ENVS203 Study Guide

Unit 2: Environmental Ethics Approaches and World Views

2a. Describe the various approaches to environmental ethics

  • What examples can you give of how our society views environmental ethics?
  • How would you compare anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric environmental ethics?
  • What are four approaches that support the environment and the advancement of technology?
  • How would you compare anthropocentrism with biocentrism?
  • What are ecocentrism and egalitarianism? What was Aldo Leopold's relationship with these concepts?
  • What is deep ecology? How does it relate to the Gaia hypothesis? What are some of its impacts?
  • How would you compare and contrast the four central ethical viewpoints: metaethics, descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and practical ethics?

Many believe the environment is the most urgent issue of our lifetime. From water contamination in Flint, Michigan to the inhumane conditions that exist in the diamond mines of the Congo, environmental inequities often impact our at-risk populations the most. These communities frequently lack protection services and are on the frontline for receiving serious health hazards.

For these reasons, environmental ethicists believe local and global policymakers must find ways to ethically inform and align their individual and collective environmental behaviors – our global community is interrelated. For example, an oil spill can put entire maritime ecosystems at risk, poison the people and marine life that consume the contaminated fish who swim in the polluted waters and damage the coastal marshlands and beaches 30 miles away.

Environmental ethics are based on the value we assign to nature and our environment. This discipline emerged in response to the negative effects of the industrial revolution and the unique ethical challenges related to biodiversity loss, pollution, and other environmental issues, such as climate change and environmental inequities.

We can differentiate major environmental ethical theories by the value they assign nature and the actions they prescribe to address environmental problems.

To review, see:

2b. Categorize beliefs about environmental ethics

  • How are Western ethics anthropocentric and individualistic?
  • What is ethnobiology?
  • How does cultural or ethical relativism impact our environmental predicament?
  • Explain how and why religion has (or has not) become a significant political advocate for environmental issues?
  • How did the people in ancient Greece view the environment? How has this view evolved?
  • What is the relationship between environmental history, science, and philosophy?

We do not usually assign economic value to something that has "intrinsic value" because we consider it to be "priceless". However, everything we value has an element of subjectivity. Environmentalists argue that our community leaders must act in ways that express their value for nature if they consider it to be "valuable".

For example, communities can impose extreme penalties and sanctions against those who harm the things they value most. These penalties and sanctions provide a measure for the amount of intrinsic value our policymakers assign these items. As you review this section, think about how communities that are most vulnerable to environmental hazards, are often the least responsible for causing the problems.

Cultural or ethical relativism refers to the fact that our ethical framework depends on or relates to our particular culture. In other words, our cultural background dictates an inherent bias that informs or colors how we value things. However, although ethics can be relative to cultures, environmental ethics is inclusive and shares principles based on our shared need (regardless of culture) to protect the earth.

As you study, try drawing a timeline that charts how the world has evolved in its view of the environment.

To review, see:

2c. Examine the differences between utilitarian conservation and biocentric preservation

  • What is biocentric preservation? How are its concerns individualistic?
  • What is utilitarian conservation? How are its concerns holistic?

Biocentric preservation is underscored by a mindset or belief that gives nature the same prominence for life, with a will-to-live that matches that of humans. Throughout history, we can identify biocentric principles, especially in societies where humans live in close connection with the natural world. For example, consider how many Native American traditions stress a deep connection with nature that binds everyone and everything. According to their value system, all living beings and natural objects have a fundamental "sacred" value.

In this vein, biocentrists promote policies that aim to protect every individual living thing from the negative impact of environmental degradation. This outlook has deep ecological roots since supporters believe humanity is part of nature, rather than separate or superior to the natural environment.

To review, see Utilitarian-Based Land Ethic and Relationships between People and Animals.


2d. Identify the key arguments of the Gaia hypothesis, and evaluate the evidence of the theory

  • What is the Gaia hypothesis?
  • Building the Gaia hypothesis, what role does biodiversity play in the stability of ecosystems?

The Gaia hypothesis posits that life on earth, and its nonliving surroundings, unite to create a "single and self-regulating complex system" that is vital for sustaining life on earth. This theory suggests that this united system seeks a physical and chemical environment that is ideal for contemporary life. A meta-life form that once occupied earth began a dynamic and continual process of converting the planet into its own substantive material. Every life form is part of our planet, Gaia, or earth.

Think about how many cells comprise our organs and bodies. Consider how earth's many diverse lifeforms contribute interactively to produce and sustain the conditions for the evolution and prosperity of earth.

To review, see The Gaia Hypothesis, From Gaia Theory to Deep Ecology, and The Gaia Hypothesis.


2e. Critically analyze various religious viewpoints about the environment

  • How did people who lived in Ancient Greece feel about the environment?
  • How do people from Native American cultures view the environment?
  • What do people who follow the Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, and Sikh religions say about the environment?
  • What are some examples of similar and different beliefs that people from these different religious traditions have regarding the environment?

Our religious beliefs often help us define our ethical values, moral beliefs, and influence our individual and collective behaviors. A close relationship between religion and the environment has endured throughout time. We can find many examples in contemporary society. It may be helpful to create a chart to highlight the similarities and intersections between these beliefs and their views on the environment.

To review, see:

Unit 2 Vocabulary

  • biocentric preservation
  • biodiversity loss
  • climate change 
  • cultural relativism 
  • environmental degradation
  • environmental inequities
  • environmentalists 
  • ethical relativism 
  • Gaia hypothesis
  • inclusive 
  • interrelated
  • intrinsic value 
  • pollution 
  • religious beliefs
  • value