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Using Ethical Principles in Moral Reasoning about the Environment


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By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse


There are many different principles on which to draw in moral reasoning about specific environmental problems. This lesson reviews three basic pairs of principles: justice and sustainability; sufficiency and compassion; solidarity and participation. This lesson demonstrates how environmental concerns challenge us to extend these principles to include the well-being of the natural world and our human duties to it. It concludes with a description of three general types of arguments that can be used in moral reasoning about the environment. 
The three classic ethical principles of justice, sufficiency and solidarity can be traced back to many different sources: Greek philosophy, religious teachings, and reflection on human experience. In the face of any decision involving environmental ethics, we should ask how each of these ethical principles - also known as ethical norms - can be applied to the situation at hand. Ethical principles are standards or benchmarks against which we can evaluate our actions. They are also signposts to orient us toward the difference between right and wrong, especially in conditions where there are multiple problems, and the interests of more than one party. Ethical principles are different from scientific principles in that they are generally not as hard and fast. They are less likely to give us one correct answer, but can be used to evaluate conflicting claims, a decision making process, or the outcome of a decision.

Justice and Sustainability

The classic formal principle of justice is that equals should be treated equally unless there is a sufficient reason to treat anyone (or anything) unequally. It is clearly relevant in the field of ethics called environmental justice, but this principle cuts across many issues. Environmental justice is concerned with the inequitable access to environmental resources (clean food, air and water) and the injustice of greater pollution that often characterize lower-income communities - not wealthy suburbs. The notion of justice underlies concern about animal welfare. On the basis of what values are other animals considered different from the human animal, and thus subject to consumption by humans? Recent advances in biology have shown that the differences between humans and other animals are much less than many of us might think. Does the equality of humans and animals as living creatures require far more humane treatment of animals? Or even the total non-use of animals? To apply justice to an environmental decision, we should ask:

  1. Are all human beings involved in this situation being treated equally and, if not, why not? 
  2. Are all living creatures involved in this situation being treated equally and, if not, why not? 


Sustainability extends justice into the future. Sustainability can be defined as meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs. We are consuming or degrading many resources (such as fossil fuel energy, topsoil and water) today faster than they can be naturally replenished, which means they will not be available to people in the future. The ethical principle of justice is at play because it underpins the need to equitably balance the needs of those alive today (the rich and poor) with future generations. Thus, environmental ethics takes the notion of fundamental fairness and stretches it to include those yet to be born. To apply the principle of sustainability to an environmental decision, we should ask: 

  1. What are the immediate and long-term effects of the problem before us?
  2. Who - humans and otherwise - is affected today by the problem before us and who will likely be affected by this problem in the future?

Sufficiency and Compassion

The principle of sufficiency mandates that all forms of life are entitled to enough goods to live on and flourish. The principle also means no one should waste or hoard resources intended for the sufficiency of all. Upholding the norm of sufficiency makes demands upon individuals - to share, to live more simply, to think creatively - and on human communities: to ensure that everyone has access to the goods that they need to live a life of dignity. The ethical norm of sufficiency is closely tied to the notion of moral significance, which means that something is worthy of our ethical concern. This means that we include the needs of others in our consideration of what is important, or worthy of our concern. When we consider the needs of others, such as poor individuals in our society or poor countries in the world, we are asserting the moral principle of sufficiency. This principle helps us think about whom else we need to consider, to whom we have moral duties. It underlies the practice of empathy. This principle can conflict, at least in some people's minds, with the notion that the Earth does not have sufficient goods to meet everyone's needs. To apply the principle of sufficiency to an environmental decision, we should ask: 

  1. Will the decision permit all those involved, especially the poor, to have enough resources on which to live and flourish?
  2. Is there any aspect of the decision that indicates the presence of waste or excess? Or a failure to be creative?

Compassion extends the notion of sufficiency to the Earth. Environmental ethics asserts that other animals, plants, and the elements (such as water, soil or air) are morally significant, and that humans have responsibilities to act so that their needs are met too. Some environmental ethicists, such as Deep Ecologists, assert that non-human forms of life have moral significance equivalent to humans. Most people, however, believe that other forms of life have some moral worth, but that humans are of greater moral significance. Even if you think animals are far more worthy of your concern than plants or elements, recognize that all animals depend, either directly or indirectly on plants for food, and that no creatures can live without sufficient clean water. To assert that any wild animal is worthy of our moral concern begins the process of learning about the interdependence of all creatures on the habitat and food resources provided by other creatures in an ecosystem. It is simply impossible to consider the well-being of one other creature in isolation from their environment. Ultimately, the future of humans is tied to the well-being of all other creatures. To apply the principle of compassion to an environmental decision, we should ask:

  1. What duties do we have to the other creatures likely to be affected by our actions?
  2. What does sufficiency mean for other creatures, especially those threatened with extinction?
  3. What would it mean to extend the principle of compassion to non-human creatures?

Solidarity and Participation

The principle of solidarity invites us to consider how we relate to each other in community. It assumes that we recognize that we are a part of at least one family - our biological family, our local community, or our national community - but then challenges us to consider the full range of relationships with others. In a globalizing economy, we participate in a vast, international economic community, one in which goods and services are provided for us by those on the other side of the world. Solidarity requires us to consider this kind of extended community, and to act in such a way that reflects concern for the well-being of others. To apply the principle of solidarity to an environmental decision, we should ask:

  1. Who are all the human stakeholders involved in this situation?
  2. Who are all the natural stakeholders?
  3. Is there a community of life (ecosystem) involved?
  4. Are there any stakeholders - human and non-human - who are especially vulnerable?


Participation extends the idea of solidarity to make it practical. The demands of solidarity point us to the principle of participation, so that those affected by an environmental decision can shape how it is made. Many, many environmental problems stem from decisions being made by private individuals or companies that have wide-ranging implications. In some cases, in this country and others, governments make environmental decisions without fully securing the consent of the public. Often, those most affected are unaware of the decisions or the long-term effects on their health and the well-being of their environment. The ethical principle of participation requires us to recognize all of the parties - human and non-human - likely to be affected by a decision, and to recognize that all parties should have a say in how the decision is made. Genuine participation requires transparency, meaning that each individual has access to the same information that everyone else has. To apply the principle of participation to an environmental decision, we should ask:

  1. Do all stakeholders in this decision actually have a say in how the decision is going to be made?
  2. Are there any stakeholders who cannot represent themselves? Or who have little power? How will their interests be represented in the decision-making process?

Modes of Ethical Reasoning about the Environment

We now come to the "what" of environmental ethics, in other words, to the kinds of ethical reasoning that uses standards for environmental behavior or decisions. If we reflect on how we already think, we can see several common modes of ethical reasoning. For the sake of simplicity and by using a sort of short-hand, let's consider these modes as three: moral reasoning about commands, consequences, and character. Whenever we consider an ethical problem, we usually find ourselves reasoning along one or more of these lines. And this is as much the case in environmental ethics as in any other kind of ethics.

Commands. We can use the notion of "commands" as a shorthand way for referring to those things that we ought to do, no matter what the consequences. This kind of reasoning is also associated with such ethical categories as commandments, laws, rights, and justice. In terms of environmental ethics, perhaps the classic command is one of the classic commands in all of ethics, "Do no harm." That is, our first general duty toward the environment is to do no harm. Moreover, we are reasoning in a command mode when, for instance, we think that animals have rights and, therefore, that justice requires that we not harm them; this is often the ethical conviction behind those who do not eat meat.

Consequences. The ethical notion of consequences is most often associated with the philosophical school of utilitarianism. According to this mode of ethical reasoning, commands are not sufficient in themselves to tell us what we ought to do. Instead, we need to think carefully about the consequences of our actions. Thus we can determine the correct ethical action by choosing the one that will produce the greatest balance of good consequences over bad consequences. This kind of reasoning helpfully invites us to consider the totality of a situation and to identify its positive and negative aspects. More to the point, in this kind of reasoning, commands or laws or rights can be overridden if doing so will yield a greater balance of benefits over harms. This means, for instance, that something like the rights of animals can be overridden for the sake of some perceived human benefit. In consequential reasoning, it is often difficult to specify what qualifies as a "benefit" and a "harm" or, similarly, a "benefit" and a "cost," or "good" and "bad," etc. Frequently in environmental cases, costs and benefits are considered only in monetary terms. But while the assessment of such financial costs is an essential part of many ethical analyses, it cannot be the whole of such analyses. And it is important to try to name what else constitutes harm and benefits. One way of doing this might be to say, for instance, that harm is constituted by things like premature death, undue pain, or the violation of human economic or political rights. An environmental action that leads or very likely will lead to such harms would be ethically problematic. Working to protect the full diversity of life on Earth is an example of ethical action with a positive consequence.


Character. When we speak of "character," we are not doing so precisely in the way that we often hear the word: As referring to a role in a play or movie. Rather, we are referring more to the notion that "he or she has got good character" or to the notion that "he or she is a person of conscience." In the face of a situation of environmental ethics, we are asking: What does this particular action that may affect the environment mean for my character? Or, similarly, what kind of person am I becoming by engaging in these actions in relation to the environment? Am I becoming more just, more humble, more generous? This mode of ethical reasoning invites careful and honest self-reflection. It can also be a kind of reasoning used very well by a group. The fact is, we become what we do - whether what we do involves only other people or also involves the natural world. This is explored further in the lesson on environmental virtue ethics.

The ethical principles and modes or reasoning presented in this lesson will be integrated into a decision making model in lesson 12.


Question: Take one important environmental issue - for example, water pollution or endangered species - and analyze it in light of each of the key terms in this chapter: justice and sustainability; sufficiency and compassion; solidarity and participation. How do different terms of analysis yield different moral perspectives on the issue?

Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education, Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and 
David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. May 2009



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Using Ethical Principles in Moral Reasoning about the Environment