Chapter 15 Ethics and the Environment

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.

—Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

In this chapter we will be considering some of the ethical issues that have to do with our relation to the world around us, especially the world of non-human nature. Since this is a vast topic, my treatment here will have to be very brief and sketchy. What I’d like to do is talk about how we now find ourselves in a historically unusual position in which we must confront basic assumptions about our relation to the physical and biological worlds around us, that is, our relation to the environment within which we live. This is a unique time to be alive, since for most of our history we could simply take it for granted that the environment just didn’t matter that much. Either our impacts on the environment were small enough not to matter, or we could move on to some place else if we did things like cut down all of the trees, caused too much soil erosion with our farming practices, depleted the wildlife or fish wherever we happened to live. But now, for the first time, we are forced to confront planet-scale limits to our activities – our impacts are so massive and there is simply nowhere left for us to go if we disrupt the environment of the entire planet. And, as we will be seeing shortly, that is exactly what we seem to be doing as the twenty first century begins.

As we have seen in other contexts, all of ethics has to do with figuring out what the limits of our behavior should be. Individual human beings are free to do as we please much of the time so the fundamental question of ethics is thus “Under what conditions and for what reasons should we accept voluntary limitations on our freedom?” The three most successful ethical theories we examined earlier, Social Contract Theory, Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics, can clearly be understood in this way. Each of them shows in its own way why it is that free and rational agents should accept rules that limit our freedom. Social Contract Theory argues that we collectively impose limits on our freedom in exchange for the benefits that come from living in an organized and rule-governed society. Utilitarianism starts from the recognition that each of us is capable of being benefited or harmed by anyone else’s actions and argues that this offers us a good reason to accept limits on our own pursuit of individual self-interest. What is good for me is not always good for enough other people to allow me to do it. Finally, Kantian Ethics argues that it is our recognition of the fact that every rational adult is capable of making autonomous decisions for him or herself that requires all of us to recognize limits on our treatment of each other. There are inherent limits in the way we should treat other rational agents according to Kant and these limits are often expressed in the language of human rights and duties.

According to all of these theories, rational agents impose limits on themselves as a result of having carefully thought through the nature of our social connections with others. They thus stand in contrast to the first three theories we examined – Relativism, Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory – in that these earlier theories all assumed that we were incapable of imposing real limits on ourselves, and that morality thus required some of help from outside, embodied in the authority of culture, God or nature. We also saw why it was precisely this appeal to authority that prevented all of these theories from showing why it was that free and rational agents should accept limits on their behavior.

Because we spent so much time examining why it is that appeals to external sources of rules or limits on acceptable behavior failed to really provide any reason for accepting these limits as legitimate, it may seem strange that we will be looking once again at the idea that there may be certain limits to our behavior that come from outside. In this case, however, the limits at issue do not come from an authority figure, a set of cultural practices or some conception of what is really good for human beings. Instead they come from some of the basic laws of the world around us which impose physical and biological constraints on human populations and our use of resources. Ironically it is the fact that we have been so successful at surviving and thriving on earth that has led us to the brink of crossing these limits. Unfortunately, we seem to be outgrowing the planet we depend on for our long term survival.