Thesis: Environmental Ethical Issues

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Environmental Ethical Issues

The question of the environment is a topic that has become extremely contentious in our modern world. This is related to a concern in many sectors of society at environmental deterioration and a growing realization of the way that human activities affect the environment and vice versa. This is related to environmental aspects such as damage to the atmosphere, the decline of the rainforests and global warming -- and the ways that modern technology and industry negatively affects the environment.

This has led to forums and debates about the ethical responsibly that we have towards the control and management of the environment. For example, there is concern that developed countries such as the United States are guilty of abusing and contaminating the environment for economic gain. Other concerns include global warming and the ozone layer that has been damaged by the emissions of gasses from large industry and even from common daily activities -- such as driving a car.

Consequently, many critics point out that the causes of environmental destabilization are linked to the responsibility that we have towards the environment. Furthermore it is deeply connected to the way the modern person living in technologically controlled societies perceives the relationship between himself and nature.

Environmental ethics is defined as a discipline in philosophy that "…studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its nonhuman contents" (Environmental Ethics). This view of environmental ethics takes account of a number of important aspects that will also form the central focus of this paper. The first is the deontological as opposed to the anthropocentric and consequentialist view of environment. Another aspect is the view surrounding technology and "deep ecology"; which refers to feminist environmental ethics, and social ecology

Background and Overview

In order to understand the general modern view of nature and the environment one should compare it to more traditional views. If one studies the more 'primitive' societies such as the San Bushman of South Africa, a starling difference in the perception of nature and the relationship to the environment becomes evident. In the San and other so-called primitive cultures there is a deep ethical respect for nature. This perception is based on the realization that all of humanity is dependent on the environment for its existence. These societies are extremely careful not to upset the balance and harmony of nature. For example in the case of the San Bushmen, they will take extreme pains not to upset the balance in the environment. This can be seen in the way that they hunt, as no animal is killed without taking into account various ecological and local environmental factors. There is an intense respect and sense of value concerning nature and no animal is killed without asking the "gods" of nature for permission.

This attitude is in stark contrast to the modern industrial and technologized society where the environment is seen in terms of an anthropocentric and consequentialist perspective, in that nature and the environment are to a great extent considered simply as an unending resource to feed and maintain the human -- disregarding the fact that upsetting the balance of nature negatively impacts human survival.

The modern anthropocentric view of nature and the environment is essentially human-centered; which means that "…they assign intrinsic value to human beings alone" (Environmental Ethics). This also refers to the theory of consequentialism in the history of Western ethics, where the concept of ethical value is based on the consequences of certain actions and not on the intrinsic nature of these actions. Both these views take a human-centric position that does not take into account the non-human element.

This view of nature and reality can be traced back to the history of early Western thinking; for example, to the view of Aristotle who maintained that "…nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man… and that the value of nonhuman things in nature is merely instrumental" (Environmental Ethics).

This anthropocentric perspective has in the modern world led to a reduction of the understanding of the different aspects and linkages between our societies and the environment. One of the central reasons for this is the dominance of rational thought and science in the modern Western world. In the scientific view nature is simply a resource to be used.

Many critics of modern environmental ethics suggest that a true environmental ethics would involve an approach that should be more biologically objective as well as being non-anthropocentric. This leads to the view that the purely human-centric or subjective approach to ethics when applied to the environment and other non-human living entities is not sufficient for a true and all - encompassing universal ethics. In this regard the deontological view of ethics is more holistic and appropriate for an understanding of the interconnections between human beings and the environment.

The deontological ethical perspective is in line with this more holistic approach and refers to the moral duty that an individual has towards himself and others and which prescribes certain actions. For Kant this sense of duty is the foundation of moral actions. Therefore, to act morally is to act out of a sense of moral duty and not only according to the outcomes or results of these actions. Kant rejects the view that it is acceptable to treat other individuals or nature in terms of end results that are dictated by our own sense of self-interest. Deontological Ethics, also referred to as Universalism holds that "…the means justify the ends for an action, not the consequences" (Rawls, 1971, p.3). This also refers to Kant's principle of the categorical imperative which places the moral authority for taking an action on an individual's duty towards other individuals and humanity.

In contrast Consequentialism, which derives from the ethos of utilitarianism, states that, "…agents must always act so as to produce the best available outcomes overall" (Scheffler, 1994). Deontological moral theories stress that the best overall outcomes are not of primacy significance. Many philosophers and critics agree that the consequentialist view is inadequate in terms of a comprehensive and inclusive moral theory. This refers to the view that it is not the consequences of actions but rather the innate value of these actions that quality them as ethical or unethical. In other words, the non-consequentialist view is that morality is "…all about doing one's duty, respecting rights, obeying nature, obeying God, obeying one's own heart, actualizing one's own potential, being reasonable, respecting all people, or not interfering with others -- no matter the consequences"(Consequentialism: The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is this attitude that is more appropriate to a true environmental ethics.

Conclusion: The Present Situation

In the world at present there is a growing realization that the purely anthropocentric attitude toward the environment is one will lead to disaster for the entire planet and will adversely affect every species of life. Therefore there is a general movement towards a more realistic view of the link between man and his environment. A more holistic and complex understanding of the link between man and nature is needed for both practical and ethical reasons; and this refers to a more deontological ethical view of the environment. This can seen in the growing awareness in the scientific community that the environment is a complex and shared resource and that it is limited.

However, there are many problem areas that need to be researched and understood before a more adequate ethical approach can be implemented. Michael Bugeja in an article entitled, The Age of Distraction: The Professor or the Processor? refers to a central problem area in our technologized age. He states that "Due to academia's reliance on technology and the media's overemphasis on trivia, we are failing to inform future generations about social… [END OF PREVIEW]

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