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Ethics on Environment: Practical and Theoretical Constructs


Ethical behavior produces and preserves value in the world. A morally good person knows what has value and acts to produce and preserve it. From 1990s, it has become common and clear to make appeals for what is good for environment, and/ or nature (Attfield, 2003). The question of what is good for environment arose due to the increased concern for the environmental problems such as global warming and climatic change that have persisted since ever. According to some theoretical constructs that are discussed later, the said value may not be solely as a result of what human extract from it, or “from the fact that humans find them enjoyable to look at or interesting to study” (Attfield, 2003, p.219). The independent values we place towards human beings in relation to ethical obligations and duties should be similarly replicated towards non-humans. In this paper, I have carried out an examination of the practical, ethical/social obligations; the need for appropriate actions; and the optimal ethical, decision-making processes existing in the environment.

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The practical, ethical/social obligations on Environment

Environmental problems arise from human activities with the natural world and its system. Human beings cannot help using and modifying tracts of the natural world, since we depend on nature of food, clothing and shelter, for our water supply, and for the air we breathe (Singer, 1991). However, these unintended impacts of human actions are currently the sources of the problems like global warming and the extinction of multitude of diverse species, problems which raise profound issues about how we should live our lives and organize our societies, and which present challenges never encountered by previous generations (Light & Rolston, 2002).

Practically, it must be noted that not everyone means the same thing when they talk about ‘environment’ or ‘environmental problems’. While some will mean ‘the surrounding’, ostensibly the most common meaning, other will be referring to the objective nature that entails either local society or human society in general, that precedes and succeeds it. Alternatively, others will have the interpretation of the meaning as the perceived surroundings or familiar milieu of an individual person or animal, the territory or pathways that give that individual a sense of belonging and comprise her home (Light & Rolston, 2002, p.118). However, while everyone has an environment, the mobility of the modern life means that not everyone has such an environment in this home-territory, sense, as many people have little sense of being at home in the place where they currently find themselves living. Fortunately many individuals prove able to ‘put down roots’ and form attachments in unfamiliar places and to develop a sense of belonging in more than one setting (Kochi & Ordan, 2008). In any case, people also prove capable of caring not only for their native territory but for the various shared surroundings and natural systems that we also refer to when we use ‘the environment’ in the other senses.

Typically, human-centered argument goes as follows: “Future generations of people have as much right to live a physically secure and healthy life as those of the present generation” (Attfield, 2003, p.221). It therefore follows that every one of us is obliged to prevent natural environment from deteriorating to a level that the future generation’s well-being is compromised (Kochi & Ordan, 2008). Kochi & Ordan (2008) further states that we also “have duty to conserve natural resources so that future generations will be able to enjoy their fair share of benefits derived from those resources” (p.13). Thus it is sometimes argued that a varied gene pool of plant and animal species is needed for developing new ways to protect humans from diseases, to get rid of harmful bacteria, to learn how to control certain insects and other ‘pests’, and to produce new sources of food through genetic engineering (Attfield, 2003). Yet still, the responsibility to maintain the aesthetic value of the world nature is still linked to what good we have to pass over to the future generation. It therefore boils down to the ethical thinking on whether it would be moral to leave unfriendly scenes for others to find a solution to better the situation. From these arguments, it possible to put forward a notion that all the efforts to keep our environment sustainable is wholly based on the human interest to pass a better future to their offspring (Attfield, 2003).

However, environmental ethics perspective draws a different idea all together; a theory that is centered on the belief that both human and non-human have natural rights, and that its our responsibility to maintain and balance these rights without bias (Afeissa, 2008). Afeissa (2008) believes that environmental ethics and human ethics are based on totally different theoretical constructs, and that none is dependent on the other (p.1). Despite the fact that in many occasions what is good or bad for human may also be good or bad to non-humans in that order, the basis or level of measure for these judgments are different. That is to say, the moral principles involved are fundamentally separate and distinct (Afeissa, 2008).

If we base our arguments on the general life-centered belief, the task to preserve the lives of the wildlife and plants is based on particular moral relationship between us and the environment (Rolston, 1989). In other words, these ‘other members’ of the earth are not there purposefully for our own benefit (Rolston, 1989). In contrast, these non-humans have specific value for their own benefit just we do, and therefore it is our duty to identify and teat these values in equal measure with ours (Rolston, 1989)

The Concept of Good and the Need for Appropriate Decisions

Some entities in the universe are such that we can meaningfully speak of them having a good of their own, while other entities are of a kind that makes such judgment nonsense (Attfield, 2003). For example, a parent decides that furthering the good of a child is by going on a camp trip together. What we may think can either be true or false, depending on whether the child’s good is actually furthered. However, whether true or false, the idea of furthering the good of a child is basically an intelligible notion (Attfield, 2003). The concept of entity having a good of its own includes in its range of application human children. Suppose, however, that someone tells us that we can further the good of a pile sand by, say, erecting a shelter over it so that it does not get wet in the rain. We might be puzzled about what the person could mean. Perhaps our immediate interpretation of the statement would be that, since wet sand is no good for a certain purpose, it should be kept dry. In that case it is not the sand’s own good that would be furthered, but the purpose for which it is to be used. Presumably, this would be some human purpose, so that if any being’s good is furthered by keeping the sand dry, it is the good of those who have this purpose as one of their ends. Concerning the pile of sand itself, however, it is neither true nor false that keeping it dry furthers its good. The sand has no good of its own (Attfield, 2003). It is not the sort of thing that can be included in the range of application of the concept, entity that has a good of its own (Attfield, 2003).

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According to Afeissa (2008), one way to know whether something belongs to the class of entities that have a good is to see whether it makes sense to speak of what is good or bad for the thing in question. If we can say, truly or false, that something is good for an entity or bad for it, without reference to any other entity, then the entity has a good of its own (Afeissa, 2008). It is thus logical to say that someone’s doing physical exercise daily as being good for him or her. There is no need to refer to any other person or thing to understand the meaning. This is, for example, in contrast to someone oiling a machine. The principle purpose of doing so is for his or her good, and not the good of the machine, which has no good of its own to speak of.

The above explanation lead us to one theory, what is good for a life or what it good is something that promotes or protects its good. Correspondingly, what is bad for a life is something damaging or detrimental to its good. These ideas are also applicable in the concept of benefit or harm (Kochi & Ordan, 2008). To bring benefit to a life is to bring about or to preserve a condition that is favorable to it, or to avoid, get rid of, or prevent from occurring, a condition that is unfavorable to it (Kochi & Ordan, 2008). To harm it is either to bring about a condition unfavorable to it or to destroy or take away a condition unfavorable to its (Kochi & Ordan, 2008). This concept again takes us back to the initial sand case. Sand has components in the organisms that have life or their own to be preserved. Presumably, biological conditions demand that the moist sand is more favorable for most organisms. It therefore follows that drying up the sand is creating unfavorable environment for the organism or depriving them of their well being.

Theoretical Constructs: Theory of Value

There are theoretical views that have been constructed to explain the theory of value placed on our actions.

Anthropocentricism vs. Scientism

These terms are used to describe a value-theory. Anthropocentrists believe that none but human interests or concerns matter, in the sense of having independent value (Rolston, 1989). However, this position is rejected by among others, scientists, who hold that all sentient creatures (or all conscious creatures) have moral standing, and that is not dependent on human interests or on any other kind of value (Rolston, 1989; Singer, 1991). Some anthropocentrists believe that understanding of and compassion towards animals is grounded in human interests, of which they give a very broad interpretation; compassion, for example, is desirable ultimately because it is good for us (Singer, 1991). But scientists maintain that animal interests are important irrespective of human needs and sensitivities, and that an animal’s suffering would matter (and ought to be prevented) even if no human being would be adversely affected in anyway whatever by awareness of this suffering (Taylor, 1986; Singer, 1991). Many people, however, consider both anthropocentrism and scientism too narrow to supply convincing theories either of moral standing or of value. This leads us to another set of theories: biocentrism and ecocentrism.

Biocentrism and Ecocentrism

Biocentrists maintain that all living creatures have a good of their own, and have moral standings as such, and further that their flourishing or attaining their good is intrinsically valuable, that is, because of its very nature (Kochi & Ordan, 2008). To elaborate further, it may be interpreted to mean that having a good of one’s own does not turn on sentience or the capacity for feeling; even a human being in a coma has interest, and the common interest of humans and of other animals in health seems not to depend on the feelings of individual concerned (Kochi & Ordan, 2008). Likewise, creatures that lack feelings, such as plants, still have a good of their own, consisting in their developing capacities as those for growth, photosynthesis, respiration, reproduction and self-repair (Kochi & Ordan, 2008).

Ecocentrists, however, maintain that ecosystems have a good independent of that of their component individuals, and as such have their own moral standing; their attaining their good has intrinsic value on much the same basis as biocentrists claim for individual organisms Light & Rolston, 2002). While some ecocentrists suggest that systems (and possibly species) alone have intrinsic value, others hold that the intrinsic value of systems and of species coexists with that of individual creatures (Light & Rolston, 2002). Ecocentrism is held to take systematic factors more seriously (Light & Rolston, 2002). However, biocentrists and others can recognize that systems shape the development of life and of evolution in a casual manner, without recognizing either that these systems have an identifiable good of their own or that they should be given consideration over and above their living members

Clearly, the lives of many individual members of the ecosystem turn in the continuation in the existence of relevant ecosystem; hence the systems need to be preserved if the members and thus their species are also to be preserved. If so, biocentrists maintain, it is necessary to reason as if the health of the relevant systems mattered independently (Light & Rolston, 2002).

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Although answers to the ethical behaviors may seem obvious, the questions may turn out to repay reflection, not least because problems are identified differently by different perspectives, and different problems are identified as problems. Environmental ethics is concerned with the moral relations that hold between humans and the natural world (Attfield, 2003). The ethical principles governing those relations determine our duties, obligations, and responsibilities with regard to the Earth’s natural environment and all the animals and plants that inhabit it (Rolston, 1989). Simply put, the non-humans too have their own worth, considering the fact that they are members of the ecosystem (Rolston, 1989). In deed, we have moral obligations to preserve and protect the world’s living things in equal measure just as our fellow humans.

Reference List

Afeissa, H.S. (2008). The transformative value of ecological pragmatism: An Introduction to the work of Bryan G. Norton. S.A.P.I.EN.S. 1 (1).

Attfield, R. (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-first Century. Chicago: Wiley Blackwell.

Kochi, T. & Ordan N. (2008). An argument for the global suicide of humanity. Borderlands, Vol. 3, 1-21.

Light, A., & Rolston H. (2002). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology. Chicago: Willey Blackwell.

Rolston, H. (1989). Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Singer, P. (1991). Environmental Values. The Oxford Book of Travel Stories. Ed. Ian Marsh. Melbourne, Australia: Longman Chesire. 12-16.

Taylor, P. (1986). Respect for Nature: a Theory of Environmental Ethics. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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