"Environmental Ethics is not a muddle; it is an invitation to moral development… An ecological conscience requires an unprecedented mix of science and conscience, of biology and ethics.”
Rolston (1991)

1.1 Preamble

What follows is an introduction to some recognised approaches to environmental ethics. Despite a longer history of ethical consideration of human’s relationship and duties to their environment, it is clear that many people and society as a whole have become increasingly concerned over the past 50 years about environmental issues. Societal values are often rapidly changing and are sometimes difficult to identify accurately, let alone articulating ethical theories or foundations that might underlie these values. Few data are available to assess the Australian public’s views on their preferred environmental philosophy particularly as it applies to a contested domain such as gene technology, although there are some public opinion polls relating to specific issues such as the surveys conducted by the now defunct Biotechnology Australia. It could be argued that there has been a general shift away from viewing humans as separate from and dominant over the natural world, an approach that echoes economic approaches which see the environment as a resource to be managed and used, but it is unclear how widespread such a change has been or what the implications of such an approach are, particularly for gene technology.

Hence the main question that remains is the perspective or point of view from which environmental values are to be assessed. Most ecocentric approaches to environmental ethics oppose outright the use of gene technology outside of the human biomedical sphere. Nonetheless it is critical to include these perspectives in any comprehensive discussion of environmental ethics in order to have these views on the table for consideration as, for instance, there may still be underlying values that can be articulated which are not incompatible with the generally anthropocentric approach to environmental ethics contained in the Gene Technology Act 2000.

The Gene Technology Act 2000 seems to presuppose the somewhat uncontroversial assumption that curiosity and subsequent invention are core aspects of human culture. Historically, we have often looked for efficiencies and better ways to utilise the natural world to our benefit, and as will be outlined below, this is in accordance with more traditional, anthropocentric approaches to the environment.

1.2 Scientific Background Relevant to Environmental Ethics

The modern environmental sciences (and principally ecology) draw upon many well-established scientific disciplines (e.g., physics, geology, biology, chemistry, mathematics, and palaeontology). The environmental sciences seek patterns in ecosystems from which predictions can be made, and base conclusions about future changes on data collected at a single point in evolutionary and ecological time (our present) or interpreted from the past but recognising the importance of understanding successional processes (e.g., plant and animal successions in a time of variable fire regimes).

Modern environmental sciences demonstrate empirically that most species (all but the most resilient) require healthy functioning ecosystems if they are to survive, and hence it is critical to have a clear approach to fostering such ecosystems. All species modify their local environment in some way (e.g., release of phenols by pine trees to stop germination of other plant species, beavers building dams, coral polyps creating giant reefs). However, unlike the vast majority of species, humans modify the environment on a global scale. For example, humans currently have found uses for 95% of biological resources that sequester energy as sunlight (plants) or derive their energy from those plants (animals). All human beings require, among other things, access to food, water and shelter, and the resources required to achieve these needs must come from the natural world. Resources in the natural world are finite when viewed in the time scales in which humans utilise them.

    1.3 Overview of Environmental Philosophies

    Numerous environmental philosophies exist and differ primarily in the centrality afforded to the human versus the non-human world. Anthropocentric approaches view it as permissible that the natural world be used for human ends, and view nature as in some sense instrumental to those ends. Ecocentric philosophies recognise the natural world as being important for its own sake, and hence having intrinsic value separate from its potential uses by humans. There are advocates for the ethical recognition of ecosystems regardless of whether they are of instrumental value to humans or not. One shared concern among most environmental philosophies is whether the natural world can continue to sustain all of humanity indefinitely given current exponential population growth, present resource use, and lack of effective waste management.

    1.3.1 Anthropocentric approaches

    Historically, there has been a widely-held view in the Western tradition that as the only legitimate moral agent, the human is the measure of all things. Its foundations can be traced to the Old Testament and Judaism, and even further to Aristotelian and Stoic discourse, and these beliefs were incorporated into Christianity and later in humanism.

    According to this view, humans are divine (or at least special) and all other beings have a lower status. Humans are considered worthy of special consideration (moral and otherwise) because of any number of reasons (e.g., personhood, advanced self-consciousness, ability to gain knowledge about the world). As moral agents, humans have responsibilities with regard to the environment in general and certain other species in particular. This is evidenced in discussions about human well-being and stewardship, dominion and responsibility.

    This relationship between humans and the environment is anthropocentric. In other words, since moral values are exclusive to humans, value can only be attributed (e.g., to the environment) because it is recognised by humans. Within this perspective, there are three rough categories for describing the relationship between humans and their environment: domination, co-operation and conservation (the discussion that follows draws closely on Fisher 2003).

    The strongest among the anthropocentric approaches, which arises out of the Greek and Judeo-Christian philosophies described above, holds that humans should be able to treat nature as they see fit, for instance as a resource to be utilised, and without any moral judgements being attached to such actions except inasmuch as they might affect moral agents (i.e., other humans). Humans may be able to modify and transform nature, according to more radical approaches, or may only be able to use nature as it is given, under some conservative views. The resonance with economic perspectives is obvious, inasmuch as use and even exploitation of the environment as a resource is permitted.

    A second anthropocentric approach sees humans’ role as one of steward, which does place some limits on permissible actions. Stewardship can range from caring for the environment but also modifying it in order to improve it, which may be a relevant consideration for gene technology. Although the environment is acknowledged to have value and hence some sense of responsibilities toward nature is implicit, humans are still the central focus.

    Certain forms of an ethic of conservation can be considered as a third approach to anthropocentrism. This is typically attributed to the conservationist Aldo Leopold (1949) who claimed that the environment was being abused because of private interests and ownership of land should be vested in the community. We should treat and use our environment with respect, and a so-called ‘land ethic’ grounded in both the laws of nature and the conception of community interest, allows recognition of the complex relationship between humans and their environment while still allowing humans to use and modify the environment. (Certain ecocentric views also derive from Leopold’s philosophy as will be discussed below.)

    In summary, within all anthropocentric views, human impacts on the natural world are morally right if they have consequences that are favourable to human well-being or if they implement (or defend) fundamental human rights. It is to humans that all duties are owed, and our duty of care to aspects of the natural world is contingent on furthering human goals including values and rights.

    1.3.2 Ecocentric and other non-anthropocentric approaches

    Ecocentrism and other non-anthropocentric approaches challenge anthropocentric ethics by re-defining the boundaries of ethical obligation to include species, ecosystems, or even the biosphere as subjects of moral relevance. Some environmental philosophers have argued for the expansion of our moral sphere beyond the biota to include our planet as a whole and, in a few instances, the entire universe (Nash, 1990).

    At their core, these approaches share the fundamental idea that humans should not be considered above or outside the natural world. Instead, there is acknowledgement that ascribing moral relevance to healthy functioning ecosystems will ensure the survival and fulfil the evolutionary potential of most species (including humans without giving primacy to their well-being). They often make reference to values including interdependence, spiritual harmony, and extensionalism (i.e., the treatment of the environment as persons for the attribution of rights and other legal purposes).

    Inherent in any discussion of ecocentric ethics is a denial of human superiority. This is often motivated by asking two questions: “What is the morally relevant difference between humans and non-human organisms (usually interpreted to mean other vertebrates)?” and “If there are no morally relevant differences, then why do we treat non-human organisms/animals and humans so differently?” Failure to agree on answers to this question leads to discussion about expanding the moral sphere to incorporate moral consideration of all animals and plants (e.g., Schweitzer’s (1965) Reverence for Life), ecosystems (e.g., Taylor’s (1981) Respect for Nature), ecosystems and the energetic systems that ensure biotic survival for all species including humans (e.g., Leopold’s (1949) Land Ethic, Naess’s (1973) Deep Ecology, Warren’s (1990) Ecofeminism, and Fox’s (1995) Transpersonal Ecology), and ultimately, the entire cosmos (e.g., Nash’s (1990) Rights of Nature, Berry’s (1999) Viable Human). Animal Ethics
    Adherents to animal-centred approaches to environmental ethics usually cite Peter Singer’s ‘equality of consideration of interests’ principle as applied via preference utilitarianism (Singer 1975). In short, this approach expands the principle of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ to count some types of non-human animals among those beings given moral standing. Singer (1975), for instance, limits his moral consideration to organisms considered by science to be sentient, and argues the division where sentience begins to be somewhere between an oyster and a crab. Tom Regan (1983) attributes moral worth to beings based on them being ‘subjects-of-a-life,’ and considers mentally-normal mammals older than one year of age to be such beings. It is the subject-of-a-life that is worthy of moral consideration inasmuch as it has inherent value; in order to respect such beings, they must be given rights.

    Top of page Ecocentric Ethics
    Ecocentric ethical approaches focus on moral obligations which humans owe to plants, animals, and micro-organisms to promote their well-being for their own sake because of their intrinsic value. Additionally, moral recognition may be given to the connections between ecosystems upon which biota rely, or the networks which link various individuals within the ecosystem or environment. Ecocentric ethics tend to branch from a brief statement by Leopold (1949) that claimed that, “… a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Many ecocentric philosophies will also incorporate some type of mysticism and/or spiritualism. Global Ethics
    Global ethics focus on the moral consideration of the planet as a whole with prominent advocates including Rockefeller (1992), Lovelock (1995) and Berry (1999). The Gaia theory is the most readily recognised of these environmental philosophies. Gaia theory proposes that our planet is a living being capable of maintaining its own health and well-being through a complex pattern of equilibria and disequilibria. Scientific aspects of Gaia theory emphasise the interconnectedness of all biological and non-biological systems. Spiritual aspects of Gaia theory advocate a reverence for the entire planet and for affording her appropriate moral status. Cosmological Ethics
    Cosmological ethics ascribe moral worth to all organic and inorganic matter in the universe(s). Energy fields that sustain life (and non-life when it manifests itself as matter rather than energy) are also relevant in any discussion of cosmological ethics. There is usually discussion of pantheism and/or panentheism (Harrison 1999) in cosmological ethics. Recognition that the universe became self-aware through human consciousness is reflected in the writings of Nash (1990) and Berry (1999) who both argue for the moral importance of the cosmos.

    1.4 Implications and Discussion in Relation to Gene Technology

    Those who take a generally anthropocentric view toward environmental ethics are less likely to oppose gene technology than those coming from an ecocentric position. For many who take an anthropocentric perspective, gene technology can be viewed as another tool which either resembles previous low-tech means of modifying nature or which differs from earlier technologies in that it has the potential to rapidly create new strains of living organisms that may impact on ecosystems. Where there is community concern, ethical consideration has tended to focus on consequentialist and deontological arguments, such as intrinsic objections to genetic modification and/or risk assessment, which make reference to potential harms (and/or lack of benefit) for humans. More acceptable uses of gene technology seem to be those that promise numerous direct benefits for human health, including humane use of animals (principally mice) for experimentation which is viewed by many as an inescapable necessity (though this is debated by many animal rights scholars and activists).

    Ecocentric approaches share in common an emphasis on the moral value of non-human species and their ecosystems. Radical ecocentrism as well as many forms of global and cosmological ethics might well hold that nature should never be altered or modified, particularly for human benefit alone, in which case all forms of gene technology (and much plant breeding) would be morally impermissible. Less radical advocates of ecocentrism would likely argue that equality of consideration ought to be given to non-humans and ecosystems to various extents. So, for instance, as it is morally wrong to interfere with the welfare, behaviour, or rights of a human without first obtaining consent, so too should non-human animals and other organisms be given at least equality of consideration. As consent cannot be granted by any non-humans, many would hold that genetically-modified organisms should not be created or released into the natural world. A more liberal position might allow some form of substituted judgment or legal mechanisms for protection of such organisms and the environment, but such a position would often generate institutional mechanisms that would cause collapse into an anthropocentric perspective (an exception might be Stone’s (2010) proposal for mechanisms for recognising and enforcing legal rights of natural objects).

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