PHIL 256 – Environmental Philosophy: Animals, Nature and Ethics

Most of Western ethics has focused on how people should relate to other people. Recently, though, a number of factors have focused attention on how people should relate to other animals, nature, and the environment more broadly. These factors include our growing understanding of certain ecosystems and other species, the threat of mass extinctions, and the fact that human population is now over seven billion and still rising fast. This subject consists of an introductory survey of ethical and other philosophical issues related to animals, nature, and the environment. We look both at some theoretical approaches to these issues, and at a number practical problems such as overpopulation, climate change, and ever-growing levels consumption.

Week 1: Introduction

This week, we preview some of the main themes of the subject. What is environmental ethics, or the ethics of the environment, and environmental philosophy? What is the history of the subject? What are some of the main issues that it focuses on? What are some of the ways in which philosophers and others have tackled those issues?

Week 2: The moral status of (nonhuman) animals

Is it morally acceptable to treat (nonhuman) animals, especially the ‘higher’ animals, merely as resources or tools that we may use as we wish (for food, or for sport, or for scientific research)? Or do they have a greater moral status than that? If so, what kind of moral status? Should we take their interests into consideration in the same kind of way in which we take the interests of human beings into consideration? Should we regard them as having rights? This week, we look at two influential answers to these questions.

Week 3: The moral status of living things in general

What about plants and ‘lower’ animals like slugs and ants? What sort of moral status, if any, do they have? Is it morally acceptable to treat these beings as we please, or do they too have a kind of moral standing that imposes constraints on how we may treat them? If the latter, do they have the same kind of moral standing that humans do? This week, we focus mainly on the work of a philosopher who thinks that all living things are owed the same kind of respect that humans are owed.

Week 4: The moral status of ecosystems and species

In weeks 3 and 4 we asked about the moral status of various individual living things, such as animals and plants. This week, we focus on instead on certain ecological ‘wholes’ such as ecosystems, species, and the biosphere as a whole. Do any such entities have moral standing in their own right, or are they valuable purely because of their importance for individual living things?

Week 5: Deep ecology and ecofeminism

This week, we examine two influential environmental movements. Deep ecology emphasises the interconnectedness of everything, asserts that all living things are of equal intrinsic worth, and argues for radical changes to our lifestyles and attitudes to nature. Ecofeminists believe that there are important connections between negative attitudes to nature and the oppression of women. Karen Warren, in particular, argues that because of these connections, an environmental ethics must also be feminist.

Week 6: Population

The biologist Garrett Harding has made an influential argument that providing aid to people in poor countries results in those countries increasing their population ever further beyond the ‘carrying capacity’ of their environment, thus storing up even greater problems for the future. This week, we critically examine these issues.

Week 7: Human welfare versus preserving nature

Sometimes there appear to be conflicts between policies aimed at the welfare of human beings and policies aimed at preserving nature. When that is so, what should we do? Can it ever be right to prioritise nature when human lives are at stake?

Week 8: Case study: kangaroos

Each year, millions of kangaroos across Australia are killed. A variety of reasons are given for this: to reduce competition with domestic livestock for food and water, for example; to harvest and sell kangaroos’ meat and skins; and to protect other species. This week we examine the many ethical issues this phenomenon raises.

Week 9: Climate change (1)

There is a growing consensus that one of the greatest threats to the global environment – arguably the greatest threat – comes from climate change. This week we look at one of the main ethical issues climate change raises: how should we allocate the costs associated with this threat – both the costs resulting from cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, in order to reduce the scale of that threat (‘mitigation costs’), and the costs of responding of dealing with the negative consequences of any climate change that does occur (‘adaptation costs’)? Henry Shue argues that three commonsense principles of fairness point to the same conclusion that at least the great majority of those costs should be borne by rich states.

Week 10: Climate change (2)

Having examined the ethics of climate change in week 9, we turn this week to some of the difficulties in getting an ethical response to climate change realised. We concentrate especially on Stephen Gardiner’s view that climate change involves the convergence of a set of independently problematical features that justify calling it a ‘perfect moral storm’. Along the way we also return to some issues we looked at earlier in this subject, including the ‘tragedy of the commons’, and preview some issues we will look at in coming weeks, including the notion of the virtues and the relationship between ethics and activism.

Week 11: Rethinking the Good Life

What virtues (positive character traits) does a proper concern for the environment call for? Is one of those virtues simplicity? Should concern for the environment lead us to make some significant changes to our lifestyles, focusing less on material on consumption and more on other goods like those of friendship and companionship? Would such changes constitute a sacrifice, or would they do us good on balance? Does thinking about the environment in terms of virtues and vices (rather than or in addition to in terms of rights and utility) help to resolve some of the questions we looked at in the first weeks of the subject? Does it help to resolve some of the difficulties to do with climate change that Jamieson and Gardiner discuss? This week, we take a look at these interconnected issues.

Week 12: Environmental philosophy and environmental activism

What relevance, if any, do the more theoretical issues that many environmental philosophers have focused on (such as those discussed in weeks 2-5 of this subject) have to the most pressing practical environmental problems we face (such as those discussed in weeks 6-11 of this subject)? Some people would respond, ‘not much, so it would be better just to focus directly on the practical issues’, while others think those more theoretical issues are crucial. This week, we look at the arguments on both sides.




Environmental Philosophy: Animals, Nature and Ethics is taught by Dr. Keith Horton, who is an expert in political philosophy. He has published work on political philosophy in journals such as Utilitas and The Journal of Applied Philosophy, and is a founding member of the organisation Academics Stand Against Poverty.