all who meet those criteria). Holistic theories attempt to conceptualize the Earth as a single whole made up of all that exists on it. The interconnectedness of everything is one of the primary tenets of this approach and this is where adjudication is dealt with. Being a relatively new field of ethics, Holism is very ill-defined and ill-formed as of yet. Perhaps this is why moral

standing and adjudication are not easily determined on the basis of many holistic theories. One notable exception among holistic theories is Aldo Leopold's land ethic. The land ethic confers moral standing upon all parts of the Earth's ecosystem, depending on their relation to the whole. Adjudication, according to Leopold's

theory, is achieved by deciding who has greater importance within the ecosystem as a whole. If one of the competing entities has no apparent value to the whole, while the other is of fundamental importance to the whole, then the latter entity would win (would remain in the lifeboat). Leopold explains:

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 p82).

Unfortunately the actual method of adjudication is vague, and as for who decides what is more important to the whole, this is a very complex and debatable issue. The other holistic theories are as of yet too new to deal with the two questions of this course. One of the more important strengths of holism is its rejection of hierarchy. Hierarchy, no matter on what it is based, is unjustifiable in some sense or another and therefore theories which avoid hierarchies are that much more justifiable. Holism's major weakness seems to be its exclusion of individuals from the ethical arena. This exclusion can be noted especially in the land ethic and deep ecology. It is debatable whether or not individual moral standing is relevant within holistic theories, but individual standing is a fundamental tenet of Western society and is not just going to disappear.


Yes, the fundamental goals of animal liberation and the land ethic are in conflict

-- if one accepts the belief system of dualism. The goal of the animal liberation movement, if one can generalize about such a broad movement, is to bring animals

as individuals into our moral community (as characterized by Regan, Singer, and Vandeveer). While this movement focuses on individuals, it claims that the

environment as a whole will be protected when its goals are accomplished. The goal of the land ethic appears to be to provide an ethical framework on which to base our treatment of the Earth. This ethic approaches the environment

holistically, recognizing the interconnectedness of all beings, and claims that all individuals are taken care of when the interests of the whole are addressed. The land ethic attempts its goal by applying what can be called natural criteria. Using these criteria, that which is natural (e.g. the food chain) is good; that which tends away from the natural process is wrong (see the land ethic, p82). The animal liberation movement would have us interfere to a large degree with natural processes. For example, it would have us become vegetarians (see both Singer and Regan). Humans are omnivores and this is our place within the food web: to alter this would be to do wrong according to the land ethic. These two approaches are also fundamentally opposed from a Western traditional standpoint. Dualism (dealt with more thoroughly below) is a basic belief system that western society as a whole seems to hold. It involves dualist patterns such as good-bad, black-white, male-female, and individual-whole. In its approach to the individual-whole debate, the land ethic is on the 'whole' end of the spectrum, while

animal liberationists are on the 'individual' end of the spectrum. Now in reality these two approaches are not necessarily in conflict, but dualisms are a very large part of western culture and are probably not possible to overcome (in the foreseeable future). In looking after the needs of individuals does this also take care of the needs of the whole? Conversely, does taking care of the needs of the whole deal adequately with the needs of the individual? If the individual and the whole are truly on

opposite ends of a single spectrum, then perhaps the land ethic and the animal liberation movement are in fundamental conflict. In reality we cannot claim that the dualist way of seeing the world is accurate; so we must accept that perhaps these two movements are not in fundamental conflict. Realistically, one is

compelled to recognize the general adoption of dualisms within our society. Perhaps these dualisms, and nothing else, are the source of conflict between animal liberationists and holists like proponents of the land ethic.

'Species' do not matter. 'Species' are basically a grouping of individuals into an

arbitrary taxonomy system that humans have designed for scientific purposes. The term 'species' is basically unquestioned by Myers in his article, "The Sinking Ark." His article consists of a large listing of facts and figures that outline the past, present, and future extinction rate of 'species.' Unfortunately our

taxonomical system for defining 'species' is anything but exact and precise, rendering most of Myers' facts useless. Russow, on the other hand, questions the usefulness of the term 'species' in describing groups of animals. Russow also

questions the acceptability of applying moral standing or value to an entity (or complex entity) like a 'species.' Russow begins her argument by showing that our obligations to individuals are not sufficient to account for a treatment of individuals within endangered species which is different from our treatment of individuals that are members of a plentiful species (Russow p119). She further shows that granting individual

(animals) rights (such as in Regan's ethical system) can have a paradoxical result, such as the extinction of all members of a species (Russow p120). The example Russow raises is the practice of capturing all individuals of an endangered species and confining them to a zoo in order to preserve that species. Regan's

individualistic approach might condemn a species of animals to extinction because he places greater moral value on the individual. Regan states in his article that at almost no time should the rights of an individual be infringed upon: Individual rights are not to be outweighed by such considerations [as the biotic community] (which is not to say that they are never to be outweighed) {Regan p204-5}.

As to who decides when individual rights should be outweighed, Regan remains silent. Regan does, however, claim that there is a "possibility" that groups or "systems" can have an "inherent value" that is distinct from both the individuals' interests and the sum of any number of individuals that comprise this group (Regan p205). In the next sentence of his article, Regan questions the viability of attributing moral rights to such a super entity like a group, because only individuals can have rights. Russow also believes that our "obligations toward species" is in no real way similar to our obligation not to cause animals pain (Russow p120). Thus far we have two conflicting views: the view that individual rights can lead to the extinction of a species, and the view that super entities like species cannot have rights (therefore we have no means to address the problem of extinction). Russow raises some viewpoints which conflict with her own view regarding valuing species. The only ones that merit mention in this exam are the extrinsic and

intrinsic value arguments she mentions in pages 123-24. First, I find Russow's argument in general to be a very poor 'straw-person' argument. What she is really criticizing is our use of the 'term' species. When she argues against various ethical theories she does not make it clear that, with few exceptions, what she is really criticizing is the use of a single term. I find

Russow's critique of the extrinsic value argument to be valid. Species which are not a major part of the ecosystem (eg. sub-species) would not be protected by this argument (see p123). In dealing with the intrinsic value argument, Russow explains that we have no non-arbitrary basis on which to place intrinsic value regarding species and sub-species. This is where the major problem with the term 'species' comes into play: without a non-arbitrary process that organizes individuals into groups, we cannot give intrinsic value to these species. Russow's solution is to place value solely on individuals, thus avoiding the quagmire of species (as she sees it). What Russow is doing though is replacing an arbitrary method (species

valuation) with an equally arbitrary method, individual aesthetic valuation (what could be more arbitrary?). Russow is basically grouping together all individuals

which have the characteristics that make them aesthetically valuable. Russow is merely replacing the concept of a 'species' with the concept of a 'group of individuals with certain characteristics.' She is not actually making any real change of value. This is a "straw-person" argument. A species is basically a group of individuals that have certain characteristics such that we classify them together. It is true that this classification process can at sometimes be arbitrary, but it is not clear that the arguments Russow was dealing with were actually valuing super entities like species, or just groups of individuals much like she did herself.

On the charge of speciesism toward any movement that values vanishing 'species' differently than plentiful species, what Russow has here is a 'red-herring' -- not a general argument. A species can easily be considered merely a group of individuals that share certain characteristics. A vanishing species is a group of individuals which is dying out. If we treat all vanishing species in a like manner and all nonvanishing species in a like manner, we cannot be considered speciesist. To rephrase what Russow suggests in a more revealing light consider: an individual is sickly and its strength is vanishing, while another individual is healthy and strong. Would it be an arbitrary choice to aid the sickly, individual, while leaving the healthy individual alone? Conceivably not, and the same argument holds true for groups of individuals like species. Even though each individual within a vanishing species is perfectly healthy, all of the individuals taken as a whole could be considered less healthy than a like species that is not vanishing: this then is our justification for treating endangered species differently than a normal healthy species. To deal with the arguments involving granting moral standing to wholes, it is sufficient merely to suggest that, within the Myers, Regan, and Russow trio, no argument against granting moral standing to wholes projects beyond the very limited concept of 'rights.' Certainly it is true that a group of beings cannot be considered to have rights per se; only individuals can have rights as we perceive

them in our atomistic society. But what is debatable is that granting only individual rights is sufficient to deal with the needs of the whole. The trio mentioned above (with the exception of Myers, who barely mentions rights at all) seems to believe that individual rights (or valuations) can take care of all possible needs of the whole. Holistic theorists clearly seem to believe the opposite, however, and this is the nature of the long-standing debate between society and the individual. Which side is correct? Perhaps neither is correct taken in isolation.


Some examples of dualisms as found in the Ecofeminism article by Judith Plant woman-man, nature-culture, self-other, mechanistic-organic, mind-body, sphere, rational-emotional, and domination-submission.


private sphere-public

Dualism is the oppositional ordering of two things such that they are considered to be on opposite ends of an extreme. The importance of recognizing the way we think in dualisms is the fact that dualisms basically form a belief system: the oppositional model they provide is constructed and has no corner on the truth market. The dualism that was the focus of the greater part of this course

material was that between the individual and the whole, as represented by Regan and Leopold respectively.

The hierarchies which are represented within Social Ecology are: human and

nature, man and woman, and perhaps rich and poor. Social Ecology claims that the hierarchies within society are the root of our present ecological conflicts. Hierarchy is the differential ordering of groups or entities in a stratified manner. According to Social Ecology, hierarchies are forms of inequality that are unjust. Within the broader context of our course, anthropocentric as well as extensionist ethical theories organize the creatures of the Earth into a hierarchy of moral standing. Anthropocentric theorists place humans at the top, while Singer's

extensionist theory places sentient beings at the top.

A presumptive duty is best understood in opposition to an absolute duty. In

our society today I have a presumptive duty not to kill any human being. This duty is not absolute because in a time of war or in a case of self-defense individuals lose their right to life. This distinction is important to keep in mind when dealing with rights-based ethical theories.

Deep Ecology, according to Arne Neass (the founder), is an ecological ethical

approach that asks deeper questions than both shallow ecology, and ecology from a purely scientific perspective. Deep Ecology is deeper than shallow ecology, which Arne Neass describes as an anthropocentric ecological perspective. Deep Ecology is also deeper than scientific ecology because it asks ethical questions, like 'what should we do,' and 'how can we change our society to better maintain the

ecosystem' (Simple in Means ... p 183).

Deep ecology promotes respect and

valuation for 'every life form.' It also promotes an understanding and spiritual acceptance of the interconnectedness of the world ecosystem. Deep ecology also promotes a rejection of hierarchies (p185). Shallow ecology is basically the

anthropocentric ethical approach, as outlined above.

The 'good of a being' as dealt with in this course has been described in class

as interests. To explore what is in the interests of a being one must look to the good of that being. Two distinctions of interests have been outlined within our course: a being has a well being to which good health is conducive, and a being wants good health. This exploration of interests is fundamentally important to both the anthropocentric and the extensionist theories (and also in some cases to holistic theories). This exploration of interests helps the theorist to establish moral relevance for various beings and situations.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful