The Standards of Environmental Ethics
What is ethical?
In respect to environmental ethics, there are three main perspectives on morality in terms of man and nature. Each view of ethical standards in relation to human and non-human entities depends on the individual person’s domain of ethical concern. Out of the three perceptions of environmental ethics—anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism—only biocentrism and ecocentrism have any concern of an aspect of nature in regard to value and moral worth. Though the two outlooks put some sort of value on some part of the environment, they differ greatly in terms of what in nature has worth and what our obligations, as humans, are to these valued concerns.
Biocentrism, or biocentric ethics, sees value in all species, animals and plants alike, and holds these species’ values at an equal level to that of the value of man. Biocentrists believe that man is not superior to other living creatures in a moral or ethical view. Those who support the idea of biocentric ethics, including philosophers such as Albert Schweitzer and Paul Taylor, hold the value of life (in all forms) above all else.
Albert Schweitzer developed a theory on the Reverence of Life, which claimed that all life was important and of inherent value and that each living being must be treated as a “will-to-live:”
“It is good to maintain and cherish life; it is evil to destroy and to check life.” (Schweitzer)
In this quote, Schweitzer clearly shows his standpoint in regards to ethics for the environment; the feeling of hatred can easily be sensed through his statement that destroying life of any sort is to be considered evil. To Schweitzer, a living creature deserves respect and sympathy and he does not question the level of intelligence, understanding, or capability of feeling of the creature; rather he cherishes its life and holds it equal to his own.
In support of Schweitzer’s Reverence of Life, Paul Taylor continues to argue that living beings that have goals are of an equal inherent worth and that humans need to see themselves as a part of the Earth’s community, instead of as the Earth’s conqueror. In one of Taylor’s essays, he states that biocentrism has four components: 1) man is part of the Earth’s community, not it’s superior; 2) all living beings have a reliance and need for other living beings; 3) each living organism is a “teleological center of life” and pursues goals for its own wellbeing; and 4) any claim that man is superior to other living beings is biased and false. In an essay by Taylor, titled “In Defense of Biocentrism,” Taylor contends philosopher Gene Spitler, and tries to prove that biocentrism is both a “possible and reasonable worldview:”
“…Humans and nonhumans share a fundamental characteristic. We each have a good of our own, and each of us,…, can be helped or hindered in the realization of that good…This makes it possible to take another living thing’s standpoint and judge how well or poorly it is being treated by moral agents.” (Taylor 238)
Taylor tries to exemplify the idea that humans and other living beings are of equal intrinsic value and that we share certain characteristics, and that through these characteristics we can understand and sympathize with other beings.
Ecocentrism covers much more than humans and their equivalency, in terms of value and worth, with other living beings. Ecocentric ethics contains the viewpoint that whole ecological systems have value. Ecocentrists, like Aldo Leopold and James Lovelock, believe in certain respects that the environment as a whole is to be respected and given equal worth and appreciation as humans.
One of the most recognizable ecocentrists is Aldo Leopold, the father of “The Land Ethic.” Leopold developed the idea that wilderness must be established and realized as an equal to man in order to prevent further degradation. His development of a land ethic “reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land” (Leopold). He puts responsibility onto man to maintain the environment and to conserve it because it is of an equal value to man. Leopold also focuses on the idea of conservation, which he defines as both 1) “a state of harmony between man and land,” and 2) “our effort to understand and preserve the capacity of the land for self-renewal.” His views, as ecocentric as they may be, are also looked at as holistic. He shows equal sympathy to the creatures of the land as he does to the land itself; Leopold believes the ecosystems themselves are of inherent value because they make up the community.
Another well-known ecocentrist, James Lovelock, was the creator of the “Gaia Hypothesis,” in which all living things and both the chemical and physical environment work together in aspect of a single organism. Lovelock, in defense of his new outlook on the Earth as one being, explains that:
“Life and its environment constitute a single entity, which regulates physical conditions in order to keep the environment at a comfortable state for the organisms themselves." (Lovelock)
Basically his idea states that with work from both the physical and biotic aspects of the environment, the Earth is able to support rich and diverse life. In this case of ecocentric ethics, the Earth itself is given intrinsic value and humans are just a contributor to the life of Earth as a whole.
When looking at both biocentric and ecocentric ethics, one may conclude that both are positive ways to look at the relationship and value equivalence between the environment and man, but overall the idea of ecocentric ethics is more adequate to support the idea and progress of environmental sustainability. With the current condition of the environment being that of depletion and degradation, looking at the environment with regards to everything on the planet as having equal importance is the only way to stop the progression of climate change and declination of land health.
Biocentrism, though also an important viewpoint, only looks at ‘factual’ life, like animals, plants, and humans. This concept of ethics and what has moral and ethical value would only go as far as protecting biodiversity and trying to stop species extinction. Biodiversity is of great value and the loss of any species is terrible, but protecting plants and animals doesn’t put an end to the destruction of wilderness for resource exploitation, nor does it push people to find ways to diminish greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.
With an ecocentric outlook on the Earth, the idea of the Earth being a living creature within itself would raise questions on man’s current treatment and actions towards the planet. Giving life to Earth allows people with a closed mind to see that the Earth is to be respected and treated with great value. Looking at the ecosystems holistically would mean that the oceans, mountains, air, trees, animals, and humans would be given equal care and handling. The quality of water would be regarded as not only important for the health of humans, but for the health of the Earth as well, and that poor water quality would lead to a decline in the Earth’s, and its community’s, health. Mineral and fossil fuel exploitation processes like mountaintop removal would be ceased because it would be recognized that these processes harm the environment and our Earth’s community.
More sustainable methods of transportation, energy consumption, and development would be created at a faster rate than at what it’s currently being developed. Not only the exploitation, but also the consumption, of fossil fuels impacts the environment through land, water, and atmosphere destruction. The abnormal release of chemicals, such as carbon dioxide and methane, leads to drastic changes in the Earth’s natural cycles, and advances processes like climate change. Since currently man is, as a whole, only concerned with oneself and the stability of mankind, things like climate change are still occurring.
Anthropocentric thoughts, like “Oil prices are too expensive! I hope they find more soon!” and “China’s air is filthy. If I go there I will certainly develop lung cancer,” are currently clustering most human minds. Instead of being concerned with the fact that offshore oil drilling can lead to poor water quality and habitat destruction, or that China’s poor air quality is harmful to the planet and not just humans, humanity is focused primarily on itself and how to develop at a faster, more efficient rate. If people were to have an ecocentric outlook, the concern for the environment would rise into their mind just as often as the concern for themselves. Ecocentric ethics creates one community on Earth and places all things, abiotic and biotic alike, as equals. With this outlook, humanity can start to focus on the planet’s overall well-being and create new, more sustainable ways to satisfy both themselves and the environment.
Bosveld, J., and F. Hechelmann. "Life according to Gaia." Omni 14.1 (1991): 66. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO.Web. 9 Dec. 2010.
Persson, Ingmar. "Environmental Ethics: An Aesthetic Approach." Environmental Ethics Intercultural Perspectives. By King-Tak Ip. Amsterdam [u.a.: Rodopi, 2009. 40-50. Print.
Pojman, Louis P., and Paul Pojman. Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.
Taylor, Paul W. "In Defense of Biocentrism." Environmental Ethics 5 (1983): 237-43. USF. 1983. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.pdcnet.org.ezproxy.lib.usf.edu/collection/show?id =enviroethics_1983_0005_0003_0237_0243&file_type=pdf&q=biocentric>.