Applying Ethical Theories to Environment


Jeremy Bentham 


  • Bentham centred his ideas on the notion of sentience 
    • The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?
  • His approach can be said to be sentient being centred 
  • This suggests that factoring in Bentham’s famous Principle of Utility, animals cannot be ignored when making ethical decisions
  • While problems such as deforestation and pollution were more recognised after Bentham’s time, this can be applied as such issues do negatively affect animal populations
    • Therefore we must limit actions which cause suffering to sentient beings, including humans and animals
  • Bentham does not qualify whether he considers human rights to be on a par with animal rights, which makes it difficult to apply Benthamite utilitarianism to environment
    • When using the Hedonic calculus to make an ethical decisions concerning the environment for example, would one factor in the pain caused to an animal as equal to the pain of a human? This would affect decisions
  • Modern utilitarians may apply a cost benefit analysis when making environmental decisions
    • This causes several problems; how can one quantify natural beauty or aesthetic pleasure compared to revenue?
    • Should environmental decisions be made based upon a formulaic system? One weakness of utilitarianism is that it is entirely consequentialist yet we cannot predict the consequences of our actions
  • However, Greg Craven in his book “What’s the Worst that Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate” successfully uses a cost benefit analysis in order to argue for action protecting the environment, suggesting that the theory could have some merit in making more general decisions in environmental ethics
  • (Greg’s argument)

John Stuart Mill


  • Mill took a more anthropocentric approach to the environment
  • He argued that biodiversity is actually maintained by humans, taking Kew gardens as an example the lavish grounds & plants do not arise naturally, without gardeners the place would succumb to grasses & weeds
    • While this is true in some environments where dominant species naturally arise and reduce biodiversity (grasslands, moors), this is definitely not the case across the globe, the rain forest being a clear example
  • Mill argued that nature is cruel, stating that the things humans are sent to prison for are “nature’s everyday performances”
  • He argued that the reason behind preserving the environment should be for human benefit
  • Mill notoriously viewed animals as lower than humans, labelling “lower pleasures” as animalistic drives
  • As a qualitative utilitarian, Mill recognised the significance of natural beauty and aesthetic pleasure, the beauty of the natural environment should be preserved due to this

Peter Singer 

Australian philosopher Peter Singer poses for an portrait at Yale University Press office in London

  • Peter Singer was strongly against speciesism and viewed animals and humans as equals
  • Speciesism draws an arbitrary line
  • He too took a sentient being centred approach
  • Singer also favoured his theory of preference utilitarianism – considering the preferences of all those involved
    • In the case of environment, this included animals
  • However animal preferences can be difficult to assume (the very fact of this already suggests speciesism does not draw an “arbitrary” line but whatever), as already argued by Mill animals often do not act with the preferences of others or even themselves (in the long term) in mind

Kantian Ethics 


  • Kant’s theory of ethics is generally seen as very anthropocentric due to his distinction that humans are separate from animals due to their faculty of rationality
  • However Kant makes the distinction that animals should not be abused and that there are moral limits regarding the treatment of animals
    • Animals must not be overworked or abused
  • Kant saw killing animals for food (human survival) as fine, but for sport as wrong
  • This originates from his belief that people who take pleasure in abusing, using and killing animals are likely to treat humans with similar disrespect due to their lack of empathy
    • While Kant states animals are not rational, he does not deny that they are sentient & so can feel pain, for a human to inflict such pain is to act without a moral conscience
  • On a wider level, abuse of the environment such as pollution or deforestation cannot be universalised under the first formulation of the categorical imperative, therefore making such actions unethical
  • Therefore while Kant notes that humans are superior due to their rationality and that the environment can and should be used to allow the survival of humans, he does not condone abuse of the environment, its resources or animals

Virtue Ethics 

  • Environmental virtue ethics does not ask why environmental preservation is important, for humanity or otherwise, but rather views what characterises an environmentally good person
  • To respect and protect the environment fits in well with the virtues and therefore allows humans to reach eudaimonia

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