Geography Geography and Ethics
Iain Hay, Luke Dickens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 May 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0093


Ethics traditionally involves systematic intellectual deliberations on morality. Increasingly since the early 1980s geography has embraced the conceptual and practical relationships between ethics and the discipline. Geographers have, for example, taken up careful examination of the moral significance of concepts such as place, location, proximity, and distance and engaged in foundational debates regarding the pursuit of social and spatial justice. Conceptual work has also included examination of the moral relations between self/other that a long tradition of cosmopolitan ethical thought necessarily calls into question; and between human and natural worlds looking, for example, at environmental caretaking for future generations. Among the more applied ethical issues taken up in the discipline are the ethics of mapping the social and physical world and, more recently, grappling with the ever more complex ethical implications of working with and on new spatial and digital technologies. This article reviews major resources for much of this conceptual and practical work in geography and builds generally on the work of scholars in the field as well as more directly upon the helpful and thoughtful comments of Clive Barnett (University of Exeter), Mark Israel (Murdoch University), and Jeff Popke (East Carolina University) as well as two anonymous referees.

General Overviews

Any scholar of geography and ethics should probably have read three key volumes. The first is Mitchell and Draper 1982 (the groundbreaking work, Relevance and Ethics in Geography). This book served to increase geographers’ awareness of the dilemmas that arise owing to conflicting values during the conduct of research and dealt with now common ethical issues considered by geographers such as privacy and confidentiality. The book also raised questions about ethical issues in that work by geographers and environmental scientists involving animals (e.g., coating birds in oil and putting them in a wind tunnel to investigate the effects of oil spills on birdlife) (see Environmental Ethics). The second (quite different) volume is Sack 1997, which is the impressive Homo Geographicus: A Framework for Action, Awareness and Moral Concern. Sack explores the empirical and moral implications of our geographical nature, making the case that geography is at the foundation of moral judgment (see Moral and Ethical Geographies). The third is Smith 2000 (Moral Geographies: Ethics in a World of Difference). Underpinning this book is the proposition that geographical context is essential to the understanding of moral practice and ethical theory. Smith’s work raises fascinating questions at the intersection of geography and ethics such as: Does distance diminish responsibility? Should we interfere with the lives of those we do not know? Is there a distinction between private and public space? Which values and morals are absolute, and which are cultural, communal, or personal? And are universal rights consistent with respect for difference? From these foundations one can turn usefully to increasingly frequent reviews of geography and ethics prepared since the 1990s for Progress in Human Geography by scholars such as Barnett 2011, Olson 2018 and Smith 2001. These works offer very helpful coverage of key issues and emerging themes, and they provide useful insights into the ways in which the field has evolved in the past three decades. Of these, Smith 1997 offers an especially useful appraisal. Review essays are, of course, available in other journals (e.g., Proctor 1998) and collections (such as Popke 2008, an excellent and erudite summary). Olson 2014, an entry on “ethics” in the SAGE Handbook of Human Geography, also offers a distinct and valuable overview of the field.

  • Barnett, Clive. “Geography and Ethics: Placing Life in the Space of Reasons.” Progress in Human Geography 36.3 (2011): 379–388.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132510397463

    Here Barnett maintains that recent discussions of ethics in human geography have been influenced strongly by “Continental Philosophy,” effectively shutting down consideration of normativity.

  • Mitchell, Bruce, and Dianne Draper. Relevance and Ethics in Geography. New York: Longman, 1982.

    Perhaps the first volume to deal specifically with geography and ethics. The ambitions of the book were to increase the consciousness of geographers about ethical issues and to provide useful guidance on the ethical conduct of research. The authors advocate individual responsibility rather than development of regulatory codes, a strategy others have gone on to endorse.

  • Olson, Elizabeth. “Ethics.” In The SAGE Handbook of Human Geography. Edited by Roger Lee, Noel Castree, Rob Kitchin, et al., 423–444. London: SAGE, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781446247617.n20

    Wide-ranging retrospective of key works on moral geographies, centered on the theme of human suffering. By considering suffering as a social relationship that underpins much normative ethical debate, this chapter invites readers to use their experience of, and concern for, suffering as a vital step towards changing the world for the better.

  • Olson, Elizabeth. “Geography and Ethics III: Whither the Next Moral Turn?” Progress in Human Geography 42.6 (2018): 937–948.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132517732174

    An appraisal of how “the moral” might continue to provide a valuable focus at the intersection of geography and ethics, having been somewhat sidelined by the emphasis placed on justice and care in such debates. The review includes an important discussion of how speculative ethics and the post-human might challenge notions of politics and agency in contemporary moral concerns.

  • Popke, Jeff. “The Spaces of Being In-Common: Ethics and Social Geography.” In The SAGE Handbook of Social Geographies. Edited by Susan Smith, Rachel Pain, Sallie Marston, and John Paul Jones III, 435–454. London: SAGE, 2008.

    Very helpful survey of the field, underpinned by the premise that the “social” is underpinned by understandings of what is good and proper (morality) and about our obligations to others (ethics).

  • Proctor, James D. “Ethics in Geography: Giving Moral Form to the Geographical Imagination.” Area 30.1 (1998): 8–18.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.1998.tb00043.x

    Points to the emergence of interest in ethics among geographers and sets out areas of work that lie at the intersection of the two fields. The paper concludes with some thoughts on directions for work, these being structured around two thematic queries: What is the place of ethics in geography? And what is the place of geography in ethics?

  • Sack, Robert D. Homo Geographicus: A Framework for Action, Awareness, and Moral Concern. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

    Important realist account by a leading theoretician that, among its other considerations, gives emphasis to the deep-seated significance of place in understandings of morality.

  • Smith, David M. “Geography and Ethics: A Moral Turn?” Progress in Human Geography 21.4 (1997): 583–590.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913297673492951

    Excellent article discussing an apparent “moral turn” in geography, the shape of the engagement between the discipline and moral philosophy, and simultaneously offering some clear and useful terminological clarification (e.g., morality, ethics, metaethics) for those new to the field.

  • Smith, David M. Moral Geographies: Ethics in a World of Difference. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

    One of the first books to take up geography, ethics, and morality in an integrated way. Examines the moral significance of geographical concepts such as place, location, proximity, and distance, grappling with difficult questions such as: Does distance diminish responsibility? Should we interfere with the lives of those we do not know? And are universal rights consistent with respect for difference?

  • Smith, David M. “Geography and Ethics: Progress, or More of the Same?” Progress in Human Geography 25.3 (2001): 261–268.

    DOI: 10.1191/030913201678580511

    Makes the case for a contextually sensitive ethics and an ethically informed geography. Points out that geographers tend to be more comfortable with descriptive ethics than they are with rigorous normative analysis, which requires attention to meta-ethics, while moral philosophers are not sufficiently familiar with worlds of difference.

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