The Field of Environmental Ethics | Center for Environmental Philosophy

The Field of Environmental Ethics

The inspiration for environmental ethics was the first Earth Day in 1970 when environmentalists started urging philosophers who were involved with environmental groups to do something about environmental ethics. An intellectual climate had developed in the last few years of the 1960s in large part because of the publication of two papers in Science: Lynn White's "The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis" (March 1967) and Garett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" (December 1968). Most influential with regard to this kind of thinking, however, was an essay in Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, "The Land Ethic," in which Leopold explicitly claimed that the roots of the ecological crisis were philosophical. (Although originally published in 1949, Sand County Almanac became widely available in 1970 in a special Sierra Club/Ballantine edition, which included essays from a second book, Round River.

Most academic activity in the 1970s was spent debating the Lynn White thesis and the tragedy of the commons. These debates were primarily historical, theological, and religious, not philosophical. Throughout most of the decade philosophers sat on the sidelines trying to determine what a field called environmental ethics might look like. The first philosophical conference was organized by William Blackstone at the University of Georgia in 1972. The proceedings were published as Philosophy and Environmental Crisis in 1974, which included Pete Gunter's first paper on the Big Thicket. In 1972 a book called Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology, written by John B. Cobb, was published. It was the first single-authored book written by a philosopher, even though the primary focus of the book was theological and religious. In 1973 an Australian philosopher, Richard Routley (now Sylvan), presented a paper at the 15th World Congress of Philosophy "Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental, Ethic?" A year later John Passmore, another Australian, wrote Man's Responsibility for Nature, in which, reacting to Routley, he argued that there was no need for an environmental ethic at all. Most debate among philosophers until the mid-1980s was focused on refuting Passmore. In 1975 environmental ethics came to the attention of mainstream philosophy with the publication of Holmes Rolston, III's paper, "Is There an Ecological Ethic?" in Ethics.

Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher and the founding editor of the journal Inquiry authored and published a paper in Inquiry "The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement" in 1973, which was the beginning of the deep ecology movement. Important writers in this movement include George Sessions, Bill DeVall, Warwick Fox, and, in some respects, Max Oelschlaeger.

Throughout the 1970s Inquiry was the primary philosophy journal that dealt with enviornmental ethics. Environmental ethics was, for the most part, considered a curiousity and mainstream philosophy journals rarely published more than one article per year, if that. Opportunities for publishing dramatically improved in 1979 when Eugene C. Hargrove founded the journal Environmental Ethics. The name of the journal became the name of the field.

The first five years of the journal was spent mostly arguing about rights for nature and the relationship of environmental ethics and animal rights/animal liberation. Rights lost and animal welfare ethics was determined to be a separate field. Animal rights has since developed as a separate field with a separate journal, first, Ethics and Animals, which was later superceded by Between the Species, also now defunct.

Cobb published another book in the early 1980s, The Liberation of Life with coauthor Charles Birch. This book took a process philosophy approach in accordance with the philosophy of organism of Alfred North Whitehead. Robin Attfield, a philosopher in Wales, wrote a book called The Ethics of Environmental Concern. It was the first full-length response to Passmore. An anthology of papers, Ethics and the Environment, was edited by Donald Scherer and Tom Attig.

There was a turning point about 1988 when many single-authored books began to come available: Paul Taylor's Respect for Nature; Holmes Rolston's Environmental Ethics; Mark Sagoff's The Economy of the Earth; and Eugene C. Hargrove's Foundations of Environmental Ethics. J. Baird Callicott created a collection of his papers, In Defense of the Land Ethic. Bryan Norton wrote Why Preserve Natural Diversity? followed more recently by Toward Unity among Environmentalists. A large number of books have been written by Kristin Shrader-Frechette on economics and policy.

In the 1980s a second movement, ecofeminism, developed. Karen Warren is the key philosopher, although the ecofeminism movement involves many thinkers from other fields. It was then followed by a third, social ecology, based on the views of Murray Bookchin. An important link between academics and radical environmentalists was established with the creation of the Canadian deep ecology journal, The Trumpeter. In 1989, Earth Ethics Quarterly was begun as a more popular environmental publication. Originally intended primarily as a reprint publication, now as a publication of the Center for Respect for Life and Environment, it is focused more on international sustainable development.

The 1990s began with the establishment of the International Society for Environmental Ethics, which was founded largely through the efforts of Laura Westra and Holmes Rolston, III. It now has members throughout the world. In 1992, a second refereed philosophy journal, dedicated to environmental ethics, Environmental Values, published its first issue in England. In 1996, a new journal was established at the University of Georgie, Ethics and the Environment. (In 2001, it became a publication of Indiana University Press.) In 1997 a second international association was created, the International Association for Environmental Philosophy, with an emphasis on environmental phenomenology. It publishes a journal called Environmental Philosophy.

On the theoretical level, Taylor and Rolston, despite many disagreements, can be regarded as objective nonanthropocentric intrinsic value theorists. Callicott, who follows Aldo Leopold closely, is a subjective nonanthropocentric intrinsic value theorist. Hargrove is considered a weak anthropocentric intrinsic value theorist. Sagoff is very close to this position although he doesn't talk about intrinsic value much and takes a Kantian rather than an Aristotlian approach. At the far end is Bryan Norton who thought up weak anthropocentrism but wants to replace intrinsic value with a pragmatic conception of value. The anti-intrinsic value pragmatic movement includes such philosophers as Anthony Weston and Andrew Light, although Ben Minteer has recently indicated that intrinsic value could be included in an environmental pragmatism.

To view a listing of important books in the history of environmental ethics, go to Selected Environmental Ethics Books: 1970-2002. See also Selected Books and Articles.

For more information on academically related environmental ethics, see:

For more information about environmental ethics movements and radical environmentalism, see:

For more information on animal welfare ethics, see: