Environmental ethics is the discipline that studies the moral relationship, value and moral status of human beings to the environment and its nonhuman contents.
Rabindranath Tagore gave a definition on ‘Education’ which coincided with Environmental ethics. The definition is given here under: “The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence”.
The definition of environmental ethics rests on the principle that there is an ethical relationship between human beings and the natural environment. Human beings are a part of the environment and so are the other living beings.
When we talk about the philosophical principle that guides our life, we often ignore the fact that even plants and animals are a part of our lives. They are an integral part of the environment and hence cannot be denied their right to live. Since they are an inseparable part of nature and closely associated with our living, the guiding principles of our life and our ethical values should include them. They need to be considered as entities with the right to co-exist with human beings.
The emerging concept of environmental ethics brings out the fact that all the life forms on Earth have the right to live. By destroying nature, we are denying the life forms this right. This act is unjust and unethical.
Moral obligation to future generations and principle of inter-generational equity demands us to hand over the planet earth in the same condition as we received it from our ancestors. This will enable our future generations to thrive and achieve good quality of life. Else we will be forcing our coming generations to crises for which they have not contributed. (Principle of Sustainability and Intergeneration equity).
Also, environmental degradation and climate change has disproportionate effects the poor and vulnerable who have not contributed these. This violates the principle of polluter pays.
Aldo Leopold formulated ecological restoration focusing on Land ethic in a book “A Sand County Almanac, 1949”, defined a new link between nature and people and has a stage for modern conservation movement.
“For embracing this ethic ecologically literate citizens are required who can also solve global environmental challenges. “This Land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”
Case Studies of Environmental Ethics
The Exxon Valdez oil spill: Showed lack of corporate social responsibility and oversight in risky industries, damaging ecosystems. Led to regulations improving disaster response plans and double hull tanker requirements.
The Bhopal disaster: Poor safety standards and negligence at a chemical plant caused a gas leak that killed thousands in Bhopal, India. Illustrated need for ethical practices and accountability in hazardous operations, especially in developing countries.
Deforestation of the Amazon: Forest clearing for logging, mining, ranching accelerates loss of biodiversity and harms indigenous tribes. Governments must balance economic interests with protecting vital ecosystems and human rights. Global cooperation needed.
Philosophies of Environmental Ethics
Deep Ecology (Naess): Challenges belief that nature exists for human use and rejects anthropocentrism. Sees the whole ecosphere as a seamless web of interdependencies where humans and nature are equals. Promotes biodiversity and sustainability through radical social/political change.
Land Ethic (Leopold): We must expand our ethical consideration to include the natural landscape and all its components (“the land”). Humans are members of the land community, not conquerors of it. The health of the land and people are inseparable. We must make choices that benefit and respect the “integrity, stability, and beauty” of the biotic community as a whole.
Animal Rights (Singer): Sentient animals deserve equal consideration of interests. They can suffer and so have rights to humane treatment and to not be property. We should adopt a plant-based diet and oppose any cruelty to animals. “The question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but ‘Can they suffer?'”
Environmental degradation vs Economic development (Utilitarianism concept)
The negative effects of climate change will fall disproportionately on the poor in current generations, and on future generations who are less responsible for greenhouse gas emissions as they accrue.
For the utilitarian, the distribution of goods has only instrumental value: we should choose that distribution of goods that maximises the total amount of well-being.
It is from this perspective that problems of justice arise. For example, displacing a population to build a dam might cause a great deal of misery for the worst off, but if it produces a marginal gain for a larger population who are already well off then, on a utilitarian calculation, the policy is justified provided the population is great enough.
There are a variety of different accounts of justice that might be offered as alternatives to the view that we should distribute goods to maximise total welfare. One is that we should give priority to the worst off; another is that we have a duty to make sure all reach a minimal level of welfare; a third is that justice demands equality in the distribution of welfare or of the goods required for welfare.