In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Ethics

  • Introduction
  • Anthropocentrism
  • Moral Extensionism
  • Eco/Biocentrism/Environmental Holism/Deep Ecology
  • Ecophenomenology
  • Environmental Marxism/Ecosocialism

Literary and Critical Theory Environmental Ethics
Wendy Lynne Lee
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0085


While many disciplines have begun to take the environment, its inhabitants, ecosystems, biotic diversity, and future stability more seriously, it falls to philosophy to flesh out the organizing concepts and principles of a viable environmental ethic. An ethic is a defensible way of life grounded in the wherewithal to address the anthropogenic causes of environmental crises like climate change. However true is Socrates’ claim that the unexamined life is not worth living, what counts as “worth living” must now recalibrate in light of a future characterized by catastrophic weather events, dwindling resources, accelerated disease vectors, human and nonhuman migration, and the geopolitical upheaval either caused or accelerated by a warming atmosphere. Can the appeal to traditional moral theories intended to adjudicate human conflicts be retooled to address contemporary environmental crises? This is not obvious. Moral principles made to solve human moral dilemmas have not prevented the pollution and exhaustion of limited planetary and atmospheric resources, and we no longer take it for granted that human welfare is the sole focus of moral concern. Notions like inherent worth, biotic integrity, and sustainability have become integral to environmental ethics discourse along with serious exploration of the moral considerability of nonhuman animals. Can a human-centered—anthropocentric—environmental ethic provide sufficient incentive to address environmental crises? Does sentience have moral weight beyond human consciousness? Whose suffering matters? Do we have any moral duty to care about the future? Some argue that the fact of climate change reveals our traditional moral principles to be inadequate. They argue we need an ethic that aims to reach beyond human beings. Others argue that, suitably modified, long-standing moral ideals aimed at maximizing happiness or minimizing suffering can help us draft a more sustainable ethical charter, or that rights can be extended to the protection of nonhuman entities. Still others argue for an ecological version of the precautionary principle: wherever an action, practice, policy, law, or (de)regulation poses a well-supported likelihood of causing harm to the planet’s regenerative capacities or to its atmosphere, the burden to demonstrate that harm will not occur as a consequence of that action falls on the actor(s) or agencies responsible for it. The precautionary principle is anthropocentric, but it includes the active recognition of interdependency as prerequisite for survival. A number of feminist, antiracist, and social justice theorists show how the intersection of ecology, economics, ethnicity, gender, and species status informs the ways in which we conceive environmental issues as matters of justice.

General Overviews

Environmental ethics is an enormous field of inquiry that can be subdivided in a number of ways, many of which will overlap historically, thematically, or with respect to specific issues. It is also worth noting that some anthologies that would at an earlier time have been included under the broad header of Western Perspectives now more appropriately belong to Global Perspectives in virtue of a revised selection of essays that aim at a more diverse inclusion of non-Western voices in an environmental conversation that has become more and more international and intercultural in scope. This is partly due to the greater recognition that environmental issues and crises are immune to the conflicts of economies and nation states, partly because of the revolutionary capacity of the Internet to connect thinkers and ideas, and partly due to a growing appreciation of the fact that Western philosophy does not command a monopoly on argument and theory. Hence, while this section is divided into “Western” and “Global,” what is reflected in the distinction is that growing appreciation as well as an understanding that the history of environmental ethics has many cultural and theoretical roots. Indeed, the tremendous growth in environmental theory looks more like the production of a rhizome than single seed.

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