Environmental Philosophy

By XU Wanting

Tables of contents

1. Introduction

2. History of Environmental Philosophy

3. Core Disputes

4. Anthropocentric Reformism

5. Environmental Ethics

6. Radical Ecology

7. Conclusion

1.    Introduction

Suppose that Walt Disney was going to build a ski resort in a wildness area adjacent to a national park, which could produce revenues of millions of dollars and provide hundreds of jobs. Isit acceptable for the government to approve this project at the risk of harming the natural environment? When scientists do animal tests to research new medicine, is it justifiable for animal protectors to rescue them from laboratories? If humans have to choose between killing animals or burning plants for their own survival, should they choose to destroy plants, as animals are viewed as superior to plants? What is the rationale underlying environmental protection activities, for the well-being of this generation, the sustenance of our descendants, and other reasons?

Exploration of answers to thesequestions falls into the sphere of environmental philosophy. Environmental philosophy is the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship between human beings and nature, as well as the value and moral status of the environment and its non-human contents (Brennan andLo, 2010). The history of environmental philosophy is characterized by controversies concerning issues such as global warming, biodiversity, and sustainability. These controversial cases stemming from concrete situations for how we relate to the Earth (Klaver, 2007).

Environmental ethics focuses on the moral status of and relationship between humans and nature. Ethics is a branch of philosophy, so environmental philosophy is a broader concept that covers environmental ethics. Desjardins (2006, p. 20) argues that ‘philosophy insists that we do not remain at the level of normative ethics’ and resolving controversies requires us to ‘examine the values in conflict and the competing factors that underlie the value.’ Brennan (1995)contends that in the third decade of environmental ethics, it is necessary to adopt a broader perspective to research it. Due to some philosophers adopting ‘environmental ethics’ in their early works, ‘environmental ethics’ will also often appear in this entry.

Because environmental philosophy is a big concept, the entry aims to give a basic but inclusive introduction to different influential environmental philosophy theories. Zimmerman (1998)divides environmental philosophy into three categories: anthropocentric reformism, environmental ethics, and radical ecology. This entry will introduce environmental philosophy with reference to this structure. These theories are helpful to improve environmental education as they give different explanations on how human beings should handle their relationship with nature.

2.    History of Environmental Philosophy

Environmental philosophy has a long history in western culture. It can be traced back to the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi, to literature works of romanticism poets and transcendentalists, such as Wordsworth and Thoreau, and to conservation movements led by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot (Gallagher, 1997). Although many factors contribute to the emergence of environmental philosophy, the 1960s is the critical period for the field to develop as it saw ‘the rapid growth of information concerning a diverse array of environmental ethics, including overpopulation and its relation to poverty and famine, the depletion of non-renewable resources, and the harmful effects to human and non-human by chemical pollutants’ (De Laplante, 2006, p. 52). Other events such as the Great Smog of 1952 in London and the Japan minamata disease in 1956 also evoked public environmental-protection consciousness. All these environmental problems prompted human beings to reflect on the relationship between human beings and nature.

In the 1960s, groundbreaking academic works were published, influential environmental movements were organized, and some policy reforms started taking place. Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring was published in 1962, and Lynn White’s article The Historical Root of Our Ecological Crisiswas published in 1967. Numerous NGOs, like Sierra Club, which sued Disney for intending to build an entertainment resort in wilderness, were established and supported by citizens. Governments were forced to develop legislation to respond to environmental issues, such as, for example, the UK passing Clean Air Act in 1956 as a reaction to the Great Smog (Gallagher, 1997).

3.    Core Disputes

De Laplante (2006) summarizes two major sets of questions that divide the academic community on the subject of environmental philosophy:

(1)  Do human beings have moral obligations to protect or preserve the natural environment? If so, what are they, and to whom, or what, are they owned? How are such obligations justified?

(2)  What are the root causes of contemporary attitudes and practices with respect to the natural environment, and how can we change them? (p. 48)

Answers to the first set of questions effectively define the field of ‘environmental ethics.’ It is within the context of these questions that students are introduced to the important distinction between anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric approaches to ground the moral obligations towards the environment. Answers to the second set of questions effectively define the field known as ‘radical ecology’ introduced in Section 6.

At the heart of the first set of questions lies the debate about whether nature has ‘instrumental value’ or ‘intrinsic value.’ ‘Instrumental value’ means that the existence of the environment is only for human beings’ interests. On the contrary, ‘intrinsic value’ refers to how the environment ought to be regarded as worthy of respect rather than merely useful. Those who support the intrinsic-value argument hold that humans do not have the right to define the value inherently existing in natural objects. The environment has value beyond satisfying human aims (Palmer, McShane, and Sandler, 2014). This debate is important, because things of intrinsic value deserve moral concern. For instance, although people in persistent vegetative states cannot speak or move, as long as we recognize they have intrinsic value, they still should be treated with moral concern. ‘The intrinsic value associated with life forms the foundation of an environmental ethic, enabling us to recognize nature’s moral importance’ (Agar, 2001, p. 2). Whether the environment has intrinsic value or not determinesthe way human beings act.

4. Anthropocentric Reformism

Anthropocentrism believes that humans are the most significant entity in the Universe.Thus, nature only has instrumental value to us, and all natural resources should be managed to benefit humans even if this aim may be achieved at the expense of the interests of other species (Mazzotta andKline, 1995).

The philosophic root of anthropocentrism can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy. Aristotle distinguishes three fundamental activities of life based on three standards: nutrition, sensation, and thinking. Aristotle agrees that plants have souls but holds that they do not have sensations and desires (as cited in Sorabji, 1974). Aristotle is criticized by some for his human-centered perspective. Peter Singer points out that Aristotle regards nature as a hierarchy in which those with less reasoning ability only exist for the sake of those with more reasoning (Ducharme, 2014). The Renaissance inthe 14th-16thcenturies also celebrated the value of human beings and pushed human-centered notion to another level. Kant (2011), for example, maintained that only rational beings alone have moral worth.

As early anthropocentrism faced challenges arising from environmental crisis, modern anthropocentrists reformed their theories. American environmental philosophers Borton and botanist Murdy are two representatives of modern anthropocentrism. Norton categorizes anthropocentrism into strong anthropocentrism and weak anthropocentrism, based on ‘felt preference’ and ‘considered preference.’ ‘Felt preference’ refers to need-oriented or desire-oriented choices made by human without any consideration of possible consequences, while ‘considered preference’ is made through rational thinking. Norton supports weak anthropocentrism and holds that once this value is adopted, any nature-destructive behavior will be considered immoral. Murdy builds his arguments from the perspective of biological evolution. Referring to Darwinism, he maintains that anthropocentrism is justifiable because human beings have a special place in nature (Wang, 2014).

5.    Environmental Ethics

Environmental Ethics is ultimately about extending moral consideration. When certain objects have intrinsic value, they should be treated with respect for their own sake and their rights should not be overridden without reason. Animal rights advocates strive to extend moral status to animals, bio-centrists to some or the whole biological system, and eco-centrists to the whole ecosystem.

Peter Singer and Tom Reganare two representatives of animal right advocates. Singer’s work, Animal Liberation, has great influence on leaders of modern animal liberation movements. Singer follows utilitarianism from Bentham to analyze this issue. According to utilitarianism, human should maximize happiness and minimize pain. He argues that animals’ ability to suffer is one of the reasons why we should care about them. Singer does not seek granting equal human rights to animals, but he holds that they deserve equal moral consideration (Singer, 2002). Tom Regan criticizes utilitarianism, because maximum happiness may only benefit someone at the expense of pain of others. Everyone is the experiencing subject of life and thus has intrinsic value (Regan, 1987).

Biocentrism is founded on Darwin’s theories, and ecocentrism originates from Aldo Leopold’s land ethics (Mazzotta and Kline, 1995). Biocentrism presumes that we should include all individual living entities in our moral considerations. Biocentrists hold that all living things have an instinct to survive and keep wholeness of life (Sarkar, 2012). Taylor, a representative scholar of biocentrism, insists on ‘life-principle.’ All living objects have the desire to survive, so those with life deserves moral concern. Taylor (1981) holds that humans do not have responsibilities towards rivers as those we have toward fish and plants. Eco-centrism goes further to defend the interests of non-biological objects such as rocks, mountains and rivers in the sphere (Sarkar, 2012). Eco-centrists emphasize the interconnection among different natural elements. They maintain that the value of different eco-elements is granted by nature, not humans. A major representative of eco-centrism is Aldo Leopold. In his book ASand CountyAlmanac, Leopold (2001) holds that land is not the property of human. Rather, it is a community including soils, waters, plants, and animals. Another influential philosopher is Holmes Rolston (1988) who develops Land Ethics into a system. He believes all animate lives interact, so any species that exists in the evolving history is an important part of a generic lineage.   

6. Radical Ecology

Zimmerman’s third category includes deep ecology, social ecology, and ecofeminism.  These theories are “radical” because they maintain they have found the origin of environmental problems, and they try to promote social changes and paradigm shifts accordingly(Mazzotta andKline, 1995).

In 1972, Naess coined the terms ‘deep ecology’ and ‘shallow ecology’ to juxtapose what he regarded as two opposing approaches for problematizing and responding to the ecological crisis. The objective of the shallow ecology movement is only to fight against pollution and resource depletion. But deep ecology supports biospherical egalitarianism and defends local autonomy and decentralization (Naess, 1973). Deep ecology seeks to recognise the underlying and co-evolving causes of ecocultural unsustainability, while shallow ecology demand more modest reforms. Shallow education treats the symptoms of ecocultural unsustainability, but leaves the underlying causal structure unchanged (Glasser, 2011). Naess’s work characterizes deep ecology as an international, grassroots social and political movement. He believes that human should go beyond their ‘ego’ and ‘self’ in society to form an ‘ecological self.’ The ultimate aim of environmental protection is for humans’ self-actualization.

Social ecologists explore hierarchy and domination in culture, and ecofeminists criticize the patriarchy in these hierarchies (Kheel, 1991).Spretnak (1990) maintains that culture is both the problem and the solution, both the curse and the hope. Bookchin (2007), the founder of social ecology, holds that ecological problems stem from social problems. The fundamental reason is the anti-ecological tendency in social economy, politics and culture. Tackling all these problems must depend on social movements. The capitalist system is immoral for it develops at all costs. Warren (1990), an influential ecofeminist, points out that there are historical, symbolic and theoretical connections between the domination of women and the domination of nature. Women and nature give birth to and take care of lives, but both of them suffer from oppression. Ecofeminists believe there is a conceptual framework behind that. Ecofeminism holds that the dynamics behind the dominance of male over female are the key to comprehending every expression of patriarchal culture with its hierarchical, militaristic, mechanistic, and industrialist forms. ‘A feminist ethics must be anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-classist, anti-naturist and opposed to any "ism" which presupposes or advances a logic of domination’ (p. 139). They advocate that women should play an important role in environmental movements because in this way they are fighting against the very root leading to oppression of nature and women.

7.    Conclusion

In summary, environmental philosophy, which is a broad concept that covers ‘environmental ethics’, studies the moral status of and the relationship among humans, nature and the environment. Environmental philosophy stepped into the spotlight in 1960s as many natural crises prompted people to reflect on it at that time. According to the subjects that deserve moral concern and the reasons why people should care about these subjects, Zimmerman (1998) categories related theories into three kinds: anthropocentric reformism, environmental ethics, and radical ecology. 

Anthropocentric reformism ultimately believes that the benefit of human beings is the only criterion for taking action. Environmental ethics extends moral concern to animals, organismor even the whole ecological system.Radicalecologyholds that only by eradicating oppression rooted in the culture can we achieve bio-spherical egalitarianism. These theories are the bases for different attitudestowards nature. For better addressing the environmental issue, it is important to understand rationales behind people’s behaviors.

8.    References 

Agar, N. (2001). Life's Intrinsic Value: Science, Ethics, and Nature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bookchin, M. (2007). Social Ecology and Communalism. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Brennan, A. (ed.). (1995). The Ethics of theEnvironment.Hants: Dartmouth.

Brennan, A., & Lo, Y. (2010). Understanding Environmental Philosophy. Durham: Acumen.

De Laplante, K. (2006). Can You Teach Environmental Philosophy Without Being an 

Environmentalist. InPalmer, C. (Ed.), Teaching Environmental Ethics (pp. 48-62). Boston: Brill.

DesJardins, J. (2006). Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy (4th ed.). Belmont, CL.: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Ducharme, A. (2014). Aristotle and the Dominion of Nature. Environmental Ethics36(2), 203-214.

Gallagher, C. L. (1997). The Movement to Create an Environmental Bill of Rights: From Earth Day, 1970 to the Present. Fordham Environmental Law Journal9(1), 107-154. 

Glasser, H. (2011). Naess's Deep Ecology: Implications for the Human Prospect and Challenges for the Future. Inquiry, 54(1), 52-77

Kant, I. (2011). Rational Beings Alone Have Moral Worth. Food Ethics, 10-12.

Kheel, M. (1991).Ecofeminism and Deep Ecology: Reflections on Identity and Difference. Trumpeter8(2).

Klaver, I. J. (2007). The Future of Environmental Philosophy. Ethics & the Environment12(2), 128-130.

Leopold, A. (2001). A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation. New York (NY): Oxford University Press.

Mazzotta, M., & Kline, J. (1995).Environmental Philosophy and the Concept of Nonuse Value. Land Economics, 71(2), 244-249. 

Naess, A. (1973). The Shallow and the Deep, Long-range Ecology Movement. A Summary, Inquiry16, pp. 95–100. 

Palmer, C. (2006). Teaching Environmental Ethics. Boston: Brill.

Palmer, C., McShane, K., and Sandler, R. (2014). Environmental Ethics. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 39, 419-442.

Regan, T. (1987). The Case for Animal Rights. Advances in Animal Welfare Science 1986/87. 179-189. 

Rolston, H. (1988). Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World (Ethics and action). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.                                 

Sarkar, S. (2012). Environmental Philosophy: From Theory to Practice. John Wiley & Sons.

Singer, P. (2002). Animal Liberation (1st Ecco pbk. ed.). New York (NY): Ecco.                        

Sorabji, R. (1974). Body and Soul in Aristotle. Philosophy49(187), 63-89. 

Spretnak, C. (1990). Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering. Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, 3-14.

Taylor, P. W. (1981). The Ethics of Respect for Nature. Environmental Ethics3(3), 197-218.

Wang Z. (2014). Environmental Philosophy - Environmental Ethics Interdisciplinary research (2nd ed.). (In Chinese). Shanghai: Shanghai Educational Press. 

Warren, K. (1990). The power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism. Environmental Ethics, 12(2), 125.

Zimmerman, M., & Callicott, J. (1998). Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 

About the Author

XU Wanting

MEd, The University of Hong Kong

Email: vigorous_octopus@163.com