Ethical Ideas and Theories (Blog 5)

In the very introduction of ideas and reasonings, the idea of psychological and ethical egoism is presented. Psychological Egoism is the theory “that every human act is motivated by a desire to promote one’s self-interest.”[1] Whereas, ethical egoism is the theory “that each person out to act in such a manner as to promote (or maximize) her or his self-interest.”[2] From this follows the conclusion that no one is motivated to act in an altruistic manner without some self-interested benefit being attached to the action. Therefore, when it comes to the protection of the environment, is it really feasible to expect people to act in a way that benefits other species or nations or future generations. But this view treats people as mere commodities and can lead to a slippery slope argument that relates human wellbeing to the Darwinian concept of “the fittest will survive.” But this goes against human conviction and would lead to the permissibility of certain unthinkable acts when combined with certain suitable empirical assumptions. VanDeVeer gives descriptions of a few different types of theories that are intended to help humans make the decision of whether or not something is morally right or wrong. The Divine Command Theory stems from the claim that there is a God and that humans are able to ascertain, in some matter, the things that God commands and these commandments are said to be what is morally right and good. Rights theories think of moral questions in terms of who has a right to what and whether or not that right is or needs to be respected. There are active and passive or positive and negative rights, each of them leading to their own set of questions and problems. VanDeVeer expends a great amount of time explaining utilitarianism and the role that it plays in moral decisions, which the basic maxim is “do that which will bring about the greatest balance of pleasure over pain, or utility over disutility.”[3] This is also the first theory that appears to move beyond an anthropocentric outlook. Finally, Natural Law theory is exactly what it sounds like: do what it is that we were put on this Earth to do; do what is natural.

divine command social darwinism 600_johnstuartmill_statueofliberty

These theories all lend themselves to being applied to modern environmental studies but each with largely different outcomes. If we relied on the Divine Command Theory, unless at some point an explicit commandment came from God that said we needed to protect the environment that He created, there is no reason to believe that any explicit action would need to be taken in terms of environmental protection and sustainability. Rights theories are inherently anthropocentric, giving no weight and no rights to any non-human species. Therefore any environmental polices that do arise from this stand point, I would argue, are likely to be for selfish purposes and have little effect on environmental sustainability. However, I will say that I thought the distinction between the “right to life” in the negative and positive sense could prove to be useful. I our class discussion it was generally agreed upon that animals (at the very least sentient ones) have a right to life, but in a way that is different from humans. I don’t think that this is necessarily what the rights theorists would or are arguing but in the way in which it is describes I think its clear that humans posses a right to life in the positive sense while animals posses it in the negative sense. I think Utilitarianism could lead to nothing being done in terms of environmental protection because it can lead to unequal distribution of the burden of environmental degradation. Furthermore, Natural Law theory is one that if placed in the context of environmental problems nothing would be done because it chooses its actions based on what is “natural” without any regard to the consequences of ones actions. To me, this is basically the world that we are living in (Environmentally). People are acting in ways that appear natural without any regard to the environmental consequences of their actions. This brings me back to point I made in an earlier blog about the danger in the concept of biophilia. If what feels natural to humans is the hunters and gatherers that we all originated as, then what is natural is a sense of dominance over nature and that we can take all that nature has to offer without any restraint or without having to give anything back. This is a dangerous concept.

I think the question of the need for a unique environmental ethic is an interesting one. Given that all the theories presented thus far originated from the early Anthropocene I don’t believe that there is any way that we can just simply apply one of these theories to environmental problems, they were never meant to handle those issues. I would also have to agree, “It is difficult to imagine a theory that would not incorporate key features of traditional views.”[4] Therefore, I do believe that there is a need for a new Environmental ethic, specific to the issues themselves. However, I do not know how unique the ethic will turn out to be.

Question: Kant places a huge importance on cognitive value, what would be this view on trans-generational duties?

[1] Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learing, 2003), 16.

[2] VanDeVeer, 16.

[3] VanDeVeer, 24.

[4] VanDeVeer, 37.


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