What is Ethics? Basic Ethical Concepts

Read these articles, which introduce ethics and the concept of justice. As you read, think about how these ethical theories relate to your own viewpoints and experiences.

We face decisions all the time about what to do and what to be, both as individuals and as members of larger groups. Should we stay up late watching movies or should we get some extra sleep? What should we strive for in our lives? In what ways should we respect and care for other people or other living beings? Should we let other species go extinct when we could prevent this from happening?

These should questions are all ultimately ethics questions. Ethics is the study of what is right and wrong, good and bad, what we should and should not do or be, and related topics. Clearly, ethics is important to many aspects of our lives. But studying ethics can be very challenging, by forcing us to examine, question, and rethink our deeply held notions of how we should live.

The purpose of this lesson is to improve your ability to engage in ethical thinking. We say improve your ability because you, as a living, conscious human being, already possess some ability to think ethically. We all do. We might have different thoughts and reach different conclusions about ethics, but the core ability to think ethically is something that unites all humans – and perhaps members of some other species as well.


Thinking Ethically

Thinking about ethics is different from other types of thinking in some very fundamental ways. When we think about what the nature of our world is, we can make observations about the world to see if our thoughts are accurate. This comparison of thoughts to observations is much of what science is about. But just because our world is in a certain form does not mean that it should be in this form. For example, we might see that our world is polluted or impoverished but, meanwhile, think that it should be clean or rich.

Meanwhile, when we think about what activities we can do, we can try these activities to see if our thoughts are feasible. This process of thinking and trial is much of what design is about, whether it is engineering design, policy design, or other types of design. But just because we can do some activity does not mean that we should do this activity. For example, we may be able to build a bomb or enact a repressive policy but, meanwhile, think that these activities should not be done.

This raises the important question: how do we know the answers to these should questions? Our observations of the world do not yield the answers, because what we observe is not necessarily good. Our assessments of what we can do also do not yield the answers, because what we can do is not necessarily good. If these observations and assessments do not answer these should questions, then what does?

The answers to these questions should ultimately lie in our own internal intuitions. These intuitions are what speak to us when we think that something is right or wrong, or should or should not be done. You can observe your intuitions right now: simply imagine something you think is right, or something you think is wrong, and notice the feelings of rightness or wrongness inside of you. These are your intuitions! These intuitions are our ultimate source of ethical thinking.


Why Study Ethics?

So why study ethics? There are several reasons. First, studying ethics helps us improve our own intuitions. Often, upon closer inspection, we find that some aspects of our intuitions conflict with each other, or have implications that trouble us. After thinking it through, we may want to change our intuitions and our ethical views that rest on them. Since the ethical views that we hold serve as the foundation for what we should be and what we should do, changing our views can lead to very major changes in our lives.

Second, studying ethics helps us spot the ethics implicit in what other people say and do. Ethics spotting is an important ability because it enables us to understand why people are making certain arguments, decisions, etc. Quite often, disagreements between people are at heart disagreements about ethics. If we can spot the ethics on different sides of a disagreement, we can understand what the disagreement is really about. Because ethics spotting is such an important ability, we will have an ethics spotting activity towards the end of this lesson, after we have learned more about specific ethics views that we might spot.



Now that you have read a bit about what ethical questions entail, here are a few multiple-choice questions that will test your understanding of the differences between ethics, science, and design. These should be very simple questions and the purpose here is to give you some confidence in understanding this material so far.


Think About It!

Come up with an answer to these questions by yourself and then read the answer.

1. Developing a car that can travel 100 miles per gallon of gasoline is a matter of:

a. Ethics
b. Science
c. Design

DESIGN – because it is a matter of what we can do. Perhaps we can develop (i.e., design) a car that gets 100 miles per gallon; perhaps we cannot. Engineers put a lot of work into learning what cars we can design.

If the question was about what cars we should design, then it would be a matter of ethics. Perhaps we should design cars that get 100 miles per gallon because this could save a lot of energy, and saving energy is good. Alternatively, perhaps we should not design these cars, because these cars are very difficult to design, and it would be better to have our engineers work on more feasible tasks. Meanwhile, if the question was about how fuel-efficient a particular car is, then it would be a matter of science.

2. How much money we should donate to charity is a matter of:

a. Ethics
b. Science
c. Design

ETHICS – because it is a matter of what we should do. Perhaps we should donate a lot of money to charity because charities can help others, and it is good to help others. Or, perhaps we should donate little money to charity because keeping the money would let us do more in our own lives, and it is good for us to do a lot in our own lives. Different ethical views could reach different conclusions about how much to donate to charity.

If the question was how much money we are donating to charity, then it would be a matter of science. If the question was how much money we can donate to charity, then it would be a matter of design.

3. Whether we should choose a more fuel-efficient car is a matter of:

a. Ethics
b. Science
c. Design

ETHICS – because it is a matter of what we should do. Perhaps we should choose a more fuel-efficient car because fuel-efficient cars save energy, and it is good to save energy. Or, perhaps we should choose a less fuel-efficient car because fuel-efficient cars (sometimes) cost more money, and it is bad to spend more money than we need to on cars. Different ethical views could reach different conclusions here.

If the question was which car we can choose, then it would be a matter of design. Perhaps we cannot choose a more fuel-efficient car because we already own the most fuel-efficient car available, or because we cannot afford a more fuel-efficient car. If the question was how fuel-efficient a car is, then it would be a matter of science. Perhaps Car A gets 30 miles per gallon, and Car B gets 40 miles per gallon.

4. How burning gasoline affects the environment is a matter of:

a. Ethics
b. Science
c. Design

SCIENCE – because it is a matter of what is. The question here is about what the relationship is between burning gasoline and impacts on the environment. Environmental scientists put a lot of work into studying and understanding this relationship. We will learn more about this relationship later in this course, in particular in the climate change lesson.

If the question was about whether we should burn gasoline (or how much gasoline we should burn), then it would be a matter of ethics. Perhaps we should avoid burning gasoline because burning gasoline harms the environment, and it is bad to harm the environment. Or, perhaps we should burn as much gasoline as we would like, because we enjoy burning gasoline, and it is good to do what we enjoy. Different ethical views could reach different conclusions on this. Meanwhile, if the question was about what gasoline we can burn, then it would be a matter of design.

5. Formulating a policy that will improve the energy efficiency of cars is a matter of:

a. Ethics
b. Science
c. Design

DESIGN – because it is a matter of what we can do. Perhaps we can formulate (i.e., design) a policy that improves car energy efficiency; perhaps we cannot. Policy analysts, legislators, and other people put a lot of work into understanding what policies we can design, and also what policies we can get passed in a vote.

If the question was about what policies we should formulate, then it would be a matter of ethics. Perhaps we should formulate a policy that improves car energy efficiency, because this would save energy, and saving energy is good. Or, perhaps we should not formulate such a policy, because the policy would restrict which cars are available for people to buy, and it is bad to restrict people's choices. Meanwhile, if the question was about how particular policies would affect car energy efficiency, then it would be a matter of science.

6. How much oil still exists around the world is a matter of:

a. Ethics
b. Science
c. Design

SCIENCE – because it is a matter of what is. The question here is about how much oil there is in the world. Perhaps there is still a lot of oil; perhaps there is not much left.

If the question was about how much oil there should be left, then it would be a matter of ethics. Perhaps there should be a lot of oil left because then we could burn more oil for our transportation, and it is good to have oil for transportation. Or, perhaps there should be little oil left because then we could burn a lot of oil and thus pollute the environment, and it is bad to pollute the environment. Different ethical views could reach different conclusions about how much oil should be left. Note here that we cannot do much to change the amount of oil that still exists since we do not create the oil. We can still say that some amount of oil is good or bad, even though we are not making any decisions to create more oil. Likewise, there might not be much of a design question here. If the question was about how much oil can exist, then it would be a design question. But as long as we cannot design more oil, there will not be a design question.


Basic Ethics Concepts

Now that we have seen a bit about what ethics is, we are going to introduce some basic ethics concepts and questions. This will later help us recognize and categorize specific views on ethics.


Virtue and Action

The first major concept to consider is the distinction between virtue and action. Virtue ethics emphasizes what we should be, whereas action ethics emphasizes what we should do. For example, is it more important to be someone who cares about the environment, or is it more important to be someone who takes actions to help the environment? Of course, virtues and actions are not totally separate.

Someone who cares about the environment will often take actions to help the environment, and someone who takes actions to help the environment will often be someone who cares about the environment. But virtue ethics starts with what we should be, whereas action ethics starts with what we should do. Almost all major ethics views can be described in terms of virtue or action, or in terms of some combination of the two. Most of the views that we will see in Geog 030 are within the realm of action ethics, so that is where we will focus most here.

Within action ethics, a core question is whether the ends justify the means. In other words, is the important thing the action itself, or the consequences of the action? For example, is it fundamentally wrong to ever perform the action of chopping down a tree, or is it acceptable to chop down trees when the consequences of chopping the tree down are good enough? We might even chop down some trees in order to save others. Forest managers do this often, such as to prevent fires from spreading. The managers are acting on the principle that the ends – saving more trees – justifies the means – cutting some trees down.

These three types of ethics – virtue, ends, and means – are the three major types of ethics. They are ways of categorizing and describing specific ethical views. But they do not give us specific guidance, because they do not tell us which virtues, ends, or means we should follow. The remainder of this page presents some more specific ethical views that are important to GEOG 030 and to sustainability and human-environment interactions more generally. These views generally fall within the realm of environmental ethics, because they are views about the environment and our relationship to the environment.



Justice is an important ethics concept. There are two major forms of justice: distributive and procedural.

Distributive justice emphasizes the distributions of gains and losses across populations. Distributive justice is thus mainly interested in the consequences of our actions, and how these consequences are distributed. Often, distributive justice is concerned with distributions between the rich and the poor, or between the better-off and the worse-off. (Being rich does not necessarily mean being better off.)

Should we act in ways that help the poor, the sick, and other worse-off members of society? For example, we should give to charity, or have a progressive tax system, or public health care? Sometimes, distributive justice is concerned with distributions between humans and non-humans. For example, should we sacrifice benefits to humans in order to help non-human animals or ecosystems? All of these considerations can be very important to decisions about what we should do about environmental issues.

Procedural justice emphasizes how decisions are made, instead of what decisions are made. Procedural justice is thus mainly interested in the process of deciding which actions to take, as opposed to the consequences of the actions. A core procedural justice principle is that everyone who is affected by a decision should have some say in how the decision is made. There are many ways to implement procedural justice. Democracy is one of them and we will explore the concept in depth later in this module.

Procedural justice can be either a means or an end. For example, is democracy inherently good (means ethics) or is it only good to the extent that it produces better results for society (ends ethics)? There's another way of looking at a means vs. an end form of procedural justice: Should just processes be an end that people strive for, using whatever means (ends ethics), or should people strive to use just processes, regardless of what ends result from it (means ethics)?

Environmental change is very challenging for procedural justice because it is difficult to include everyone's opinions in a decision. The following reading develops this challenge further.


Consider This: O'Neill on Procedural Justice

John O'Neill is a contemporary scholar in the field of environmental politics. One topic he studies is the challenge to procedural justice posed by environmental issues. Please read the following paragraph from his 2001 article, "Representing people, representing nature, representing the world":

The problems raised thus far are general problems for deliberative institutions that arise in any domain of choice, not problems peculiar to the environment. However, environmental decisions raise very particular problems for democratic theory concerning the nature and possibility of representation over and above those discussed so far. The central problem is that for many of those affected by decisions, two central features of legitimization – authorization and presence – are absent. Indeed for non-humans and future generations there is no possibility of those conditions being met.
Neither non-humans nor future generations can be directly present in decision making. Clearly, representation can neither be authorized by non-humans or future generations nor can it be rendered accountable to them. The politics of presence which underlies much of recent literature in deliberative democracy is ill suited to include future generations and non-humans. In the case of current nonhumans this might be regarded as untrue. Something like an Alejandro solution is possible.
Consider the success of Muir's strategy of taking Roosevelt out into the landscapes he aimed to preserve. There is a sense in which one might say that the strategy consisted in nature being represented by itself. However, while there is certainly a case more generally for taking deliberation into the places which are the object of deliberation, the articulation of any non-human interests or values here remains a human affair. The presence of non-human nature in deliberation about environmental choices requires human representation.

Authorization here means that representatives are authorized to speak or act on behalf of those they represent. For example, our elected representatives in Congress are authorized to speak or act on behalf of us. Presence here means that each group affected by a decision is in some way present in that decision. For example, our Congressional representatives are always from the district that we live in, meaning that each geographic district has some presence in the decisions made in Congress.

Given the paragraph and these definitions, what would you say is the core challenge to procedural justice posed by environmental issues?

Note that O'Neil's paper is for an academic journal on environmental politics and thus may be challenging to read – except for scholars in the field of environmental politics. In general, academic journal articles are often challenging to read because they are written for experts in specific subject areas. But if you can read academic journal articles, then you have access to a very powerful and state-of-the-art portion of human knowledge.

For your reference, Representing People, Representing Nature, Representing the World was published in the academic journal Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, volume 19, pages 483-500. You can read this journal and many others via Penn State's e-Journal system.


Anthropocentrism and Ecocentrism

An important distinction in environmental ethics is between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. Anthropocentrism is the view that humans are what is ultimately important. Ecocentrism is the view that ecosystems are what is ultimately important. Both anthropocentrism and ecocentrism can be used with either distributive justice or procedural justice.

For example, suppose we are deciding how to manage a forest. Under anthropocentric ethics, we would aim to manage the forest for human benefit. This could mean cutting down trees for wood, or building roads, or conserving the forest as a park. Under ecocentric ethics, we would aim to manage the forest for its own benefit. This could mean protecting it from human development, or from invasive species. The distinction between anthropocentric ethics and ecocentric ethics is very important to understanding what we mean by "sustainability", as we will discuss later in this lesson.


Reading Assignment: Muir & Pinchot

John Muir and Gifford Pinchot are major figures in the history of environmental ethics. While their words are old, their classic ideas remain very relevant today. Please read:

  • Chapter 16, "Hetch Hetchy Valley" from The Yosemite, by John Muir, 1912.
  • The Fight for Conservation, by Gifford Pinchot, 1910.

Pay particular attention to the highlighted sections of these readings. One of these readings is considered to advocate anthropocentric ethics and other ecocentric ethics. Which do you think is which, and why?



One additional view that is important to consider for environmental ethics is speciesism. Speciesism is the view that some species are more ethically important than others. It is similar to racism, which says that some races are more ethically important than others, or sexism, which says that one sex is more important than the other. When we encounter speciesism, it is usually in the form of anthropocentrism: viewing humans as more important than other species.

This raises major questions. Should any species – human or otherwise – be treated as more ethically important than any other species? On what grounds could this be? People have tried arguing that humans are worthy of special treatment because of human reasoning, emotional capacity, and other abilities. But biologists consistently find that, while humans are relatively strong in these ways, they are not unique: other animals can use reason or feel emotions. Thus many people argue that we should care about non-human animals similarly to how we care about humans. (We say "other animals" and "non-human animals" because humans are classified as animals, too!)

For example, if we care about human welfare – about human happiness and suffering and life flourishing – then perhaps we should care about the welfare of non-human animals as well. Such considerations are especially important in discussions about food and agriculture, given the very many livestock animals are alive in our agriculture system.

But take care when you are discussing this and please avoid quickly arriving at conclusion like "Speciesism is selfish of us humans and should be totally abandoned". Remember, we live in a society where speciesism is already present and we are already getting special treatment. For example, harming a human being is a serious offense in basically any country in the world, but harming an animal does not have the same weight and consequence. (Would we be able to completely okay with it if we gave a human death sentence for hunting a deer?) Also, a majority of us eat meat from animals and this action costs the animals their lives. These examples show that we are a speciesism-based society and switching to totally equal treatment will cost us.

Consider This: Bentham On Speciesism

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was an early and very important ethicist. He wrote many, many things throughout his life. One of his most famous writings is this passage on the issue of speciesism:
The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor.
It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

From Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, second edition, 1823, chapter 17.

Is the argument here anthropocentric, ecocentric, or something different? Do you agree with the argument? Why or why not? If we accept the argument, then what might some implications be for the human-environment issues we discuss in GEOG 030?


Altruism and Selfishness

Finally, two more important ethical concepts are altruism and selfishness. These are familiar concepts to most of us already. The key question here is how hard we should try, or how much we should sacrifice, to help others. The more selfish we are, the less we will try to help others; the more altruistic we are, the more we will try to help others. This holds regardless of which "others" we would try to help: our friends and family, the poor and sick, non-human animals, ecosystems, or anything else.

But how altruistic should we be? This is a timeless question that lacks a definitive answer. 
It is easy to say that "Oh We should never be selfish. That's a bad thing". But what if we are in a situation where we have to sacrifice too much to do the unselfish thing? We might be willing to sacrifice small to important things, or even our life for the good of our loved ones(family, friends..) but what if you have to sacrifice your need to satisfy that of total strangers?
Please try to avoid statements such as "Everybody should be altruistic. Selfishness is just plain wrong". Why is it wrong? If altruism is the way to go, how much altruism should we practice? Can you take examples from your everyday life where you find it hard to choose between altruism and selfishness?

What do answers to these questions mean for how you live your life?

These are all important questions. Reflect on them a bit now and keep them in mind as you continue with the course. These questions become very central later in the course when we discuss individual and collective action.


Optional: Additional Reading & Ethics Terminology

There are several great resources online that explain these basic ethics concepts in much more detail. The two most comprehensive resources are Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). The SEP is particularly valuable because it contains high-quality content written by experts. If you read and understand these, then you will have a strong understanding of ethics as it is relevant both to this course and to much more.

These online resources, as with most other discussions of ethics, do not always use the same terms for basic ethics concepts that we used here. We have used the simplest terms we could to introduce the concepts. In our experience, the terms used elsewhere can be needlessly confusing to students in this course. But if you would like to study ethics further, then you should learn the terms used by ethicists:

Virtue ethics: Usually the ethicists also use "virtue ethics". Sometimes "aretaic ethics" is also used.

Ends ethics: The ethicists' term here is "consequentialism".

Means ethics: The ethicists' term here is "deontology".

Selfishness: The ethicists will usually also use either "selfishness", "egoism", or "ethical egoism". 

For the other terms in this module, ethicists generally use the same terms that we use.

Source: Trevor Birkenholtz, Marie Louise Ryan, and Karan Misquitta, https://www.e-education.psu.edu/geog30/
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 5:28 PM