Moral Philosophy: An Adventure in Reasoning

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Moral Philosophy: An Adventure in Reasoning

The word ethics comes from the Greek ethos, for custom, but ethics has long meant prescribing, and not simply describing, what our customs ought to be. Ethics answers the question, how should we live? Some philosophers distinguish morality from ethics by claiming that ethics necessarily involves critical reflection, whereas morality may simply refer to the moral rules and customs of a culture.1 In everyday speech, however, the adjectives ethical and moral are interchangeable. Ethics is moral philosophy.2

Studying ethics, I suggest, is like hiking on a (conceptual) mountain, where the wider paths reflect the main traditions of ethical thought, and the narrower trails branching off these paths represent the arguments of individuals. As we have little time to explore this mountain (ethics), I will generally guide us along the paths (theories), but endnotes offer observations about some of the trails.

To illustrate what doing ethics means, consider how we might describe an actual mountain in diverse ways. We could emphasize its unusual rock formations, or point out a striking waterfall, or recall the sweep of the forest below the summit, or identify wildlife in the meadows. Each of these four descriptions would tell us about the mountain, but all four would be necessary to convey our impression of the whole mountain.

To offer an overview of moral philosophy, I will lead us along paths that reflect four patterns of thought, which I identify by the keywords duty, character, relationships, and rights, and a fifth path identified by the keyword consequences. Each keyword represents the crux of the debate within the pattern of thought it identifies. The first four patterns of ethical thought (concerning our duty, character, relationships, and rights) assert that some actions or ways of being have intrinsic worth. The fifth pattern of thought (predicting consequences) rejects the notion of intrinsic worth and argues that actions and goods only have extrinsic value (derivative or use value) based on their utility (usefulness).3

To prepare for our ethical trek, we “stretch” our minds a bit by considering four questions. How are the words right and good used in moral philosophy? What is the role of reason in ethics? How is environmental ethics different from traditional ethics? Why rely on diverse patterns of moral reasoning instead of deciding which ethical theory is best?

Right and Good

Traditional ethics is about human life in societies. The natural world, which is center stage in environmental ethics, has for centuries been merely the backdrop for the drama of moral philosophy. Because ethics developed without any direct concern for the environment, the main patterns of thought were constructed without considering many of the issues we now face.

Our challenge, therefore, involves drawing on the traditions of moral philosophy to construct arguments that address our environmental crisis. We begin our trek on the mountain (of ethics) below the (environmental) slope, along the main paths that have been worn smooth by seeking to know what is “right” and “good.”

What do we mean by taking the right action? We mean that we are acting “in accord with what is just, good, or proper.”4 We take a right action by correctly applying a principle (norm, premise, presupposition, rule, standard, or law).5 We offer reasons to justify the principle and its application. We do our duty, or act to protect a person’s rights. For instance, we might assert that not littering in a public park is right, because we have a duty to respect the rights of others who use the park.

By being a good person, we mean that a person is “virtuous.”6 Being good involves having the character and personal qualities that we recognize as having moral worth. The traditional word for a good character trait is virtue, and chapter 5 gives reasons for the virtues of gratitude, integrity, and frugality. Would a person who is grateful for the beauty of the flowers in a park throw a candy wrapper in the flowerbed? Not if he has integrity.

Because a virtue identifies a way of being good, it has no plural. That is, a virtue is not an action, but a way of aspiring to be good. It is how we can be or not be. We can be grateful, so the virtue of being grateful is gratitude. There is no such word as “gratitudes.” Similarly, an honest and trustworthy person has the virtue of integrity and a person who is frugal the virtue of frugality. It makes no sense to speak of “integrities” or “frugalities.”

Examples of other character traits that are often said to be virtues are patience, generosity, compassion, humility, courage, and diligence. None of these nouns has a plural, but each has a related adjective that is used to describe a character trait, which is understood to reflect a good quality of how we may be as persons.

The adjectives good and right are related in meaning, but are not synonyms. It makes no sense to speak of a “right person” when we mean a “good person.” Good has a broader range of meanings than right, and both words have meanings that do not involve ethics.

For example, we speak of the “good looks” of a person, or of a “good joke.” Saying someone is the right person for a job means that we think the person will do a good job, but in this statement the adjectives right and good have nothing to do with moral philosophy. The phrase “good science,” which appears in debates about climate change, does not refer to an ethical presumption, but to relying on proper procedures in scientific research.

Because ethics concerns how we ought to live together, our goal is “a good society.” No one argues that our goal is “a right society” or “the right society.” Also, we speak of “the common good” and “good relationships,” rather than “right relationships,” to identify the ethical goals of ensuring freedom, equality, and social justice for everyone. This sense of being good refers to the way a society is or to the hope shared by many of its members about how it should be.

Both adjectives, right and good, have opposites that help define their meanings. If an action is morally wrong, it is not right. A good person is not a bad person, and a bad person is not a good person. Yet the opposition between what is good and bad is more complex than the dichotomy between what is right and wrong. For example, a good person may act badly. We may distinguish between the bad behavior of a child and the child herself. In caring for children, we are told, we should refrain from calling a child “bad” when she is behaving badly.

Another distinction between the adjectives right and good is that good has comparative and superlative forms (better and best), but right does not. Good refers to a way of being that has a range of possibilities or levels of aspiration. There is nothing comparable when speaking of what is right, because right and wrong are opposites. It makes sense to speak of a “lesser evil,” or a “greater good.” It makes no sense, however, to refer to a “lesser wrong” or a “greater right.” What is good may not be as good as it could be, but if it is better than what is bad, it is good.

These distinctions usually become clear to us early in our moral development as children. Our actions are right when we follow the rules, or when we act responsibly by drawing an inference from the rules. Our actions are wrong when we violate a rule or behave in a manner that seems contrary to the intention of the rules.

In addition, we encourage children to act in a manner that involves being good with one another, and this means doing more than any set of rules requires. We want children to be more than obedient. We hope they will learn to be kind, fair, and forgiving in their relationships with one another.

These examples should help us see that good refers to a level of “goodness” and to “the quality or state of being good.” No matter how good we are, we may aspire to be better. Right, however, does not identify a level of rightness, as an action is either right or wrong. Another difference is that right takes the form of a verb, for we may try “to right a wrong,” but good does not have a similar verb. Being good is not an action, which may be right or wrong, but a way of being.

These differences in our everyday language are reflected in the diverse patterns of thought in moral philosophy. I suggest that the keywords duty and rights are largely concerned with right action, whereas the keywords character and relationships are primarily about being good persons. Right action and being good identify different paths on the mountain. Ethical theories emphasizing duty or rights branch off the “right action” path. Moral theories about character or relationships diverge from the “being good” path.

The words right and good are also nouns with distinctive meanings. A right refers to a moral claim that a person has against other persons. If backed by law, this moral right is a legal right. A good is a way of being (an end, a goal) that has moral worth in itself, not because it is a means to realizing some other value. Having respect for other persons, most moral philosophers argue, is a good not because we are likely to receive better treatment from those we respect, but because each person is capable of moral actions and so is worthy of respect.

When I use the plural noun rights I am referring to legal rights, some of which are human rights under international law. Moral rights are not necessarily legal rights, as ethics has a larger concern than the law. Yet making and enforcing law is an ethical responsibility. The plural noun goods is sometimes used by moral philosophers to speak of moral values, interests, or ends. In economic theory, however, goods are simply commodities.

Reasoning About Our Feelings

I agree with those who argue that ethics is “concerned with making sense of intuitions”7 about what is right and good. We do this by reasoning about our feelings. Biologists verify that: “Emotion is never truly divorced from decision-making, even when it is channeled aside by an effort of will.”8 Physicists now confirm that seeing the world with complete objectivity is not possible, as our observations affect what we perceive.9

Moral philosopher Mary Midgley writes: “Sensitivity requires rationality to complete it, and vice versa. There is no siding onto which emotions can be shunted so as not to impinge on thought.”10 We rely on our reason to guard against feelings that may reflect a bias, or a sense of inadequacy, or a desire simply to win an argument. We also rely on reason to refine and explain a felt conviction that passes the test of critical reflection and discussion. We rely on feelings to move us to act morally and to ensure that our reasoning is not only logical but also humane.

Empathy and Reason

Scientific evidence supports this approach to ethics. As children, we manifest empathy before developing our rational abilities, and there is evidence for the same order of development in the evolution of the human brain.11 “Empathy is a unique form of intentionality in which we are directed toward the other’s experience.”12 This involves feeling, at least to some extent, what another person is feeling. Empathy means experiencing another human being as a person, an intentional being whose actions express a state of mind.

Empathy enables us to identify with others and may generate in us a feeling that another person deserves concern and respect. This does not guarantee ethical conduct, but encourages it. “Aid to others in need would never be internalized as a duty without the fellow-feeling that drives people to take an interest in one another. Moral sentiments came first; moral principles second.”13

We use the word conscience to refer to a person’s integration of moral sentiments and principles. We should each test our conscience, however, by explaining to others the reasons for our moral presumptions, and we should listen carefully to concerns they may have. Peter Singer probably speaks for all moral philosophers when he asserts that an ethical argument should only appeal to “emotions where they can be supported by reason.”14

Both our feelings and our reason reflect our moral community, which is made up of all those we care about. As children, our moral community is our family, but this soon includes our friends and then is defined primarily by our school experience. As adults, our moral community may grow from our family and friends (at work, in our neighborhood or a support group, and perhaps in our religious community) to include our city, our country, and even all the people of the world, whose moral and legal rights are defined by international law. It may even, as we will see, also embrace nonhuman organisms, ecosystems, and the biosphere of our planet.

Critical Reasoning

A reason is a statement that expresses a rational motive and supports a conclusion or explains a fact. As a verb, to reason means to use the faculty of reason to arrive at conclusions. Reasoning is thinking. Being rational is the same as being reasonable, which means acting or being in accord with reason. In moral philosophy, arguing involves giving reasons for drawing a conclusion. Simply expressing contrary opinions or beliefs is not arguing. In ethics we are interested in the reasons for our opinions or beliefs. We argue not to “win,” but to clarify our reasoning.

This means unmasking rationalizations. In some disciplines of thought, to rationalize means “to bring into accord with reason,” but in ethics it means “to attribute (one’s actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of true and especially unconscious motives.”15 In moral philosophy a reason is not a rationalization, because reasoning involves analyzing our motives. It is often difficult, however, to distinguish reasons from rationalizations.

For example, if I own land that I want to log to make a profit, but argue at a public hearing that logging should be allowed because it will bring jobs into the community, my public statement is a rationalization. If, however, I state publicly that I support logging because I will benefit from it and think the community will also benefit, I am giving two reasons for my position. Self-interest is rational and is not a rationalization, unless it is intentionally concealed or is the unconscious motivation for making an argument.

Reasoning by analogy explains one thing by comparing it to something else that is similar, although also different. In a good analogy, the similarity outweighs the dissimilarity and is clarifying. For example, (nonhuman) animals are both like and unlike humans (who are also animals). Is the similarity sufficiently strong to support the argument that we should ascribe rights to nonhuman animals as we do to humans? Chapter 7 reflects critically on this analogy.

Deductive reasoning applies a principle or general rule to a situation or person. For example, if every person has human rights, and you are a person, then by deductive reasoning you have human rights like every person. Inductive reasoning involves providing evidence to support a hypothesis. For example, the hypothesis that ingesting lead damages our bodies has been verified by extensive scientific research. The greater the evidence for a hypothesis, the more we may rely on it.

Chapter 15 notes that there is growing scientific evidence for the hypothesis that the burning of fossil fuels in power plants, factories, motor vehicles, and airplanes is contributing to global warming. This evidence substantiates the ethical argument that human communities have a duty to reduce carbon emissions to prevent the further degradation of the earth’s biosphere.

Making an inference is deductive when it involves deriving logical conclusions from principles known or assumed to be true. Making an inference is inductive when we are reasoning from evidence of factual knowledge to argue for what is true.16

The words therefore or thus, or because or it follows, or given that imply a conclusion is about to be stated. As critical readers, when we see these words we should begin raising questions. What principle is being asserted? Have the motives behind the argument been clarified, or is the conclusion a rationalization? If the argument relied on an analogy, was it strong and relevant? Are the inferences that have been made, either deductively or inductively, reasonable and convincing? Is the conclusion supported by the facts and reasons given in the argument?

Faith and Reason

For many people, morality and religious faith are inextricable, like a knot that cannot be untied. Moral philosophers, however, warn against relying on religious arguments in ethics. Some turn to Plato (ca. 428–327) for support, as his dialogue Euthyphro considers whether “right” can be understood as what the gods command or what is right in itself. Socrates reasoned that it would be contradictory to conclude that a god could make an action right by commanding it, if reasonable persons would otherwise judge the action to be wrong. Plato’s resolution to the dilemma, which is expressed by Socrates, requires affirming that a god only commands what is right, which infers that we can know (and do) what is right without relying on any divine commands. This would mean religion is unnecessary for ethics.

Philosophers and theologians have debated this conclusion for centuries, but to do ethics we do not need to explain the issues that remain contentious. Instead, we proceed on the assumption that we need not agree on what God commands (or not) to apply various forms of ethical reasoning to environmental issues. In other words, we can rely on our reason, rather than on divine intervention, to reveal that human actions have created an environmental crisis requiring significant changes in our way of life.

This pragmatic approach, however, does not rule out considering religious arguments that draw reasonable inferences from divine commands for addressing ethical issues concerning our use of the natural environment. Therefore, in doing ethics I include religious arguments among the reasons given for living more responsibly within the earth’s biosphere.

Plato assumed a dichotomy between divine commands and reasoning about the natural world that many today no longer find helpful. The history of moral philosophy is in large part a quest to create ways of reasoning that do not require choosing between an absolute form of knowledge of the good and a divinely ruled world that makes human ethical reasoning irrelevant.

In doing ethics we consider reasons for the limitations of our knowledge, as well as arguments for ascribing value to universal moral truths. We also take note of reasoning in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions that permits inferences about our duty to care for the earth. In addition, we draw on ethical arguments from cultures shaped largely by religious and philosophical traditions that revere a plurality of gods.

Moral philosophers are right to insist that ethical principles and decisions be justified by rational arguments, and this is why the study of ethics requires critical thinking. Relying on reason, however, does not mean that we should ignore all religious arguments, which have guided human reasoning for centuries and today inspire many persons of faith to live more sustainably.

Environmental Ethics

The discipline of environmental ethics took off in the 1970s, in response to the environmental movement protesting air and water pollution. Ethical arguments in support of laws to protect the environment initially emphasized the government’s duty (moral and legal) to protect the public welfare. Scientific evidence that environmental pollution is a threat to human health was used to argue that taking action to clean up the environment was right.

A few activists, however, affirmed that reducing pollution and taking other actions to preserve the environment are justified simply because nature has moral worth, not because humans will benefit from conserving and preserving the environment. Blazing this trail meant diverging from the main path of moral philosophy, which has been characterized as anthropocentric (centered on humans). The dissidents relied on various adjectives (biocentric, ecocentric, and holistic) to distinguish their new nonanthropocentric ethics from traditional ethics.17

Those who defend anthropocentric ethics hold that only humans have value, so ethical decisions about nature only involve assessing human welfare. Our actions may adversely impact other organisms, but we have no duty to these organisms to mitigate these consequences. Proponents of nonanthropocentric ethics assert that nature has value for itself, which humans should recognize. In using natural resources for our own ends, therefore, we also have a duty to preserve the natural habitats of other organisms.18

In traditional ethics our moral community consists only of persons. The argument for a duty of mutual respect, as well as the argument for the goal of personal and social happiness, presumes a moral community that (at least potentially) includes all humans, but only humans. For example, the moral community for international human rights law includes every person, but only persons (as individuals, groups, and peoples).

In environmental ethics, however, nonanthropocentric advocates assert that our moral community also includes other organisms, endangered species, ecosystems, and even the entire biosphere. Chapter 2 considers this debate about the extent to which the rest of nature, in addition to human civilization, should be included in our moral consideration.

Environmental ethics is a hike you don’t want to miss! Learning more about the paths (theories) of traditional ethics will help you appreciate this. So we do that next, to give you a sense of the terrain that lies ahead and a glimpse of the worldview that each path offers.

Learning from Diverse Theories

Conceiving of ethics as a mountain with many paths raises the question of which path to follow. In moral philosophy this is identified as the problem of pluralism. How are we to choose among ethical theories when each is supported by reasoning that makes sense to at least some moral philosophers? Three answers seem possible. First, one theory is right, and the others are wrong. Second, we can gain insights from every theory that has stood the test of time. Third, we have no way to know whether any of these ethical theories is right.

Continuing support for more than one theory is evidence that there is no way to prove to everyone’s satisfaction that only one ethical theory is right. As long as reasonable people disagree, we should resist the temptation to defend one way of thinking against all the others. Therefore, I opt for the second answer and take a pluralist approach to ethics. I have learned from the varied traditions of moral philosophy and in part 2 will explain how we might draw on five patterns of moral reasoning to construct and test ethical presumptions.

Before doing this, however, I offer a brief argument about why we should reject the third answer, which is known as ethical relativism.

Ethical Relativism

If we are unable to know whether or not any view of ethics is right or wrong, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that ethics is nothing but “different strokes for different folks.” This would mean that what individuals think is right is right for them, and that this is true for every culture. Philosophers refer to these notions as individual and cultural relativism.

Many of us are relativists in the sense that we think people should be free to make their own moral choices as long as no one else is harmed. In law, this is reflected in property laws and the right of privacy. We may also argue, however, that some land use choices—such as watering your lawn when there is a drought, or clear-cutting forests on private land in a time when ecosystems need to be preserved to maintain the health and integrity of the biosphere—should be restrained by governments to protect the environment and promote the public good.

If you agree that your personal freedom should be limited in some way, even when your behavior poses no direct harm to others, you are not a moral relativist. You affirm that some actions are right or wrong, and that some ways of being are better than others.

Cultural relativism poses a more difficult question, as history and anthropology reveal that human cultures have evolved diverse ethical standards. Does this mean that ethical reasoning simply rationalizes the customs and values of a culture? To assess this claim, I suggest we assume that the answer is yes, and then consider the implications of this position.

If values are merely the customs of various cultures, this would mean that values are whatever the majority in a society believes is right. But if this were so, how could values change, as they obviously do? A change in cultural values begins with a minority arguing that some values are better than others, which would be unpersuasive if we really believed that all values are relative.

Changes in cultural values are evidence that experience and ideas have led many people to change their minds about what is right and good, or better. Cultures are not simply different games played by different rules, but instead reflect diverse patterns of reasoning that people modify as they experience alternative ways of living.

This argument against cultural relativism does not imply that it is reasonable to believe there is a single version of ethics, which every culture should accept. Nor does it prove the existence of universal or absolute values. As a discipline of thought, “Ethics has universal intent.”19 But as long as moral philosophers argue for different ethical theories, we should expect that cultures will continue to have diverse values.

Nonetheless, the nature of ethical reasoning presumes that some actions and ways of being are better than others. Moreover, the presumptions of international human rights law affirm that some actions, such as torture, are absolutely wrong, and other human rights, such as the presumption of innocence, are absolutely right—and that these rights should be universally enforced. The reasoning behind these claims is Western in origin, but has been affirmed within many cultures, which is evidence that our moral community is becoming global.20

Ethical Traditions

We begin our overview of the main traditions of thought in moral philosophy by noting an early fork in the path between teleological and deontological ethics.21 The following discussion is limited to the Western tradition of moral philosophy, but part 2 considers teleological and deontological reasoning in indigenous traditions and in East and South Asian thought.

The word teleological comes from the Greek words telos, meaning purpose or goal, and logos, referring to science or study. Moral philosophers identify the ethical thinking of Aristotle (384–322 bce) as teleological, because he argued that we discover our human nature and what it means to be good persons by discerning in nature that our purpose is to seek happiness and the civic virtues it requires. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274 ce) adapted this view to a Christian perspective, and today this way of reasoning about ethics is known as the natural law tradition.

Five hundred years later—after Isaac Newton (1642–1727) proposed mathematical laws to explain nature (and thereby displaced its “purpose” with physics)—philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) argued that ethics is simply doing what yields the greatest benefits. This form of reasoning (concerning utility, so it was identified as utilitarian) is also teleological, but in a different sense.

Philosophers in the natural law tradition hold that doing what is intrinsically right leads to happiness, whereas utilitarian philosophers (in what is now often called the consequential tradition of ethics) argue that actions resulting in greater happiness are “right” because they achieve the best possible results. These forms of teleological reasoning identify two of the main philosophical paths in moral reasoning.

A third way of reasoning is characterized as deontological, an adjective derived from the Greek word deon, meaning duty.22 Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued persuasively for this tradition of moral philosophy. He asserted that human beings have the rational capacity to discern and do their duty, and he rejected consequential arguments that we should rely on the likely results of taking an action to determine what is right. Kant believed that we could act rationally with a good will, but accepted the view of Newtonian mechanics that overturned the science of Aristotle and thus made it irrational to look for any purpose in the laws of nature.

These three main traditions of moral reasoning are the context for doing environmental ethics.23 Chapters 4 and 7 follow the deontological path to consider ethical arguments for duty and human rights. Chapters 5 and 6 pursue the teleological trek of being a good person, looking at issues of individual character and virtues and then at a concern for relationships and an ethics of care. Chapter 8 explores the teleological terrain along the well-traveled path of consequential ethics.

Doing Ethics Together

Our goal in doing ethics is to learn from diverse traditions of ethical reasoning to bring our understanding closer to the truth that we cannot fully comprehend, as “all our reasoning extrapolates from limited experience.”24 To address environmental issues, we construct moral presumptions that we should act on, unless the likely consequences of doing so seem sufficiently adverse to justify revising a presumption or setting it aside.

Rule of Law

This approach to ethics involves reasoning by analogy to the rule of law. The rule of law is how we agree, as a society, to both disagree and aspire for greater agreement. The rule of law defines our society as a moral community by affirming ethical presumptions that should apply in creating and enforcing laws. Stated as two moral principles, the rule of law affirms that no one is above the law and everyone is equal before the law.

Ethical rules derived from these two principles are now asserted as human rights by international law, which affirms human rights as the necessary social conditions for human dignity. This means every person is included in the moral community defined by international human rights law. The conduct of governments and individuals often falls short of this high moral standard, but this fact does not make striving to enforce the rule of law any less important.

The rule of law provides an ethical framework for making public policy. It asserts ethical standards as legal presumptions, but also affirms that changing circumstances and new insights may lead to modifying some of these presumptions. The word presumption may only be familiar to most readers in legal phrases such as “the presumption of innocence” in criminal law, but this same meaning applies to doing ethics. What we take to be right or good is a presumption.

Reasoning by analogy, in doing ethics we rely on the same kinds of moral arguments that sustain the rule of law. We affirm that our moral community is defined by our moral presumptions and that those who challenge these presumptions bear the burden of explaining why some other action would be better. We assert that, “Ethics underpins law, criticizes it,” and “becomes a guide to what law ought to be.”25 We resist rationalizations and strive to give reasons for doing our duty, acting with exemplary character, respecting and strengthening our relationships, and protecting rights.

Constructing Ethical Presumptions

Each chapter in part II explores how a pattern of ethical reasoning derived from the traditions of philosophy may help us define our moral community. Chapters 4–7 concern actions and ways of being that philosophers affirm have intrinsic worth and argue for revised presumptions that express these insights. Chapter 8 considers arguments that moral action involves doing whatever will result in the best consequences. In doing ethics, we rely on consequential reasoning to test presumptions affirming right actions and being good persons.

Chapter 4 assesses our duty to act on the basis of reason. Traditional deontological reasoning distinguishes between direct duties to persons and indirect duties that are implied by our moral duties to others. This means any duty we may have to the environment is by definition an indirect duty reflecting our actual duty to other persons. In environmental ethics, however, reasons have been given for affirming direct duties to nature. Now that science has confirmed the self-organizing character of every organism and ecosystem, might this analogy to human autonomy justify ascribing moral consideration to both?

Chapter 5 considers how individual character is relevant for ethics. Most moral philosophers who consider environmental issues rely on duty and consequential arguments to draw conclusions about human responsibility for nature. Yet there is a tradition of thought affirming that personal happiness, as well as a good and just society, can only be realized by good persons. Should environmental ethics encourage virtues such as integrity, gratitude, and frugality?

Chapter 6 argues that caring relationships should be at least as much the focus of moral philosophy as individual virtues generally have been. This concern is especially relevant for doing environmental ethics, because our cultural traditions have rationalized the abuse of women and nature. Might we now learn from nature and women how to live more ecologically?

Chapter 7 addresses deontological arguments about our duty to respect rights. Legal rights are supported by the secular argument that individuals have natural rights as autonomous and rational beings and by the religious affirmation that rights come from God. International human rights law affirms the right to social and economic development for every people and the right to a healthy environment for each person. Recent laws offer greater protection for animals, but generally do not grant them rights. How are we to resolve the moral and legal conflicts between protecting human rights and preserving endangered species and the earth’s ecosystems?

In doing environmental ethics we explore these four patterns of reasoning to construct ethical presumptions about what we should do and the kind of persons we should be. These presumptions assert what we understand to be intrinsically right and good. We then use a fifth pattern of reasoning to test these ethical hypotheses by predicting the likely consequences of acting on them, to see if the possible or probable outcomes confirm or challenge our reasoning.

Most of us already think much like this, although we probably describe ethical presumptions as feelings or intuitions. We have a sense of what we believe to be right that is based on our experience, which we explain to others by referring to our feelings and the reasons that support these feelings. Also, we usually consider the likely consequences of acting on our sense of what is right, before we make a decision and carry it out. Doing ethics is a way of trying to clarify this way of reasoning about the moral choices we face.

Testing Ethical Presumptions

We test an ethical hypothesis (presumption) by predicting the likely consequences of acting on it. If we find evidence that seems to “falsify” our hypothesis,26 we should take this into account. Evidence that seems to verify our presumption should be taken as supporting it.

As with the rule of law, some ethical presumptions may be stronger than others. For example, consider the presumption of innocence. To overturn this moral and legal presumption and find a person guilty of a crime, the law requires the state to present evidence that is beyond all reasonable doubt. In a civil lawsuit, however, the burden of proof on the party bringing the action requires showing only that the claim is supported by a preponderance of the evidence.

Reasoning by analogy, in doing ethics we may distinguish moral presumptions that require compelling adverse evidence to be set aside from those that may be set aside when the showing of adverse likely consequences is merely convincing. For example, an elected official should tell the truth about the threat of global warming, unless there is compelling evidence that the consequences of doing so are likely to be dire. Convincing evidence, however, that the consequences of telling the truth will likely be detrimental is all that is needed for an adult to justify setting aside the moral presumption to be completely truthful when a child asks, for example, if global warming will kill all the polar bears.

Because human rights are the social conditions necessary for human dignity, I argue that setting aside the moral presumptions affirmed by international human rights law requires compelling consequential arguments. Also, because the ecosystems of nature are necessary for sustaining all life on Earth, I argue that compelling evidence should be required to set aside our duty to protect the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems.

Chapter 8 examines issues involved in predicting the likely consequences of acting on a moral presumption. Utilitarian reasoning and consequential arguments attack the use of deontological and teleological arguments by entrenched social elites to rationalize their power. Affirming that we should do whatever brings about the greatest good for the greatest number of persons has been an effective way of promoting political and economic freedom. Today consequential reasoning dominates environmental ethics.

Both natural science and social science utilize consequential methods of reasoning, and scientists and economists claim that their knowledge of the natural world is reliable. As these two disciplines of thought evolved from philosophy and now have an enormous impact on environmental decisions, the next two chapters consider the lessons we should learn from each.

Chapter 2 explains recent scientific arguments for the limits of our knowledge, the theory of evolution, and the discipline of ecology. It also considers the implications of current scientific research for ascribing moral consideration to nature. Chapter 3 argues that current economic theory and practice must be changed if economics is to fulfill its purpose of allocating resources for the common good.

Questions (Always Explain Your Reasoning)

  1. Write a sentence using the words right and good that states an ethical principle. Would you characterize your statement as deontological, teleological, or consequential?

  2. Provide three reasons why littering is unethical. Are any of these reasons religious? Deontological? Teleological? Consequential?

  3. Use an analogy to defend an ethical presumption about the environment and assess the strength and relevance of the analogy.

  4. Construct a presumption resolving a conflict of duties concerning the environment and predict the likely consequences of acting on this presumption.

  5. Make a consequential argument for protecting national parks that avoids rationalizing.


1. The word morality comes from the Latin mores, which refers to custom. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides two meanings for morality. First, the word can be used to “refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior.” Second, morality may be used “normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.” Online at

2. “Ethics, or moral philosophy, asks basic questions about the good life, about what is better and worse, about whether there is any objective right and wrong, and how we know it if there is.” Barbara MacKinnon, Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, 3.

3. A thing has intrinsic value if it is valuable because of what it is in itself. Intrinsic value contrasts with extrinsic (or derivative) value, such as the instrumental value that things have because of their usefulness or because people are benefited through appreciating them. “[I]t is important to avoid the widespread confusions that misrepresent aesthetic value or even all non-instrumental values as intrinsic value.” Robin Attfield, Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First, 12.

4. At

5. All these nouns may have slightly different meanings, depending on the context in which they are used, but I use them all to affirm the commonsense meaning for an ethical principle or moral standard.

6. At

7. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, “Introduction: Ethics and Environmental Ethics,” in Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, eds., Environmental Ethics: An Anthology, 3.

8. Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better, 191. Research has “emphatically confirmed the network model of the brain as well as a long history of thought and metaphor. Reason and passion, thought and emotion, were indeed linked in a loop rather than stacked in a hierarchy. Neither stood as the other’s slave. They engaged in a conversation that, to be healthy, had to be rich and balanced.” David Dobbs, “Turning Off Depression,” in Floyd E. Bloom, ed., Best of the Brain from Scientific American, 175.

9. The scientific method “changes and transforms its object.” Werner Heisenberg, quoted in Jeffrey M. Schwartz, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, 255.

10. Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter, 43.

11. Benedict Carey, “Study Finds Brain Injury Changes Moral Judgment,” New York Times, March 21, 2007, For the development of empathy and rational thinking, see Michael Schulman and Eva Mekler, Bringing Up a Moral Child: A New Approach for Teaching Your Child to Be Kind, Just, and Responsible, 8.

12. Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, 386.

13. Frans de Waal, quoted in Thompson, Mind in Life, 401.

14. Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, x.

15. At

16. “Inference,” The Free Dictionary,

17. Aldo Leopold’s land ethics and J. Baird Callicott’s interpretation and articulation of this approach have been characterized as holistic. In the literature of contemporary moral philosophy, ecocentric ethics emphasizes ecosystems and ecology, whereas biocentric ethics is focused on individual animals.

18. Some moral philosophers have tried to reconcile these conceptions. “Although these ethics are generally considered to be polar opposites, in fact, I believe, both often make use of the same moral theory, namely, preference or ‘interest’ utilitarianism.” Roger Paden, “Two Kinds of Preservationist Ethics,” in Louis P. Pojman and Paul Pojman, eds., Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, 209. See also James P. Sterba, “Environmental Justice: Reconciling Anthropocentric and Nonanthropocentric Ethics,” in Pojman and Pojman, Environmental Ethics, 252.

19. Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, “Introduction: Ethics and Environmental Ethics,” in Light and Rolston, Environmental Ethics, 5.

20. Chapters in part 3 offer evidence for this claim, as does Robert Traer in Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle.

21. Teleological ethics refers to a theory of morality deriving duty or moral obligation from what is good or desirable as an end itself, opposed to deontological ethics, which holds that the standards for an action’s being morally right are independent of the good or evil it generates.

22. “In contrast to consequentialist theories, deontological theories judge the morality of choices by criteria different than the states of affairs those choices bring about. Roughly speaking, deontologists of all stripes hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects—that no matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden.” “Deontological Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

23. Moral philosophers often identify social contract theory as a fourth main ethical approach. See James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 157–159. In his version of this theory John Rawls admits that “no account can be given of right conduct in regard to animals, and the rest of nature.” A Theory of Justice, 512, quoted in Mary Midgley, “Duties Concerning Islands,” Encounter 60 (1983): 36–43, reprinted in David Schmidtz and Elizabeth Willott, eds., Environmental Ethics: What Really Matters, What Really Works, 73.

24. Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter, 142.

25. Light and Rolston, “Introduction,” 3.

26. Karl Popper uses this language in his writings about scientific reasoning. See Derek Stanesby, Science, Reason and Religion.

Text from Chapter 1 of Doing Environmental Ethics by Robert Traer (Westview Press, 2013).

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