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In this essay, I will be taking religious ethics to mean the ethical principles of Christianity, i.e. Christian Ethics. This includes the moral decisions based on the teachings of Christianity from such sources as the Bible.
The term ‘environmental issues’ covers a broad spectrum of concerns. As far as ethics is concerned, the issue is how far our moral concerns should extend to the environment and how we should live out our responsibility towards it. By environment, the earth and all its living entities are concerned. As our concern for the environment has increased and our general awareness heightened, debates about morality towards the environment have emerged. Issues such as climate change, pollution, global warming and the extinction of species can all be linked to the actions of humans (e.g. CFCs and the burning of fossil fuels). Therefore, as the damage to our environment becomes more problematic, the link between its deterioration and the actions of humans becomes more prominent.
Anthropocenctrism, usually attributed to the teachings of Christianity, places humans at the centre of the world and therefore the environment. Aristotle taught that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man’; he basically states that humans are the only beings on earth that have intrinsic value, and that everything else placed on this earth has instrumental value and is to be used for the benefit of humans. Humanity is placed at the top of Aristotle’s hierarchy due to their possession of reason; animals can move and feel pain so come next; plants who can only grow and reproduce are placed at the bottom; and he appears to place no value on inanimate objects as they don’t even have a vegetative soul.
During the late 18th century and the early 19th century, the thinkers of the enlightenment period, also known as ‘the age of reason’, emphasised anthropocentric approaches and concluded that reason is the mark of authority. Scientific discoveries were made that bred confidence in man’s ability and shifted philosophical thought away from the teaching that God and the church are the centre of morality. Capitalism emerged which taught emphasising the success of the individual. Immanuel Kant placed humans at the top of his hierarchy with their intrinsic worth due to their possession of reason. Kant also viewed animals as of no moral concern to humans; the only time it is wrong to hurt an animal is when it could instrumentally harm a human.
However, by Kant’s reasoning that we can only have concern for animals if the impact is on humanity, he is contradicting himself as he looks to the consequence, which denotes it as a hypothetical imperative and therefore immoral. He also decides on moral action using formulations of the categorical imperative; 1. universalisability, where no contradictions can occur. Kant did not intend his theory to be used as an environmental ethic as it was not relevant at the time. 2. Kant declares that only moral rational agents need moral consideration as ‘ends in themselves’ and we should exclude animals from moral worth which concludes it to be outdates and unsuitable to be used as an environmental ethic. Therefore, Kant’s ethic is likely to be an unsympathetic approach and would probably lead to damage to the environment.
Christian anthropocentrism is mainly derived from the teachings of Genesis. The creation story (Genesis (1:26-28) teaches us to “fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth”. This implies that God has made all things for the sake of humans; that the only beings upon this earth that have intrinsic value are humans, and that everything else serves to benefit humanity (instrumental value). The only reason we need to have care for the environment is because our actions may have an impact, sooner or later, upon ourselves. St Thomas Aquinas also held this belief and stated that “injury to an animals leads to the temporal hurt of man, either the doer of the deed, or of another”.
Dr Lynn White suggested that we need to re-examine our attitudes towards nature, which derive from our religious beliefs, in order to successfully address the ecological crises. He said “Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny – that is, by religion”. He develops this suggesting that our destruction and damage to the environment can be traced to the technological advances of the industrial revolution and the enlightenment period which are a result of the despotic interpretation of the Judeo-Christian teachings declaring Western Christianity as “the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen”.
Utilitarianism is another approach towards ecological issues that one can consider when deciding the best approach towards environmental issues. Peter Singer is a preference utilitarian, who doesn’t measure happiness in the measure of extent or duration of happiness but instead on the satisfaction of desires or preferences. Singer measures the importance of an individual or being, not on their possession of a soul or reason, but on their ability to suffer. To Singer, it doesn’t matter whether the being in question is human or not and both humans and sensory non-humans are equally entitled to moral concern. As we can imagine that their preference would be to avoid pain.
He accused many moral philosophers and scientists of Speceism; refusing respect to the lives of other species, not just humans, and proposed that we need to include animals in the ‘expanding circle of moral worth’; “If possessing a higher intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non humans for the same purpose?”. The problem that arises from Singer’s theory is whether or not plants, and lesser life forms and non-life forms are included in the ‘expanding circle of moral worth’ as they are not conscious living entities so we don’t know what their preferences would be. Initially, Singer does not consider lesser life forms to have any moral significance, but in the second edition of his book states “the argument from intrinsic value of the plants, species or eco systems is at best problematic”.
Singer’s utilitarian argument has weaknesses in so far as it has no clear boundaries as to where our moral concern should lie. Unlike Christianity’s anthropocentric approach which clearly places humanity as the centre of our moral concern, Utilitarianism only beholds vague ideas of where our moral concern should extend to. The utilitarian argument has its strength in its positioning of the capability of suffering above the possession of reason. This does bear a more sympathetic approach towards humans of lesser intelligence (i.e. those with special needs) but then suggests that they are on the same level as animals. This would suggest Christianity to be a better approach as it is more compassionate.
Biocentrism, proposed by Paul Taylor, extends the circle of moral worth to include all living things and thus declares that humanity is not the centre of existence. Taylor argues that all life forms have intrinsic value which human beings have a duty to respect. We therefore have a moral responsibility towards them which would entail engaging in practices and policies aimed at specific ways of preserving the ecosystems. Taylor holds non-living things such as mountains to only hold instrumental value and therefore they bare no ethical status.
Taylor’s argument is fairly balanced as it doesn’t presume that human beings are the only beings with intrinsic value but he fails to introduce any sort of hierarchy and places humans on the same level as bacteria, which seems absurd. He also implies that we should all be vegans, but fails to address this, and doesn’t consider whether a lion is acting immorally if it eats a zebra. Christianity therefore is more logical as it sets a clear hierarchy which allows mowing the lawn and eating meat.
Ecocentrism is another approach to environmental issues. It recognises the importance of the ecosphere and the environment with out suggesting that any organism as more important than the other. Aldo Leopold proposed an ecocentric theory; ‘The Land Ethic’ which “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soil, waters, plants and animals.
Or collectively – the land”. He argued that current conservation policies are based on economic motives. He says “it is inconceivable to me than an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense”. He argues that Christianity’s teachings of ‘dominion’ saw us as conquerors of the land and that if we are to resolve the ecological crises we need to see ourselves as members of the community that also includes the land.
Another ecocentric approach is that of ‘deep ecology’ devised by Arne Naess. It was born out of appreciation for non-Christian religions that recognised the sacredness of natural phenomena. This includes the notion of ‘biospheric egalitarianism’ which views that all living things have intrinsic value. Deep ecology views the world as a network of interconnected and interdependent phenomena; a ‘web of life’.
These theories fail to determine how lesser life forms could have any moral interest, and how mountains and the like could have any moral interests whatsoever. This weakens it as Christianity. However it does appear to be more sympathetic as it concludes that other life forms have intrinsic value, not just humans.
Another ecocentric approach is that of the Gaia Hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock. After discovering that it is the earth’s unique atmosphere that makes life on earth possible, he declared the difference between earth and the other planets was ‘Gaia’. All life forms are part of ‘Gaia’ and he saw the earth as a self regulating living system.
In his words Gaia is “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and soil; the totality constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet”. He saw the ecosystems of the earth as intelligently organised, not by God, but by Gaia’s self engineering. He concludes that if humans were taken out of Gaia, it would survive without us; therefore, humanity is not integral to the environment. Lovelock later suggested that as the environmental issues increase, the planet may not be able to recover and we are in the process of killing the earth, which he refers to as matricide.
This suggestion that the earth is intelligently organised has much evidence (for example the water cycle, the reproductive system). However, by suggesting that the earth is alive and therefore self regulates these systems is weak as it is hard to prove. For Christians, the intelligent organisation is of course a result of God.
The despotic readings of the creation story present Christianity negatively as White argues. Because we are made in the image of God we believe that the world was made for our sake only. However, one must look at other interpretations of Christian teachings that would suggest a more considerate approach to the environment.
One could interpret the use of the word ‘dominion’ no as despotic, but as a call for stewardship. God has chosen humanity to regulate the response of the natural world to its creator so we must care and conserve and acts as the director of nature’s obedience to God. This makes Christian teaching more ‘theocentric’ than ‘anthropocentric’ as it suggests that the peak of creation is God. If we used this as a basic principle when approaching environmental issues, then it would be a strong theory, as it allows humanity to care for the land.
Aquinas’s Natural Law theory is based on the thinking of Aristotle, that all things in nature are for the good of man. He extends this further to explain how things are not worthless, but valuable because they are what God intended them to be; they fulfil their own Telos. Humans are declared as the most valuable beings due to their creation in ‘imago dei’ and possession of reason but we should follow stewardship rather than despotism. This would however suggest that despite the strengths of being stewards, being a Christian Ethic, one must have a belief in God to conclude this to be a valid approach to environmental issues.
Another Christian approach is Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics which emphasises the importance of love in moral decisions, but was never considered an environmental ethic. Fletcher believed in ‘personalism’; that people are placed before the laws, again being anthropocentric in that we are suggested to be able to do what we want. He promoted ‘pragmatism’; that one must do something that would produced the most loving consequences in that situation. This would be a positive approach to the environment as people would be loving towards it. This could perhaps places the environment second to human needs which would be a negative attitude. However, Fletcher’s ethic is too vague to be considered in any depth as we can’t define what is the most loving thing, who it’s for or even what ‘love’ means.
Attfield suggests a deeper interpretation of Christian teachings in order to accurately devise an ethical basis towards the environment. He saw that in Job (38:25) for example, God is said to send rain for the plants and uninhabited wilderness. And to have made wilderness for the Ass. Also the proverbs inform us that “a righteous man regardeth the life of his beast”. This would be the understanding that Jesus would have had, following the Old Testament teachings. There are New Testament teachings that would instruct a more sympathetic attitude to nature such as Jesus’ time in the desert amongst wild beasts after his baptism, and the use of nature and animals in his teachings and parables. However, there are the passages of the Gadarene swine and the cursing of the fig tree that suggest a more inconsiderate attitude is permitted.
In Hebrew tradition, Kings were answerable to God, not absolute monarchs in themselves, therefore according to Attfield “the biblical dominion of man is no despotism”. However, White argues that in medieval times the embrace of Christianity and the rejection of paganism changed the relationship between man and nature.
The pagan ideas of living beings having a soul or a spirit (animism) encouraged a positive attitude towards nature, which were corrupted by the growth of Christianity. Attfield however counter argues these claims and says the ecological crises can’t be blamed on ancient traditions as they have happened in more recent times (post 1945). Japan, for example, which is not a Christian country, shares many of the environmental problems that the West has. It is not just paganism and Buddhism that impose a limit on humankind’s use of nature. Attfield then concludes that we needn’t have a new environmental position; we just need to revert to stewardship rather than dominion.
Walter H O’Briant proposed a ‘born again Christian’ belief in the rapture; that Christ will return and the bodies and souls of the saved will go to heaven. The earth is, according to O’Briant, a temporary home therefore it doesn’t matter what we do to the earth.
After considering the theories discussed and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses I would argue that religious ethics are the best approach to environmental issues, provided we revert to a more ‘stewardship’ attitude, rather than the despotic interpretation.