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Four Conventional Schools of Environmental Ethics

by David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM


One of the four major approaches in Western ethics, developed in modern times by British philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Ethical actions are determined and judged by their consequences, as opposed to deontolological, which is concerned with duties and rights regardless of consequences. Thus the focus is on the instrumental value of actions. Usually this is thought in terms of the greatest good to the greatest number, with each individual given equal consideration.

The chief good is usually thought of as happiness, which has intrinsic value. In determining happiness, Bentham focused on pleasure and pain, while Mill expanded that to include social and intellectual pleasures. Utilitarianism supports democratic concern with the welfare of all. It also is used to determine and evaluate modern free-market economic concern with satisfying consumer demand (or Marxist concern for the material well-being of working class).

This approach has several problems. It can end up justifying immoral means to acquire moral ends. The welfare of the individual can be lost in the search for aggregate value for the whole or majority. Should I kill one person if that will save ten? It is also difficult to measure happiness: how does one judge the greatest good? And there is a tension between giving people freedom and those people not always choosing what makes them happy. Is it right to take away people’s freedom (including freedom to make terrible mistakes) for the goal of making them happy?

Its environmental significance is mixed. It can be used to extend moral consideration especially to animals, who also feel pleasure and pain, making it a powerful way to incorporate animals into conventional Western thought. It is more difficult to include the plant world with this approach. However, if you make the key criterion “full natural flourishing” rather than happiness or pleasure and pain, then this approach can be used effectively in a biocentric approach. But it is often difficult to include utilitarian concerns in environmental analysis because it is difficult to calculate long-term negative environmental impacts, while it is easier to calculate short-term economic benefits. As a result, a utilitarian view can over-emphasize the latter benefits and support environmentally destructive practices. Another issue is whether you can use a biocentric utilitarian to wholes, such as species or ecosystems (e.g., the rainforest).



One of the four major approaches in Western ethics, developed in modern times by Immanuel Kant. Ethical actions are determined and judged by whether they fulfill duties and accord with the rights of others, regardless of the consequences. Kant developed the idea of the categorical imperative, which is a duty that is universal and without exception (thus “categorical”). A central principle is that people should be treated as ends, not as means, as subject rather than objects. The chief end is that people should be given freedom and treated with equality. A term developed by Kant in his deontological ethical theory.

Involved in this view is a distinction between two kinds of rights. Negative rights are one’s that protect one from others infringing on one’s, such as freedom of speech. I don’t have to do anything for you to have these rights protected. Positive rights are for to certain goods, such as health care or education. Some person or group has to do something to ensure you have these rights.

One problem with this approach is that one can lose sight of positive or negative effects of actions in pursuit of one’s duty. Should we follow our sense of duty, even if it produces terrible consequences?

Traditionally deontological ethics have been anthropocentric. But it has been effectively used in arguments that extend rights and equality beyond human, especially to animals. It is possible, but more difficult, to argue that plants, species, and ecosystems also have rights. The use of a rights-based deontological approach has expanded the sense of moral considerability beyond humans.



Nature law ethics is one of the major approaches in ethical theory developed by Aristotle and by medieval theologians, and it is similar to views found in Chinese thought. In this theory, all things (people, but also animals and plants) are endowed with certain natural characteristics and ends. These characteristics and ends are themselves good, and the goal of natural law ethics is to act in a way that fulfills them.

In this view, how we ought to act is a function of how we are: “is” and “ought” are directly related. Similarly, on a more general level, the natural order of the world is good; it is the moral order. Going against this natural order is actually going against the good (or in Christian Theology, God). Again, the “is” and the “ought” are directly related: the good is for the individual to fit harmoniously with the natural system.

This view has been criticized by pointing out that some things in nature are not “good”: HIV, tornadoes, cancer. Also, British philosopher David Hume’s (1711-1776) notion of the “naturalistic fallacy” states that you can’t logically derive ought from is. Just because something exists or behaves in a particular way does not imply that it ought to exist in that way.

Natural law ethics has appealed to a number of environmental philosophers because it starts with a positive view of nature. It makes nature and the natural central to moral theory and this makes arguments for the moral considerability of nature easier than with utilitarian and deontological approaches.



One of the major approaches to ethical theory emphasized by the Greeks and Christian theologians, as well as Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. The focus is not on rationally determining specific moral actions (as in utilitarianism and deontological ethics: moral rationalism) but on developing moral qualities (virtues) in the individual.

Virtue ethics criticizes the moral rationalism of utilitarianism and deontological ethics, arguing that they reduce the complexity of moral issues in the search for the single correct moral view. And moral rationalism does not do enough; it focuses only the training of one part of the mind.

In virtue ethics, the goal is to develop the good person, rather than merely correct moral reasoning in a particular situation. Reason is but one part of a moral person. In virtue ethics, morality is an essential part of one’s personality and disposition; it includes both actions and attitudes and is your basic way of relating to the world. It takes much practice and training in order to develop these moral habits.

In environmental virtue ethics, attitudes such as gratitude, humility, care, and reverence take center stage, along with behaviors that minimize negative impact on the world and cultivate its well-being. This approach has been popular particularly with those who are involved more directly with nature, such as nature writers and bioregionalists.

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by David Barnhill last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM