ENVS203 Study Guide

Unit 1: Ethics and the Environment

1a. Identify what is meant by ethics and ethical behavior

  • What are ethics and ethical behavior?
  • What are some current and past challenges to ethical behavior?
  • Why are ethics critical to formulating environmental policy?
  • What does it mean to think and act ethically? What is the difference?

We derive the word "ethics" from the Greek word ethos, which means a cultural custom or habit. We derive the word "moral" from the Latin word moralis, which also means custom. Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with morality. Many use it synonymously with moral philosophy.

Ethics refers to the moral principles or "code of conduct" we use to determine what is "good" or "bad", and "right or wrong". Ethics is based on our community's accepted value system. Ethics signifies established standards of behavior that provide insight into how we believe we should behave or act in a given situation, and in matters of life or death.

Our ethical values inform the policies, regulations, legislations, and conventions we adopt as a society. We use our ethical values to hold individuals, politicians, and community leaders accountable for what they do, and what they fail to do. Our ethical values can help us mobilize collective action toward a shared objective. Our ethical values inform the actions and behaviors we consider important, true, beautiful, and what constitutes a good life. We use our ethical values to resolve humanity's most pressing problems, via a moral course of action.

We use our ethical values to decide a longstanding question: "who gets what, when, why, and how much?"

To review, see What is Ethics? and Basic Ethics Concepts, Ethics in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, and Ethics: Current and Future Challenges.


1b. Distinguish between ethics and morals

  • What is the difference between ethics and morals?
  • What is beneficence?
  • What contributions did the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates (c. 470–399 BC) and Plato (c. 424–348 BC) make to the foundation of Western ethics?
  • How did Pythagoras (c. 570–495 BC) regard the human condition as members of the natural world?

Many people use the words "ethical" and "moral" interchangeably, but some philosophers detect a subtle difference between their meanings. "Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied. In other words, ethics point to standards or codes of behavior expected by the group to which the individual belongs".

For example, in the real world, beneficence is a concept in research ethics which states that researchers should consider the welfare of their research participants during a clinical trial or research study. Maleficence, the antonym of beneficence, refers to "a practice which opposes the welfare of the research participant".

Pay close attention to the ethical concepts virtue, action, and justice, which are explored in depth in Unit 4. These terms underscore the study of ethics.

To review, see What is the Difference between Ethics and Morals?The Origins of Western ThoughtSocrates: Philosophical LifePlato: Immortality and the Forms, and Plato: The State and the Soul.


1c. Identify the key ethical viewpoints and how they differ from one another

  • What is the difference between metaethics and normative ethics?
  • What is deontology?
  • What is applied ethics? What features distinguish it from the other two main ethical viewpoints?
  • What does ethical reasoning entail?
  • What are the major subfields of applied ethics (legal, business, environmental, and medical or bioethics), and the challenges they address?
  • Can ethics be universal or is it culturally dependent? Explain and provide examples that support your response.

Metaethics (or analytical ethics) is concerned with uncovering the origin and nature of moral principles, moral attitudes, moral judgments, and moral properties. Metaethics is concerned with what it means to say we should or ought to act in accordance with normative theory.

Prescriptive or normative ethics refer to the code of conduct we use to determine how we should act or exist in our community. This study is prescriptive and practical. We do not simply act as a matter of course without asking what we ought to do, or what we should do. Examples of normative questions include, "Is it ever ethical to lie?" and, "Do I have a duty to help the poor and those less fortunate than me?" Prescriptive or normative ethics provide practical guidance, according to our norms, about how we should act; it tells us what is right and wrong.

Deontology, derived from the Greek word deon, refers to the philosophical study of our obligation or sense of duty to act in a certain way. The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued that we determine the value of our actions by examining our motives, or whether we acted from a sense of commitment or duty. For example, does a passerby have a duty to help an individual who is sick or needs help? Do we have a moral obligation to help?

In terms of environmental ethics, human interactions in a shared environment matter because they are not neutral: our actions have an inherent and lasting impact. Evaluating our impact through a moral or ethical lens helps us determine how to respond and act accordingly. The environmental rights movement is grounded in the ethical belief that we have a duty to preserve the environment and everyone has a right to be protected from environmental degradation.

Study Tip: applying globally distinct examples can make it easier to identify patterns of inequality that put the importance of environmental ethics into focus. It is helpful to visually map these examples.

To review, see Normative EthicsAn Introduction to Ethical Reasoning, Applied Ethics, and Universal Ethics.


1d. Define environmental ethics

  • What is environmental ethics?
  • What are the broad categories of ecosystem services?
  • What are some benefits people gain from ecosystems?
  • What is intrinsic value? Does nature have intrinsic value?
  • Discuss some non-western perspectives of environmental ethics.

During the past century, the environment has undergone dramatic changes for many reasons, including the accelerated development of cities, a global culture of consumerism and waste, our reliance on non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels, and climate change. Communities commodify, or attach a monetary value, to our natural resources, such as precious minerals, diamonds, oil, and water, in ways that cause competing businesses and governments to fight over who owns the profits. Business monopolies promote exploitation and frequently cause impoverished and marginalized communities to erupt in violence.

Environmental ethics refers to the moral relationship human beings have with their world. Polluters are no longer the only recipients of blame. Doesn't everyone have a special duty, obligation, and responsibility to protect our planet and natural species? Shouldn't we take every precaution to ensure impoverished and disconnected communities are not subject to undue harm and stress?

Environmental ethicists discuss ways to minimize the stress, pain, injury, and death environmental degradation imposes on our ecosystems. They seek to improve and promote a clean and healthful environment and sustain properly functioning ecosystems which include agroecosystems, forest ecosystems, grassland ecosystems, and aquatic ecosystems. They argue that we, as human beings, are responsible for our environment because we have the freedom and rational capacity to make ethical and moral choices. We must regulate the provisions our ecosystems provide.

To review, see Does Nature Have Intrinsic Value?, Introduction to Environmental Ethics, Ecosystem Services: Economics, and Non-Western Perspectives on Environmental Ethics.


1e. Analyze the issues of environmental responsibility and our duty to the environment

  • What are the "Tragedy of the Commons" and altruism?
  • How would you explain the emergence of climate ethics and its current relevance?
  • What is a carbon footprint?
  • What dangers do climate deniers present to our shared humanity?
  • How would you explain the history and struggle for animal ethics and animal rights?

The concept of environmental ethics emerged from the civil rights movement in the United States. The goal of environmental ethicists is to distribute natural resources fairly and justly and reduce health hazards associated with environmental degradation. They believe unchecked production, distribution, and consumption of resources can fuel unhealthy levels of pollution. Advocates argue we need to reduce our human ecological or carbon footprint to support the earth's sustainability.

To achieve environmental justice, we need to identify and redirect policies that disproportionately and structurally impact our most vulnerable populations, such as people of low socioeconomic status. Climate change is a primary example of an environmental issue that negatively impacts human life. Consider how various recent natural disasters have transformed, displaced, and impoverished so many communities.

Because we share the planet and its resources, we cannot extricate human activity from climate change and the sustainability of the earth. This means every individual has a responsibility and moral duty (as we discussed above) to each other to protect the environment so we can secure our survival.

Study Tip: Consider the ethical responsibilities of the international community, and the political implications of the international treaties, such as the Paris Agreement or Kyoto Protocol. You do not need to know about the specifics of these treaties for this course, but you should be familiar with their general tenets.

To review, see:


Unit 1 Vocabulary

  • action
  • analytic ethics 
  • beneficence
  • carbon footprint
  • consumption
  • deontology
  • environmental ethics
  • environmental justice 
  • ethics
  • health hazards
  • Immanuel Kant
  • international treaties
  • justice
  • Kyoto Protocols
  • maleficence 
  • metaethics
  • moral
  • moral obligation
  • natural resources
  • normative ethics
  • Paris Agreement
  • prescriptive ethics
  • rational capacity
  • sustainability
  • values
  • virtue 
  • vulnerable populations