Ecological Ethics

31/07/2022 1 By indiafreenotes

In environmental philosophy, environmental ethics is an established field of practical philosophy “which reconstructs the essential types of argumentation that can be made for protecting natural entities and the sustainable use of natural resources.” The main competing paradigms are anthropocentrism, physiocentrism (called ecocentrism as well), and theocentrism. Environmental ethics exerts influence on a large range of disciplines including environmental law, environmental sociology, ecotheology, ecological economics, ecology and environmental geography.

There are many ethical decisions that human beings make with respect to the environment. For example:

  • Should humans continue to clear cut forests for the sake of human consumption?
  • Why should humans continue to propagate its species, and life itself?
  • Should humans continue to make gasoline-powered vehicles?
  • What environmental obligations do humans need to keep for future generations?
  • Is it right for humans to knowingly cause the extinction of a species for the convenience of humanity?
  • How should humans best use and conserve the space environment to secure and expand life?
  • What role can Planetary Boundaries play in reshaping the human-earth relationship?

Ecologic extension

Alan Marshall’s category of ecologic extension places emphasis not on human rights but on the recognition of the fundamental interdependence of all biological (and some abiological) entities and their essential diversity. Whereas Libertarian Extension can be thought of as flowing from a political reflection of the natural world, ecologic extension is best thought of as a scientific reflection of the natural world. Ecological Extension is roughly the same classification of Smith’s eco-holism, and it argues for the intrinsic value inherent in collective ecological entities like ecosystems or the global environment as a whole entity. Holmes Rolston, among others, has taken this approach.

This category might include James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis; the theory that the planet earth alters its geo-physiological structure over time in order to ensure the continuation of an equilibrium of evolving organic and inorganic matter. The planet is characterized as a unified, holistic entity with ethical worth of which the human race is of no particular significance in the long run.

Conservation ethics

Marshall’s category of ‘conservation ethics’ is an extension of use-value into the non-human biological world. It focuses only on the worth of the environment in terms of its utility or usefulness to humans. It contrasts the intrinsic value ideas of ‘deep ecology,’ hence is often referred to as ‘shallow ecology,’ and generally argues for the preservation of the environment on the basis that it has extrinsic value instrumental to the welfare of human beings. Conservation is therefore a means to an end and purely concerned with mankind and inter-generational considerations. It could be argued that it is this ethic that formed the underlying arguments proposed by Governments at the Kyoto summit in 1997 and three agreements reached in the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.


Consequentialist theories focus on the consequences of actions, this emphasises not what is ‘right’, but rather what is of ‘value’ and ‘good’. Act Utilitarianism, for example, expands this formulation to emphasise that what makes an action right is whether it maximises well-being and reduces pain. Thus, actions that result in greater well-being are considered obligatory and permissible. It has been noted that this is an ‘instrumentalist’ position towards the environment, and as such not fully adequate to the delicate demands of ecological diversity.

Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic (1949) tries to avoid this type of instrumentalism by proposing a more holistic approach to the relationship between humans and their ‘biotic community’, so to create a ‘limit’ based on the maxim that “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Thus, the use of natural resources is permissible as long as it does not disrupt the stability of the ecosystem. Some philosophers have categorised Leopold’s views to be within a consequentialist framework, however it is disputed whether this was intentional. Other consequentialist views such as that of Peter Singer tend to emphasise the inclusion of non-human sentient beings into ethical considerations. This view argues that all sentient creates which are by nature able to feel pleasure and pain, are of equal moral consideration for their intrinsic value. Nevertheless, non-sentient beings, such as plants, rivers and ecosystems, are considered to be merely instrumental.


Deontological theories state that an action should be based on duties or obligations to what is right, instead of what is good. In strong contrast to consequentialism, this view argues for principles of duty based not on a function of value, but on reasons that stand beyond the consequences of an action. Something of intrinsic value, then, has to be protected not because its goodness would maximise a wider good, but because it is valuable in itself; not as a means towards something, but as an end in itself. Thus, if the natural environment is categorised as intrinsically valuable, any destruction or damage to such would be considered wrong as a whole rather than merely due to a calculated loss of net value. It can be said that this approach is more holistic in principle than one of consequentialist nature, as it fits more adequately with the delicate balance of large ecosystems.