Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics as an academic discipline emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in response to growing concern over the anthropocentrism, or human-centeredness, of Western ethical thinking. Influential works included Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963), Lynn White’s “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” (1967), Garret Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), and Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” in his A Sand County Almanac (1949).

The field of environmental ethics seeks to extend ethical thinking and analysis beyond its traditional human-centered boundaries and to consider the broader non-human world, including plants, animals, ecosystems, and the built environment. To that end, the field often focuses on: (1) the relationship between humans, non-humans, and the environment and (2) the moral status and value of the non-humans and the environment.  Some of the key questions in the field include: Should we invest in alternative energy sources? Is it permissible for humans to harm non-humans and/or the environment to achieve certain ends?  Do humans have an obligation to protect the environment for future generations? Which principles and values should guide the design and development of homes, buildings, cities, and other infrastructure projects?