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What is environmental ethics?

This article examines environmental ethics – its basis in philosophy, what it means, and basic concepts.
© Adam Smith Center, Singapore

This article will equip you with the necessary tools to understand environmental ethics: (1) the definition of environmental ethics; (2) the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value; and (3) traditional ethical theories.

Climate protest sign, reading "eco not ego" Image credit: Markus Spiske on Pexels

1. The definition of environmental ethics

Environmental ethics is a field in philosophy which concerns itself with the moral relationship between human beings and their natural environment. At its core, environmental ethics boils down to two fundamental questions: (1) do humans have duties with respect to the environment – if so, why?; and (2) what are these duties? For example, if we do have environmental obligations, are they to the human beings alive today, in the future, or non-human life within the environment? As we shall explore in the following weeks, different philosophers have different approaches to this question. In turn, this has led to the emergence of different branches of environmental ethics.

2. The distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value

In environmental ethics, it is important to distinguish instrumental value from intrinsic value. Instrumental value is when the value of things is found in that it can be utilized to further some other ends. For example, it can be said that the instrumental value of plants is that it provides nutrients to herbivorous animals. Contrastingly, intrinsic value is when the value of things is in themselves, and not dependent on whether they are useful to achieve other ends. For example, to say that plants have intrinsic value is to say that plants have value in itself, and not that it is valuable because they act as a source of food.

3. Traditional ethical theories: consequentialism and deontology

Consequentialists determine whether an action is right or wrong through the outcome(s) produced by said action. It then follows that if the overall consequence of the action is good, the action is determined to be morally right, and vice versa. A key consequentialist moral theory is utilitarianism. Utilitarianism regards pleasure as the only intrinsic value and pain as the only intrinsic disvalue in the world. In turn, morally right actions, according to utilitarianism, are ones that produce the greatest amount of pleasure over pain.

Meanwhile, according to deontological ethical theories, the way to determine whether an action is morally right or wrong is through a clear set of moral rules. For example, if one established moral rule is to not kill or harm the innocent, then to violate this rule would be intrinsically wrong, regardless of whether it produces good consequences.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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Environmental Ethics

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