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Why is environmental ethics important?

This article unpacks environmental ethics further and relates it directly to this course. It also introduces the concept of anthropocentrism.

This article expands on environmental ethics through two sections: (1) how environmental ethics is related to this module; (2) anthropocentrism’s challenge to environmental politics.

We have seen that climate is a cultural issue. Similarly, as we navigate the relationship that human beings have with their environment, it is necessary to take into account that the environmental issues are also cultural, political, and philosophical issues. That is to say that climate change and resource depletion are not simply problems to be mended by science and technology. Rather, just as the environment is bound with culture and morality, environmental issues require philosophical rationality and solutions. Hence, environmental ethics is required to look beyond framing climate as a scientific issue.

Furthermore, in the following weeks, we will focus on both scientific and philosophical perspectives in which climate is viewed. For the latter, a basic understanding of environmental ethics is essential.

2. Anthropocentrism’s challenge to environmental ethics

Traditional western ethical perspectives often take an anthropocentric approach. Anthropocentrism refers to human-centeredness. This belief proposes that human beings are either (a) the only thing worthy of intrinsic value or (b) have significantly greater intrinsic value as compared to non-human things. Such a perspective dictates that the promotion and protection of human interests is always prioritized, even if at the expense of non-human life. Hence, cruelty towards a puppy would not be considered intrinsically wrong as the puppy does not have significant intrinsic value. Rather, cruelty towards a puppy would be considered instrumentally wrong because this behaviour promotes a character that is numb to human cruelty.

In turn, anthropocentric environmentalists find that they have an environmental obligation to future generations of human beings. Hence, they do not think issues such as climate change need to be addressed because of, perhaps, the effect that climate change has on the habitats and lives of wild animals. Rather, anthropocentric environmentalists are only concerned with the impact that the humans living today have on the well-being of future individuals.

© Adam Smith Center, Singapore
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Environmental Ethics

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