Lecture 02/Prompt 02: Relationship of Ethics and Environmental Ethics
Take Away Points:
- Define moral standard and moral unit
- Define consequentialism and deontology
- Understand anthropocentric vs non-anthropocentric
Ethics is ultimately about how we ought to live. The actual answer to the question of how we should live has taken many forms, all of which I suspect you will recognize in some form or another. Here are two: “We must create the greatest happiness for the greatest number” and “We must respect the natural dignity of every individual.” The first is an example of consequentialism (specifically, utilitarianism); the second, deontology. Alone, these phrases don’t necessarily tell us much. But if we understand the meaning behind them they can be used to guide how we live our life and act towards others.
The basic contents of ethics can be understand as being about two things: moral standards and moral units. Moral units are what we are actually concerned with when we talk about what is right or wrong. Consequentialism, for instance, is not interested primarily in individuals, but in the consequences of individuals’ actions. The moral unit for consequentialism then is consequences: what state do consequences bring. Consequentialism judges consequences and it is only because an individual brings about good or bad consequences that an individual can be judged morally good or bad.
Of course, the moral unit alone is not particularly useful. Think about consequences for a moment. There are an awful lot of different consequences. We need to know what makes a consequence good and a consequence bad in order to make a moral judgment. This is where moral standards come in. Moral standards are the measure by which we determine if a moral unit is good or bad. Utilitarianism, a form of consequentialism, defines a good consequence as one that creates the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people. With a moral standard articulated, we can now look at individual examples of consequences and determine if an individual did right or wrong.
Consider this example: an individual has an opportunity to give money to charity. The general consensus seems to be that it would be morally right for the individual to actually donate to the charity. With our moral standard and moral unit in place, consequentialism can explain why we think that: giving money to charity would create more pleasure for more people than not giving to charity. Likewise, we can explain why robbing someone might be wrong as well because it decreases the amount of pleasure in the world.
Different moral philosophies take different moral units and standards (although sometimes the difference is very nuanced). Deontology is based on duties–there are set duties that you should always do, like refrain from killing (to take an easy example). Importantly, this means that it is not the outcome of any particular action that matters. In other words, deontology is not concerned with what state the consequences of an action bring into being. Deontology has a different moral unit than consequentialism. Deontology instead values intention. In short, this means that if an individual intends to fulfill a duty and acts with the intention of fulfilling a duty, then that person acted morally, i.e. did the right thing, regardless of whether the action succeeds or not. In this case, if a careful driver sets out on the way home, but partway there a child runs out into the street, is hit by the driver’s car, and is killed, then the driver did nothing morally wrong because the driver did not intend to kill the child. Rather, the driver intended to safely drive home. According to deontology because the driver did not have the intention to kill the child, the driver did nothing wrong. In contrast, consequentialism would say that because the killing of the child decreased the happiness in the world the driver did something morally wrong.
And so on and so forth.
Environmental ethics is related to traditional ethics in two basic ways: the extension of traditional ethics to non-human beings and the creation of new ethical standards and units derived from the contemplation of nature.
The first option (extension) works by taking an existing ethical theory and expanding it to include things like non-human animals. This is the most common move in environmental ethics. The first reading in the Animal Rights and Liberation unit, by Peter Singer, uses this strategy to argue that utilitarianism (remember, a form of consequentialism) should take into account the pleasure and pain of non-human animals. In the case of consequentialism, extension is fairly straightforward. If what matters is how much pleasure or pain is caused by an action, then the debate is about whose pain or pleasure matters. In traditional consequentialism only human pain or pleasure matters, but it is not clear why this should be the case.
Likewise, deontology is a set of duties and these duties can be extended to nature. Extension, however, is more difficult for deontology. Depending on the version of deontology, these duties are produced from some kind of rule or are intuitive and innate. Kantian deontology (named after the originator, Immanuel Kant) is the default example for rule-based duties. It starts from this rule: never use others as a mere tool, but as beings capable of deciding their own goals. To never lie would then be a duty of any Kantian. The prime example of the “innate” model of duties is Rossian deontology (named after W. D. Ross), which posited a collection of duties that we intuitively knew. Ross believed that any conflict between these duties would also be resolved intuitively, as out sense of morals was innate. After yesterday’s lecture, I hope you are wary of ideas that present morality as assuredly objectively true. If the reasons for something being moral cannot be given, there can be no intersubjective checking.
Taking Kantian deontology as our base, we would have to determine what makes a being worthy of moral consideration. The guide is found in the second half of the rule: “beings capable of deciding their own goals.” If we take this in a broad sense (Kant wouldn’t have), it seems that there are many animals that would meet this standard and thus would be worthy of moral consideration. Notice, however, that both consequentialist and deontological justifications can give moral status to some animals, but not plants or land. This brings us to the second way traditional ethics and environmental ethics collide.
Clare Palmer talks about two distinctions that are important in environmental ethics. These are anthropocentric/non-anthropocentric and instrumental/intrinsic value.
Anthropocentrism is the view that human beings (or human-like beings) are the central feature of the world. The criticism some forms of environmental ethics throw at traditional ethics is that it takes just such a position: humans are the only beings with moral status. The arguments above for the moral status of some parts of nature (from both consequentialism and deontology) are anthropocentric arguments. They take a feature considered important in human beings (feeling pain and pleasure or being capable of goal-based behavior), mark it as universally important, and grant moral status when beings other than humans share this feature. The critique of this is that there may be things that are important other than human-centered features. For instance, is the ability to decompose into extremely fertile soil something that is good? How about the ability to smell at a great distance? Do these things make a moral difference?
For consequentialism all value is instrumental, meaning the value of anything comes because it is good for something else. In the case of consequentialism, any action is valuable only because it increases pleasure or decreases pain. Likewise, in traditional Kantian deontology, being able to form your own goals is intrinsically valuable, but everything else only has value because it is a goal produced by the right kind of being or can help in achieving one of those goals. In other words, only the ability to make goals is valuable simply because it exists–its value is inherent and basic. All other things only have value because they can be used to achieve those goals–as an instrument.
Just as some environmental ethics critique traditional ethics for being too human-centered, some (in a related way) critique traditional ethics for taking only humans to be capable of intrinsic value. Notice again that consequentialism and deontology make features that humans traditionally have (the ability to feel pain/pleasure; the ability to make goals) and give them intrinsic value. Looked at this way, it is clear that anthropomorphism and intrinsic value are often in bed together. The forms of environmental ethics that critique traditional ethics call for us to look for new sources of value or to recognize things independent of humanity as having intrinsic value.
Pause to Consider:
- What is a moral standard and why is it important to ethical reasoning?
- What is a moral unit?
- What makes deontology and consequentialism different from one another?
- Why is intrinsic value often closely connected to anthropocentrism?
- Why would all things be considered instrumentally valuable for consequentialism?
Purpose: If, as yesterday’s lecture discussed, ethics is primarily intersubjective, then the main means of doing ethics will be collaboration–either in action or discussion. Since we’re rather limited in what action we can do by this being an online course (and funded by the state–whatever you do, don’t sabotage industrial machinery! It’ll just come back to me ;)), we’re going to focus on discussion. This lecture and reading provides us with some of the tools. In this assignment, you will engage with the nitty-gritty of another student’s first post using the concepts of moral standards, moral units, anthropocentrism, and intrinsic and instrumental value.
Word Count: The best posts will be around 500-800 words, although (one more time) length is less important than doing a good job on the assignment.
With (hopefully) a new eye for the nuance of moral reasoning after yesterday’s prompt, take the time to browse through the blogroll to the right and read the introductory posts from other students. If you haven’t read them all before, this might be a good time to look at some that you hadn’t seen and get better acquainted with other students. Or, perhaps, one that you already read that won’t leave your head. Either way, choose one post from the first prompt and read it carefully with an eye towards pulling out the reasons the writer gives for taking the position against the chosen sentence that they do.
Look for these details as you read:
- What sentence did the other student choose from Prompt 01?
- Can you figure out why the other student agreed or disagreed with the sentence? In other words, what moral standard are they using to judge? If you can tell, do you think using that moral standard works? If you can’t, what moral standard you think would best support the other student’s position? Please note that the moral standard doesn’t have to be just the two in the lecture above. The real question is: by what standard at all is the student making a judgment about the sentence? Even if you agree with the student’s conclusion, you may disagree with the reasons (just as you can agree with part of the sentences from that first prompt). How will you know if you really agree unless you know why you are agreeing?
- Is it clear what moral unit they are using? If not, can you make a guess?
- Although they most likely didn’t mention it explicitly, is the student making use of the concepts of instrumental or intrinsic value in their judgment about the sentence? For example: if you could show that something had intrinsic value, do you think it would cause the other student to change their mind?
- What about anthropocentrism? Would you say that the other student is using this in their argument? Do you think this is a problem?
- Do you think the student’s life to this point has influenced the kinds of moral standards, units, and concepts the student had used?
Think about how all these different details are related to one another and write a post that responds to the other student.
Start by giving a very brief description of what the other student said (basically, what position they took). Then move on to talking about why they took that position, what reasons you see (explicit or implicit) for taking that position, and why you agree or disagree with what the other student said. Keep this in mind: One of the most important rules when responding to another person’s position (and I regret to say we don’t see it practiced nearly enough) is the principle of charity: you should try to represent the other person’s position as strongly as possible even if you disagree with it. This ensures that you are thinking through fully what they other person is saying and your responses are also as strong as they can be.
Please: Make sure to link to the post you are responding to in the beginning of your response.
There’s a sample selection below, but remember: You are not done when you are done with this prompt, you also have to write exam questions for the practice exam from Unit 1!
Here is a selection from a response to this prompt:
. . . More importantly, it looks like (it’s not entirely clear) that he is saying that any kind of life is intrinsically valuable. A tree has value because it is alive, while a rock doesn’t because it is inanimate. So a forest isn’t simply valuable because human beings appreciate it, but because it is alive full stop.
Maybe life is intrinsically valuable. However, this doesn’t mean that forests should be preserved for that reason. There are plenty of times when people make the judgment that something is more valuable than life. The death penalty and war are the first things that come to mind. Some people think that justice or national interest are more important than life. But if that’s the case, there has to be a better reason to preserve forests than life itself. I think human appreciation is a perfectly good reason because . . . .
Note: If you have questions about the rules of grammar, check out Grammar Girl, which does an excellent job of dealing with word usage, punctuation, etc.
At the end of each unit, every student will make up some exam questions on the material from that unit. You will be assigned to write a certain “points” worth of questions–different complexity questions being worth a different number of points. For this assignment, write four points worth of questions. For extra credit (+ a letter grade to the lowest writing prompt assignment): Write eight points worth of questions of B-quality or higher.
The full instructions for these assignments are here.
When you are finished, email (do not post) the questions to the instructor.
- Read: Palmer: An Overview of Environmental Ethics [10-35]
- Post: Prompt 03: Relationship of Ethics and Environmental Ethics | Due 1:00 PM EST
- Comment: On at least 5 posts by other students | 1st Due 8:00 PM EST | All Due Jan 13, 8:00 AM EST
- Comment: On Lecture 03 | Due Noon EST
- Email: Exam Questions to instructor.
- Read: Summary of Learning Paths
- Email: Preference of Learning Path (see Summary) to instructor | Due 3:00 pm EST