In This Article Geography and Ethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Journals
  • Geography’s Early Engagement with Ethics
  • Social and Spatial Justice
  • Moral and Ethical Geographies
  • Ethics and Geographies of Care
  • Postcolonial Ethics
  • Environmental Ethics
  • Ethics and Geographical Education
  • Spatial Technologies and Ethics

Geography Geography and Ethics
Iain Hay, Luke Dickens
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0093


Ethics involves systematic intellectual deliberations on morality. Increasingly since the early 1980s geographers have given attention to the conceptual and practical relationships between ethics and their discipline. They have, for example, taken up careful examination of the moral significance of 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? Are universal rights consistent with respect for difference? Conceptual work has also included examination of the moral relations between human and natural worlds looking, for example, at environmental caretaking for future generations. Among the more applied ethical issues that geographers have embraced are appropriate professional conduct, ethical relationships with subjects, ethics in geographical education, and the moral significance of new spatial technologies. This article maps out major resources for much of this conceptual and practical work 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 (Open University), Mark Israel (University of Western Australia), 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 oilspills on birdlife). 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. 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 and Smith 2001. These offer very helpful coverage of key issues, and emerging themes and provide useful insights to the ways in which the field has evolved in the past two decades. Of these, Smith 1997 offers an especially useful appraisal. There are, of course, review essays in other journals (e.g., Proctor 1998) and collections (such as Popke 2009, an excellent and erudite summary).

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

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132510397463E-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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.

  • 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, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    A very helpful recent 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.xE-mail Citation »

    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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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: 10.1191/030913297673492951E-mail Citation »

    An 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.

    E-mail Citation »

    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: 10.1191/030913201678580511E-mail Citation »

    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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