By Melissa Chang
In the wake of the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Change agreement, it seems that environmental conservation and climate change is controversial once again. Although many other countries and American corporations have reiterated their commitment to fighting climate change, there is no doubt that the withdrawal of the US from the agreement has been a blow to environmental conservation. In light of these developments, it is worth reviewing the topic of environmental ethics, asking questions like: Do we have an obligation to protect the environment? What is the basis of this obligation? And how should we derive this ‘ethical obligation’ to protect the environment?
Consequentialism holds that acts are “morally right, wrong, or indifferent solely in virtue of their consequences”. In this sense, Consequentialism is a universalistic doctrine: all of the consequences matter in assessing acts, not just those that affect the actor. One of the most prominent versions of Consequentialism is Utilitarianism, which posits that the action that maximises utility (or happiness) is the right action. Taken at face value, one would assume that a Utilitarian outlook on environmental issues merely asserts that the right action is the one which maximises utility in that instance. Let us take the example of John, who discards his car’s motor oil down a freshwater river. Consequentialism examines the consequences of this action – would it result in the death of some river creatures, and affect the ecology of that habitat? If many people in the area depend on that river for their water supply and suffer a crippling loss because of John’s action, the consequences are clearly not worth the little convenience John gained by discarding the motor oil in this way instead of say, driving further along and discarding of it properly. If we were to ask questions regarding our obligation to environmental conservation, Utilitarianism is often perceived as a crude view that prizes ‘usefulness’ over other values and holds that ‘‘the end justifies the means.” Exploitative policies by developers and government agencies are often called ‘utilitarian’, as contrasted with environmentalist policies. For example, if cutting down a rainforest to make way for a power plant would provide jobs for many, even though it might result in the loss of an ecosystem, one could use Utilitarian reasoning to explain why this might be the right action to take. This leads to deeper questions regarding weighing the lives of human beings as opposed to other creatures in the ecosystem – questions that Kantianism is well-poised to answer.
Kant’s formulation of a moral theory includes the categorical imperative. According to Kant, an act is permissible if it can be formulated into a maxim which could be willed into universal law. If you cannot, then the act is impermissible. In addition to the categorical imperative, Kant also wrote on the idea that humanity was to be used as ends and not means. This means that people were to be treated as ends in themselves, and not merely as means to achieve some other end. For example, to use a person to gain some benefit would be wrong, if I merely used that person for that purpose alone and assigned no value to him otherwise. However, animals and the rest of our natural environment can be used as means, since they are considered mere things. Kant attributes this to the fact that animals and nature are not rational beings and are not self-conscious. Since animals are mere things, they cannot be wronged. Kant writes: ‘‘we have no immediate duties to animals; our duties towards them are indirect duties to humanity”. However, this does not mean that animals and nature should be treated badly – passages such as “any action whereby we may torment animals, or let them suffer distress, or otherwise treat them without love, is demeaning to ourselves” seem to suggest that our duties to animals are grounded in our duties to ourselves.
In fact, this line of thinking doesn’t seem too different from the standpoints of contemporary environmentalists, who espouse an ethos of personal responsibility when it comes to environmental conservation.
Kant’s views on the value of animals and nature leads into the idea of speciesism, the idea that human beings hold a prejudice that allows us to treat humans as considerable in a way that animals are not. After all, we would never do to human beings what we do to animals – we consume them (causing them much suffering in the process), use them in scientific research, use them for various products, and cull them to our benefit when their populations become ‘out of control’. One way of explaining why we treat humans and animals in such different ways is to say that humans are members of the moral community while other animals are not. In other words, members of the moral community (human beings) have ‘moral standing’; they are ‘morally considerable’ while animals are not. Naturally, one must ask: what is what is the criteria for moral standing? In Western Philosophy, self-consciousness is brought up again and again. Yet, using self-consciousness as the criteria seems both too demanding and not demanding enough. After all, self-consciousness does not apply to all human beings. Those with dementia, newborns and those in comas may not be self-conscious, but we do not want to grant that they are not morally considerable! This criterion also does not seem demanding enough because there appear to be non-human creatures that are self-conscious – dolphins and some apes, in particular, seem to possess remarkable self-awareness. In light of this problem, some philosophers have turned to sentience as the criterion for moral standing. Whether or not a creature can feel pain or pleasure seems to allow that those with dementia, newborns and the comatose might be included in those morally considerable, but also allows for most animals as well. Thus, using this criterion to distinguish the ‘morally considerable’ does not distinguish human beings from other creatures.
According to Allen Wood, Kant’s real ground for our duties concerning animals (and by extension, the environment), is that it is a duty we owe ourselves. However, Wood recognizes that this is not a fully satisfactory account of our duties to animals and the rest of nature; it may just be the best one that works within the confines of Kant’s system. If someone tortures an animal, the primary wrong is not to himself or to other people, but to the animal he is torturing – thus it seems like Kant’s view of the wrongness of abusing animals and nature seems to miss the point. Although abuses to nature might be more complex, one should at least concede that at least part of why it’s wrong to destroy a panda habitat is that it harms the pandas. However, Kant would not be able to admit this explicitly.
Apart from our duties to other creatures, we should also address our duties to the environment, ‘nature’ more generally – one way to ground some form of obligation would be to attribute some form of duty to those in the future. Through the lens of Consequentialism, one can easily take a cynical stance on the prospect of environmental conservation: how can we be sure that they will be interested in whales or wilderness rather than in virtual reality or some other form of technology beyond our imagination? Sacrificing to preserve energy sources or limited commodities might be foolish if technological changes result in cheap substitutes for future generations. Furthermore, we hold enormous causal power over future generations, far more than they hold over us. Because of this, a reciprocal relationship is near impossible – we will be gifting future generations large capital and receiving little in return. Despite these arguments, most can agree that we do have duties to future generations – our future is entwined with that of nature, and practically it makes sense to preserve the environment, if only to ensure our own survival as well.
In this essay, I have discussed what Consequentialist and Kantian positions might have to say about environmental issues, branching out into a discussion on speciesism and our obligation to future generations. To summarise, environmental ethics is a broad field with a wide range of positions, and few clear answers. However, if one is to structure a pro-environment stand, a version of Kantianism might do well to explain why we might have a duty to other creatures, even though can only do so by attributing duty to human beings – a seemingly roundabout (and not always accurate) way to defend why the environment should not be harmed. Ultimately, all this talk of ethics pales in the face of the urgency of climate change data – using moral theory to derive our ethical obligation to the environment might be fun, but not doing anything in the face of the overwhelming evidence of climate change would be incontrovertibly (and irreversibly) silly.
Jamieson, Dale. Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.
Kant, Immanuel, and Peter Heath. Lectures on Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2008. Print.
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