Environment and Society in a Changing World

Fundamentals of Normative Ethics


Fundamentals of Normative Ethics

Examining the study of normative ethics in more detail will better help us recognize different ethical viewpoints, and their impact on sustainability, as we move through the course.

Ethical Action

Normative ethics has three major subfields: virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism. We will focus on deontology and consequentialism because these two subfields are concerned with how to determine what makes ethical actions. Deontology and Consequentialism are two different approaches for determining the moral correctness of an action. Deontology considers the action in and of itself, regardless of the outcome. In many ways, deontological ethics focus on rules for right behavior. Consequentialism is an ethical framework that focuses on the end result of behavior and can justify acts such as lying, stealing, or even violence if the end result brings the most benefit to all those with moral standing.

Look back at the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from the previous section. It's a funny illustration of the fundamental debate between deontology and consequentialism. Let's consider an example that falls within the scope of this course. Is the act of clearing forest cover fundamentally unethical? Is it acceptable to do so if the end result is more beneficial, such as preventing the spread of forest fire, or providing needed resources to humans? It is not an easy question to answer. And you've hopefully noticed that it raises an equally important ethical question: do trees (or forests) have intrinsic value? We will consider this last question in more detail in a moment.


Justice is a core concept for the study of sustainability and human-environment relations. Justice is essentially a concept of fairness, but in ethical terms, it refers to the fair treatment due to all things that have intrinsic value (and thus moral standing). In many cases, justice is defined by legal systems, but regardless of how just treatment is defined, the concept is closely related to ethics. For this course, we will focus on two particular forms of justice: distributive and procedural.

Distributive justice emphasizes the fair distribution of gains and losses across populations. Distributive justice is thus closely related to consequentialist ethics, and particularly utilitarianism. Sustainability and other environmental policies often impact different segments of a population differently. The decision to locate a mine, for instance, will have a very different (and often negative) impact on the people living and working at the selected location than those living farther away. All the people in this situation may equally benefit from the copper produced by the mine, but only those that live nearby will have to deal with pollution, or degraded drinking water often associated with mineral extraction. Often, the distribution of these positive and negative impacts closely mirrors divisions of race and class, which adds a complex but important layer to discussions of ethics and justice. The field of research and activism that focuses on the unequal impact of environmental pollution and degradation on the poor and people of color is known as environmental justice. This is an important area of distributive justice research in the field of geography.

Procedural justice is closely related to distributive justice but emphasizes how decisions are made. Procedural justice is thus mainly interested in the process of deciding which actions to take and has some overlap with deontological ethics. A core procedural justice principle is that everyone who is affected by a decision should have some say in how the decision is made. There are many ways to implement procedural justice. Democracy is one of them and we'll explore the concept in depth later in this module.

Environmental change is very challenging for procedural justice because it is very difficult to include everyone's opinions in a decision. The following reading develops this challenge further.

Consider This: O'Neill On Procedural Justice

John O'Neill is a contemporary scholar in the field of environmental politics. One topic he studies is the challenge to procedural justice posed by environmental issues. Please read the following paragraph from his 2001 article "Representing people, representing nature, representing the world":

The problems raised thus far are general problems for deliberative institutions that arise in any domain of choice, not problems peculiar to the environment. However, environmental decisions raise very particular problems for democratic theory concerning the nature and possibility of representation over and above those discussed so far. The central problem is that for many of those affected by decisions, two central features of legitimization – authorization and presence – are absent. Indeed for non-humans and future generations there is no possibility of those conditions being met. Neither non-humans nor future generations can be directly present in decision making. Clearly, representation can neither be authorized by non-humans or future generations nor can it be rendered accountable to them. The politics of presence which underlies much of recent literature in deliberative democracy is ill suited to include future generations and non-humans. In the case of current non-humans this might be regarded as untrue. Something like an Alejandro solution is possible. Consider the success of Muir’s strategy of taking Roosevelt out into the landscapes he aimed to preserve. There is a sense in which one might say that the strategy consisted in nature being represented by itself. However, while there is certainly a case more generally for taking deliberation into the places which are the object of deliberation, the articulation of any non-human interests or values here remains a human affair. The presence of non-human nature in deliberation about environmental choices requires human representation.

Authorization here means that representatives are authorized to speak or act on behalf of those they represent. For example, our elected representatives in Congress are authorized to speak or act on behalf of us. Presence here means that each group affected by a decision is in some way present in that decision. For example, our Congressional representatives are always from the district that we live in, meaning that each geographic district has some presence in the decisions made in Congress.

Given the paragraph and these definitions, what would you say is the core challenge to procedural justice posed by environmental issues?

Note that O'Neill's paper is an academic journal on environmental politics and thus may be challenging to read - except for scholars in the field of environmental politics. In general, academic journal articles are often challenging to read because they are written for experts in specific subject areas. But if you can read academic journal articles, then you have access to a very powerful and state-of-the-art portion of human knowledge.

For your reference, "Representing people, representing nature, representing the world" was published in the academic journal Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, Volume 19, pages 483-500. You can read this journal and many others via Penn State's e-Journal system.

The excerpt from O'Neil's paper raises an important question for considerations of justice, and ethics in general: what would it mean to have justice for environments? Thus far, our discussion of ethics has focused on humans, particularly human individuals. What would it mean, in ethical terms, to extend moral consideration to non-humans and ecosystems? That is one of the primary concerns of the field of environmental ethics.

Anthropocentrism, Biocentrism, and Ecocentrism

As you can imagine, there is much debate among environmental ethicists as to incorporate non-humans and environments into normative ethical considerations. Many of these debates contrast several ethical viewpoints that differ in regard to what things possess intrinsic value. In this course, an important contrast is between ethical viewpoints known as anthropocentrism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism.

Anthropocentrism is an ethical perspective that holds that only humans - particularly individual humans - possess intrinsic value. And anthropocentric ethical argument considers all non-human individuals (wolves, chickens, trees, etc.), as well as collective entities like ecosystems, possess only instrumental value in so far as they are a benefit to humans. This is not to say that anthropocentrists do not advocate for conservation or environmental sustainability. Quite the contrary. But they pursue environmental protection because it maintains or expands those instrumental values for humans.

Biocentrism and ecocentrism are ethical perspectives that also afford intrinsic value to non-human things. Biocentrism, as the name implies, expands intrinsic value and moral consideration to non-human living things (animals, and sometimes plants). Like anthropocentrism, biocentrism in most cases only gives moral consideration to human and non-human individuals, and it is sometimes called moral extensionalism because it simply extends traditional anthropocentric ethics to non-humans. Ecocentrism also affords intrinsic value to non-humans, but as a collectivist ethic, it also extends moral standing to holistic entities like ecosystems or species. From an ecocentric perspective, then, both the living and non-living members of ecosystems have intrinsic value.

Keep in mind that in both of these perspectives humans also have intrinsic value, and in most cases, biocentric and ecocentric ethical perspectives do not place non-humans of ecosystems above humans. But humans are no longer morally exceptional. That means that when considering issues of distributive or procedural justice from a biocentric or ecocentric viewpoint, non-humans and ecosystems must also receive fair treatment in the decision-making process and the distribution of positive and negative environmental impacts. This brief exploration of ethics makes it clear why environmental issues that bring groups of people with anthropocentric and ecocentric ethical viewpoints into conflict can produce seemingly intractable disagreements. These ethical issues are a critical component of effective sustainability policy and action.

Reading Assignment: Muir & Pinchot

John Muir (bio) and Gifford Pinchot (bio) are major figures in the history of conservation and environmentalism in the United States. While their words are old, their classic ideas remain very relevant today. Please read:

Pay particular attention to the highlighted sections of these readings. One of these readings is considered to hold an anthropocentric perspective and the other an ecocentric perspective. Which do you think is which, and why?


The expansion of moral standing and consideration that comes with biocentrism and ecocentrism often introduces the concept of speciesism: the practice of giving greater moral consideration to one species over others. Speciesism is similar to racism, or sexism, but it is often much more difficult to detect. This is partly because what many call speciesism is usually humans giving greater moral consideration to other humans over non-humans. This is classic anthropocentrism, and it is very common - even instinctive. But there are many people that consider the practice of putting humans first as unethical as racial discrimination.

The concept of speciesism raises major questions. Should any species – human or otherwise – be given greater intrinsic value than any other species? On what grounds could this be? People have argued that humans are exceptional because of language and human reasoning (a position made famous by the philosopher René Descartes), emotional capacity, and other abilities. But biologists consistently find that, while humans are relatively strong in these ways, they are not unique: other animals can use language and reason or feel emotions. Thus many people argue that we should care about non-human animals similarly to how we care about humans. (We say "other animals" and "non-human animals" because (obviously) humans are classified as animals, too.)

For example, if we care about human welfare – about human happiness and suffering and life flourishing – then perhaps we should care about the welfare of non-human animals as well. Such considerations are especially important in discussions about food and agriculture, given the vast numbers of livestock animals that are alive in our food system.

You might feel like the notion of speciesism creates some intractable problems. Would a rejection of speciesism require equal legal rights and protections for all non-human animals? For trees? Must we all become vegetarians? Some ethicists and activists say yes. Others argue that there are distinctions. Philosopher Paul Taylor, for example, argues that it is immoral for a human to kill a wild animal when it is not necessary for subsistence, but in cases where the human would otherwise starve, it is permissible. He also argues that so long as livestock animals do not suffer while alive, there is no moral difference between eating that animal and eating a plant (since both possess intrinsic value). Taylor does argue for vegetarianism in most cases, however, because plant based diets allow more land to be devoted to nature (a point that is debatable). What moral consideration do we owe, then, to a living animal that is destined to be our food?

Consider This: Bentham On Speciesism

Jeremy Bentham (bio) (1748-1832) was an early and very important ethicist. He wrote many, many things throughout his life. One of his most famous writings is this passage on the issue of speciesism:
The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?

From Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, second edition, 1823, chapter 17.

Is the argument here anthropocentric, biocentric, ecocentric, or something different? Do you agree with the argument? Why or why not? If we accept the argument, then what might some implications be for the human-environment issues we discuss in this course?

Moving Forward

These last few sections offer up quite a few profound ideas to ponder. As we move through the course, keep a critical eye open for the ways that differing ethical perspectives, even unconscious positions, influence debates about human uses of the environment.

Optional: Additional Reading & Ethics Terminology

There are several great resources online that explain these basic ethics concepts in much more detail. The two most comprehensive resources are Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). The SEP is particularly valuable because it contains high-quality content written by experts. If you read and understand these, then you will have a strong understanding of ethics as it is relevant both to this course and much more.

Utilitarian Ethics: Watch this short video from the producers of the TV Series "The Good Place" titled "Mother Forkin' Morals with Dr. Todd May" (4:34 minutes). Utilitarian ethics is an example of consequentialism.

Click for a transcript of the "Mother Forkin' Morals with Dr. Todd May" video.

TODD MAY-My name is Todd May. I teach philosophy at Clemson University. I've been teaching philosophy for about 30 years. Utilitarian philosophy goes back a couple hundred years. Probably the first person really associated with it is an 18th-century thinker named Jeremy Bentham. And it goes up through John Stuart Mill, and it's still very big in philosophy.


TODD MAY-It's all about the consequences of what you do. It's not about what you intend, it's not about following rules. It's about whatever your action is, the world should be a little bit better off when you're done with that action than when you started. For Bentham, it's all a matter of introducing more pleasure into the world than was there before. It's all a matter of suffering and pleasure.


TODD MAY-The problem is, for a lot of folks, it isn't just about how much pleasure you can get. Let's suppose that I could design a pleasure machine for you. You go into the machine, you feel nothing but pleasure for the rest of your life. You won't be doing anything, but it's gonna feel great. Here's the proviso -- if you go into that machine, you can't come back out. You decide once and for all -- would you take the machine? And not many people would take it.

ELEANOR-Really? Huh.

TODD MAY-When I teach in prisons, one of my classes is a group of lifers. Right, they're not going anywhere. They're gonna be in that maximum-security prison for the rest of their lives. And I've posed the question to them. I had 15 people, and I said, "Would you take that machine?" 14 of them said no. All right, because for all of them, there has to be more to life than just generating pleasure.

MICHAEL-This is so interesting!

TODD MAY-You can think of utilitarians as not necessarily being about pleasure. We can think, say, of happiness, right, as a broader category. What binds all these together is that for the utilitarian, it's the consequences that count. Alright? It's not how you get there. It's where you wind up.

MICHAEL-I think I'm really starting to get it.

TODD MAY-The trolley problem is one of the classic places where people think about utilitarianism and think about whether or not we ought to be utilitarian.

CHIDI-You are driving a trolley, and on the track ahead of you are five workmen that you will run over. Now, you can steer to another track, but on that track is one person you would kill instead of the five. What do you do?

TODD MAY-Some people think of the trolley problem as a way of defending utilitarianism. "Look, if you got to kill one person to save five, that's what you ought to do". So, in one scene, Chidi is running the trolley.

MICHAEL-There are five workers on this track and one over there. Make a choice.

ELEANOR-Quick, Chidi, what's your decision?!

CHIDI-I am choosing to switch tracks so that way, I only kill one person.

TODD MAY-But in some ways -- and the show brings this out -- it's a way of illustrating some of the problems of utilitarianism. In another scene, which comes from philosophy, instead of running over one person to save five, the question is, "Do you find a healthy person and carve them up in order to use their organs, each one for a different operation?"

ELEANOR-Dude, what the fork?

MICHAEL-These five people all need organ transplants or they will die. Eleanor's perfectly healthy. Chidi, do you want to slice her open and use her organs to save the five sick people?

TODD MAY-People who are willing to throw the switch to kill the one to save the five in the trolley problem generally are not gonna say yeah, it's okay to go out in the street and kill one person or harvest their organs to save five other lives.

CHIDI-Although five people will die, I cannot harm one innocent person to save them. It's unethical.

TODD MAY-But then the question becomes "What's the difference?" Utilitarian's gonna say it's the same problem, should have the same answer. But, right, what Chidi begins to recognize in that actually may not be the same problem for reasons that are difficult to say. One seems obvious to do, and the other seems obvious not to do. And for Chidi, this becomes a very difficult thing to sort out.

CHIDI-Oh, come on!

TODD MAY-For Jason, I guess the question is "What would Blake Bortles do?"

JASON -Jacksonville Jaguars rule!

TODD MAY-But for Chidi, he's got to think philosophically about this.

MICHAEL-Why don't you just tell me the right answer?

TODD MAY-I would say that there may be contradictory right answers. That is to say, it's probably at least okay and maybe right to throw the switch, and it's not okay to carve up the one to save the five. But if you ask me, "Yeah, what's the difference?", I don't know what to tell you.

ELEANOR-Well, that's good.

Virtue ethics: See Wikipedia's page on Virtue Ethics and SEP's page on Virtue Ethics.

Consequentialism: See Wikipedia's page on Consequentialism and SEP's page on Consequentialism.

Deontology: See Wikipedia's page on Deontological Ethics and SEP's page on Deontological Ethics.

Environmental Ethics: See SEP's page on Environmental Ethics. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has numerous excellent resources on environmental ethic, and much more.