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The Epistemology of Environmental Ethics

How do we know that we know?
By Andy Caldwell
Salt Lake Community College
Philosophy 2300 Environmental Ethics


This paper reviews commonly held premises that involve the environment and environmental
ethics. It examines the epistemological philosophical frameworks of various ethical philosophes
used in contemporary land ethics and also environmental justice.


Two Pictures

When we turn on the television or radio the discussion of the environment and
environmental ethics always comes up. we can hear an assortment of politicians, scientists,
activists, and commentators, saying phrases such as, we are killing the planet, we are destroying
the Earth, or this forest, or this species, or this climate, is, disappearing, or changing, or being
destroyed, and always at that of an alarming rate. We are always hearing that we must act now,
time is running out, and that it may already be too late. We are shown explicit graphic images of
polluted waters, waste treatment facilities, crowded overpopulated highways, industrial spills, ice
bergs melting into the sea, or pollutants being poured into the atmosphere. These images can be
very uncomfortable to watch. Does all of this talk, and all of these images, mean that we are
altering the climate? Are we really destroying the Earth and harming ourselves in the process?
From the fore-mentioned perspective it certainly does look that way.
In contrast to the last paragraph, when I walk out of my home I have an abundance of
fresh clean air to breathe. I have no respiratory issues to speak of. I rarely feel sick or ill, if ever.
When I turn on the faucet I have clean water available. Most of the time the temperature and
weather are relatively mild and pleasant. Today for example, at the time of this writing, the
temperature was 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun was out. I have a beautiful vibrant view of
the Wasatch mountain range right from my front porch. It only takes a twenty minute drive and I
can be within the confines of a national forest. I can take a walk in my community and see clean
green parks full of trees, and fresh water streams and canals. I can visit other American cities and
other communities and find almost the exact same picture with albeit, differing various
picturesque sceneries. Ive just painted the exact opposite picture from the last paragraph, and the


images that we see on television every day. So the question Id like to pose is, how do we really
know that the commonly held premise of, we are killing the earth, is true? This is the question I
hope to attempt to deal with and respond to throughout this essay.

The Epistemology of Philosophical Frameworks

In this course, Philosophy 2300 Environmental Ethics, the main philosophies that are
discussed and applied in relation to our environment, and environmental issues, are Kantian
Deontology, Rawlsian Social Justice Theory, and Utilitarianism. Two of these philosophies are
ethical philosophies, of which do not have an epistemological system formulated. The other
being Kantian Deontology is a fully systematized philosophy. Meaning that it has an
epistemological, and ethical, systems unified into one systematized philosophy. Epistemology,
by the way, is the branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of knowledge, or in other
words, how we know that we know.
I would venture to say that it is probably safe to conclude that the two ethical
philosophies discussed, Utilitarianism and Social Justice Theory, are directly or indirectly
derived from some tenants of Judeo-Christianity, but they by themselves do not have a
standalone formulated epistemological framework that an ethical theory must be based upon, and
which is a requirement of a fully systematized philosophy. Any ethical philosophy must, directly
or indirectly, be based upon some type of epistemological framework.
The epistemology of Kantian Deontology, which is fully systematized, is based upon the
concepts of a noumenal universe and a phenomenal universe. The noumenal universe, according
to Immanuel Kant, is what we perceive as physical reality, and according to Kant, does not really


exist. So any information we acquire empirically through our five senses is not really real. The
phenomenal universe is the spiritual world and is real. The only way we can gain any real
knowledge is through apriori reasoning, which is supernatural revelation from the phenomenal
world. You may ask next, well what does any of this have to do with the environment or
environmental ethics? I would respond by saying that the way we gain information about our
word the Earth, is through empirical evidence and evaluation. All scientific data, all
environmental physics, is logically derived from empirical data and weighted out with
rationality, reason, and logic. If we subscribed to Kantian epistemological theory there is no way
we could know that we are killing the Earth from empirical noumenal world evidence. Science
has been undercut. We could only truly know anything through apriori reasoning, which is in no
way scientific. As Immanuel Kant wrote, I found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to
make room for belief. (Kant, 1999) This philosophical system would rule out any scientific way
to know we are really killing the Earth.
In Utilitarianism, how do we know that the greatest good for the greatest number, or
greatest happiness, is really a correct principle? How do we know it is the right principle to be
applied toward environmental ethics? Or applied to anything else? In Utilitarianism, John
Stuart Mill writes, No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that
each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. (Mill, 2012)
With no real epistemological reasoning we have no justification for knowing how we come to
the conclusion that the greatest happiness principle is really correct. To clarify what I mean, if
we used an arithmetical example, 1+1=2, we could then set 2 to be representative of the greatest
happiness principle. We have our answer, but how did we achieve it? We would have no addends
in the equation, which would be representative of metaphysics and epistemology, or in other


words, X+Y=2. If the addends/variables where really 16 & 5, well, then, the equation wouldnt
quite balance, thus leading us to conclude the greatest happiness principle was really incorrect.
The problem is though, we dont really know the reasoning or justification. Utilitarianism is just
operating on an assumed premises. So the addends would be unknown variables. The
epistemology therefore is an unknown variable. So Utilitarianism applied to any environmental
issue would be unprovable.
The same logic could also be applied to the ethical and political philosophy of John
Rawls Social Justice Theory. To me personally, and at face value, Social Justice Theory sounds
noble, it sounds totally reasonable those setting the laws should set them as if they didnt know
what their own place in society would be, or operating from behind a veil of ignorance. Again, it
sounds totally reasonable, but the main problem I can foresee with this, is an abuse of
interpretations. Does this mean that it is ok to redistribute wealth? Does this mean that it is ok to
punish merit and reward need? Does this really mean distributive social justice, or democratic
participatory justice? There is some ambiguity as to what social justice really means. I could
envision major injustices occurring with the varied interpretations of this ethical philosophy. My
issue with this philosophy is, that not only is it not clearly defined, there is no epistemological
reasoning behind the ethical framework. The main issue here, is not that it may not work, it may
very well work in the right context, its just that we have no clue how it works.
All of this leaves me asking the question, if there isnt valid epistemological justification
available for the contemporary ethical and political philosophies, then how do we know they are
even the right frameworks to apply to environmental issues? And of the philosophies that deny
the physical world outright, how can we then rationally apply them to the physical world and


physical science? This seems to me like a contradiction. This would then still leave us asking the
question, how do we know that we know we are even killing the Earth?

Two Perspectives

Within the reading and the discussion sections of this course we discussed how
University of Utah economics student Tim DeChristopher came to the national attention of the
media and environmental activists groups all throughout America, when an act disruption and
civil disobedience was played out at a U.S. Bureau of Land Management land auction in 2008.
The land auction was originally set-up to auction off land in southern Utah to private citizens and
corporations. In the land auction, DeChristopher bid on, and won, almost every parcel of land up
for auction, of course he didnt have the money to actually purchase the parcels. He is a member
of various environmentalist groups and was deliberately there to sabotage the auction. Which is
called monkeywrenching by the activist groups. DeChristopher ended up spending about two
years in prison for his part in disrupting the land auction.
DeChristopher would identify himself as a Unitarian Universalist, a faith known for its
social and environmental activism. I have seen many various videos of DeChristopher, mainly on
his website,, and I can summarize his beliefs and views in relation to the
environment. They would generally be, that we are destroying the Earth, that time is running out,
that we may not have an Earth left in a number of years if not months, and that we must act
I must next ask the question, where does DeChristopher get his information from? I
would assume the usual sources such as Bill Mckibben, the IPCC, and James Hansen, but that


would just be a guess. I have also heard of all these terrible environmental events that are
happening, or supposed to happen soon, and also why they are happening of course, man. It
just hasnt been established how exactly they are happening, or how anyone knows with
absolute certainty that they are happening. This leaves me asking the question of, how do they
know that they know? What are their philosophical frameworks and scientific beliefs? How does
DeChristopher know that the land he illegally bid on wouldnt be better off being privately
owned? All one must do is type in government mismanagement of public land into the search
engine of ones choice, and a whole host of different disparaging topics appears. It really seems
the concerns are a bit one-sided, and it really begs the question, how do they really know?
On the opposite end of the issue, I have just recently finished reading Duke University
Philosophy graduate student, and the founder of the energy think tank, The Industrial Center for
Progress, Alex Epsteins recently published book, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Epstein
paints a totally different picture from that of DeChritopher, Mckibben, Hansen, and the IPCC.
First off, I know that Epstein would identify himself in some regard as an Aristotelian empiricist,
and also as an Objectivist In which case, both are fully systematized philosophies that are
scientific, meaning, they have a fully integrated system of metaphysics and epistemology and
accept a physical reality. Epstein argues that as we have used more of our natural resources,
human quality of life has only improved, the health of our planet is actually better off, and
similar to Daltons Atomic Theory, where all matter neither comes into, nor goes out of
existence, all energy sources are sustainable. In Epsteins book, The Moral Case for Fossil
Fuels, he demonstrates through a series of graphs and charts that, deaths from natural disasters
and climate related deaths are at an all-time low. Not only that, but that life expectancy with
increased fossil fuel use is at an all-time high.


The one fact that that really surprised me is that air quality globally has actually increased
with increased fossil fuel use over time. As demonstrated in this graph which Epstein cites in his

U.S. EPA National Emissions Inventory Air Pollutants Emissions Trends Data

These improvements are most due to innovations in technology, and technology and innovation
are primarily made possible by burning fossil fuels. In the next graph, also displayed from
Epsteins book, we can illustrate the significantly lowered trend of global climate related deaths:



Boden, Marland, Andres (2013); Etheridge et al. (1998); Keeling et al. (2001); MacFarling Meure et al. (2006);
Merged Ice Core Record Data, Scripps Institution of Oceanography; EM-DAT International Disaster Database

Clearly Climate related deaths are measurably down. This information would definitely run
contrary to the picture the news media, DeChristopher and other climate alarmists are painting.
The question that Im forced to ask now is, are our fears even really rational?
Alex Epstein has participated in a number of various debates around the nation at varying
University campuses. He also brings up an epistemological aspect on the issue of how we know
that we know, within the pollution debate, as Epstein writes:

The evidence is brought to us via studies, cited by news media eager to run
dramatic, if it bleeds it leads headlines. The main thing to watch out for here is



a statement like X causes Y e.g., coal causes asthma. Thats usually an

oversimplification at best; often its completely bogus. Its hard to prove cause
and effect. Heres a good question to ask when you encounter these kinds of
claims: Could you explain how you prove that how you know that coal in
particular caused asthma instead of everything else that might have caused it?
Usually the answer is no. (Epstein, 2014)

Looking at, and listening to, both sides of the environmental debate, Ive seen climate
alarmists utterly just disregard any opposing contradicting evidence as biased. Its all funded by
oil money, and, you just cant trust any of that data, they say. Or youll frequently hear, well
what if youre wrong, wouldnt it be good to restrict pollution anyway, even if its not doing
what we are told its doing? I would first respond to the oil money point by asking, isnt the
majority of all the research alarmists support funded by the Federal Government? Which is
political at its core, how is that not biased? Secondly, in unnecessarily preparing ourselves for an
environmental crisis, where in which all real evidence says, it is not happening, we would have
to alter our standard of living while simultaneously drastically reducing life giving and life
saving energy as a preventative action. That would be analogous to wearing a heavy winter coat,
snow boots, hat, ski pants, and a scarf, to a sunny hot Pacific beach on a summer day in July
because theres a minimum to non-existent potentiality of the threat that there may be a massive
blizzard, but hey, we should prepare anyway. I and most, would just consider that nonsensical.




A phobia is defined as an irrational and intense fear. Metatheisiophobia is an intense and

irrational fear of change. Yes, the climate is changing. It has been changing since the dawn of
time here on Earth. Yes, humans can influence the climate. I will say though, based on real
evidence, the magnitude at which we are responsible is greatly less than that of what we are
being told by our popular intellectual leaders today. Yes, humans do have the capacity and
capabilities to destroy the Earth. Ill concede all of these points right now, but looking at the
whole picture, arent our fears to be considered irrational based on the current wealth of data
available today? If we look at the complete picture?
I see our youth today enduring a diminished standard of living as a direct result of the
green movement. I see them throwing years of their lives away in prison, or for time wasted on
activism based on small pieces of a very, very, large and complex puzzle. What are all these
felonies and misdemeanors being accumulated in the name of environmental justice doing to
their futures? Job prospects? Children? Families?
They refuse to listen to any outside sources. This is the definition of irrationality. We
should be looking at all sides. This is the epitome of Metatheisiophobia. As humans we must
alter our natural surroundings for life. It is a necessary condition of survival. If we release a
pollutants into the air that naturally adds 40 years to our lives, isnt that better than living until
25-30 and dying, as it was in the past? Especially if our Earth is healthier and more hospitable to
human life now, than it has ever been in history. Its like the great philosopher Ayn Rand has
said in her essay on ecology, Return of the Primitive:



Anyone over 30 years of age today, give a silent Thank you to the nearest,
grimiest, sootiest smokestacks you can find. No, factories do not have to be grimy
- but this is not an issue when the survival of technology is at stake. (Rand, 1999)

Weve got to stop being afraid of change and the alteration of nature. Change has brought
humanity all of the greatest life-saving and technological breakthroughs. We need to abandon
this paradigm that what is beneficial for man is harmful to the Earth, and likewise, what is
beneficial to the Earth is harmful to man. What is rationally good for the Earth is what is
rationally good for man. I can say that with scientific epistemological certainty. And in the end,
we can make either make changes for the worse, or we can make changes for the better. I would
advocate we demand the best arguments and evidence from our intellectual leaders before we
come to a conclusion on any issue, and that we also always, always, choose to change for the


Materials Cited:
Epstein, A. (2014). The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. New York: Penguin.
Kant, I. (1996). Critique of Pure Reason. U.S.A.: Hackett.
Mill, J. (2012). Utilitarianism. U.S.A.: Renaissance Classics
Rand, A. (1999). Return of the Primitive. New York: Meridian.