Finding our Way in a Diverse & Wild World (How to Derive Substantive Principles for Environmental Ethics from Formal Principles of Discourse)

Benjamin Hale *



Every person everywhere wakes up in the morning and goes to bed at night with a set of commitments about the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the virtuous and the vicious. Every person everywhere thinks, for instance, that we ought to help the elderly, that the sick deserve treatment, that we must assist our children or even that one ought not to abuse animals. For the most part, these commitments are relatively stable from day-to-day, such that the commitments I woke up with this morning are similar to the ones I went to bed with last night; and so too the day before, and the day before that. However, every now and then these commitments change, even if only slightly, such that the day-before-yesterday’s commitment is not the same as today’s commitment. Most of the time, there is some event that causes this change—something in our experience that makes it the case that we actively discard what we’d before thought to be morally true and adopt instead a new view about the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the virtuous and the vicious.

In itself, this might be taken as stating the obvious, and the fundamental moral problem might appear to be either (a) to discover what the correct moral ideas are and/or (b) to motivate people to be moved by these correct moral ideas. Nevertheless, my point about these commitments is not that. Rather it is a two-fold point about moral discovery. First, we live in commitment-rich environments that are shaped, in no small part, by the people around us and by our activities within those environments. If our parents have raised us to believe one thing, we may well continue believing that one thing until we have reason to doubt it. If we have lived in a world in which food is available and abundant, for instance, then we may well believe that all the food in the world is available and abundant, until we have reason to abandon this view—perhaps when we encounter our first hungry child. Second, any shift in our commitments comes about not by picking and choosing moral claims that present themselves to us, but rather by actively engaging with other people who also already have commitments, sometimes different than our own; sorting through this huge set of commitments with those people; and evaluating these commitments in the context of the other commitments to which we are already bound; all with the objective of gaining clarity on which commitments make the most sense.

Western ethics, for the most part, is a discipline oriented around investigating moral principles. In its most common instantiation, it is primarily a critical endeavor aimed at filtering out considerations of cultural context, religious upbringing, and the natural environment, all in order to gain clarity on the purest, most unadulterated, most correct moral ideas. Methodologically speaking, its emphasis is on filtering out the “noise” and using reason and insight to get clarity on basic, universal principles.

But our environmental and political conflicts of late ought to cast doubt on this project. As we face monolithic problems like global climate change, resource scarcity, ocean acidification, species and biodiversity loss, runaway air pollution, and an increasingly unmanageable waste stream, among many other small and large problems, 20th century life not only forces us to recognize the significant shortcomings of our past ways of doing things, but also perhaps nudges us to rethink altogether the approach of Western ethical theory, which, as I mentioned, primarily seeks to arrive at moral truths by crowding out all of the important details.


Scope and Principles of Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics is a relatively new subfield of philosophy that intersects with an enormous range of public concerns: business, governance, urban planning, daily livelihood, home economics, among other concerns. It has emerged, in part, from recognition that our past ways of doing things have already gotten us into a heap of trouble; from recognition that if we continue forward on our current path, we may well find ourselves in greater jeopardy. There are, then, a few preliminary points that I should clarify before I address the matter of which principles ought to comprise an environmental ethic.


First, as I mentioned, environmental questions intersect with a huge range of concerns. Our values on the environmental front, perhaps even more than on the interpersonal front, color almost everything we see, do, and buy. Environmental ethical questions are everywhere, so to speak, making such principles readily available for public interrogation, both inside and outside the academy.

Second, clarity on our principles in being good stewards of the earth and citizens of the world is vital. Depending on whichever principles we endorse, we may end up with commitments that are morally, economically, or ecologically unacceptable. If we establish environmental principles primarily in economic terms, as many are inclined to do, ethical standards can be met without much attention to justice or ecological concerns. If we assume instead perhaps a humanistic approach to environmental ethics, there are many technological innovations that could possibly satisfy the standards of an ethical model without meeting any ecological demands. Aggressive industrial agriculture, for instance, could feed millions of people while running roughshod over the rest of the animal and plant kingdom. If, by contrast, we define our principles in ecological terms, there are ways for us to do what each generation can bear but neglect the humanistic dimensions of sustainability. We might allow for massive human die-offs, simply to shrug our shoulders at the unsustainability of spaceship ethics. So, the debates in environmental ethics over the good and the bad principles are really debates over what we how to relate to one another in a way that is sensitive to the world around us.

Third, the current state of affairs is that many environmental positions turn on a relatively narrow conception of the human relationship with the natural world, and in so doing, have crowded out debate from an entire body of literature that has been built up since at least John Muir. From the perspective of those who have been fighting the good environmental fight for a long time, the current environmental discourse offers little new, and much to be wary of. It is enticing to those philosophers and policy makers who have no prior environmental commitments, because many (though not all) variations on extant principles tend to frame nature in the context of resources and “ecosystem services.” On one hand, this introduces environmental considerations into business and policy discussions that hadn’t before taken the environment into account at all. But on the other hand, many of these same environmental views actually also plaster over environmental considerations related to the non-service value of ecosystems, as well as the responsibilities that individual agents have to treat the non-human world with care. That’s very distressing to a lot of environmentalists and environmental ethicists.

Fourth, apart from its real-world implications, the conceptual apparatus of most ethical models legitimates a particular orientation toward right action; an orientation that depends in large part upon contingent and hypothetical imperatives: what we want, what will make us happy, what will increase our welfare, what will work, and so on.  It presumes that the ethical discourse must occur along the axis of what will generate the best outcomes.  In this sense, it simply supplants old debates about what is “best” with debates about what is “sustainable.” That is distressing to some environmental ethicists, like me. It’s not that I think that the older ethical models don’t offer up valuable resources for addressing real-world concerns. It’s that I think that in some senses our contemporary predicament is a consequence of abiding too closely by traditional ethical approaches. At the very minimum, we seem to have gotten off track in some areas.

Fifth, very important, reason to get these principles right: the principles we derive really matter to those to whom they matter. On top of the thorny theoretical issues, there are actual, real-world political and economic forces at work shaping this debate. Architects, urban planners, business owners, politicians…everyone who will be affected by our approaches to the environment has more than a conceptual horse in this race.


How to Approach the Question of Principles

Most of my scholarly work centers on defending the view those incidents of environmental wrongdoing are best characterized as cases in which environmentally relevant actions appear to be unjustified. This is less a view about environmental value and more a view about moral justification, which I understand procedurally.

It is my view that ethics and the project of figuring out what one ought to do is forever unfinished, that it is ultimately a project of seeking a convergence of views amongst many differing positions. As such, it can only ever begin from the set of principles and values that are most common and available to us. If born and raised in the west, the most familiar and prevalent principles come out of the Judeo-Christian tradition and/or related Western philosophical traditions. If born and raised in, say, Qatar or Kuwait or Jordan, the most familiar and prevalent principles come out of Islam or Hinduism and/or any related philosophical or religious traditions of those nations. Both of these wide scope normative categories provide a tremendous resource for us as we seek answers about how to live and sustain our environment in an increasingly globalized world.

This is one reason I have been drawn to the continued work of Prof. Ramadan and Prof. Auda, the project of the Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics more generally, as well as the internationally recognized religious and cultural leaders who participate in the interdisciplinary discussions of CILE. I am deeply interested in working with wider international bodies together to address environmental problems that are, first and foremost, global in scale. Participating in a dialogical space where experts from all backgrounds—text and context, so to speak—can come together to critically engage in culturally and religiously meaningful work has, I think, real prospects for making headway on our increasingly complicated but dire resource and environmental questions.

As an environmental pragmatist, it is my view that principles for right actions are not to be found isolated and alone in the universe—in other words, they cannot be found on a list somewhere—but rather must be talked out and developed through dialogue. There is no pre-written roadmap to doing the right thing. Rather, I am of the mind that we can only look to available ethical and moral resources wherever they are found and work from there.

The most prevalent source of moral and ethical guidance in many cases comes from our deeply held religious and cultural commitments. This is not to say that every religious and cultural commitment is necessarily the right commitment, but only that it is vital for us to begin the ethical discussion somewhere. A great place to start, I think, is by talking with people who know the most about principles to which many people have already committed themselves.

Unfortunately, our existing set of beliefs and duties can only take us so far. The principle, “Be nice to your neighbors,” for instance, works well in many contexts to urge us to be nice to our neighbors, but it does not cover contexts in which our neighbors are not nice to us. All ethical principles are of this nature, whether they come from scripture or from philosophy. This is why we always have to leave our current commitments open to revision.

Inasmuch as this is the case, my work in a way avoids expressly laying out specific or particular principles. Nevertheless, when posed with the question, “what principles are vital to an environmental ethic?” I feel compelled to offer a substantive answer. Therefore, I think the best approach here may be to turn to the repository of knowledge that is contemporary Western environmental ethics and parrot back a set of principles that many others and I find compelling. Before I do that, however, it will make sense to address a few procedural points that may clarify how I think these principles can relate to one another.

What follows in the next two sections are not therefore my own personal principles that is, specific principles that I wholeheartedly endorse and thus do not admit of a defense through the standard rigors of scholarly justification. Rather, I have gleaned them from a library of writers whom I think have made important contributions to environmental ethics. Together these are very important principles, though they sometimes fall into tension with one another. I shall first cover procedural principles that I think can lay the groundwork for addressing more substantive environmental principles. As an environmental pragmatist and advocate of discourse ethics, I think these principles are fundamental to getting at actual and productive environmental policies.


Procedural principles

  1. The Principle of Charity

The Principle of Charity proposes that one ought to try where possible to interpret the claims and behaviors of others in the most reasonable and charitable possible light. For instance, if Smith says to Jones that one ought to provide support to the sick, Jones may well interpret Smith as proposing such a policy in order that Smith will be able to benefit in some way, whether monetarily or through political support. Such an interpretation is not only plausible, but a common refrain for contemporary analysts of politics. Not only may Jones think such things of Smith, but it may even be true that Smith could benefit if support were provided to the sick.

Suppose for instance that Smith is a healthcare provider. If support is provided to the sick, he clearly stands to benefit. The interpretation of Smith’s endorsement of the view that support ought to be provided to the sick ought not to be evaluated on whether Smith will or will not benefit from such a policy. The more charitable interpretation of Smith’s claim would be to suppose that Smith honestly and earnestly endorses the view that support is owed to the unhealthy, and independently of whether he is a healthcare provider, an unhealthy person, or a plumber, his claim ought to be taken on its merits.

In the environmental context, this is particularly salient, as many accuse environmental scientists of seeking to trump up environmental claims on grounds that those scientists are exaggerating their findings in order to line their pockets with grant money and prestige. This is a common refrain against climate science, for instance. Nevertheless, the claims of the climate science community ought to be taken as genuinely robust scientific findings.

A related refrain comes from the other side of the political ledger. Some charge that petroleum and gas companies cannot and ought not to contribute to the climate discussion because their economic interests are too wrapped up in the outcome of such policy debates. The same principle of charity ought to apply to the gas and petroleum industry as well.

There are many theoretical justifications for such a principle, but the pragmatic and conceptual justifications are the justifications I find most plausible. That is, on the pragmatic front, we simply cannot make any progress at all if we construe the efforts of all affected parties as fundamentally self-interested. The collective political discourse becomes a pushing and shoving match and does not serve to advance the interests of any parties except the most powerful. On the conceptual front, if we think of reasons what it might take to invalidate a claim, the source of the claim cannot possibly make a difference in whether the claim bears on the argument.

In a slightly different context, the principle of charity applies directly to the intercultural dialogues initiated by the scholars at CILE, and I think is reflected in the spirit of CILE. There are innumerable ways in which to view or evaluate the claims of interlocutors that are uncharitable—one can assume, simply, that claims are uttered from, and behaviors taken from, a position of malice or cynicism—but it is almost always helpful to assume that interlocutors are working and acting from the standpoint of humanity. We have seen such uncharitable assumptions time and again provide the basis for discounting the very real concerns of religious and non-religious communities. What is most vital is that all parties attribute charitable intentions to speakers


  1. Principles of Universalization and Discourse

Following from the Principle of Charity, I would also borrow from the highly conceptual work of Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel the Principles of Discourse and the Principles of Universalization. (This is a bit technical, so please forgive the dip into theory, but I do think it is important.) Here is the Principle of Universalization as articulated by Habermas: “(U) All affected can accept the consequences and the side effects that [the norm's] general observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone's interests, and the consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation. (Habermas, 1991:65)”

Habermas’s thought is that whatever norm (or maxim, or principle, or policy) is proposed, that norm ought to be acceptable to all affected parties. The idea, fundamentally, is to get acting parties to conceive of how the application of the principle would apply universally. In this respect, it very much resembles Immanuel Kant’s Formula of Universalization, which is the first formulation of his Categorical Imperative.

Here is the Principle of Discourse as articulated by Habermas: “(D) Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse.”

Where the principle of Universalization aims at clarity on the universal application of a principle, the Principle of Discourse aims at getting all affected parties to recognize that they are always already (immer schon) involved in the deliberative process and therefore, that they cannot abdicate their responsibilities as citizens of the universe. The idea for Habermas is that a rule such as (D) is constitutive to discourse in a way that is fundamental to the proper functioning of discourse. "Must not anyone who even understands the meaning of the normative claims he makes (or assumes as valid) accept some principle like (D)?"[1] The axiom is therefore meant to reflect a constitutive rule of discourse and not merely a regulative rule of discourse.

If I propose that it is wrong to lie, I do so with the expectation that I can convince all participants to discourse that I am correct.  I expect this, in fact, because it would be impossible for me to claim, honestly and forthrightly, that it is wrong for people to lie, without expecting that I would be able to convince others of my rightness. That I believe I can convince others of my rightness attests to my belief in the validity of the claim, and whether or not I can actually convince others must be trotted out through discourse.  No matter the actual validity of my claim, I make the claim under the assumption that it could pass the test of (D).

Where (U) requires that all affected can accept the consequences, (D) requires that the only norms acceptable as valid must be approved by all affected. (D) Is therefore a stricter requirement, demanding that all affected approve the norm, as well as be able to accept the consequences, which is the minimal requirement of (U). What makes these principles unique is that together they require the participation of affected parties. Ethical deliberation cannot be merely the private deliberations of a lone theorist who offers up universally valid norms for all rational persons, as some Kantians have proposed with the Categorical Imperative. Rather our only system of checks and balances on our moral norms is fundamentally dialogical: meaning, essentially, that these cross-cultural dialogues are essential to isolating critical principles[2].


  1. The Principle of Toleration and Mutual Respect

Inasmuch as we are all reliant upon commitments to the good and the bad in our daily lives, and inasmuch as the source of these principles is essentially that of our upbringing and environment, it is important for any of us who hope to get clarity on such moral principles to enter into discourse with one another in a way that is tolerant and mutually respectful. We cannot expect that all comers will approach the table with the same view about right and wrong.

Ethics is, at its base, about finding agreement, about arriving at a mutually satisfactory understanding so that we can proceed forward with the rest of our daily business. We simply cannot hope to arrive at agreement about principles of a good environmental ethic if we do not enter into our ethical discussions from a position of respect for other moral systems.


Substantive Principles and Metaethical Positions

Now it may make sense to look at a few more substantive principles and metaethical positions that really do play a direct role in our relationship to and with the environment. As I have mentioned, each of these principles and/or positions are generalized and are well represented in the literature. They are not so much drawn from my own work, but rather are positions that I think are both compelling and, in some ways, controversial.


  1. Value Pluralism

There is a real tendency in the contemporary marketplace and in the environmental policy literature to assume value monism. That is, to assume that all axiological considerations can be filtered down to one type of value. Therefore, for instance, utilitarians will sometimes speak as though the only thing in the world that matters is utility; and economists will sometimes speak as though the only thing in the world that matters is some specific monetary unit, like the dollar or the dinar. However, just as the history of ethics has demonstrated that value monism is at minimum a contentious view, so do questions of environmental value further accentuate the challenge to monism.

To give a relatively simple example: most goods in the marketplace are excludable and rival, meaning that they can be traded between one another at prices that stabilize at efficiency points. I can trade you two apples for one orange, and I might do so on grounds that I would prefer to have an orange to my two apples. Such a view assumes that the value to me of an orange is commensurate with the value of an apple. This is what permits me to trade the object I get greater utility out of the trade and this is what justifies using a monetary currency as a proxy for this utility. We can trade apples and oranges because they have a price characterizable in dollars or dinars. Many other objects in the world are also excludable and non-rival—like movie theaters and wireless internet meaning that they can be traded amongst and between persons without causing too much trouble. Where still other objects in the world are non-excludable but still rival, like most of the common pool resources with which we are all familiar.

Nevertheless, not all objects in the world are like this. Some objects in the world are non-excludable and non-rival, meaning that they are essentially free and available to all. Here is a helpful chart that I think underscores the need to look elsewhere for characterizations of value.



This chart is helpful, I believe, because while it does cover a huge range of possible goods, it is also quite obviously not exhaustive. There are still many things in the world entities, objects, lives, etc. that do not naturally find a home in any one of these quadrants. Many things in the world, in other words, are completely orthogonal to characterizations as goods in the first place. “The best things in life aren’t things,” or so the saying goes. What this implies has significant repercussions for the marketization of everything.

The value of my son’s life, for instance, is not commensurate with the value of an apple. It is not even comparable with an apple. If someone asks me how much I will sell my son for, this question operates according to a very different axiology. Someone who asks this question does not understand what my son’s value is; and does not understand that my son’s value cannot be captured in dollars or dinars. The same can be said of many other things in the environment. Ecosystem services, for instances. In some contexts, it makes sense to talk about the benefits that a watershed may provide to the human population. However, these contexts are limited, in a way, to the economic marketplace. The value of the watershed ought not to be limited the monetary value of its services.

Now, none of this is to say that it is not possible to put a price on environmental objects. Certainly, we do so all the time. Rather, it is to say that the presumption of value monism throughout the environmental policy discussion presents a tremendous challenge to those who think that there are many ways in which something in the world might be valued.

A lot of what I have been trying to focus on in my recent work is a view of environmental problems that distinguishes the environmental good from the environmental right. I have been centering on the negative side of this equation, on the bad and the wrong, with the primary objective of decoupling environmental harm from pain, costs, and/or consequences. I think one can do wrong by the environment that one can do wrong by others, even if those others may in fact be benefitted or made better by some action and that this is more characteristic of environmental problems than that simple damage has been done.

For instance, it is common to suggest that some given act is right if it brings about a better state of the world, or at least, that thing is permissible if it avoids a worse state of the world.  In the case of environmentally related actions, one might suggest that one should clean up toxic spills if they make the world better, but maybe not if it will be too costly. The thought here is that we can look at the balance of costs versus benefits and make a determination about what to do based on overall benefits, or in many cases, overall welfare. This is a very standard way of thinking about environmental issues, and it rears its head particularly aggressively, albeit slightly differently, in the sustainability debate.


  1. Non-Maleficence

Perhaps the next most important principle for environmental ethics takes its stepping off point directly from the biomedical ethics literature. Many in the medical community accept the principle that one ought to “first, do no harm.” In theory, this principle implores the actor to avoid making a person or a moral patient worse off than they might otherwise be. Therefore, for instance, if a heart surgeon must operate on a patient, this surgeon would be following good medical practices if he were to operate only under the circumstances that the patient would not be harmed. In these and other instances, harm may seem inevitable, as there is some sense in which the patient will certainly be harmed by the surgery.

In the environmental context, such a principle applies equally well, and is sometimes expressed as the principle that we should tread lightly in the world. This principle therefore depends heavily on an appeal to consequences: we should tread lightly in the world because if we do not tread lightly, the consequences of doing otherwise will be grave. Such reasoning allows an escape from charges that we are being environmental villains, so long as we are responsible about leaving a small footprint, consequentially speaking. The problem I have and it is an old problem, so I am by no means the first to point it out, is that there are many repugnant ways to leave a small footprint. I can leave a small footprint by violating your rights, for instance. I can build my giant solar power plant in an area that is important to your tribe or that is a unique ecosystem.

Matter of fact, the criteria specified by almost all conceptions of sustainability can be met in all ranges of dystopia relatively easily. There is no reason that we cannot chop down the forest and plant more rapidly growing trees that will sustainably provide us with the wood we need. For that matter, we can mow down all of nature and live relatively sustainably. Therefore, that is one big problem: many conceptions of sustainability do not actually end up putting substantive limits on what can be done. 

In a policy context, a stringently applied principle of non-maleficence might be interpreted to commit parties to policies of strict Pareto Improvements. That is, one might understand the principle of non-maleficence to require that no person or patient is made worse off by the implementation of that policy. Nevertheless, it is not clear why or how such a Pareto Principle is necessarily entailed by the principle of non-maleficence. This is why we need a more positive principle, like the next one.


  1. Beneficence

Speaking in general terms, the principle of Beneficence relates to actions of kindness and charity. The idea is that one must take actions that are beneficial or that aid other persons. In the environmental context, the principle of beneficence must be applied to non-human entities in nature. Here it suggests that doing right by others may, at minimum, be a standard up to which we ought to live. Some assume naturally that the Principle of Non-Maleficence is identical with the Principle of Beneficence, but the two are actually quite distinct. This distinction is perhaps most prevalent in the biomedical ethics literature, where some suggest that medical practitioners not only have a negative obligation to do no harm, but actively have an obligation to advance the interests of their patients.

Therefore, there is actually an important difference between the two principles. Both principles, the negative non-maleficence and the more positive beneficence principle, are “patient-oriented,” meaning that a great deal will depend on isolating a community of morally considerable patients, or status holders. For instance, we will need to determine which entities matter morally. Do we limit the moral community to human beings, do we expand it out to include other quasi-rational mammals, or do we extend even wider, to include entities that can intelligently be said to have interests?

Once this is established, some fair bit of further work will need to be done to determine what the environmental good is. In what sense can we say that nature is harmed, or that nature is benefitted by our actions?


  1. Double Effect

The Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) permits the creation of some bad states of affairs provided that these bad states of affairs were not the objective or the intention of the act. Far from an obvious presumption, this principle is actually quite disputed. It is most often invoked in the context of war. Consider, for instance, that sometimes innocent bystanders will be harmed or killed by the acts of aggression. Some theorists argue that under no circumstances ought “collateral damage” to be tolerated; others argue that if a war is justified, and appropriate precautions are taken to protect innocent bystanders, then some collateral damage is justified.

Such a principle is important to environmental activities since, if we take the idea of environmental harms seriously, so very many of our daily activities will involve some degree of harm to non-human entities. Every forest we cut to make space for a new building, every reef we destroy to build a new port, every animal we displace in constructing our communities—without a robust defense of the DDE, such activities ought to be proscribed.

Please note, however, that while such considerations may in fact apply to non-human environmental entities; animals, plants, ecosystems, etc. I do not at all want to imply that DDE in a wartime context is clear. Rather, I only want to point out sometimes our industriousness and activities will take a toll on the environment. It may well be that when it comes to harms to persons, we have many further considerations.


Separateness of Patients

Many contemporary economists and philosophers (consequentialists, primarily) are prone to deny the principle that persons are separate. What they deny is that utilities or goods between persons are unique to every person. This permits the aggregation of utilities across persons so that, say, it makes sense to speak in general aggregate welfare terms. However, this is another mistaken assumption. It is mistaken in part because it completely ignores justice considerations about the distributions of benefits and burdens. For instance, it would appear to suggest that a community (A) of one thousand people with, say, $1B would be better off than a community (B) of one thousand people with $999 M. This would be true even if in A the distribution were such that one person held all of the $1B and 999 people had nothing, whereas in B if all of the people had a bit less than $1M each. The same applies in many ways to non-human animals as well.

There is a real tendency in the environmental literature to assert that environmental problems admit of this same sort of welfare aggregationism. Nevertheless, not all environmental problems can be so easily aggregated out. The interests and needs of a single Oryx are not aggregately across another single animal like an Arabian camel. It is of course true that the Oryx and the camel may be similarly constructed, and thus have parallel experiences, but the two individuals and their interests cannot be taken into consideration in isolation of their significance to their own species and to the human communities that value them. It is important, therefore, that we distinguish between and among individual entities and that, we accept that good and bad may not accrue evenly between all of these entities.


The Moral Considerability of Everything

However, this raises another, further point. For basically the entire history of the earth, ‘moral status’, or the question of what matters morally, has been answered by suggesting that the set of humans is equivalent with the set of moral patients. As we have learned more about the non-human environment and ourselves, however ethicists have been arguing more persuasively for expanding the circle of moral status. The idea has been slow to take root, but the approach has been one primarily of arguing for equal moral treatment. That is, the idea has been to insist upon a stark division between entities that deserve moral status and entities that do not deserve moral status.

In recent years, many theorists have called into question the very idea of moral status, suggesting that the question is actually much more complicated than it might first appear. I, for one, have argued that the question is at least three questions rolled in one: a question about consideration, a question about relevance, and a question about significance. What I have suggested, drawing from the work of others, is that a key ethical complication has been to assume that some things in the world need not be considered at all—which can explain how humanity has managed to develop and destroy so many natural areas without completely thinking through the consequences.

One reason why this has been the case, I believe, is that our approach to moral status has been binary: either something has it, in which case one must thoughtfully examine how one treats that something; or that something doesn’t have it, in which case one need not reflect at all on the treatment of that something. This is a mistake. Instead it is more helpful to view the moral status question as a question about whether we must consider some entity (moral considerability); to what extent we must evaluate those considerations (moral relevance); and how much weight we should give the relevant considerations (moral significance). Breaking the moral status question down into these three parts actually admits of a much more nuanced approach to moral status. For if we accept the principle that everything in the world is morally considerable, though perhaps not morally significant, then, we it is easier to see that we cannot run roughshod over anything we so desire, but must also bear in mind that some things in the world take moral precedence over others.



Perhaps a follow-on key consideration relates to the view, widely accepted throughout Western philosophy, that the individual has priority over the community. Such a view permits individual actors to pursue their own self-interest to the exclusion of the interests of others. Many environmental ethicists have argued against this view and pointed out how the atomism of more individualistic worldviews allows little room for addressing community concerns. They also point out how the problem extends beyond human communities to apply also to ecosystems and species, notions that are fundamental to ecology. The concern of many individualists, naturally, is that the interests of the individual will be one unique feature of communities is that they are trans-generationally consistent.

That is, if any individual member of a community leaves, disappears, or dies, this does not necessarily also therefore put the community in jeopardy. For instance, when a quarter of the students at the University of Colorado, Boulder graduate every spring, even though this is a substantial number of people, the University community stays roughly the same. This holds obviously not only for immediate shifts in composition, but also for long-term shifts in composition. It is partly what makes it possible for us to talk about people and cultures. Therefore, we might talk about Islam or Christianity or Hinduism and refer to all the many millions of people who consider themselves members of this community, though any specific composition of those people is not necessary to talk about Islam or Christianity or Hinduism.

Another unique feature of communities is that quite often, at least in human instances, they offer an incredibly rich source of norms and values. Take Islam again as an example. We are engaged in this discussion right now with scholars and religious leaders in part because these are important communities that very much inform our thinking about how we ought to live and what we ought to do. In most instances, these communities offer a rich source of intersubjectively validated norms. A person whom we respect, a Scholar or Professor or Mufti, perhaps, offers up a claim about what we ought to do. This accord with his studied reading of Islamic Law. It is an honest and earnest attempt to understand how best to approach the law. We listeners evaluate that claim based on commitments that we already have, the reliability of the speaker, and then, presumably, we adopt that view as our own.

As I mentioned above, Western philosophers have for too long assumed that to understand norms properly, one must first distance oneself from one’s own cultural and religious contexts. However, this is an extremely naïve way to think about norms and values. We all are raised in very diverse, rich, and complicated cultural contexts in which the pulling and tugging of questions about how we ought to live ethical questions shape our everyday experiences. Though the approaches of Western philosophy may work for the natural sciences, they cannot be applied in the same way to human norms. Sure, the scientific method has worked to dispel us of illusions and to help us get a grip on how the world works, but ethics does not work like that. Ethicists cannot simply look out into the world, observe the movement of gears and levers, and then make assessments or proclamations as to how we ought to behave. They must rely on the best reasons, the best judgments, and the best conclusions that work and resonate with the communities within which we are already situated. We can never escape our own cultural context.

Our raw materials, so to speak, are the norms to which we are already committed. And the most reliable source of norms is our religious and local community. This is at least one reason why the CILE projects are vital to generating a cross-cultural, ethical dialogue. In my view, it is a mistake for ethicists to believe that they can evacuate their heads of everything they have learned over their lives, lean back on their intuitions, and derive important ethical principles. Maybe even more apropos, it is a mistake for Western philosophers to think that even if they could derive these important ethical principles, that these principles would appropriately lend themselves to a context in which they were not already a part. For this reason, not only is community an important procedural principle, but also an important substantive principle. We must cultivate our local communities as rich sources of value and norms; and we must acknowledge that norms express themselves through cultural and religious commitments.



Stemming from this emphasis on community then, we can derive another important principle of environmental ethics: the Principle of Care. Many of the principles that I isolated above are principles rooted in the notion of impartiality. If there is an injunction against harming, for instance, this injunction holds against all entities that can be harmed. However, theorists who write in the tradition of care ethics emphasize a slightly different approach. Rather than emphasizing impartiality, they suggest that there are good reasons to be partial. Just as a mother has more reason to care for her child than for the child of another, so too can the same principle be extended in an environmental context. Maybe the way around these conundrums posed by an emphasis on community is to begin looking locally and regionally for communities toward which we can direct our attitudes of care.

There are, to be certain, many more principles from which I could draw. I had considered including personal integrity as an important principle, which I mean in primarily Kantian terms. Essentially, if one is going to advance and endorse certain principles, then it is important to not only advance these principles, but also to, where possible, live by these principles; or, at least, to seek out contradictions where they may lie. Equally, I had considered advancing the principle of Respect for Others, where in the context of environmentalism this means Respect for Everything.

Unfortunately, there is nowhere near enough space to give these principles the attention they deserve. Instead, we will have to leave the book of important environmental principles open and perpetually unfinished. I think our task as citizens of the world is to work together to find and employ these principles, to modify them where necessary, but to remain true to the other principles that we hold dear.


The Wrap

Every one of our actions has some impact on the world. When I pull a product off the shelf, I do not simply make a choice to purchase the product, I make a commitment, however tiny, to a particular way of life. That is as true for small purchases as it is for larger purchases.  In fact, that is true for non-commercial actions as well. If I help a stray kitten, I endorse a point of view that attributes standing to that kitten. Since philosophy is concerned primarily with the assessment, defense, and scrutiny of first principles, and since it takes the argument as its basic unit of scholarship, philosophy can help environmental policy makers, consultants, scientists, and planners clarify their principles, values, and objectives it can help unveil the commitments that underlie their actions. It can help guide people toward laudable goals and help identify when they have gone off the rails. To do this, however, it must not feign isolation or objectivity. Ethics is a dialogical enterprise in which all of us, those of us who wake each morning with a set of commitments, are necessarily engaged. Without engaging one another dialogically, it is a doomed enterprise; and so, we must work together to find principles that underscore which commitments will work for our communities and our environments.

To put this a little differently, we need to develop practical channels that open dialogue on the values concerns that assail those in other disciplines. For too long the mainstream academic philosopher has thought of her job as akin to that of an anthropologist: saddled with the task of unearthing and analyzing paradoxes; focusing primarily on a narrow set of general questions: about whether it is permissible to harm animals, for instance, or whether trees have moral standing. This has translated into a relatively small body of literature that offers a direct prescription for, on one hand, individual action, regarding whether one should be a vegetarian, or whether one should drive a hybrid; or, on the other hand, for government action, regarding, say, whether it is permissible to torture, or when a war is just. The environmental debate is somewhat different because its intersections with so many lives in so many parts of the world.

I prefer to understand the book of environmental principles as a fundamentally dynamic, ongoing, unfinished project: in terms of what can be justified to the full range of affected parties, by which I include non-human parties as well. In short, we need to allow for contextualized and particularized judgment to play a role in whatever it is that is environmentally responsible. That has not to say that the key principles will vary from year to year, from culture to culture. Rather, it is to say that a discussion about environmental responsibilities will require the judgment of rational and reasonable parties, and that this is an unfinished, ongoing project. It is from the input of affected parties that we can find our substantive norms and our specificity on principles.


Dr Benjamin Hale "Perspective on Environmental Issues" during CILE Seminar on "Islamic Ethics and Environment"



* Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder. He presented this research paper in CILE seminar on “Islamic Ethics and Environment” which took place in Doha on January 4-6, 2014.

[1] Rehg, W. (1997). Insight and Solidarity: The Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas (Berkeley: U of California Press). pp. 34.

[2] The main idea behind both of the principles is that of reconfiguring the Kantian requirement that maxims be universalizable according to the mental exercises of isolated intellectuals. Habermas has responded to one of the major flaws in Kantian ethics: that without the counterbalance of various perspectives and more-or-less informed theories of the good; the Kantian project is all form and no content. He therefore approaches universalization from the perspective of intersubjectivity and argues that establishing intersubjective verification for moral justifications will not only provide Kant with his much-needed content, but also overcome many of the other problems endemic to Kantian moral theory.

The two principles create a proving ground for norms by requiring that subjects take into consideration the interests of others whom they can feasibly understand.  They are required to do this specifically and exclusively with other participants to discourse because participants to discourse have recognizable interests that can be both (a) expressed and clarified through discourse and (b) symmetrically recognized by acting subjects.  However, importantly, the interests of the other (conceived broadly) are to be taken into consideration only by means of discourse because, Habermas seems to indicate, we subject can often be wrong about interests.  By allowing participants to articulate their own interests, discourse provides a valuable corrective to injustice, and so must therefore maintain its priority over other principles. Nevertheless, this cannot be the only reason that Habermas comes down so strongly on the side of participants to discourse.

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