Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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1.3 The influence of environmental ethics: value and care

Religious ethics can play a significant role in shaping appropriate narratives that provide for a lived ethic – that is, the obligations and entitlements associated with human relationships with Nature that embody what’s good and what’s right. But how might other ethical traditions help towards developing a lived ethic? To what extent has the emergence of environmental ethics since the 1970s influenced a lived ethic commensurate with developing care for the environment?

Andrew Light, a philosopher and advocate of environmental pragmatism, points out that much of the work done by academics on developing environmental ethics since the 1970s has focused on arguing for a much-needed reappraisal of the value of nature. In short, the work has concentrated on asserting the principle that nature does matter! Endeavours have focused on theorising about the value of nature. However, there is a critique of such endeavours to be made, which might be understood in terms of conversations not fully contributing towards a lived ethic. This critique is explored below, followed by a brief examination of ideas from the consequentialist ethical tradition that may address some of Light’s concerns.

In the following reading, Light identifies four key ‘conversations’ that have shaped the way in which nature has been valued amongst ethicists. I have used inverted commas here because I would like you to critically assess whether ‘conversation’ or ‘debate’ is the more appropriate term to use.

Activity 2 Conversations about valuing nature

Read ‘Contemporary environmental ethics’ by Andrew Light (2002).

Make notes as you read.

Activity 3 Conversation or debate?

Make a brief note of what you consider to be the main difference (if any) between a conversation and a debate. What significance does the term ‘debate’ have to Light’s general criticism of academics involved with environmental ethics?

Light suggests that environmental ethicists have concentrated on asserting the importance of intrinsic value over and above instrumental value in relation to the natural world. This tradition has been accompanied by a strong critique of anthropocentrism – human-centredness being regarded as a mindset responsible for much environmental damage. Environmental ethics has since progressed through what Light regards as an over-emphasis on theoretical discussion about the precise way in which nature should be valued. He refers to these discussions as debates – not unreasonably, given the often intransigent positioning of advocates on either side of the discussion. The four debates can be summarised as follows:

  1. anthropocentrism vs ecocentrism

  2. individual vs holistic ecocentrism

  3. subjective vs objective holism

  4. moral monism vs moral pluralism.

From Light’s perspective, the sometimes intransigent nature of debates (Figure 3) is a reason why environmental ethics has not contributed as much as it could towards shaping action and policy. Academic competitiveness, and seeming lack of consensus amongst academics, makes it difficult for the discipline to reach out and influence other disciplines and practices associated with caring for and protecting the environment. Nevertheless, Light does acknowledge that there is some worth in theorising about value in nature.

Figure 3 Academic debates on the meaning of valuing nature vs active progress on environmental responsibility

Activity 4 The four ethical debates

  • a.From your reading of Light, list the key authors associated with each ethical debate.

  • b.For each of the four debates shaping environmental ethics, describe (i) your own general viewpoint in relation to a current environmental issue, and (ii) your own impression of what is the dominant viewpoint in the culture to which you belong, if you think this is different from your own.

Light suggests that arguments over valuing nature, and the accompanying general consensus around demonising anthropocentrism, have distracted attention from a principal agency for environmental responsibility – the human. The four debates can be viewed as differences in perspective at an increasing distance from anthropocentrism. Light claims that many environmental ethicists, in their concern for identifying and theorising on intrinsic value (and avoidance of being ‘tarnished’ with having anthropocentric viewpoints), have moved the focus further away from humans and their particular relationship with, and role in determining, environmental value. He suggests that the field of environmental ethics often appears more concerned with overcoming human interests than with redirecting those interests towards policy and action.

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