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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Anthologies

Environmental Science Environmental Ethics
Michael Paul Nelson, Leslie A. Ryan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0025


Environmental ethics focuses on questions concerning how we ought to inhabit the world; what constitutes a good life or a good society; and who, where, or what merits moral standing. The field emerged most significantly in the 1960s from an increasing awareness of the global environmental condition, although its multiple roots stretch back through the conservation legacy of Roosevelt and Leopold, the transcendentalism of Thoreau and Muir, a growing wilderness movement, insights from the ecological sciences and their precursors, and 19th-century Arcadian sentiments. The field of environmental ethics emerged as a reaction to the perception of growing environmental crises, such as the transformation of Australian forests into pine plantations, rivers afire in the industrialized regions of the United States, the pressure of population growth on natural resources, and the preservation of wild lands. In the United States these concerns led to legislative action such as the Wilderness Act (1964) and the formulation of several key pieces of legislation reflecting concern for environmental health and well-being, such as the Clean Water Act (1972) the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the establishment of both Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. These events and others have most frequently been read through the lens of Western philosophy, with Aristotle, Hume, Spinoza, and others serving as theoretical guides, and Western science functioning as both source of and solution to environmental problems. Contributions from non-Western cultures illuminate other forms of relating to the land, based on very different metaphysical understandings. There is often a fine line, for example, between the animate and inanimate, or communal and individual—a line of moral considerability found in other cultures that some Western philosophers seek to blur. Rather than establishing separate categories for non-Western environmental ethics, or those offered by feminists, we have focused on the arguments and investigations within the field. Through creating constellations of individuals with similar concerns, we have created a taxonomy of discourse on selected topics. This article opens with general overviews of environmental ethics in single-author monographs and edited anthologies. Foundational texts from philosophy, science, and the humanities provide an interdisciplinary context for the concepts explored in sections on the human place in nature, moral consideration, putting environmental ethics into practice, and issues of and for the future.

General Overviews

These monographs provide general introductions to the field of environmental ethics. They represent varying motivations underlying the call to environmental ethics, and each overview has a particular and unique perspective. Callicott has arguably introduced more non-Western thought and experiences into environmental ethics than any other philosopher. In Callicott 1994, precepts and ethical guides from indigenous and contemporary Asia, South America, Africa, and the Americas are compiled into a valuable cross-cultural introduction to environmental ethics. Des Jardins 2013 compellingly uses early-21st-century environmental issues such as climate change, conservation, and sustainability to introduce significant ethical theories and terms, and asks critical questions to be considered by the reader. Jamieson 2008 joins urgent environmental concerns and ethics with clear discussions of, for instance, why it matters to think about morality, and explains how it is that our well-being is tied to that of nature. Curry 2011 provides a thorough overview of basic ethical approaches, such as deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics, although the author’s focus throughout the book is on ecocentrism. Curry introduces nested scales of environmental ethics, from anthropocentric shallow or light green, to biocentric medium green, to core of ecocentric deep or dark green ecological ethics. Brennan and Lo 2008 covers the history of environmental ethics; grounds early-21st-century trends in ecofeminism, new animism, and social justice in traditional and contemporary ethical theories; and concludes with a litany of urgent environmental issues and the need to understand their origins. Nash 1989 provides a history of environmental philosophy, with a particular focus on the rights of nature to exist undisturbed.

  • Brennan, Andrew, and Yeuk-Sze Lo. 2008. Environmental ethics. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ.

    A well-organized, web-based introduction to environmental ethics. Sociopolitical topics and approaches, including feminism, social ecology, and social justice, are foregrounded. The entry is regularly updated, and an extensive bibliography is included.

  • Callicott, J. Baird. 1994. Earth’s insights: A multicultural survey of ecological ethics from the Mediterranean basin to the Australian outback. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Callicott introduces an array of non-Western traditions that expand environmental ethics and ground the field in indigenous, religious, and spiritual practices. The focus is on correct relationships with the natural world. This is a useful overview of cross-cultural references.

  • Curry, Patrick. 2011. Ecological ethics: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Curry presents a clear, comprehensive survey of environmental ethics. He passionately argues for an ecological ethics that puts nature at the center of moral consideration. The book includes an easy-to-navigate index, notes, and bibliography.

  • DesJardins, Joseph R. 2013. Environmental ethics: An introduction to environmental philosophy. 5th ed. Boston: Wadsworth.

    This book is organized by environmental topics to encourage critical thinking about complex issues and the role of environmental ethics in addressing them. Large trends in environmental ethics are presented from both theoretical and practical perspectives. There is a helpful glossary, and discussion questions at the end of each section.

  • Jamieson, Dale. 2008. Ethics and the environment: An introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511806186

    Jamieson provides theoretical grounding for considering the environment as a sphere of ethical problems, with notable chapters on human relationships with animals and intergenerational justice issues. Cross-references, an extensive index, and bibliography make the book easy to navigate. Clear writing and vivid examples. Good introductory textbook for undergraduate and graduate levels.

  • Nash, Roderick Frazier. 1989. The rights of nature: A history of environmental ethics. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    Nash places environmental ethics within a larger context of rights. He locates the beginning of this largely Western ideological revolution of rights with the Magna Carta, extending through freedom and abolition movements, rights to vote, Civil Rights, and ultimately rights of nature to be left undisturbed.

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