What is nature worth? How do we balance the needs of the natural world with those of human concern?
This article aims to explain some of the basic terms in environmental ethics to provide a starting point for the subject.
How do we value the natural world? A simple example helps us understand value.
We have a fruitful apple tree in our garden. The only problem is that many apples are invaded by moth larvae.
We discovered that attracting some bird species can reduce the moth damage significantly and have installed a nesting box near our tree. If we are successful, and birds keep our apples moth free, how do we value these birds?
Do we value them just for giving us better apples? Or does seeing a family of birds grow and fly the nest give us something more than that, in terms of enjoyment and well-being.
Should we only value them for what they do for us? Might they not have value in their own right? Do they have value because of the niche they fill in the overall ecosystem?
All these questions feed into a fundamental inquiry in environmental ethics: How do we understand value?
Value has been described in a number of ways.
We might value the birds for their instrumental value: the value we confer on them because they are useful to keep down the larvae in our apples.
We might value the birds for their extrinsic value: their value in relation to other organisms of value, in this example, maintaining healthy apples.
We might value the birds because of their intrinsic properties, such as beauty or agility. We might value them because of a sense of respect.
This leads on to the concept of intrinsic value, which the birds, apples and indeed the moths all have value in their own right, regardless of their usefulness to humans, their value alongside other organisms or any properties that they have.
These definitions can be understood not only in relation to individual organisms but also ecosystems. They are more easily understood when grouped according to the main focus of value.
1. Anthropocentric ethics.
Humans have a bias toward valuing nature for its benefit to humans, either for instrumental or extrinsic value to us or because of its intrinsic properties that we enjoy.
We can value nature for its economic benefit and the concept of placing a financial value on ecosystems or individual organisms has become popular to promote environmental protection and prevent destruction of nature for short-term financial gain.
2. Ecocentric ethics.
This places ultimate value on a whole ecosystem, whether a pond, a nature reserve, the Amazon rainforest or the whole Earth. Ecocentric ethics values the interconnectedness of organisms.
The ecosystem has intrinsic value and the organisms within it have extrinsic value. If there are organisms that are damaging the overall health of an ecosystem, it is not seen as wrong to seek to reduce or remove these.
Ecocentric ethics underlie the modern conservation movement and most contemporary approaches to environmental management.
3. Biocentric ethics.
This places ultimate value in each individual organism, which should have respect regardless of their properties. Biocentric egalitarianism is the view that all organisms have equal value.
Many biocentrists are preferential, placing greater value on organisms with certain characteristics, such as sentience. Some would hold egalitarian and preferential biocentrism in tension, wishing to give value to all creatures but recognizing the impracticality of pure egalitarianism.
Animal welfare ethics places a special value on sentient animals.
4. Theocentric and Christocentric ethics.
These are faith categories in environmental ethics.
In theocentrism, nature and individual organisms are defined in relation to God. This cannot be for instrumental value (God does not need nature). It is usually taken as being beyond extrinsic value or for instrumental properties.
Christocentrism emphasizes the relationship between Christ and creation. These ethics usually define intrinsic value as an attribute conferred by God.
In essence, environmental ethics is concerned about the basis of decision-making and this interacts with the differing views on value. Here are four approaches:
1. Consequential ethics frame decisions on the basis of the most optimal outcomes. They are frequently combined with anthropocentric and ecocentric ethics. For example, non-native species are sometimes culled to protect natural habitats.
2. Deontological ethics seek to make a morally justified decision regardless of outcome. An example might be a wildlife hospital that provides medical care for wild animals regardless of species or level of injury.
3. Rights ethics form a major category of animal welfare ethics but are rarely applied beyond sentient animals. A biocentric rights approach is difficult to use when the competing rights of animals, plants and even aspects of the non-living environment are considered. More possible is an ecocentric rights ethic, where the rights of the ecosystem are primarily considered.
4. Virtues ethics are a relatively small branch of environmental ethics, which seeks to identify environmental virtue as a basis for action. A virtues approach has strong potential within faith environmental ethics.
Starting out on environmental ethics requires learning a new language of terms and definitions.
Once understood, these provide us with tools to go deeper into understanding the ethics of the natural world and our interaction with it.
We hope it will also provide us with a new understanding of our responsibility toward God’s creation and empower us to facilitate its care and protection.
Martin J. Hodson is a plant scientist and operations director for the John Ray Initiative. He has more than 100 research publications and speaks widely on environmental issues. Margot R. Hodson is an environmental theologian and an Anglican pastor of six churches near Oxford in the United Kingdom. The Hodsons have jointly taught environmental ethics at Oxford Brookes University and are authors of several publications in this area, which can be found through their website (Hodsons.org). You can follow Martin on Twitter @MartinHodson1 and Margot @MargotHodson.
Editor’s note: This article is an adaptation of the more detailed Grove booklet, “An Introduction to Environmental Ethics” E184, by Martin J. Hodson and Margot R. Hodson. It is available in PDF format at Grove Books and is used with permission. It is the first of a series of articles drawn from the booklet. Part two is available here, part three here, and part four here.