15.3 Varieties of Environmental Ethics

Given this very brief account of the ways in which we are currently facing real environmental limits to the further expansion of human activities it is time to take stock of how all of this affects ethics. There are three basic varieties of environmental ethics that I would like to present here, which I will call “light green,” “medium green,” and “dark green” ethics. The “darkness” of the shade of green that colors our ethics will depend on the degree to which we reject anthropocentrism. Light green ethics is thoroughly anthropocentric in that it considers environmental problems and the question of the limits of human activities as essentially threats to our well being. Medium green ethics expands the scope of ethics by including other organisms as having intrinsic value especially as those organisms exhibit similarities to us humans. And finally dark green ethics expands the notion of intrinsic value to include not just individual organisms but associations of interdependent organisms that make up natural communities and ecosystems. In the next few sections I will present and comment on these approaches.

Light Green Ethics

This variety of environmental ethics is easiest to understand and presents the least challenge to our standard way of looking at the value of the natural world. It basically argues that there are pressing human interests at stake in environmental problems. Our welfare depends on the stability of the climate, on the existence of biodiversity and the availability of energy resources. If we are indeed facing immanent climate change, the beginnings of a mass extinction of other species and a peaking of oil supplies, and if these will have the wide-ranging impacts I have suggested, then there are pretty good human reasons for figuring out how to contain human activity within appropriate limits. Light green ethics thus asks us to consider the impacts of our activities on the world around us for the simple reason that our lives depend on the proper functioning of environmental systems. Now that we are capable of altering the global climate, crowding out other species and depleting resources on which our current way of life depends it is up to us to proceed wisely.

To see how this approach to environmental ethics plays out in more detail consider the problem of the loss of biodiversity. What are some anthropocentric reasons why we should care about the loss of a large percentage of other species, many of which most people have never even heard of? Well, first of all, many of these species are potentially useful to us as sources of food and medicine. All of our food plants and animals are descendents of some wild species or other that was been selectively bred for our purposes starting at the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Many wild plants and animals provide new breeding stock for agriculture. Likewise with medicines. Many medicines are made from derivatives of wild plants, and newly discovered plants provide researchers with many potential new medicines. So protecting biodiversity is protecting possible future sources of food and medicines. Secondly, protecting biodiversity involves protecting the integrity of ecosystems, many of which provide essential services to us. For example, wetlands, which are home to much biodiversity, help protect low lying land from erosion, they filter water flowing into them from streams, provide spawning grounds for commercially important fish and shellfish species and so on. These services which are essentially provided for free to us would be very expensive if we had to construct artificial systems to carry them out. Finally, preserving biodiversity is important to us simply because the diversity found in nature is a diversity of solutions to the problems that living organisms face. There is an enormous amount of potentially useful information contained in the genomes of a diverse population of organisms, all of which will be lost when species go extinct. For all of these reasons, it is important for us to preserve species.

Medium Green Ethics

All of this is well and good, but it may be already apparent that appealing to human interests in preserving nature sounds good in theory but runs into some real problems in practice. After all, isn’t it our narrow pursuit of self-interest that has led us to the problems we now face in the first place? Of course we may have some good reasons to protect nature, but those tend to be less obvious, and have payoffs further in the future than the reasons we still have to exploit nature now. If I am a property owner who needs to pay my bills by logging, it doesn’t matter to me that I may be able to find uses for the biodiversity on my land in the future if I refrain from cutting the trees. So the first problem with light green ethics is that its appeal to anthropocentric reasons for preserving the environment may just not be effective since there are plenty of other anthropocentric reasons not to preserve the environment. Unless we can show that there are reasons above and beyond human reasons for caring about things like climate change and loss of biodiversity, we will be stuck in our present dilemma where everybody knows that we should act to change our behavior, and yet few people actually do.

So are there any reasons for thinking that natural things can have value above and beyond the value we confer on them? According to philosophers who back a view known as biocentrism the answer is yes. To see why consider for a moment that all organisms are capable of living well or living poorly, that is, each has what the philosopher Paul Taylor calls “a good of its own.” For instance, an oyster lives on the sea floor and survives by filtering nutrients out of the water in its immediate environment. It requires that the water it lives in is within a certain temperature range, has a certain amount of dissolved oxygen in it, contains a sufficient number of microorganisms on which it feeds and circulates enough to dispose of its wastes. Lacking some or all of these conditions is bad for the oyster. This according to Taylor is the natural origin of all value. Having value does not require explicitly recognizing that things are valuable, but only having a certain set of conditions that make it possible to flourish, to do well in solving whatever problems life presents. This may sound similar to Aristotle’s conception of the good of an organism, which we discussed in the chapter on Natural Law Theory. It is, but with the added twist that we now have a more solid basis than Aristotle had for talking in objective terms about what is truly good for a particular organism. The application of this idea to human beings is also, unlike it was for Natural Law Theory, besides the point. The point here is only to see whether we can talk about value in nature in a way that does not reduce all value to the value conferred upon natural things by human beings in terms of our own interests.

Clearly if it makes sense to talk about organisms having a good of their own and hence having things that are valuable to them, anthropocentrism seems like it must be missing something important about the value of natural things. Sure, from a human perspective the value of a clean environment for an oyster is not really so important in any direct way, but it certainly is for an oyster. To argue that something is not really important, because it is not important for humans alone thus appears to beg the question since it merely assumes that the human perspective is the only one which counts. However, the defender of anthropocentrism does not give up so easily. “Of course,” she might respond, “oysters have certain requirements for having good lives as oysters, but human interests are certainly more important than the interests of lowly oysters, are they not?”

The answer to this question is not as obvious as it may seem. There are two reasons that might be given in support of the claims of the greater value of humans – either we have more merit than other species or we are inherently more valuable than other species. Let us look at these claims more carefully.

The argument from merit

A first glance it seems like a case can be made for the greater merit of human beings. If we have such greater merit, than anthropocentrism would be defensible on principles of justice – using human benefit as a criterion for determining whether or not something is good would be a matter of focusing our attentions on those creatures who are more worthy of getting benefits. But do human beings have more merit than other organisms? The answer is, “It depends on what the measure of merit is.” Saying that something is better, in terms of merit, than something else requires that we also ask, “Better at what?” Certainly humans are better at solving calculus problems than giant squid are, we are better at doing crossword puzzles than cheetah. But giant squid are much better at devouring sperm whales than the average human being is and cheetah are better at running. These examples might seem silly, but the point is not. We simply cannot defend the claim that humans have more merit than other animals on some sort of neutral scale of comparison. All existing organisms are survivors and so are bound to be good at some specialized activity or other, so all are equally meritorious in their own ways. So much for the first attempt to show why humans would be better than other organisms.

The argument from inherent worth

Thus if humans are going to be considered somehow better or more deserving than other organisms in a way that is relevant to moral concern, in a way that warrants our interests being satisfied first, it is not going to be because we have more merit than other organisms. It will have to be because we have more inherent worth. If it is true that humans are fundamentally, deep down, just more valuable than other living organisms, then clearly anthropocentrism could be saved. However, when it comes to actually defending this idea with an argument we are suddenly at a loss. Exactly what would be capable of showing that humans just are more worthy than other organisms? We can just dig our heels in and insist that humans have more value than other organisms, but this would not be an argument, it would be committing the fallacy of mere assertion. Lacking any reasons to back up the assertion that humans just are more valuable than other organisms we are left in an awkward position. We certainly have grown accustomed to putting ourselves first, but is this really any different from members of a ruling elite in some non-democratic society simply insisting that everyone serve their needs first because they are just plain better people? Racists, sexists, and ethnocentrists of all kinds have made this kind of claim, but in the end it collapses because it has no ultimate basis and is nothing but the groundless arbitrary claim that one group is better than another. The democratic political revolution of 17th century Europe was based on the recognition that humans are all equally worthy of consideration. Perhaps the time is ripe for recognizing that the same applies to all organisms.


The fact that it seems impossible to adequately defend the claim that humans are better than other animals in any morally relevant sense leads us to a view known as biocentrism which attaches value to all living organisms. From a neutral perspective, which does not assume that human beings are in a privileged position, all life is worth valuing. This perspective does not really give us much of a practical basis for making real ethical decisions. It does however, provide an incentive for starting to look at the natural world in a different way, not as something to be exploited as and when humans need something, but as something to be treated with respect and admiration. We certainly do have needs that the natural world and its enormous number of species can provide. But this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that all organisms have needs of their own and that an attitude of reverence and respect for their needs might be worth trying out, especially in the light of the fact that our putting ourselves first has led us to some pretty serious problems.

Dark Green Ethics

Biocentrism does have its own limitations, even if it appears to be more defensible than anthropocentrism. The main problem with this theory is that it attaches value to individual organisms and pays insufficient attention to the interconnections between organisms each of which depend on other organisms for their own survival. Organisms are not capable of surviving purely on their own. They eat other organisms, rely on other organisms for neutralizing their wastes, providing ecosystem services, and so on. Biology, as has become increasingly obvious as the science has developed, is not a science of individual organisms, but of the functional interdependence of organisms on each other and in natural environments. The biological world is thus best approached as a system, which is precisely the approach followed by the science of ecology. As far as ethics is concerned, this leads us to the darkest green approach which is sometimes called “ecocentrism,” and can be summed up in a famous quote from Aldo Leopold,

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

The “biotic community” is the network of interdependent organisms that make up a given ecosystem and that we ignore at our peril. I will end this all too brief account of ecocentric ethics by simply appealing to another of Leopold’s ideas, that perhaps it is time for us to start considering ourselves not as lords and masters of the natural world around us, but as “plain citizens,” of the natural communities on which which depend.