VII. Environmental Ethics

 

This is the 7th posting in the series on ecology

Definition Of Ethics: The basic concepts and fundamental principles of decent human conduct. It includes study of universal values such as the essential equality of all men and women, human or natural rights, obedience to the law of land, concern for health and safety and, increasingly, also for the natural environment. The Business Dictionary

I like this definition because it includes the environment as a universal value that deserves consideration and respect. When the top priority of industry leaders is profit, and when government leaders put the economy and jobs first, they view the environment as a resource, a means to those ends. Seeing environmental policies and regulations as an obstacle, they’ll block or override them. Historically, this mentality has been fanning the flames of climate change since 1950—and it’s still happening—accelerating actually. Profit-driven leaders are pressing the peddle to the metal, not understanding or caring that the health and well-being of the world population is at stake. In the first place, it’s a problem of wrong-perception driven by the illusion of separation that results in self-centeredness and greed. It’s a psychological virus. And  it thrives because the breaking influence—the antidote—of moral-ethical thinking and behavior isn’t functioning. 

Ethics Can Be Learned

A study by Lawrence Kohlberg, cited by psychologist James Rest at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University is summarized as follows:    

  • Dramatic changes occur in young adults in their 20s and 30s in terms of the basic problem-solving strategies they use to deal with ethical issues.
  • These changes are linked to fundamental changes in how a person perceives society and his or her role in it.
  • The extent to which change occurs in a person is associated with the number of years of formal education (college or professional school).
  • Deliberate educational attempts (formal curriculum) to influence awareness of moral problems and to influence the reasoning or judgment process have been demonstrated to be effective.
  • Studies indicate that a person’s behavior is influenced by his or her moral perception and moral judgments.
  • A person’s ability to deal with moral issues is not formed all at once. Just as there are stages of growth in physical development, the ability to think morally also develops in stages. 

(Click the Markkula Center link for descriptions of growth stages—and much more on ethics).

Where And How Has Ethics Been Learned?

Home. Primarily, moral-ethical awareness and practice derive from observing these in our parents.  Also, by having conversations about it. When an issue came up in my family, besides a scolding, part of the price was a healthy dose of discourse on right and wrong, good and bad, proper and improper behavior—and its consequences. Over an over, we heard “It’s not what we do.” “It’s not who we are.” “You’re better than that.” “The one you hurt most is yourself.” And in one way or another, these messages were reinforced by relatives. 

Religion. Worldwide, most religions teach a code of ethics, principles that promote honesty, respect for others, selflessness, altruism and good deeds. Exposure to these principles fortifies one against the inclination to “take the easy way out. Religions provide the “brakes” through an emphasis on negative consequences. “You’ll go to hell.” “You’ll create negative karma that will have to be paid through suffering in another lifetime.” But there’s also the positive side: “If you’re good, you’ll go to heaven.” “You won’t have to endure the endless round of incarnations.” Having been raised in the Catholic tradition through high school, I was exposed to the history, as well as the principles of morality and ethics. 

Educational Institutions. Many colleges offer courses that involve ethics. At R.I.T. (Rochester Institute of Technology)  it was taught in a required philosophy class. I still remember the lecture where the professor said ethics was not acquired naturally, that it had to be taught, and that ethical behavior occurred as a result of an internal commitment made before an ethical dilemma presented itself. It made such an impression on me, I can paraphrase: “Ethics has to be carried in your back pocket like a wallet. When a situation comes up, you pull it out and you’re reminded of your commitment to be a person of principle, strong in character, unwavering in your resolve to do the right thing.” 

Life Experience. Acting unethically can and often does result in negative, even life-altering consequences. The trial and error method is learning ethics the hard way.

Business. Many corporations and smaller companies have a Code of Ethics designed to specify and regulate how they will and will not conduct their affairs. Infractions can be cause for dismissal. 

Discussion. Casual discussions with family members and friends often involve ethical judgments that have been made or need to be considered. Whether in the context of “gossip” or “small talk,” the opinions of others matters. It’s why “peer groups” are so important in early childhood development. Into adolescence and beyond, if being “cool” or just accepted is being “bad,” ethical considerations never come up. There could be a gun or knife in the back pocket, rather than an ethical reminder.

Readings. Authors of ethical philosophy include the classics by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Thomas Aquinas and also contemporary scholars and writers who relate it to the arts, sciences and business.  

Given that these sources were mostly available to families privileged with the means and access to higher education, it’s not surprising that many people have not been exposed to ethical thinking, modeling or instruction. 

Environmental Ethics

As a field of study, philosophers in environmental ethics wrestle with questions of balance between human and nonhuman concerns. On the human side: Should ecosystems be used freely as a resource? What is the role of “beauty?” As an intrinsic value, does it have a place in discussions of environmental considerations? “Place” is also important to people. Should some places be protected? Why? For whom? How long? “Justice” is another consideration. One group may live on land that another wants for development or pass-through rights. And what of future generations? What will be the impact on people who don’t yet exist?

On the nonhuman side: Do all sentient organisms—insects, flora and fauna—need to be considered? What, if any, is their value? Are they equally significant? What about extinction? Which species are expendable? Which are not?

Aldo Leopold, a famous American philosopher and forester said that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.” Opponents to this view argue that “we can’t clearly identify the boundaries of ecosystems… And why would we think the integrity of a system mattered morally anyway?” 

In my view, it comes down to the kind of world we want for ourselves, our children and the generations after them. Do we want a world without—(enter any living thing)? Do tigers, polar bears, mountain gorillas, sea turtles, orangutans, Sumatran elephants or rhinos have value beyond their utility? If so, here’s the $64,000 question: What are we willing to sacrifice to keep them alive, healthy and reproducing?

A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as well as that of his fellowman, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.

Albert Schweitzer

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