Environmental Ethics: One-Week Module

Environmental ethics challenges us to consider whether animals and even non-sentient aspects of nature like redwood trees, ecosystems, and mountains themselves have value beyond their value to humans. A natural way to incorporate this into the 'narrative arc' of a general ethics course is by using the recurring metaphor of 'the expanding circle'. For example, non-environmental classics like Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" encourage us to recognize the reason-giving value of human lives and experiences outside of our own communities and social ties, and work on 'animal rights' encourages us to expand the circle even further and recognize the value of sentient lives and experiences outside of the circle of humanity. This leaves 'the final frontier' of environmental ethics: questions of whether and in what sense even aspects of the non-sentient natural world have value -- do they have value beyond their value to humans and other sentient animals, even when the interests of future generations of humans and other sentient animals are factored in? Why or why not?

Insofar as a focus on such questions seems attractive, the following is an idea for a one-week module on environmental ethics.


John Muir, "Hetch Hetchy Valley" in The Yosemite (1912) (anthologized in Schmidtz and Willott)

An approximately one page selection by Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and one of the greatest and most influential environmental commentators of all time. Hetch Hetchy Valley -- similar to Yosemite Valley -- was, despite Muir's protests, ultimately flooded by a dam that provided water and part of the means of development for San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and continues to do so up to the present. Muir argues in a beautiful and classic way that making such decisions on the basis of the 'almighty dollar' is like making decisions about whether to defile the most beautiful cathedrals and other religious/cultural landmarks on a similar basis.

Related: The Sierra Club's fight to save Grand Canyon from partial impoundment that drew directly from Muir's earlier arguments: "Should We Also Flood the Sistine Chapel So Tourists Can Get Nearer the Ceiling?"

Related: Sierra Club v Morton court case that partially turned on the question of who had standing to challenge Walt Disney Co.'s plans to develop part of the government-owned Sierra Nevada, which leads ultimately to questions such as whether trees and rocks should be thought of as having standing, etc.

Related: one might see Muir and the Sierra Club's actions as a case study in virtuous social entrepreneurship serving society in a way that both private enterprise and government, left to their own devices, predictably will not.

Bryan Norton, "The Environmentalist's Dilemma" in Toward Unity Among Environmentalists (1991) (anthologized in Schmidtz and Willott)

Richard Routley, the Last Man Argument, in "Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?", Proceedings of the 15th World Congress of Philosophy (1973).

Aldo Leopold, "The Outlook" and "Axe-In-Hand", in A Sand County Almanac (1949) ("The Outlook is anthologized in Schmidtz and Willott"

A Sand County Almanac is a personal reflection on the relationship between humans and nature written in beautiful poetic prose by another of the most influential environmental commentators of all time. "The Outlook" contains Leopold's famous Land Ethic. "Axe-In-Hand" explores the ways in which trees could be taken to have value, framed against the background of his own cutting of trees and management of the land on his Wisconsin property.

Leopold's classic summary of his Land Ethic is cryptic but his most highly influential philosophical contribution, which many take to be the initial and most beautiful statement of 'holism', leading perhaps even to 'deep ecology'. (In my opinion, it is a mistake to interpret Leopold as anything like a deep ecologist.)

Elliott Sober, "Philosophical Problems for Environmentalism" in Norton (ed.) The Preservation of Species (1986) (anthologized in Schmidtz and Willott)

This paper leads the reader into a rigorous consideration of the logical space of views one might be led to by reflection on these issues, and the plausibility of possible views within that space. Special problems identified for deep ecology.

Other Ideas

Larry Summers and Lant Pritchett, memo on toxic waste and least developed countries (1991), presented and discussed in Hausman and McPherson, "Ethics in Welfare Economics: The Example of Larry Summers's Memo", in Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy, 2nd edition

Debra Satz, "Summers, Sandel, and Egalitarian Theories of the Moral Limits of Markets", pp. 79-84, 94-98, and 109-110 of Why Some Things Should Not be For Sale (2012)

Ramachandra Guha, "Radical American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third World Critique", Environmental Ethics (1989) (anthologized in Schmidtz and Willott)

John Broome, "The Ethics of Climate Change", Scientific American (2008)

David Schmidtz and Elizabeth Willott's anthology Environmental Ethics (2nd edition) is an excellent source for ideas for other philosophical readings, and anthologizes many of the above readings.

Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind (5th edition) is an excellent source for other literary, cultural, and historical environmental readings.