Environmental ethics can be described as a field that examines the relationship between the ethics of humans and the natural environment (Cochrane). A wide variety of topics were discussed, including the values of nature, obligations for future generations, animal treatment, animal farming, ecology, and more. Many different perspectives were taken and discussed, which taught me that there are ma questions that arise when responding to ethically challenging questions. The opinions that were debated were grounded in works by Norcross and Naess, but also in science.
One of the first things that was discussed in class was what the term “natural” means, and where its values come from. The Ecological Replication Thought Experiment, which put the dilemma of a natural forest being destroyed by human activities but was later replicated in the same place by human efforts, under the assumption that this could be perfectly completed (Sandler, 2018). This was one of the first ideas that made me challenge my previous conceptions of being able to truly understand where my personal morals and ethics come from, and why I believe in them.
For a situation like this, which I noticed was also developed in myself throughout the course, was being able to differentiate what can be done and what should be done to critically evaluate my thoughts and ideas, and base them in established ethical theories.
This conversation led to the idea of moral communities, which means defining all the beings that one holds in moral regard, which can differ on what the moral situation is.
Being able to define the criteria for moral worth is a difficult task that defines the foundation for one’s argument. For example, we were provided with an example of deciding who to sacrifice when on a lifeboat that only supports two. We were prompted to choose between an orangutan, a human being with the same cognitive and psychological capacities as the orangutan, and an alien with cognitive and psychological capacities exceeding my own (Sandler, 2018). I took an egoist viewpoint with intelligence being the criteria. I valued the life of the alien because of its intelligence, despite another human being on the lifeboat. I think that there isn’t necessarily a “correct” position, but the important idea to be aware of is understanding what your own moral community is and question why that is in order to grow and understand yourself. I placed intelligence as the main criteria because I felt that intelligence would aid in survival, therefore being an egoist point of view. Although there was another human on board, I disregarded the fact that we are the same “intelligent” species and focused solely on my selected criteria.
Moving forward from moral communities, we discussed animals as moral patients. Although a very difficult topic, I found it very interesting, especially when reading Norcross’s perspective. Norcross (2004) systematically examined arguments against his own position and then shows why he thinks they fail. I think that this is a great way to critically evaluate one’s own morals and thoughts. For example, to question the common practice of meat-eating, Norcross brings up the suggested distinction that people do not kill the meat themselves, and “human pleasure is at stake.” However, even if one person stops eating meat, everyone else will continue, so it seems as though there is no end to the cycle. Norcross says that killing puppies is intended as a means for this human pleasure, but the suffering of factory raised animals is “foreseen” as a side-effect for a system that we have no power to change. He responds to this argument by stating that the argument does not explain why it is morally relevant that animals are moral patients and not moral agents. He believes that arguments like this are used to justify the status quo. I personally agree with his moral stance on meat-eating. As someone who became a vegetarian for similar reasons, such as animal harm in factories and the understanding that it is not necessary for survival, his arguments are those I understand and relate to. I think personally do not look down upon those who eat meat, but if I were to follow Norcross’s perspective, I would be criticizing these people on their moral grounds, because meat-eating is morally impermissible, therefore making anyone who eats meat knowing this information is also morally impermissible.
This led to the ideas of animal rights and animal welfare. Animal rights means that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation. It insists all living beings have the same basic right to live in freedom (PETA). According to the animal rights position, animals have a right not to be used by humans for any purpose whatsoever. Animal-welfare advocates have worked for the past 100 years to ensure that the animals that provide us with meat, dairy products and eggs receive good nutrition and care. Thanks to their efforts we have humane-slaughter regulations, codes of practice and other provisions to minimize stress and suffering. Animal welfare allows these uses if ‘humane’ guidelines are followed (Truth About Fur, 2017). In this view, there are cases where the interests of humans and non-human animals conflict about where it is morally permissible to decide in favor of human beings. Such is their use to advance medical knowledge and human (and non-human) health. Animal-rights advocates don’t seek better conditions for farm animals. Rather, they oppose all killing and consumption of animals no matter how humanely this is done. Peter Singer launched the animal rights movement. It was and still is a call for an end to human tyranny towards animals. It was a call to end the pain and suffering of animals. The argument is that since all sentient beings have the ability to suffer, it follows that they have interests. And since they have interests, when these are frustrated, it leads to suffering. Tom Regan on the other hand adopts a deontological rights position which is the view that animals, like men are “ends in themselves” and therefore ought not to be exploited. Animals and humans have equal rights. In fact, to Regan, animals have similar essential properties like humans with regards to desires, memories, and intelligence and so on and this therefore gives them equal intrinsic value like humans. This topic was passionately debating throughout the semester, and for good reason. It goes back to who is in our moral communities.
One of the last topics that was discussed was shallow and deep ecology. Deep ecology rests on a point of view that advocates ethics of the end, while shallow ecology is founded on a point of view that advocates ethics of the means. Deep ecology is ecology with the central principles of ecological limits and the need for human life to harmonize with nature. Shallow ecology looks towards technological solutions to fix major environmental problems. It appears shallow ecology is more a more practical approach to take, since completely removing a practice from people’s lives is a very large and difficult task. However, deep ecology requires people to make behavioral changes to be more harmonic with nature. Small changes are seen in our own communities, such as the $.05 charge on plastic bags at stores in Suffolk County. Many were outraged, but it saves people money if they use reusable bags, or even reuse the plastic bags that they have. I think that if this was implemented in Nassau county as well, an even bigger impact could be made.
Overall, I have learned about only some of the environmentally ethical problems we face daily, but I think that this was a great way to challenge myself to think about the roots of my decisions. I was able to express my opinions, listen and understand opposing opinions, and learn to ground my thoughts in ethical theories. Many of the viewpoints expressed were easy to understand, which made it difficult to make my own decisions about what I really believed. However, as I stated above, I did decide on a “side” for most challenges. Although I did not discuss all of the topics we examined in class, such as land ethics and hunting, I think that everything that we talked about in class was absolutely relevant and thought-provoking, especially since they related to familiar concepts.