PHIL 224, Week 1

Introduction to course

Environmental ethics investigates moral issues of right and wrong that arise concerning biophysical and social surroundings.

Overview of field: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Examples: Waterloo region light rail, fresh water, climate change, oil sands, asbestos mining ...

Each class will have a 5-minute group discussion period.

I recommend not using laptops and other electronic devices in class, for reasons on my blog.

Who are the students in this course?

  1. What regions?
  2. What programs?
  3. Why environment?
  4. Why environment & business?

The World in 2050 (Laurence C. Smith)

Four major forces that will shape civilizations over the next 40 years: demography, natural resources, globalization, and climate change.

Smith's question: What kind of world do we want?

How do the forces interact?

What can and should we do about them?

What are the key values that go into decisions about what the world should be like?

Facts (what is, descriptive) vs. values (what ought to be, normative).

Facts discovered by: observation, experiment, theories, models.

What Matters (from my blog)

1. Nothing. Nihilism is the view that nothing is worth caring about, so there is no point in worrying about the potential disasters that humanity faces.

2. Yourself. Egoism is the philosophical position that you should only care about yourself and make all your decisions based only on your own self interest.

3. Your immediate family or social group. Tribalism is the view people that do and should make decisions based on the interests of their immediate clans or nations.

4. All humans. Anthropocentrism is much broader than egoism and tribalism in saying that ethical deliberation should take into account all human beings. The major ethical theories in philosophy are anthropocentric, although they emphasize different ways of determining what ought to be done: rights and duties, consequences, or virtues. One crucial issue that cannot be avoided in environmental deliberations is the extent to which ethics should take into account future generations of people.

5. God. Many people look to religions for ethical guidance, but the problem inescapably arises: Which religion, which gods?

6. All living things. Some environmental ethicists attack what they see as the anthropocentric bias of most ethical theories and argue for animal rights or the claim that consideration of consequences ought to take into account the pain and suffering of animal: biocentrism.

7. Everything. Even more broadly, there is a view called deep ecology according to which ecosystems and possibly even the planet should be valued for their own sakes. The movie Avatar seemed to me to flirt with the idea of the planet as an organism that matters in itself.

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy:  The search for answers to fundamental questions about the nature of reality, knowledge, morality, and the meaning of life.

Epistemology:  The philosophical study of the nature of knowledge.

Metaphysics:   The philosophical study of the fundamental nature of what exists.

Ethics:  The philosophical study of the basis of right and wrong.

Positions about ethics (meta-ethics)

1. Objectivism: there really is right and wrong.

Problems: People disagree about particular cases of right and wrong, and there are conflicting ethical theories about what constitutes right and wrong.

2. Relativism: right and wrong depend on your point of view, so what's right for one person might be wrong for another person.

Kinds of relativism: individual, cultural, temporal (i.e. something used to be right but now it's wrong).

Problems: There are some issues, e.g. torturing babies, that virtually everyone agrees about, and we need to be able to make ethical judgments for social reasons.

3. Non-cognitivism: Ethical statements are merely expressions of emotional attitudes of approval or disapproval.

Problems: Although ethical judgments are undoubtedly emotional, they seem to be more than just approval or disapproval.

Ethical Decision Procedure

1. Identify the issue.

2. Identify the options.

3. Use Ethical Reasoning Patterns to evaluate the options.

4. Reach a conclusion on the issue.

Ethical reasoning patterns

An ethical reasoning pattern (ERP) is a standard way of justifying a conclusion about right and wrong.

Religious ERP #1:

Issue: Is a particular action right or wrong?

Analysis: According to my religious beliefs, the action is right (wrong).

Conclusion: The action is right (wrong).

Problems with religious ERP:

Different religions advocate different principles and beliefs.

How do you know that your religion is the true or morally correct one?

Consequences ERP #2:

Issue: Is a particular action right or wrong?

Analysis: Overall, the action has good consequences, so it is right.

Or, overall, the action has bad consequences, so it is wrong.

Conclusion: the action is right (wrong).

Problems with the consequences ERP

1. How should the consequences be evaluated?

(a) Pleasure/pain (b) Happiness (c) Flourishing (d) Ideals

2. An action can have overall good consequences, but still seem wrong, because it violates rights.

Rights/duties ERP #3:

Issue: Is a particular action right or wrong?

Analysis: An action is right if you have a duty to do it and it does not violate anyone's rights.

An action is wrong if you have a duty not to do it or if it violates someone's rights.

Conclusion: The action is right (wrong).

Problems with the rights/duties ERP

1. What rights and duties do people have? How do we know?

2. What happens when rights and duties conflict?

Principles ERP #4

Issues: Is a particular action right or wrong.

Analysis: An action is right if it follows from a good general principle, and does not violate any principles.

An action is wrong if it violates an ethical principle.

Conclusion: The action is right (wrong).

Problems with the principles ERP

1. What are the appropriate principles?

(a) Autonomy = self-determination

(b) Equality = fairness, justice

(c) Beneficence: maximize the good

(d) Non-malfeasance: minimize harm

2. What to do when principles conflict?

What to do when ERP's conflict?

Try to put them into an overall coherent picture.

See P. Thagard, "Ethical Coherence."

Needs-based consequentialism ERP #5 (Thagard 2010)

Issues: Is a particular action right or wrong?

Analysis: An action is right if overall it helps to satisfy human needs.

An action is wrong if it blocks the satisfaction of human needs.

Conclusion: The action is right (wrong).

Problems with the needs-based consequentialism ERP

1. What are human needs?

2. Can satisfaction of human needs justify violation of human rights?

Other approaches to ethics

1. Virtue ethics: act in accord with a virtuous character, that promotes the proper functioning of human beings.

2. Feminist ethics: take into account issues about care, power, and relationships, particularly as they concern the experiences of women.

3. Value maps: use cognitive-affective maps to diagram values.

Discussion questions

What do you think are the most important questions in environmental ethics?

Are ethical judgments objective or relative to persons and situations?

Review Questions for Week 1

  1. What are the differences between facts and values?
  2. What is the difference between ethical relativism and objectivism?
  3. What is the difference between teleological (consequentialist) and deontological (rights/duties) approaches to ethical theory?
  4. What ethical principles are relevant to making environmental decisions?
  5. What are the impediments to making environmental decisions solely on the basis of religion?

Phil 224

Paul Thagard

Computational Epistemology Laboratory.

This page updated Sept. 22, 2011