There are many ethical theories that have emerged to address the difficult ethical conundrums of today and environmental ethics are no exception. Many believe that there must eventually be one unique ethical theory in order to truly change the world-modifying or even replacing existing theories for others. One complication with this is that when humans look at the world today they are doing so from a perspective of a species that has dominated the planet for centuries and thus feel that they are of primary importance. Ethical theories can range from ethical egoism to environmental justice.
There are two commonly distinguished egoisms: Psychological egoism and Ethical egoism. Psychological egoism dictates that every human act is motivated by a desire to promote one’s self-interest. Ethical egoism dictates every person ought to act in such a manner as to promote their own self-interest. Psychological egoism is often disproven as a valid ethical theory however, because it discounts the idea that you would ever act altruistically for someone else. Clearly that is not true.
Ethical Egoism is also controversial as it involves living one’s life promoting only one’s own self-interest. This seems counter-intuitive to human nature in general. Ayn Rand, a popular follower of Ethical Egoism, was adamant about not even thinking about being selfish and considering anyone other than your self as purely a means to betterment. Basically this makes other entities have only instrumental value akin to slavery.
Social Darwinism is similar to Ethical Egoism, but differs on the idea that there is cooperation in nature as humans and non-humans alike are hardwired to care for other lives. According to Social Darwinism “the fittest ought to survive,” which puts a twist on the Darwinian principle of survival of the fittest in which the fittest have a more likely chance to survive. Oftentimes poverty is considered a weakness or a vice and thus someone who is in that situation is not fit. They claim it is “nature’s way.”
Contrary to what Social Darwinists believe, however, there is cooperation in nature as humans and non-humans alike are hardwired to care for other lives. Defining someone as “fit” is a moral conundrum in itself. What Social Darwinism doesn’t realize is that another implication of Darwin’s theory of evolution is the idea that humans are not unique at all in the world and so they should not see themselves as implying anything of the sort to themselves.
There is also the Divine Command Theory which dictates that there is a God who commands and forbids certain acts and any act that He says is right, is and humans understand what he forbids or allows. Obviously, even if you are not an atheist, it is easy to see that there are inconsistencies in this theory. Although God commands humans not to kill, He kills thousands of people in the Holy Bible. Also, certain commands that God makes about women, slavery and homosexuality are controversial as well. A question arises: is an act right just because God commands it or is it right so God commands it? Despite the controversial implications of this theory, it is also clear that billions of people across the globe feel that science and moral principle cannot supersede religion, so in order to truly convince people to rally around the environment, understanding these views is important.
Rights theories developed in the late medieval period and involve having a right and who has a right entails. Although today all humans are considered to have rights in the eyes of the law, based on which government you live under, a common thought is that animals should have rights too. Many people are shocked and even disgusted by this idea, but to understand it fully you must look at how we determine humans get rights as well.
Legal rights as well as moral rights are important to understand as well. For example, women never had the legal right to vote until 1920, but they always possessed the moral right to vote as men did. Animals and other non-humans have never had either the legal or moral right to live independently on their own, mainly because many rights theories claimed that they were not sentient and thus unable to claim their own choices. This is a controversial argument in itself, however, because it also implies that any severely mentally retarded people do not have the right to be kept alive or not killed for a reason.
Throughout history, parts of nature were merely grounds for possession since someone could own them. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke asserted that humans have basic rights in a state of nature and are owed at least certain forms of treatment and they are not merely resources. They did, however, deny that non- humans could have rights, which is an example of anthropocentrism. Another common flaw of rights theories is that oftentimes they address rights only in certain situations, but a true, encompassing rights theory should address rights issues in any event. To those concerned about animal rights or environmental problems, it’s important to realize that rights theories don’t seem to address them.
Another ethical theory is Utilitarianism, which was created by several thinkers but most importantly Jeremy Bentham. He reasoned that the only goal worth basing your life around is happiness, and finding whatever maximizes the total amount of net utility, or pleasure is the right. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, or a normative theory that supposes that the rightness or wrongness of an act is entirely dependent on the kinds of consequences that an act has. Thus, as long as the net good of an action is positive then the act was done in good faith. This is problematic for environmentalism as it could allow people to break laws of morality such as not killing or stealing in order to keep the net effects on the planet positive.
Although maximizing utility is important there are considerations that need to be made in order to fix conflicts. One, whose utility is to be taken into account? According to Bentham and John Stuart Mills this principle covers sentient creatures alone since hurting or pleasing something requires signals in order for the creature to affirm what it is feeling. Two, the idea of maximizing the total net utility may in fact include truly terrible acts such as harming innocent people although you still have a net happiness from it.
Justice is clearly something lacking in utilitarianism. Surprisingly enough though, based on the principle of declining marginal utility a utilitarian would very well want to limit inequalities in social or economic spheres. In the end, the view does avoid certain assumptions that the Divine Command Theory requires, and avoids the other difficulties of Ethical Egoism.
Economic theory goes hand in hand with Utilitarianism as well, as the idea of a cost-benefit analysis is incorporated to evaluate positives and negatives without thinking of non-human actors. Regrettably, economic theory is thus anthropocentric and environmental critics are apprehensive when approaching it. Economic theory is also consequentialist, because the deciding factor of success is to question whether someone is better or worse off at the end of the exchange. Also a part of the theory is the Normative Pareto Principle or the idea that an action taken will cause an increase in total net utility. What this does is avoid comparing utility as well as not sanctioning immoral actions. In the end, though, economic theories seem to be very cold and calculating, and perhaps not the most attractive of ways to theorize about environmental problems.
Natural Law Theory is another position that resembles a set of rules or precepts of conduct constituting a divine law which is binding upon all rational creatures as such and is understood by human reason. It is similar to Utilitarianism and Ethical Egoism in that it is a normative ethical theory but its insistence on divine law sets it apart. Basically those who adhere to it believe that the world is meant to be arranged so that human flourishing will be a main supported feature. Biocentricity is not a main component of Natural Law Theory.
One problem with this view is that it is hard to determine the natural needs of the human species as some are cultural and only a few are actually natural. Another objection to Natural Law Theory is the idea that weighty problems with severe consequences are generally ignored if they do not fit the narrow range of what constitutes human flourishing. Natural Law Theory is, in fact, the opposite of consequentialist thought and instead is focused on someone doing what is natural regardless of the consequences-a dire plan for future sustainability. Another problem with Natural Law theory is that many proponents of the idea think that the natural ends of some species is to serve others, which can also lead to unintended conclusions.
Emmanuel Kant has a great influence on these ethical theories. He was a moralist that labeled what he believed is the supreme principle of morality as the Categorical Imperative. One should act on the maxims of one’s actions that one can will to be a universal law obeyed by all moral agents. His other version of the Categorical Imperative is that a person should never be treated as a mere means. The question remains is: what counts as a person? Kant thought that only rational beings were persons. To Kant, there is no duty to a dog and harming it does not require any justification because it is not a rational being. This viewpoint becomes problematic when mentally handicapped persons are put in the same situations as the non-human actors. Although influential, this thought process is certainly not the best.
Environmental Justice is the one ethical theory in which the actual distribution of benefits is considered and not the amount of benefits. Equal treatment is difficult to define and so a theory of justice should give reasoned answers to those questions because environmental burdens are important. However the environmental burdens such as global warming or toxic waste handling do not evenly affect all humans and so justice is required in order to evenly address all issues. Some thinkers thought that what was depended on was a contractual agreement by members of society but it is difficult to find some parties who can participate. For non-sentient creatures the difficulty is determining their participation.
Returning to the unique environmental ethic, the question of creating a singular environmental ethic is tricky to create, but difficult. Competing views do extend moral standing in various manners to all sentient beings, and even to all living individuals. Even besides nonhuman creatures, there are also ecosystems and biological processes that may need to be granted moral standing according to some people. The way to get people to care about the issues and slowly adjust to the philosophy is to start slow and work at changing their viewpoints. In the end, addressing planetary environmental issues is difficult because we are not starting with a new planet to organize our thoughts but one with nearly 7 billion people inhabiting it already and many conflicting viewpoints. The challenge is tough but one day we may unite under a common ethical motivation.