Environmental Ethics: An Overview


Environmental ethics is the study of normative issues and principles relating to human interactions with the natural environment. It comprises an increasingly significant field of applied ethics, crucial for the guidance of individuals, corporations and governments in shaping the principles affecting their lifestyles, their actions and their policies across the entire range of environmental issues. Debates include theories of normative ethics and of meta‐ethics, and the adequacy of individualist, holist and ecofeminist stances. It is characteristically concerned with the good of future generations and of nonhuman species as well as that of contemporary human beings. Its scope includes the interpretation and application of the precautionary principle and of policies of sustainable development, grounds and policies for biodiversity preservation, and the nature and basis of obligations to assist adaptation to global warming, and to mitigate the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions widely recognised to constitute one of its principal sources.

Key Concepts:

  • Environmental ethics is a field of study, adjacent and comparable to business ethics and bioethics, and not itself a normative stance.

  • Stances in environmental ethics characteristically take into account future generations and nonhuman creatures as well as contemporary human interests.

  • Environmental ethics as a branch of philosophy arose in the 1970s through the work of Richard Routley, John Passmore, Arne Naess and Holmes Rolston.

  • Far from being unavoidable, anthropocentrism avoidably disregards the intrinsic value of nonhuman flourishing and the prevalence of moral concern for nonhuman suffering.

  • Despite their differences of emphasis, animal ethics and environmental ethics need not conflict, and need to be informed by each other.

  • Environmental ethicists can adhere to a range of meta‐ethical stances, but objectivism and cognitivism have clear advantages concerning the status of reasons for action.

  • Ecofeminists such as Val Plumwood and Marti Kheel have well argued against excessive rationalism in environmental ethics and for a greater role for the emotions.

  • Rival theories of the causes of ecological problems often undermine each other, but solving these problems may require a restructuring of the global economic system.

  • Policies of sustainable development, as presented in the Brundtland Report of 1987, seek to address these problems through combining development and sustainability.

  • The precautionary principle suggests that a global agreement is urgently needed to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Keywords: anthropocentrism; biodiversity; climate change mitigation; ecofeminism; environmental ethics; future generations; intrinsic value; nonhuman creatures; precautionary principle; sustainable development


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Further Reading

Arnold DG (ed.) (2011) The Ethics of Global Climate Change. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Attfield R (1999) The Ethics of the Global Environment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. and West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Attfield R (2003) Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty‐First Century. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press and Malden. MA: Blackwell.

Attfield R (ed.) (2008) The Ethics of the Environment. Farnham, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Attfield R (2010) Mediated Responsibilities, Global Warming and the Scope of Ethics. In: Ruth I (ed.) Climate Change and Philosophy, pp. 183–196. London, UK: Continuum.

Jamieson D (ed.) (2001) A Companion to Environmental Philosophy. Oxford, UK and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Keller DR (ed.) (2010) Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions. Chichester, UK and Malden, MA: Wiley‐Blackwell.

Light A and Rolston H III (eds) (2003) Environmental Ethics. Oxford, UK and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Nanda VP (ed.) (2011) Climate Change and Environmental Ethics. New Brunswick, NJ and London, UK: Transaction Publishers.

Schmidtz D and Willott E (eds) (2002) Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

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Attfield, Robin(Aug 2012) Environmental Ethics: An Overview. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024201]