Environmental Ethics

April 14, 2018 Philosophy

The study of ethics is a very old process. It is a topic scholars have been studying and theorizing on for centuries. This is not the case when we talk about environmental ethics. The study of environmental ethics has only really been studied for the past forty years or so. Ethics is defined as the study of right and wrong conduct. (Ruggiero, (2008), pg. 5) This translates to the environment by how we as humans do right or wrong to the environment. For many years people have gone about their every day business not giving much thought to the consequences of their actions.

It was taken for granted that the environment and its resources would always be there. We now know that is not the case. The Study of Ecology has shown us this fact. Through this paper I will discuss the past, present, and future of environmental ethics as well as give my position on the topic. To begin I will start with the history of environmental ethics. In the early 1970’s the idea of studying our impact on the environment had really just begun. In the beginning half of the 20th century people focused on progress.

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They focused on building and making and ultimately taking from the environment. “Modern production paid little or no attention to the fundamental mechanisms of the Earth. In the latter half of the twentieth century people began to realize that development was no longer sustainable without consideration for these functions of the Earth. ” (“Environmental Ethics”, 2009) There were many papers written and events held in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that contributed to the rise in environmental ethics as a popular topic.

The publication of two papers in Science: Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (March 1967) and Garett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (December 1968). Most influential with regard to this kind of thinking, however, was an essay in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, “The Land Ethic,” in which Leopold explicitly claimed that the roots of the ecological crisis were philosophical. (Although originally published in 1949, Sand County Almanac became widely available in 1970 in a special Sierra Club/Ballantine edition, which included essays from a second book, Round River (CEP, 2002).

In 1975 environmental ethics came to the attention of mainstream philosophy with the publication of Holmes Rolston, III’s paper, “Is There an Ecological Ethic? ” in Ethics. In 1973, Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and the founding editor of the journal Inquiry authored and published a paper in Inquiry “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement”, which was the beginning of the deep ecology movement. In the 1990’s the establishment of International Society for Environmental Ethics, brought this study to the forefront of society.

The society now has members throughout the world (CEP, 2002). Events such as the first Earth Day in 1970, when environmentalists started urging philosophers to consider the philosophical aspects of environmental problems also contributed significantly to the rise in intrest in environmental ethics. (“Environmental Ethics”, 2009) Once it became apparent that environmental ethics was going to need extensive study and evaluation several different scholars attempted to adapt previous ethical theroies and apply them to environmental issues.

The New World Encyclopedia describes one aspect of environmental ethics as “Exploitation and abuse of the natural world is just as problematic as exploitation and abuse of other human beings; that human happiness cannot be realized without proper care of the natural environment. ” (“Environmental Ethics”, 2009) Today environmental ethics are something most of us have heard of in one way or another. We all know the importance of reducing the amount of pollution in the air, of keeping the rain forests intact, and of preserving animal species.

We know all of these things because ecologists have shown us the relationship between how humans effect the environment and how the environment in turn affects humans. These are all examples of the “shallow ecology movement” (Brennan, 2002) The shallow ecology movement is as it sounds something that we do because we can see the clear and direct benefits to ourselves. There is also something called the “deep ecology movement” and the focus of this movement is to regard all aspects nature with as much respect as another human being. Brennan, 2002) This includes holding the opinion that all aspects of nature have significance and importance outside of being usefull to humans. Both aspects of environmental ethis are important for their own reasons. Obviously we need to continue to do damage control for the aspects of the enviornment we have destroyed and continue to destroy. It is also important to regard nature with more respect than we have in past genereations. That respect for nature will prevent us from harming our enviornment more than we already do.

With all the strides the topic of ethics has taken over the years it has been studied I can only guess at the leaps and bounds the environmental ethics will take as we continue to study and evaluate it. There are already so many organizations put together to help make us aware of our environmental impacts. This awareness will only continue to grow. The downside to this level of awareness is that it can make people feel overwhelmed and like the problems are too big for any one person to make a difference. There will also always be individuals who say the enviornment is not their problem and will choose to continue to cause harm to it.

As we can see today, we are already feeling the repercussions of our past mistakes in ignoring the environment’s needs. It is our problem and it is our responsibility to do something about it. There are many ways to think about and study environmental ethics and opinions very widly on which method is correct or which aspects are more important than others. As with all ethical studies no single theory or method will every be perfect or complete. As the earth and humans grow and change so will the need for the study of environmental ethics.


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