Introduction and Methods in Environmental Ethics (Blog 4)

The main focus of this section is the definition and distinction drawn between empirical and moral claims. Van DeVeer defines an empirical claim as “what is, was, or will be the case and whose truth or falsity depends on what did, does, or will happen.”[1] Whereas, a moral claim is defined as “claims that are primarily about what ought or ought not to be done.”[2] Furthermore, VanDeVeer sights philosopher David Hume on the idea that not moral conclusion or judgment can follow from purely empirical premises. This could be from the fact that most humans hold on to deep-root preconceptions and preconceived notions, which has a large effect on what we interpret or determine the facts and data to be saying. The idea of the Anthropocene, which we have already come across in previous readings and discussions, is presented here. Placed in the context of harm and benefit, the claim was made that the “most negative moral principles or judgments seem aimed at preventing harm to members of one species, Homo Sapiens.”[3] We have created an Anthropocentric divide in the world and place humans on one side and everything that is consumable (non-humans) on the other side and we only care to protect our side. This anthropocentric view leads to the conclusion (or comes from it) that humans are the only beings that have moral standing.


Going back to the argument from my previous blog, I would have to say that I completely disagree with the anthropocentric view that humans are the only ones with moral standing. Every being has a certain inherent right to life and if following the Earth Wisdom worldview, humans are not dominant over the rest of the Earth community but simply members themselves. Therefore, we cannot be the only ones to claim to have moral standing. In the preface to VanDeVeer’s “The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book” he says that the recommendations that are made are influenced greatly by scientific beliefs and evidence. I think this leads to an important question, one that we examined in my Environmental Policy class, which is what role does science play in environmental policy and even more importantly, what role does science play in environmental ethics? With professor Fleisher and my Environmental Policy class we came to the conclusion that, in terms of policy, science plays a highly politicized role. Meaning, when science is consistent with someone’s desired outcomes they will use it, but when science is at odds the information will be challenged and will not be afforded a role. I think when science enters the arena of ethics its role becomes murky. In the interplay of morals and empirical claims it is said “the procedures of empirical science foster, but do not guarantee, the filtering out of deep, a priori assumptions or those based on very limited experience or evidence.”[4] This is a fact that has greatly affected environmental policy and ethics; it is difficult to fight deep-rooted beliefs and anecdotal evidence with scientific research and evidence because people are likely to be skeptical or dismissive. I also found it interesting when the author explained the difference between justifying explaining a moral claim. He gives the example of a killer who may be deemed to have been insane at the time he committed the murder; therefore, the killer may be judged as not being responsible for his actions and not to blame. However, this does not also judge that murder is acceptable. I think this idea of justifications plays a role in environmental ethics in that humans have been killers in terms of environmental degradation. It’s easy enough to explain that it wasn’t until this point in time that we had advanced enough technologically and scientifically to be aware that certain practices are unsustainable and harmful to the environment; but this doesn’t justify or make environmental degradation and unsustainable practices acceptable. Finally, VanDeVeer makes the point that you must be able to make the distinction between moral and empirical claims. We have all of this empirical data that the ozone is being depleted, the icecaps are melting, species are going extinct in rates that haven’t been seen since the last ice age and the moral argument is that we ought to do something to stop this downward spiral before it’s too late. However, “it is not obvious that we members of Homo sapiens are up to the challenge.”[5] I’ve never thought about the issue in that manner before, maybe we as humans, despite the debate over the ecosystem, are not capable of fixing this problem. The Earth has gone through these extreme changes in climate before and through mass extinction has been able to balance once again and new and surviving life forms have been able to grow and strive. Maybe the Earth Wisdom point of view was right; maybe it’s not the Earth that needs saving, it’s humans who need to be saved from the damage they caused.

Question: Given the distinctions made in these readings between ethical and empirical claims, if there was an empirical claim made today that said Earth had already surpassed its carrying capacity and nothing could be done to reverse the effects would Planetary Management worldview holders still be able to carry on with their no worries and blind technological optimism attitude?

[1] Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learing, 2003), 3.

[2] VanDeVeer, 3.

[3] VanDeVeer, 11.

[4] VanDeVeer 11.

[5] VanDeVeer, 1.


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