Philosophy 303a: Environmental Philosophy (Part Two: Environmental Ethics) under construction

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Introduction: Re-scope or Re-evaluate?

Part A: The Scope of Traditional Ethics

G1: The scope of traditional deontological theories

G2: The scope of traditional virtue theories

G3: The scope of traditional consequentialist theories

Part B: Re-scoping Ethics - Animal Ethics

G1: Animal rights?

G2: Animal-regarding virtues?

G3: Animal liberation?

Part C: Re-evaluation Ethics - Environmental Ethics

G1: Has Holmes Rolston III got it covered?

G2: Are Naess and Callicot environmental fascists?

G3: If we can agree on what ought to be done, does it matter that we differ on why we ought to do it?


In 1770 the great maritime explorer Captain James Cook anchored his ship Endeavour in a bay immediately south of the the great harbour he named Port Jackson - better known as Sydney Harbour. On board was a botanist, later to be dubbed Sir Joseph Banks, who was so impressed by the natural wonders of the area that he persuaded Cook to name the bay Botany Bay. Although the expedition spent some time in the area, it did not enter Sydney Harbour, which was unfortunate for them because it was to gain the reputation of being among the best and most beautiful harbours in the world.

In the 20th century, the shores of Botany Bay became home to Sydney International Airport and the Kurnell Oil Refinery, amongst other developments.

And yesterday, 24th January 2006, all potential seafood caught in the waters of Sydney Harbour was officially declared unfit for human consumption due to the dangerous level of toxins (such as Dioxin) found in it. The toxins were identified as by-products of various industries adjacent to the Harbour and the streams that flow into it.

The most deceptive thing about The World Environmental Crisis is that it is a slow-motion crisis, so slow that we are often tempted to ignore or down-play it. In regard to this, the analogy of the frog and the pot of water is always relevant and instructive. It is said that if you put a frog into a pot of hot water it will react to the sudden heat and scramble back out. But if you put a frog into a pot of luke-warm water and then slowly add more heat, it will stay there and be slowly boiled to death. Whether or not this is true, it does serve to illustrate the deceptive nature of the environmental crisis.

Hence the importance of Environmental Philosophy, and particuarly of Environmental Ethics.

Please note that my use of G1, G2 and G3 in what follows refers to my thesis that most philosophical concepts fall naturally into three groups.

Part A: The Scope of Traditional Ethics

G1: The scope of deontological theories.

Theories of this sort have it in common that they imply rules about what is morally right and wrong but refuse to base those rules upon the foreseeable consequences of our actions. Usually the rules are based upon some sort of authority. The authority might be external to the moral agent or it might be the moral agent's own power of reasoning. (Note: a moral agent is simply someone capable of acting morally.)

The scope of such theories extends to each morally relevant individual. Almost always, the morally relevant individual has been the human individual.

The traditional criticism of such ethics has been that (1) basing ethics on an authority is ultimately no different than saying "Because I say so!" and, (2) by refusing to take consequences into account we allow that appallingly bad results are morally permissible.

G2: The scope of traditional virtue ethics

Ethics of this sort downplay the role of rules in morality and instead emphasize the importance of good character. A virtue is a good trait of character, a vice is a bad one.

Another way of putting this is that a virtue is a disposition (an unconscious readiness) to behave in a socially approved way in situations in which some sort of good behaviour is called for. For example, someone having the virtue of courage will be ready to behave courageously, and will do so almost without thinking, when the situation calls for it.

The scope of virtue theories tends to extend only to the members of small to medium-sized social groups - groups such as villages, clans, religious orders, and other goal-oriented organizations.

The morally relevant entites in such ethics are, first, the social group of which the moral agent is a member, and, secondly, the individual members of that group. The group and its goals have moral priority over the individual group members. And, of course, the morally relevant entities have almost always been human.

The traditional criticisms of such ethics are that, (1) by limiting their scope to groups (instead of extending it to all humans) they allow that destructive conflicts beween groups are morally inevitable, and (2) it is fundamentally wrong to give the group moral priority over the individual.

G3: The scope of traditional consequentialist ethics

This sort of ethic, like the G1 sort, implies rules about what is morally right and wrong. The difference is that consequentialists base their rules upon the value of the foreseeable consequences of the moral agent's actions.

The most popular sort of consequentialism is Utilitarianism. This ethic bases all moral 'oughts' and 'ought nots' upon one basic rule - that we ought always to act so as to maximise the amount of 'utility' that will foreseeably follow from our actions.

What is utility? It is almost always defined as something that can be sensed, usually pleasure.

So the short version is that this theory of ethics says that we ought always to behave in the way that, foreseeably, will produce the maximum amount of pleasure (that is, the best pleasure to pain ratio).

Of course, the utility defined in this theory has almost always been that of humans.

One traditional criticism of this sort of ethics has been that the requirement to maximise good results potentially makes unjust treatment of the individual morally required. For example, if a doctor can save two patients needing transplants by killing another patient and giving them that patient's healthy organs, then he ought to do so.

Another way of putting this criticism with regard to Utilitarianism is that follows from giving ultimate value to pleasure is that it is not the individual pleasure-feeler that matters but the majority of pleasure-feelers. The fact that pleasure-feelers are human individuals is quite incidental to this sort of ethic. It is the quantity that matters, not the individual.