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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • A Call for a New Ecological Ethics
  • Extending Bioethics to the Natural World
  • Elaborations on Ethical and Policy Challenges Faced by Biologists
  • Environmental Ethics
  • Worldviews, Religion, and Ecological Ethics
  • Many “Ecological Ethics”
  • Applications of Ecological Ethics to Conservation
  • Tools for Ecological Ethics
  • Some Professional Societies Exploring Environmental/Ecological Ethics
  • Codes of Ethics for Conservation Societies

Ecology Ecological Ethics
Sara Tjossem
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0154


Scientists have long created new knowledge through methods and approaches with significant social and environmental implications. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that examines moral concepts of right and wrong behavior, and researchers have used applied ethics to think through the ramifications of their work. Fields of applied ethics proliferated in the 1970s in light of novel technologies and changing research standards. The concept of bioethics is used primarily in medicine to guide ethical research design and informed consent for patients. Environmental ethics addresses humans’ moral relationship with and responsibility to the natural world and develops arguments for protecting wilderness and endangered species. It has not historically engaged with particular ethical dilemmas raised by research and management practices in ecology and conservation biology. Recently, conservation scientists who find both bioethics and environmental ethics inadequate frameworks for ethical fieldwork have proposed the term ecological ethics to shape professional ecological and conservation management in a morally complex world. Its most recent proponents define it as distinct from (though an outgrowth of) both bioethics and environmental ethics.

General Overviews

Some solid introductory philosophical treatments on the broader field of environmental ethics include Callicott 2000, Curry 2011, and Schmidtz and Willott 2002. The edited volumes Bekoff 2013 and Minteer 2012, focus on applications of both environmental and ecological ethics to conservation (see Applications of Ecological Ethics to Conservation). Madigan 2012 details a holistic conception of ethics that goes beyond the dualisms of biocentrism and anthropocentrism. Leopold 1987 is the touchstone for most treatments of both environmental and ecological ethics. Though Rolston 1975 used the term “ecological ethic” in his title, he subsequently used the term “environmental ethics” within philosophy. Both Callicott and Rolston are central figures in developing environmental ethics (see Introduction).

  • Bekoff, M., ed. 2013. Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Using the framework of “compassionate conservation,” contributors explore the moral and ethical aspects of wildlife conservation. Topics include the costs and benefits of conservation, media coverage, conservation psychology, and local to global conservation.

  • Bryant, J. A., Linda Baggott la Velle, and John Searle, ed. 2002. Bioethics for scientists. New York: Wiley.

    Presents an introduction to ethics for the modern life sciences. Along with the usual medical issues, this text addresses environmental subjects such as global warming and bioengineered crops. Explores scientists’ responsibilities both within and outside their profession.

  • Callicott, J. B. 2000. Environmental ethics: An overview. The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale.

    A brief essay on the roots of environmental ethics, the development of various green ideologies and their expansion into environmental philosophy.

  • Curry, Patrick. 2011. Ecological ethics: An introduction. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA: Polity.

    An introductory philosophy textbook that surveys anthropocentric and so-called ecological ethics (though it is more akin to environmental ethics), using the metaphor of light green, mid-green, and dark green ethics. He addresses Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic,” James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and deep ecology, as well as climate change and sustainability.

  • Leopold, Aldo. 1987. A sand county almanac, and sketches here and there. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Leopold’s chapter “The Land Ethic” is the single most important articulation of environmental ethics by a non-philosopher. “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” (p. 171) Rather than a conqueror of nature, man is but another citizen of an integrated community.

  • Madigan, Tim. 2012. Ecological ethics. Philosophy Now 88 (January/February).

    Suggests that environmental sustainability requires an evolutionary understanding of life that recognizes the interconnectedness and fragility of life, and that it would be good to rise above the dualisms of “biocentrism” and “anthropocentrism.”

  • Minteer, Ben A. 2012. Refounding environmental ethics: Pragmatism, principle, and practice. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    Argues for a more interactive and interdisciplinary relationship to nature in order to address mounting challenges in ecological research such as invasive species, biodiversity loss, protected area management, and conservation under global climate change. Excellent introduction.

  • Rolston, Holmes. 1975. Is there an ecological ethic? Ethics: An International Journal of Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy 18.2: 93–109.

    DOI: 10.1086/291944

    Credited with launching environmental ethics as a legitimate branch of philosophical inquiry. Challenged the idea that nature is value-free and that all values stem from human perspectives. Rolston later cofounded the journal Environmental Ethics (see Journals).

  • Schmidtz, David, and Elizabeth Willott. 2002. Environmental ethics: What really matters, what really works. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A compilation of essays on the values of nature on such topics as animal liberation, “The Land Ethic,” whether rights should be extended to nature, wildness in nature, ecofeminism, human ecology, and environmental policy.

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