Philosophy 194 - 10.2.3 Philosophical Contributions to Environmental Ethics

Instrumental Value of Nature

Traditional Western philosophies have been anthropocentric (human-centered), as discussed in the chapter on value theory. Humans are regarded as the sole possessors of intrinsic value, meaning that each human life is understood to possess value in itself and for its own sake. The natural world, on the other hand, has been viewed as having instrumental value, understood as having value solely as a means to satisfy human needs and desires. From ancient Greece to the Enlightenment, philosophers and scientists have studied the natural world with the goal of understanding how better to use it to achieve the goals of human societies.

Anthropocentric Obligations

Empiricism is often traced back to the work of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), whose experimental techniques led to the development of the scientific method and who advocated an inductive approach to scientific inquiry in his essay Novum Organum. According to Bacon, when nature becomes the object of study, it can be completely manipulated and used in accordance with God’s original plan for humanity on Earth. Bacon held the prevailing Christian view that God gave human beings dominion over the nonhuman world. Unlike an autonomous subject, an object can be treated without regard, manipulated for study, and exploited as a resource—all of which occurred as capitalism evolved in Western countries (Bacon 1878). Contemporary Western societies have viewed science and technology as an important vehicle for empowering humanity to manipulate and control nature, to force nature to bend to our will.

Early advocates of the environmental movement in the West associated this anthropocentric (human-centered) perspective with the environment crisis. In a well-known essay, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” (1967), Lynn White argues that the way we think about the environment has its roots in Judeo-Christian thinking that maintains the superiority of humans over the nonhuman world and teaches that the natural world was created for human use. If nature only has instrumental value, then we do not violate morality when we manipulate, destroy, or otherwise harm nature.

Some philosophers, however, point out that this same anthropocentric approach has the potential to foster an ethics of environmental care. According to this perspective, moral obligations concerning our treatment of the natural world can be justified by appealing to human interests and the desire for self-preservation. For example, we might argue that all humans have an interest in having access to clean air and drinkable water and in ensuring the longevity of Earth for future generations to enjoy. These basic interests that all humans share can be used as a basis for establishing moral obligations to reduce pollution, create more sustainable practices, and take actions to diminish harm caused to the environment by human activity.

In People or Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution (1974), for example, William Baxter offers an unapologetically anthropocentric environmental ethic. Baxter adopts a traditional view that assigns intrinsic value only to persons. He proposes that the fact that some harm has come to certain aspects of the nonhuman world is, in itself, not enough to justify moral responsibility. “Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is, without more, simply irrelevant” (Baxter 1974, 5). That acknowledged, Baxter goes on to state that a moral obligation to the nonhuman world does exist, because human interests are intrinsically tied to the natural world. When it comes to pollution, for example, Baxter argues that we have a moral obligation to balance the benefits we get from causing pollution with the harm caused by pollution to establish a level of pollution that is optimal.

One proposed solution to the environmental crisis, in line with an anthropocentric approach, is to levy taxes on people and corporations when their activities are deemed detrimental to society and/or to planetary health. Currently, in the United States, many states levy extra taxes on the purchase of cigarettes and alcohol, above and beyond the established sales tax. These extra taxes are justified by pointing out that these products are detrimental to human health and that their consumption puts an unnecessary burden on the state’s health care systems. Some economists recommend using a similar approach to control environmental impact. In this scenario, a tax cost or liability would be imposed on companies or individuals who cause harm to the environment. A carbon emissions tax is an example of a such a tax. Of course, rewarding positive behavior could also work, for example, by giving tax breaks or other types of rewards to organizations that are working toward environmental sustainability. These policies align with the anthropocentric approach in that they hold organizations accountable for the harm they are doing to human society and human interests.

Deep Ecology and the Intrinsic Value of Nature

In stark contrast to the anthropocentricism that has long dominated Western thinking about the environment, deep ecology, a term first coined by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (1912–2009), assumes that all living things are valuable in their own right (Naess 1973). If all life has intrinsic value, then all life is deserving of respect. Deep ecology thus advocates a practice of restraint when it comes to the environment and to nonhuman life.

Deep ecology argues that we need to fundamentally change how we think about ourselves and our relationship to nature. This approach proposes that it is wrong to view ourselves as individual, separate entities. Instead, all of nature, including human beings, should be understood in terms of their relationships with everything else. This interrelatedness implies a responsibility to act in ways that respect the intrinsic value of all living things and promote life in the broadest sense. For deep ecologists, a first step in this approach is to become sensitive to and aware of the deep relationships that exist between everything in nature. Aware that we are more than this body and this mind, that we are members of a larger whole, we recognize that we have an obligation to promote and care for the natural world. Naess thought of deep ecology as a movement promoting a radical new worldview that contrasted sharply with the traditional view that valued nature only as a means to human ends.

Critics of deep ecology sometimes note that it is a position of privilege taken by people in developed nations and that less industrialized countries may not be in a position to respect the environment in the same way when their own survival is at risk. Environmental initiatives may be challenging for smaller, less industrialized countries to pursue. In these nations, the call to environmentalism may ring hollow to those who face a daily struggle for food or clean water.

Social Ecology

Social ecologists see environmental problems as stemming from the same faulty political and economic system that promotes inequity and is responsible for racism, sexism, and classism. In this view, capitalism has created a system of domination over both humanity and nature and has turned nature into just one more commodity. Murray Bookchin (1921–2006), an American political philosopher and a founder of social ecology, was highly influential in this line of thought. Bookchin believed that most, if not all, of the problems that make up our current environmental crisis are the result of long-standing social problems. He argued that the only way to address our ecological problems is to address our social problems. Bookchin proposed that we change society by rejecting large political structures and big business and empowering smaller, locally based groups that are more tied to their environments and thus more environmentally aware.

Landscape with three large wind turbines.
Figure 10.8 Wind is a renewable energy source, in that there is theoretically an infinite supply of it. Wind farms have been popping up in the landscape in many parts of the world. (credit: “Wind Turbines” by Zechariah Judy/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Concerns have also been raised about the unequal impact environmental problems have on different segments of society. Robert Bullard’s 1990 book Dumping in Dixie argues that environmentalism is intertwined with issues of racial and socioeconomic equity. It is thus not just an issue of individual health but rather a concern about the health of communities. Historically marginalized communities in particular are statistically more likely to be exposed to environmental dangers. One egregious and well-publicized example of these types of dangers is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In 2014, it was realized that drinking water in Flint was contaminated with high levels of lead. This contamination was the result of a decision made by emergency managers appointed by the state government to switch Flint’s water supply from the Detroit water system to the Flint River, in order to save money. The Flint River water not only contained bacteria and carcinogens but also leached lead from the pipes that brought water to people’s homes. As a result, many suffered from rashes, hair loss, and elevated blood levels of lead (Denchak 2018). Another example can be seen in the South Bronx, in New York City. This area is sometimes referred to as an “island of pollution,” as it lies at the confluence of three major highways. The pollution from the traffic has resulted in an increase in asthma diagnoses and asthma-related hospitalizations in those living in this neighborhood, the majority of them Black Americans, Latinos, and new immigrants (Butini 2018).

Similar differences in environmental dangers can be observed on a global scale. A 2016 United Nations report reported that people in developing countries are more likely to live on land that has been exposed to contamination and chemical pollutants than those in wealthier nations (United Nations 2016).


Environmental Racism

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax