Moral Responsibility and Environmental Ethics

“We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” ― David Brower

Whenever we think of the Environment a picture of how badly we Human beings are Harassing and destroying it comes to our mind. We visit the beaches, the mountains and always throw the garbage around. The industries and the vehicles release a huge amount of harmful gases in the air and if there were no norms set by the government people would never even try to reduce the amount of smoke coming out of their vehicles or their factories.

Human beings are very selfish creatures, we always think of our own desires and greed and do everything to satisfy them.

Before the 1960s there was no awareness about the effects of technological, economic, industrial expansion and increasing population, It was only because some books were published in the 1960s people started to think about the environment as something they should value(Environmental Ethics, Alasdair Cochrane).

Now when we talk about the concept of Environmental ethics it not only deals with the environment but also deals with the non-human species living in it like all the animals. There was a discussion in the class about whether the technology is enough to save the environment. The conclusion to that discussion was a big NO.

Until and unless we don’t change the way we live the way we treat the things around us, it won’t matter how technologically advanced we become, it would never be enough.

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The question arises that what moral obligations do we have towards the environment? If we think of these obligations in a way that if we don’t protect the environment then it’s going to harm the Human beings themselves. This kind of selfish or human-centric ethics is called Anthropocentric approach.

Anthropocentric means something which is human-centric, Is assumed humans to be morally superior to all the other creatures on the earth. This approach promoted the interests of human beings above the interests of non-human things. Traditional Western perspectives are mostly Anthropocentric like Aristotle (Politics, Bk. 1, Ch. 8) says “nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man”(Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, ‘Environmental Ethics’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition)).

But despite the Human-Centeredness of Anthropocentric ethics, they have helped in making people think about the Environment as well. For example, we think of our future generations will definitely get affected if we keep harming the environment so for their sake we try not to harm it. Now if we consider animals, should they be given moral standings? Different philosophers have different views on this topic. The famous ones of these are the views of Peter Singer and Tom Regan.

Singer, on one hand, believes that if an entity possesses some consciousness then it should be given moral standings. It doesn’t mean that they should be given equal standings but they should always be considered equally. He basically believed that our obligations should be such that we get the greatest amount of satisfaction that we can. Whereas Regan, on the other, believes that there are limits to how we can affect a subject-of-a-life. These beings with a subject-of-a-life are ones which have emotions, memory, desires etc(Regan, 1983/2004, ch. 7).

So, for example, we consider the fact that a lot of chickens are killed so that Non-Vegetarians can eat them. According to Singers theory, It would legitimate to do so to satisfy the interests of Humans. Whereas in according to Regan’s view it won’t be considered right because there are certain limits to what we can do to the rights of an entity irrespective of the no. of entities whose interest it satisfies(Environmental Ethics, Alasdair Cochrane). Even though it’s obvious that since the animals live in the natural environment they are automatically related to environmental ethics but still it is opposed by a lot of environmental philosophers.

For example, when animals sometimes damage the environment should we take actions against them or not. Some philosophers argue that the beings which don’t have a consciousness but are still alive should also be given moral standing. But it is almost impossible for Humans to consider each and every living being(Environmental Ethics, Alasdair Cochrane). We can try to overcome the environmental problems by just extending the moral standings, but we also know that they would never be sufficient to deal with it.

So many of the philosophers try to deal with this by considering all of the human beings and all the living organisms, i.e. by promoting the worth of all beings regardless of everything. It tries to confront the environmental crisis by changing the way society functions and it tries to make us face the reality that if we don’t change our attitude towards the environment there is nothing which would be able to save the environment. This type of philosophical approach is known as Deep Ecology. It rejects the usual anthropocentric approach of the environmentalists.

The term Deep Ecology was first coined in 1972 by Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. Naess in 1973 tried to explain this by pointing out the big gap between the “shallow” i.e. the anthropocentric environmentalist perspective and the deep perspective. While Naess and George Session have eight principles which define deep ecology but Naess’s own ecosophy(eco-philosophy) involves only one principle and that is “Self Realisation!”.But the eight principles given by Naess and Session contradict with each other a lot of times and also a lot of critiques have argued about it being too vague to actually deal with the real world environmental problems(Environmental Ethics, Alasdair Cochrane).

Social Ecology almost has the similar approach towards the worldwide problem, it also believes that the problem is because of the anthropocentric ideology of the society, thus it also believes that a change in this ideology is required. But it simply doesn’t try to overcome the problem by “Self-realisation”, instead, it’s fundamental principles are based on the fact that the problems are due to the social dysfunctions in the society. The approach links social factors such as racism, slavery, discrimination, sexism etc. with environmental problems such as the deforestation of rain forests.

Murray Bookchin was the founder of Social Ecology, he wrote books such as “The Ecology of the Freedom”.He argued that human domination and destruction of nature is a result of social differences among humans. He felt that too many environmentalists were just looking at the symptoms of the problems rather than looking at the causes of it. Social ecologists generally believe in establishing a society driven by equality and cooperation rather than individual profits, Even though Humans are an intelligent species, it doesn’t imply that we will act as a superior being and think of the animals as just mere puppets of out will.

Ecofeminism is a feminist approach towards understanding ecology. It uses the common problems in the oppression of nature and oppression of women to raise awareness that both of them are not the property of men and men are not the ones who are controlling the world just like how nature is not the property of human(

Considering the fact that the environment is being overused by the humans, the increasing amount of pollution unbalanced ecosystem overkilling of animals, global warming etc. are alarming problems of the world which are mainly caused due to human beings. So the knowledge and understanding of environmental ethics are important for everyone. To raise awareness among people it should be spread around the globe in order for us to save our environment.


  1. Alasdair Cochrane , Environmental Ethics , URL =.
  2. Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, ‘Environmental Ethics’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

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