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Environmental Ethics

Ethics And Environmental Policies

The appropriateness and implications of these attitudes give rise to other substantive issues in environmental ethics because they imply that it is reasonable to value different parts of nature in ways that go beyond the distinction between valuing something instrumentally and valuing it as an end. Thus, one topic in environmental ethics concerns the appropriateness of using decision-making techniques developed by economists for determining environmental policies. These techniques are enormously flexible, and they include regarding aspects of the environment as having existence value as well as use value. But these techniques in the end measure values in terms of a willingness to pay for different levels and kinds of protection. They assume that environmental values are commensurable, but it remains an open question in environmental ethics whether this is true. Distinguishing between use value, existence value, and the addition of other values that can be measured by these techniques may also fail to address the appropriate ways to express reverence or respect, and these are the kinds of attitudes that some people believe a reasonable land ethic demands.

A related topic in environmental ethics concerns the way we interpret the value of ecosystems. An endangered ecosystem, or an endangered species within an ecosystem, may be valued differently according to whether we think of an ecosystem only as providing useful services or also as worth preserving in its own right. Debates on this issue go to the meaning of environmental protection and to the reasonableness of some statutes like the Endangered Species Act.

At least three other kinds of substantive issues have emerged recently as major topics in environmental ethics. One has to do with the nature of environmental risk of the kind one finds in issues surrounding possible climate change and global warming. What are rational decision procedures in areas involving great uncertainties but also possibilities of very large consequences and irreversible changes? Should we be aiming to maximize expected values, or should we be trying instead to develop and apply more precautionary principles? A second issue has to do with depleting nonrenewable environmental resources. What are our obligations as stewards of the environment to future generations, and what do we regard as appropriate substitutions for the resources we deplete, so that we can protect the environment in a sustainable way? A third issue concerns environmental justice. Do we need special principles of distributive justice to ensure that economically disadvantaged or politically vulnerable populations do not bear unfair environmental burdens?

These issues are often addressed by writers who express little concern with the philosophically more basic questions about the nature of environmental values, but as discussion of these substantive issues proceeds, it usually leads back to basic questions in ethical theory. For these reasons, environmental ethics is not only a popular and apparently permanent part of university curricula, it is also a subject that increasingly draws the attention of philosophers who are concerned with the more basic and theoretical parts of their subject.

See also Ecology; Nature; Wildlife.


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Singer, Peter. "The Environment" In his Practical Ethics, 264–288. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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Douglas Maclean

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