Do we need environmental ethics?

Environmental ethics is a field of applied ethics concerned with the ethical dimension of human relationship towards nature. The term environmental ethics covers a variety of approaches that can be roughly divided into two camps: anthropocentrism and non-anthropocentrism. Anthropocentrism refers to a human-centered approach to environmental problems that protects nature for humans. Radical anthropocentrism is often equated with the view that only human beings have intrinsic value, and sees nature as having only instrumental value. Non-anthropocentrism encompasses a variety of approaches connected by the belief that nonhuman entities also have value that is not reducible to anthropocentric interests. It often questions the propriety of human interests and preferences as a sufficient basis for environmental decision-making (Routley 1973). Environmental ethics is inherently pluralistic, representing a wide variety of socio-environmental values and beliefs. Its overarching goal is to prompt change in collective practices and individual behaviours.

Environmental ethics developed as a separate field of enquiry and action in response to the fact that ecological crisis is driven by human activities (Attfield 2017). Even though it is difficult to predict the scope and speed of environmental change—such as biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change—the scientific community rests on consensus that contemporary environmental problems are humanly induced (see Gardiner 2010 in relation to climate change). This recognition led to problematising the human-environment relationship in ethical terms, and looking at environmental problems as moral ones.

Social change fostered by environmental ethics is meant to counteract what is believed to underlie the unsustainable, extractive paradigm of human activities: the attitude of dominion and the instrumentalist view of nature ingrained in the Western system of values. In this broad sense, environmental ethics advocacy diverges from the dominant neoliberal paradigm with its focus on human-centred values, markets and economic growth. But according to some environmental pragmatists, such a strong normative position and the rhetoric of intrinsic value may impair its capacity to induce a broader change because it is too detached from the existing social and political reality (e.g., Minter 2012, Norton 1984). There are also concerns about the effectiveness of grounding environmental action on moral foundations for different reasons. For example, John Pezzey points that relying on moral progress and philosophical arguments to really make a difference may be too slow; instead, appeals to solid scientific information may provide a sound and sufficient basis for expanding our horizons and motivating actions for sustainability (Pezzey 1992).

It looks as if the choice is between moral arguments and some kind of rationalism, or even scientism. Do we need an environmental ethics? I claim that we do. In face of scientific uncertainty regarding the scope of environmental hazards, we cannot avoid making judgments that are as much about values as they are about facts. Indeed, access to solid information is an important aspect of advancing environmental responsibility. But our beliefs about the world—which include moral beliefs and values—impact our perception and assessment of scientific information. Environmental ethics can facilitate expanding scientific horizons by looking outside of the box of our received systems of beliefs.

The dominant socio-economic practices exacerbate ecological problems and widen inequalities. Alternatives emerging in response to these problems call for a new societal narrative for economic practices (e.g., Daly and Cobb 1994, Söderbaum 2008). Environmental ethics articulates a trend that counteracts the extractive paradigm of human practices, unfettered economic growth, and insatiable human desires. A new societal narrative inspired by environmental ethics is based on the recognition of our share in the current, unbalanced situation. It is founded on ethical values of responsibility towards each other and the world, reverence for life, and respect towards other people and the planet (e.g., Schweitzer 1993, Leopold 1994).

The alternative paradigm informed by environmental concerns aims to challenge the status quo and implement a profound change in how we use our limited resources. That means a necessity of a complete makeover of economy, society, and individual behaviours. Such transition is urgently needed in order to move socio-economic systems towards a more sustainable and responsible modus operandi (cf. Dereniowska and Matzke 2014). It can be sustainably achieved by shifting emphasis on what matters to us. For example, a new narrative may promote sufficiency over efficiency and expanding our measures of success in welfare and well-being to better include environmental factors. This paradigmatic shift may also involve changing the norms of socio-economic interactions from those of competition and a search for profit towards more cooperation and appreciation of non-monetary values for a sustainable economy and society. Such a change will be more robust if it is based on a redefinition of the human relationship with nature from that of dominion over nature towards stewardship, duly noting our place within nature (not above it). 

Issues linked to environmental ethics broaden the scope of a normative reflection in economics and about economics in society. For example, this perspective helps to account for intrinsic motivation to care for nature. For many people nature has value on its own, independently of its usefulness for humans (see a study of Butler & Acott 2007 on the social perception of the intrinsic value of nature). Environmental ethics articulates these moral intuitions and promotes environmental values in wider society. It also stimulates some game-changing concerns for public policy. For instance, without sustainable environment there can be no sustainable economy. Preserving the environment means preserving conditions of life for us and for the non-human world. Furthermore, environmental problems are transborder issues, and it is our collective responsibility to address them in a global perspective. Adequate policy solutions will require curbing economic freedom through social justice and environmental regulations. The arising questions about the limits to growth and models for sustainable economies are deeply normative and become unavoidable. To answer them, economists need to team up with environmental and social scientists, and ethicists.

What we chose to value and to preserve ultimately says something about us. Through our practiced values we are co-writing a societal narrative that shapes our society and economy. A stance that is oblivious to values in virtue of ethical neutrality is still a normative choice that says something about us. Environmental ethics can encourage us to take a stand in times of crisis. It can also inform alternative principles of resource allocation and socio-economic security. Since the economics education for the most part is driven by the perspective that separates economic reasoning from moral one, engaging with environmental ethics has potential to open up alternative ways of thinking on contemporary problems. 


Attfield, R. (2014). Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Polity.

Bullard, R. D. (2005). The Quest for Environmental Justice. Human Rights and the Politics of Recognition. Berkeley: Counterpoint.

Butler, W. F. and T. G. Acott. (2007). An inquiry concerning the acceptance of intrinsic value theories of nature” Environmental Values 12(2): 149–168.

Daly, H. E. and J. B. Cobb. (1994). For the common good. Redirecting the economy toward community, the environment, and a sustainable future. Boston: Beacon Press. 

Dereniowska, M. and J. Matzke. (2014). Interdisciplinary foundations for environmental and sustainability ethics: An introduction. Ethics in Progress 5(1): 07-32. 

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Schweitzer, A. (1993). Reverence for Life. The Words of Albert Schweitzer. Compiled by H. E. Robles. Harper Collins.

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