Cover page

Title page

For Helen


I would like to thank the following: Simon Summers, Leigh Mueller, and two anonymous reviewers for the feedback they provided on a draft of the manuscript; David E. Cooper, Ian J. Kidd, Wendy Parker and Andy Hamilton for the very helpful comments they provided on drafts of individual chapters; my wife, Helen, for all sorts of things, including her devastating criticism (see chapter 4, note 5) of the first draft of the Introduction; my students at Durham – particularly those who have attended my lectures for ‘Ethics and Values’ and ‘Applied Ethics’; Alex Newbrook for introducing me to Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach and, in particular, for his helpful ‘lions versus leopards’ example, which I have stolen and used in chapter 2; Mike Hannis and Patrick Curry for making me think about place-attachment and nonhuman valuers, respectively; and Liz McKinnell for (I think) coming up with the metaphor of applying coloured ink to black-and-white photographs, which I use in chapter 4. Chapter 5 draws on material from my article ‘Finding – and Failing to Find – Meaning in Nature’, which appeared in Environmental Values (22 (5), 2013). Furthermore, my discussion of mountaineering ethics in that chapter is loosely based on my article ‘Why Old Things Matter’. I am grateful to Professor S. Matthew Liao, the editor of the Journal of Moral Philosophy, for allowing me to use that material. Finally, I would like to thank Emma Hutchinson, Clare Ansell and Pascal Porcheron of Polity for their help – and, in particular, their patience.

Introduction: What is Environmental Philosophy?

Scientists, economists, politicians and lawyers are not professionally qualified to address all the questions raised by environmental issues. Take the clearing of rainforest to provide open land for cattle ranching. Ecologists can explain the effects of this practice on rainforest ecosystems; economists, politicians and lawyers can assess its financial, political and legal ramifications. But various questions remain: are we morally obliged to protect the rainforests? If so, why are we so obliged? Because they are more useful to us if they are left unfelled? Because they are wild (or at least, wilder than urban parks and botanic gardens)? Because they harbour so many endangered species? Because we owe it to ourselves not to permit such destruction?

These sorts of questions cannot be answered using the methods of science or economics. They cannot be left to politicians and lawyers. It might seem that they could be addressed using the research methods of the social sciences, and it is true that one could use such methods to find out how most people would answer them. But empirical approaches are not enough. For although surveys and the like can tell us what people believe to be right or wrong, they cannot tell us what really is right or what really is wrong. To determine that – or at least to do so in a systematic and critical way – one needs philosophy. (Granted, one could object that when it comes to morality there are no absolute standards and that rightness and wrongness in such contexts are merely matters of opinion. But that is itself a philosophical claim – a statement of moral subjectivism – and in order to assess whether it is true one must, again, do some philosophy.)

So the questions set out above are philosophical questions. They are the sorts of questions that moral philosophers – more precisely, environmental ethicists – try to answer. Yet not all the philosophical questions raised by environmental issues fall into the category of moral philosophy. Just as people's views about morality are to some extent a function of their views about other aspects of the world, so reflections on the subject of environmental ethics tend to raise issues that are also of concern in other philosophical fields, such as aesthetics, epistemology and metaphysics. Environmental ethics, that is, tends to merge into the broader discipline of environmental philosophy. For example, it has been argued that when people think it morally permissible to use nature in any way they see fit, they often do so not (or not just) because they have chosen to adopt certain moral principles, but because they take an unjustifiably human-centred or anthropocentric view of reality. Consider the belief that human beings are distinguished from the rest of creation by virtue of their possession of souls or minds. A number of writers have argued that this dualistic belief encourages the notion that humans are essentially superior to the rest of creation, and that this notion, when supplemented by certain assumptions about the permissibility of lording it over ‘lower-order’ entities, encourages the conclusion that humans are morally entitled to use nature in any way they see fit (see, e.g., Warren 1990). If these writers are correct – and we will assess whether they are later on – then dualism, a thesis about the nature of reality, tends to encourage a peculiarly anthropocentric conception of morality.

Assessing the plausibility of dualism and other philosophical theses frequently requires one to consider the results of science. But one cannot rely on science alone. The claim that minds are essentially nonphysical, for example, can be neither proved nor disproved by the methods of science. The same may be said of the proposition that biological species are not real entities but merely artefacts of the classificatory conventions of biologists. Such claims are to some extent philosophical rather than scientific. So whether or not those who wish to investigate them will need to consider the results of scientific inquiries, they will certainly need to engage with philosophy.


Although environmental issues raise questions that are best addressed using philosophical approaches, ‘environmental philosophy’ is an unsatisfactory term in at least three respects. First, much of the research in the discipline focuses not on environments so much as their constituents. For instance, discussions of our moral duties to nonhuman animals are typically grouped under the heading ‘environmental philosophy’. Yet it is often thought that if we have any duties to nonhuman animals, then this will be because the animals in question have certain morally relevant properties in themselves, independently of their environments. Thus Peter Singer – a prominent Australian moral philosopher of whom we will hear more below – would argue that we have moral duties to giant pandas not because of the roles they play in the environments they inhabit, but simply because individual pandas have interests (notably, an interest in not suffering) that we are morally obliged to consider when our actions are likely to affect pandas.

Second, the term ‘environmental’ can encourage the notion that the nonhuman world is merely the backdrop for the main show – the drama of human life. However, as writers such as Patrick Curry (2011: 7–8) have argued, that peculiarly anthropocentric picture of reality is hard to square with some sorts of moral concern for the nonhuman – or, if you like, more-than-human – world. How, for example, could one value forests, mountains and rivers for what they are in themselves, if one sees them as nothing more than context?

A third problem with the phrase ‘environmental philosophy’ is that ‘environmental’ is too general and vague a word to convey what the discipline is about. To what environments is it meant to refer? In one sense, each and every organism – from wombats to hookworms – has an environment, a milieu within which it operates. It may be replied that environmental philosophers typically focus their attention on the sorts of environments with which we human beings tend to be familiar – woods, wetlands and rocky shores, rather than hydrothermal vents, say, or the insides of mammalian intestines. Yet even talk of human environments remains vague. To indicate just one problem: as I write, my environment includes a sofa, a television set and a bookcase filled with books, maps and DVDs. But of course environmental philosophers are not primarily concerned with such mass-produced artefacts. Their main concern is with nature or the natural world (terms I shall use interchangeably).

‘Nature’, in this context, does not denote everything that falls outside the realm of the supernatural (if any such realm exists). It is true that environmental philosophers do not focus their attention on supernatural entities such as angels and demons, yet in this respect they are no different from the practitioners of most other academic disciplines. To say that they are primarily concerned with nature is, rather, to say that their main interest is in those parts of the world whose current states are not, for the most part, the intended products of human actions. Flicking through a journal dedicated to environmental philosophy, one would not be surprised to find papers devoted to the topics of wilderness preservation, the aesthetic qualities of wetlands or our moral relations with biological species. But discussions of, say, multi-storey car-parks and combustion engines will be less numerous.1

So environmental philosophy tends to be about nature, where nature may be conceived – albeit roughly and provisionally – as the nonhuman part of the biosphere. This, however, should not be taken to mean that something only counts as natural if it has been entirely unaffected by human beings. This is just as well, since entities, places, processes and events that meet this criterion will be difficult – if Bill McKibben (1990) is correct, impossible – to find. In view of this, I will, like many environmental philosophers, adopt a broad conception of what is natural in this book, one that includes some parts of the biosphere that have been extensively shaped by human beings. So, although nature, on my account, will not include car-parks and combustion engines, it will include reservoirs, hedgerows and heaths.

We will return to the question of what nature is in later chapters. In chapter 7, in particular, we will consider some objections to the proposal that what is natural can be contrasted with what is human. But I will not say more about these matters here. If we refuse to move on until we come up with a watertight account of what nature is, we'll never get round to considering all the other interesting issues that fall under the heading of environmental philosophy.

Theory and practice

One such issue needs to be addressed straight away: the practical relevance of the discipline. For even if one accepts that environmental issues raise all sorts of interesting philosophical questions, one might nonetheless wonder whether philosophers can do anything to help to resolve any of the world's pressing environmental problems.

Some will have their doubts. In many cases, these doubts will be premised on the notion that philosophy in general is a high-flown and abstract subject which has had very little effect on the world. Yet history shows that notion to be false. Think of the connections between John Locke's work and the American Revolution, for example, or of the role Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writings played in its French counterpart a few years later. Or consider Karl Marx's influence on today's world. Indeed, whether or not we are aware of the fact, what we nowadays take to be the platitudes of common sense are very often the crystallized products of old philosophical debates.

But can philosophy have an impact on environmental issues? It can – and in three ways.

First, it can do so as applied philosophy. On this model, the philosopher's job is to bring abstract principles to bear upon practical environmental problems. This can involve a philosopher applying already-existing principles or ones of her own invention. So, for instance, one environmental philosopher might apply John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism to the question of what we should do in response to global climate change. Another might bring an original theory of moral rights to bear upon the public controversy concerning the UK government's proposal to cull badgers in order to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis. In all such cases, however, the order of proceedings is clear: theory first, then application.

A second option is that of practical philosophy (and its close relative pragmatism).2 Those who take this approach typically believe that philosophers – in this context, environmental philosophers – have done little to solve practical problems. In their view, contributors to journals such as Environmental Ethics or Environmental Values have tended to become preoccupied with theoretical issues that have very little bearing on such problems, creating the impression, as Robert Frodeman once put it, of ‘a thousand articulate voices whose combined effect is white noise’ (2006: 19). Practical philosophers often add that those philosophers who have sought to engage with those issues have misguidedly chosen the path of applied philosophy – a top-down approach to problem solving which, in their opinion, has rarely borne fruit.

The practical philosopher, in contrast, begins not by reflecting on abstract philosophical questions, but by paying close attention to the scientific, economic and socio-political dimensions of real cases. Then, having considered these various factors, she adds her voice to those of the scientists, economists, managers and policymakers who are seeking to solve the practical problem in question. As Bryan Norton explains:

a practical philosopher will not use specific controversies as case studies for examining moral principles; a practical philosopher will consider it a challenge to reduce the distance between the two sides in the controversy by finding a general policy direction that can achieve consensus and define a range of actions that are morally acceptable to a wide range of worldviews. (Norton and Hargrove 1994: 239)

Practical philosophers have had an impact on practical environmental issues. Norton, for instance, has done a great deal of useful work for the US Environmental Protection Agency. Andrew Light, another practical philosopher, frequently advises US government agencies such as the State Department and the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. As I write, he is serving as a senior adviser to the Special Envoy on Climate Change in the US Department of State. Yet, as its advocates are aware, practical philosophy has its dangers. There is, in particular, a risk that working too closely alongside managers and policymakers might blunt philosophy's critical edge. For one of the main functions of philosophy is to question what is taken for granted – either what is taken for granted by a certain constituency (theists, for instance, or economists) or what is taken for granted by just about everyone (the existence of the external world, for example). That's why philosophers are typically amongst the first in line for the firing squads in totalitarian regimes. However, in light of this, one might wonder to what extent a practical philosopher could challenge the basic assumptions of the managers and policymakers with whom she works. Wouldn't she rather have to accept those assumptions (or at least keep her scepticism to herself) if she is to help in the search for what Norton calls ‘a general policy direction that can achieve consensus’?3

Certainly, some environmental philosophers have made more radical recommendations. One example would be the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who, in a series of influential works in the 1970s and 1980s, distinguished between what he called ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ approaches to the environmental crisis. Shallow ecology, on his account, focuses on nature's usefulness – and potential usefulness – for human beings. Deep ecology is harder to pin down, in part because deep ecologists form a very diverse set. They can draw inspiration from political activism (such as Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance to British rule), religious sources (such as Christianity or Buddhism) or indigenous worldviews (such as those of Native Americans). Their views on environmental issues can, alternatively, be rooted in philosophical positions such as the metaphysics of Spinoza or the later thought of Martin Heidegger. However, Naess claimed that all deep ecologists stand as one in their basic commitments to, amongst other things, the basic unity of humans and the rest of nature, the ‘equal right to live and blossom’ of all living things, and political decentralization (2001 [1973]: 147–9).

Despite Naess's efforts, not all of those environmental writers and practitioners who advocate revolution rather than reform consider themselves deep ecologists. In particular, many have complained that effusive deep ecological claims about our ‘oneness’ with nature obscure the fundamental social causes of environmental problems. Thus Murray Bookchin, the founder of social ecology, argues that to understand environmental problems one must look not to vague claims about the basic unity of humans and the rest of nature, but to the historical emergence of social phenomena such as ‘trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of “progress” with corporate self-interest’ (2010 [1993]: 269). Similarly, ecofeminists have maintained that deep ecologists pay too little attention to – and thus inadvertently perpetuate – the patriarchal assumptions that lie at the root of the world's environmental crises. In their view, any adequate environmental philosophy must account for the historical and conceptual connections between the domination of women and the domination of nature (cf. Warren 1990: 143). Still, all of these writers – deep ecologists, social ecologists and ecofeminists – share the belief that environmental philosophy can make a practical difference: not just by helping to solve certain specific practical environmental problems, but by inspiring us to rethink the environmental mess we're in and to take action on the basis of our new understanding. This, I would suggest, is a third way that environmental philosophy can have a practical impact.

Outline of chapters

To do environmental philosophy one must do more than just philosophy. One must also engage with work in other fields, such as biology, economics, management science and literary criticism. Trying to cover all of that vast multi-disciplinary terrain in one go would make for a long read and an arm-strainingly heavy book. Still, the topics I have chosen to cover should give a good sense of the state of the field as a whole.

I begin by considering those parts of nature which are most like us – namely, nonhuman animals (hereafter ‘animals’). After a brief discussion of the topic of animal minds, I move on to ask whether we can have moral duties to any of our furred, feathered or scaly evolutionary relatives. In other words, I ask whether any animals have moral standing. Peter Singer, for one, argues that many do. In his view, indeed, each and every entity that is capable of suffering, whether human or nonhuman, has moral standing. In chapter 2, I examine five objections to Singer's argument. Doing this gives me an opportunity to consider some very different conceptions of our moral relations with nonhuman animals, from writers such as Tom Regan, Martha Nussbaum and Clare Palmer. In chapter 3, I ask whether any entities other than animals have moral standing, beginning with non-sentient organisms, such as plants and fungi, before moving on to consider ecosystems and biological species.

In chapter 4, the focus shifts from the concept of moral standing to that of value. I begin by considering the popular notion that nature is of instrumental value to us human beings since it provides us with various ‘ecosystem services’. That, I suggest, captures only part of the truth. Not only is nature of value to nonhuman beings too, but in many of those cases in which it is of value to humans, it is not of instrumental value to them. In the chapter's second section, I address some questions about the source of the values we find in the natural world. Does nature have value only because it is valued? Or is it valuable in itself? Drawing on work in the field of metaethics, I reject both options.

If we are to understand our moral relations with nonhuman entities, we will need to consider what those entities are like. In chapter 5, I examine the virtue ethical proposal that we will also need to reflect on what it means for a human being to live a good life, one exemplifying certain virtues of character. I examine three candidate ‘environmental virtues’: (a) the compassion for nonhuman beings that is praised in Buddhist traditions, (b) the humility that some people believe we should exhibit in our dealings with nature, and (c) the finely tuned attention to natural phenomena which one finds expressed in, say, the works of the best nature writers. Discussing (c) gives me a chance to consider the views of those thinkers, such as Val Plumwood and Anthony Weston, who maintain that a preoccupation with assessing which sorts of entities have moral standing reflects a lack of attention to nature.

Chapters 1 to 5 focus on environmental ethics. But not all environmental issues are primarily ethical issues. In chapter 6 we move beyond the domain of moral philosophy to consider a set of philosophical issues concerning the aesthetic qualities of natural things, organisms, processes, places and events – not just their beauty, but also their ugliness, elegance, prettiness, majesty, grace and so forth. I begin by examining Arnold Berleant's argument that appreciating nature's aesthetic qualities involves not detachment and disinterested contemplation, but immersion, participation and engagement. After discussing the pros and cons of Berleant's case, I move on to consider the role of knowledge in the aesthetic appreciation of nature. Here I pay special attention to Allen Carlson's proposal that one cannot properly appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a natural object unless one has a sufficient amount of scientific knowledge about it. I draw the chapter to a close with a discussion of pollution-caused sunsets and enthralling bullfights – two examples which serve to illustrate the complex relations between environmental aesthetics and environmental ethics.

In chapter 7, I return to a topic briefly addressed in the Introduction – that of nature. It has been argued that either everything or nothing is natural, and that talk of a natural as opposed to a human world is therefore both confused and confusing. But such objections are not, I contend, decisive: though it needs to be handled with care, the concept of a natural as opposed to a human world ought not to be abandoned. The topic of wilderness raises a distinct yet connected set of issues. For instance, some argue that it is morally and politically suspect to suppose that the biosphere contains any truly wild places. After discussing that sort of concern and the related topic of wildness, I move on to consider whether – and, if so, when and how – it is permissible to restore environments which have been damaged by human actions. In so doing, I focus on Robert Elliot's interesting claim that such restorations typically involve a loss of value, since the restored environments lack the value-adding property of being natural.

In chapter 8, the themes of the previous chapters are brought together in a discussion of global climate change. I begin by identifying the issues of justice raised by the fact that those who bear primary responsibility for causing climate change are socially and temporally distanced from those who suffer (or, in the case of future generations, will suffer) its worst effects. That done, I address a number of related questions: whether we as individuals are obliged to change our lifestyles in order to mitigate climate change; whether present generations ought to make sacrifices on behalf of those future people who are likely to suffer as a result of climate change; whether combating climate change requires us to curb the growth of the human population; and whether it forces us to reconsider what we are trying to achieve in conserving, managing or more generally taking care of the natural world.


Further reading

  1. Callicott, J. B., R. Frodeman, S. M. Gardner et al. (2007). ‘Commentary on the Future of Environmental Philosophy’, Ethics and the Environment 12 (2): 117–50. Brief forecasts from fifteen leading environmental philosophers.
  2. Keller, D. R. (ed.) (2010). Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell). One of several first-rate anthologies devoted to environmental philosophy. Others are: L. P. Pojman (ed.) (2001) Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application, 3rd edn (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth); and A. Light and H. Rolston III (eds.) (2003) Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell).
  3. McShane, K. (2009). ‘Environmental Ethics: An Overview’, Philosophy Compass 4 (3): 407–20. A clear and succinct survey of the field.