Ethical Concepts in the Age of the Anthropocene

Multi-colored plastic bottles and other trash spread out on a white-sand beach.
"Beach strewn with plastic debris" by Dolovis is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

We all know, more or less, that Planet Earth is in trouble; that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that an environmental catastrophe – systemic, complex and likely irreversible, is already underway.

We are facing an unprecedented concatenation of changes to the Earth. Global warming from fossil fuel pollution is causing ice caps to melt and oceans to rise, threatening to inundate many coastal habitats within decades. Climate change is causing more frequent and more extreme weather events in the form of violent storms and severe droughts. Destruction of ecological systems is leading to collapse of insect and bird populations which are in turn necessary for pollination of plants including human food crops. Oceans are filling up with plastic waste and toxic synthetic substances can now be found in every part of the earth. A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades shows the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history that is underway, and is more severe than previously feared according to new research.

Together with the expanding human population this paints an unsettling picture of our current predicament.  According to biologist Prof Paul Ehrlich the optimal maximum human population is less than two billion, yet the global human population is predicted to reach nine billion by 2050.

It is now widely, though not universally, agreed that we have entered the Anthropocene – a new geological epoch characterised by the vast changes human civilisation has wrought on the Earth and its systems. It has also very rightly been argued that humans are not equally responsible for the current ecological and environmental situation, notably by Jason Moore who coined the term ‘Capitolocene‘ to better represent the fact that it is largely (if not entirely) the capitalist / industrialised world whose populations have created the problem.

The central point about the Anthropocene is that we humans are having an impact on the world and its ecology on a scale previously unimaginable – and probably irreversible. All of this has massive implications for the environment and its capacity to support not just animal life but human life. In the face of it all, it is urgent that we address the question of our ethical responsibilities, to future generations, to other species, and to the planet.

There are many complex issues in environmental ethics, including how we frame a notion of moral obligation to future generations, how we deal with questions of equity and fairness in distribution of resources, and the relation between personal and political obligations, government regulation and corporate responsibility.

But a central element in how to assess the ethical questions at stake is that of intrinsic versus instrumental value. Does nature have a value as an end in itself, and is our moral relation to nature incumbent on recognizing such a value, or does it only have value to us, human beings, insofar as we make use of and enjoy it?

Since the beginnings of the modern environmental movement in the 1970’s we have had a growing awareness that human beings are fundamentally dependent on and interconnected with other living things and ecological processes.

It is quite obvious that if we as a species want to continue to survive, let alone flourish; if we want future generations to have the opportunity to enjoy the wonders of the animal and natural world, we have to drastically change our behaviour.

But is the focus on our own welfare and interests, philosophically, good enough or deep enough to support the kind of ethical paradigm shift that we seem to need if we are to understand our predicament in ethical terms and make a moral case for changing our attitudes and behaviors towards nature? Or are there other moral reasons that we should recognise apart from those which pertain directly to the precarious position of the human species?

It seems that people’s ethical intuitions tend to lean towards some sense that the environment has a value as an end in-itself. The following two examples may demonstrate this:

Consider the “Last Man” thought experiment, proposed by Richard Routley in which it is claimed that on an instrumental view of moral value, the ‘last man left alive’ does nothing morally wrong if he decides to destroy the natural environment ahead of his own demise. That most people do not agree with this assessment suggests that we do seem to place a value on the environment – a value that is not just reducible to our use of it.

A similar conclusion can be drawn from the reaction to a recent viral video showing an orangutan fleeing from bulldozers destroying its forest home in the Ketapang District in West Borneo, where palm-oil plantations threaten the orangutan population’s survival. It seems that the backlash against such a spectacle comes both from compassion for that animal and care that the species faces extinction. We recognise a moral value in the life of that particular orangutan, and also in the existence of a species, and feel a sense of loss when a species is near to, or becomes, extinct.

In Animal Liberation (1975) Peter Singer argued that we ought to do the greatest good for the most living beings in the world by instituting animal rights. Though Singer, and the school of utilitarianism that follows him, believes that there is no absolute moral distinction between species, he does place moral value on certain capacities such as sentience and intelligence Those capacities’ values have a kind of moral hierarchy, so that a sentient self-aware being has more ‘moral interest’ (i.e. a greater stake in our moral decision making) than a sentient non-self-aware being.

Utilitarian arguments work generally by forms of instrumentalism; and the stake that sentient and especially self-aware creatures have in not suffering harm, and in having their overall happiness maximised yields the requirements for moral action. For a utilitarian, a moral requirement to care for nature derives from the normative goal of ‘the greatest happiness principle’. On this view, Singer denies that things like biodiversity are goods in themselves.

Singer argues for an ethical recognition that some goods are more important than others: we could not refuse to save a drowning child because we did not want to sacrifice an expensive pair of leather shoes. In this sense, we must make a moral distinction between need and want.

So, according to Singer’s view, people in developed, affluent societies could (and are morally required to) give up a great deal without suffering serious harms, in order to create greater equality of happiness and well-being globally.

Given that most of the environmental damage has been caused by industrialized nations (or corporate entities in under-developed nations) affluent societies and rich people, and yet vastly and disproportionately affects poor people in un-industrialized nations, that conclusion is warranted and a set of moral norms or actions so derived would indeed be desirable.  

Similarly, a duty or rights based ethic can also be cashed out in instrumentalist terms. On the question of how we underwrite the concept of duties in respect of the environment, a purely Kantian ethic faces certain limitations. A strictly moral duty, in Kantian terms is based on the notion of intrinsic value. Kant thought we had a duty to treat other humans as ends in themselves but never as means to an end, thus respecting their intrinsic value as humans. While he never extended such duties (and value) to other animals, let alone the environment, it can be consistent with a Kantian ethic to say that we have a duty to care for nature in so far as we have a duty to care for the interests of humanity. This is a quasi-instrumentalist position.

Another, different kind of instrumentalist position is available from Kant: a hypothetical imperative is still an imperative, if not strictly a moral one, and as such it can support solid prudential reasons for action: ‘If our survival is threatened, then we should care for the environment’ or ‘if another species is threatened, then we should care for the environment.’   

It should be noted that a broader deontological framework can provide good grounds for non-instrumentalist environmental ethics by holding that animals, or even mountains, rivers or other natural landscapes be given rights which would confer moral duties that militate against their ill-treatment, pollution or destruction. A deontological argument based on intrinsic value will then have to provide some way of grounding such rights.

So, while instrumentalist arguments seem to work – in that they can plausibly give sturdy reasons for responsible ethical behaviors — it might be felt that they lack the capacity to get to the heart of the problem.

Part of the point about the Anthropocene is how we have brought it about in the first place by a deep-seated belief in the centrality of human needs and interests above those of other species and ecologies in general, together with a distinction between humans and nature which has persisted in western thought for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  

Philosophical movements such as deep ecology, founded in the 1970’s by Arne Næss have sought to criticise these view as a dangerous forms of anthropocentrism, and argued that all living beings, and living ecosystems, have an intrinsic value. It seems right to say that we need to do more than just change our behavior – we need to fundamentally change our sense of our place in and relation to the natural world.

Much philosophical work can be done to bring the concept of intrinsic value to bear on our ethical thinking with respect to the environment and our current, dire situation. (Though, it should be noted, not in a utilitarian framework, since this theory does not recognise the notion of intrinsic value in the first place as part of the equation of moral decision-making.)

Bernard Williams, in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985) remarks that the best starting point for moral philosophy is the question (Socrates’ question) “how should we live?”

Any attempt, now, to answer the question of ‘how we should live’ has first to recognise that to ask it in ‘our’ time is fundamentally different from asking it in any other time in history.

If, in this new Anthropocene era, the starting point must be the question of what a good human life might look like in an age of environmental crisis, then we might consider trying to answer it by thinking about what we need to become – as individuals and communities – in order to meet the catastrophic challenges which are not just ahead anymore, but here, now.

Williams argues that a philosophical focus on abstract terms (that we find operative in normative theories of utilitarianism and deontology) such as good, right and ought, can be overly reductive, and that people’s general sense of the ethical in their lives is more active in concepts such as care, compassion, justice, courage, and non-maleficence. These ‘virtue concepts’ (so called after Aristotle) are often already embedded in community discourse and practice.

Our ethical and moral orientation towards the environment can be deeply embedded in our sense of how we should live, rather than being imposed in a more objective way by duty, rights and consequence based arguments.

So (for example) concepts like justice or care or compassion can be extended, by our growing awareness of our interdependency with the environment, to include in a fully developed notion of what it means to live a good life, (for example) justice for future generations, care of nature or compassion towards other species.

Dr Desmonda Lawrence received her PhD from The University of Melbourne in 2017, with a dissertation on the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry. She is a freelance writer, poet, and lecturer. Her research and teaching specialties include ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of literature, criticism and poetics.