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Environmental Ethics

Editor(s):  Ben A. Minteer | 

What responsibilities do we have to wild species and ecosystems — and to present and future generations of humans dependent on critical ecological services? How does the recognition of rapid, global environmental change challenge our traditional understandings of these obligations? What does it mean to be "sustainable" and why do many believe that achieving sustainability is an ethical imperative for science and society in this century?

These questions, and others like them, are explored in this series. Environmental ethics is a branch of applied philosophy that studies the conceptual foundations of environmental values as well as more concrete issues surrounding societal attitudes, actions, and policies to protect and sustain biodiversity and ecological systems. As we will see, there are many different environmental ethics one could hold, running the gamut from human-centered (or "anthropocentric") views to more nature-centered (or "non-anthropocentric") perspectives. Non-anthropocentrists argue for the promotion of nature's intrinsic, rather than instrumental or use value to humans. For some ethicists and scientists, this attitude of respecting species and ecosystems for their own sakes is a consequence of embracing an ecological worldview; it flows out of an understanding of the structure and function of ecological and evolutionary systems and processes. We will consider how newer scientific fields devoted to environmental protection such as conservation biology and sustainability science are thus often described as "normative" sciences that carry a commitment to the protection of species and ecosystems; again, either because of their intrinsic value or for their contribution to human wellbeing over the long run.

The relationship between environmental ethics and the environmental sciences, however, is a complex and often contested one. For example, debates over whether ecologists and conservation biologists should also be advocates for environmental protection — a role that goes beyond the traditional profile of the "objective" scientist — have received much attention in these fields. Likewise, we will see that issues such as the place of animal welfare concerns in wildlife management, the valuation and control of non-native species, and the adoption of a more interventionist approach to conservation and ecological protection (including proposals to relocate wild species and to geoengineer earth systems to avoid the worst effects of global climate change) frequently divide environmental scientists and conservationists. This split often has as much to do with different ethical convictions and values regarding our responsibility to species and ecosystems as it does with scientific disagreements over the interpretation of data or the predicted outcomes of societal actions and policies.

The essays in this series illustrate the diversity of environmental ethics, both as a field of study and as a broader, value-based perspective on a complex web of issues at the junction of science and society. To gain a fuller understanding of the concepts and arguments of environmental ethics, begin with this introductory overview. From here you can explore a range of topics and questions that highlight the intersection of environmental ethics, ecology, and conservation science.

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