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Environmental Ethics

Antecedents

The intellectual sources of environmental ethics go back at least to God's first injunction in Genesis 1:28: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." Literary discussions of the value of nature in the West, having been stimulated by global exploration and the European discovery of the Americas, go back at least to the sixteenth century. Wilderness began to appear as an allegorical theme in European and American painting in the eighteenth century. The awesome forces of nature remind us that the human condition demands the virtues of faith, hard work, and steadfastness as we negotiate the path of our lives on earth. These writings and images of course helped shape the themes of contemporary environmental ethics, and today's writers also pay homage to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and the views of early-twentieth-century writers like Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946) and John Muir (1838–1914).

Of these early sources for environmental ethics, none is more significant than Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), an ecologist and wildlife manager who in his essays argued the need to reconsider our attitude toward nature. Writing in A Sand County Almanac (1949), his frequently cited classic of American nature writing, Leopold bemoaned the fact that, as it appeared to him, "there is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it," and called for an evolutionary shift in what he viewed as the traditional perspective in ethics. "All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to cooperate" (pp. 203–204). Arguments for cooperation in ethics, however, had been limited in scope to other humans. Leopold urged his readers to think about cooperation in a more expansive sense, which would include the environment. This land ethic, as he called it, "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." Without much defense or argument, Leopold went on to formulate some basic principles of a land ethic, but his influence on later writers comes mainly from his vision that enlarging the scope of ethical concern is a mark of intellectual progress.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEnvironmental Ethics - Antecedents, The Debate Over Anthropocentrism, Value As A Feature Of Actions And Attitudes, Ethics And Environmental Policies