Doing Environmental Ethics


By Robert Traer

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Doing Environmental Ethics faces our ecological crisis by drawing on environmental science, economic theory, international law, and religious teachings, as well as philosophical arguments. It engages students in constructing ethical presumptions based on arguments for duty, character, relationships, and rights, and then tests these moral presumptions by predicting the likely consequences of acting on them. Students apply what they learn to policy issues discussed in the final part of the book: sustainable consumption, environmental policy, clean air and water, agriculture, managing public lands, urban ecology, and climate change. Questions after each chapter and a worksheet aid readers in deciding how to live more responsibly.

The second edition has been updated to reflect the latest developments in environmental ethics, including sustainable practices of corporations, environmental NGO actions, and rainforest certification programs. This edition also gives greater emphasis to environmental justice, Rawls, and ecofeminism. Revised study questions concern application and analysis, and new “Decisions” inserts invite students to analyze evaluate current environmental issues.



What you do matters, and the person you are matters. In ethics we look for reasons to explain why this is so. Ethics is about what we do, who we are, and why it matters.

Ethics is always a conversation. Ethical reasoning takes place in a community and not simply inside our heads. What follows is my part of our conversation, and I have tried to write and think as clearly as I can. Only you, however, can make sense of what you read, as we are each responsible for ourselves and for what we think and do.

When I say “we” I am either referring to the discussion we are having as you read or stating a conclusion that is strongly supported by reasons and facts. I only say “I” to let you know that I am speaking for myself. Moral philosophers disagree about many ethical issues, and my responsibility to you is to explain this diversity of thought. At times, however, I will affirm my own convictions.

The topic of environmental ethics has, like a coin, two sides. One side is the discipline of ethics, and parts I and II offer ways of understanding what this discipline involves. The other side is our environmental crisis, which we consider primarily in part III.

The noun crisis comes from the Greek krisis, meaning decision. To say that we are facing an environmental crisis is to assert that we are at a decisive moment in human history and in the natural history of our planet, and that our decisions now are crucial. Also, by identifying the environmental crisis as our crisis, I am affirming that we are the crisis, not the environment.

Part I presents reasons for this conclusion. The first chapter locates our conversation about environmental ethics within the traditions of moral philosophy. The second and third chapters consider how scientific and economic reasoning affect ethical reasoning, especially arguments about our responsibility for the environment. Chapters in part III address particular aspects of our environmental crisis.

Most scientists agree that the impact of human civilization on the earth now constitutes an environmental crisis. Yet public awareness and support for this conclusion in the United States is much lower than in Europe, Japan, and China. Americans have a responsibility to understand why this is so.

Our challenge is to see how we are involved in the environmental crisis and how, individually and together, we can live more ecologically. To address this challenge we consider:

Our place in nature as well as our use of natural resources.

Four ways of reasoning about doing what is right and being good persons.

Predicting likely consequences as a way of testing ethical presumptions.

Environmental laws, philosophical arguments, and religious teachings.

As ethical beings, we are responsible for understanding the ecology of the earth and for evolving a sustainable way of life. This may be the greatest moral and social challenge of our time.

To address our environmental crisis, we must see more clearly our place in nature. We are ethical primates. We are creatures of the earth and depend on its natural cycles, habitats, and other species. It is also our human nature to create a world of culture that sets us apart from the natural world.

Therefore, to make ethical decisions about the environment, we must understand the lessons of nature. We look to the scientific theory of evolution and the discipline of ecology to learn what being fit for survival means and how human life relies on the ecosystems of the earth. Then we consider what these facts and insights mean for doing ethics.

Our knowledge is limited, yet we know that the environmental crisis is of our own making. We know that our use of natural resources has disrupted the natural cycles of nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon, with consequences that include the loss of forests and topsoil, as well as global warming. We know that our industrial way of life has also disturbed the earth’s water cycle, resulting in acid rain, falling water levels in underground aquifers, a loss of fertile land due to salts deposited by irrigation, more intense storms, and devastating drought, as well as a scarcity of water for many. We know that economists have ignored the environmental costs of extracting and using natural resources and of leaving waste products in the air, water, and soil.

Resolving these environmental problems will require a new awareness of our place in nature, as well as careful actions (acting with care) based on our moral convictions.

We bring to this crisis from the history of our cultures four patterns of reasoning about doing what is right and being good persons. These ethical arguments concern duty, character, relationships, and rights. We find these ways of reasoning about what is intrinsically right and good mainly in environmental laws, philosophical arguments, and religious teachings, but also in children’s stories, human history, and our own experience. We will draw on these diverse sources to help us construct ethical presumptions about how we may live with greater ecological awareness and responsibility.

Also, humans have evolved the capacity to estimate outcomes, and modern culture requires that ethical decisions about public policy consider the projections of science and economics. Therefore, we predict the likely consequences of acting on our ethical presumptions as a way of testing our reasoning. When we predict that the likely consequences of acting on our presumptions will be more beneficial than adverse, our ethical presumptions are confirmed. If this is not the case, we should review our options.

Some moral philosophers assert that all ethical issues should be resolved simply by predicting the foreseeable consequences of taking an action. I argue, instead, that this way of reasoning is necessary but not sufficient for ethics. Not long ago, few foresaw our present environmental crisis. It seems unwise, therefore, to rely solely on our ability to predict the likely consequences of actions we might now take.

What can we learn from the mistakes of the past? From the history of the last century we need to learn that our way of life is unsustainable. From evolution we can see that natural history is “heading” toward greater complexity and diversity, and that empathy is natural as well as crucial for moral reasoning. From ecology we should learn that our well-being depends on restoring and maintaining the integrity of the natural habitats we share with other species.

Doing Environmental Ethics offers an inclusive and practical way of addressing our ecological crisis. It builds on our commonsense understanding of doing what is right and being good persons; suggests how we might live more sustainably; and explores how governments, corporations, and citizens can work together to address environmental problems. To protect the natural cycles of the earth’s biosphere, Doing Environmental Ethics supports public policies that would reduce air and water pollution, transform industrial agriculture, preserve endangered species, promote urban ecology, and counter global warming. Questions after each chapter and a worksheet aid readers in deciding how to live more responsibly as consumers and as citizens.

Our way of living—our dependence on fossil fuels, our polluted cities, our global economy, our industrial agriculture, our consumer society—is the environmental crisis. At issue, therefore, is not only what we must do to reverse our devastating impact on the environment but who we may become as members of the only ethical species to evolve on Earth.


This book relies on the insightful arguments of many environmental advocates, moral philosophers, and contemporary scientists. I am especially grateful to Mary Midgley and Holmes Rolston III for guiding me along the tangled trails of environmental philosophy, and to scientists Menas Kafatos, Lynn Margulis, Robert Nadeau, and Henry P. Stapp for helping me sort out what we know and cannot know about the natural world. I also want to recognize economists Herman E. Daly and Joshua Farley and designers William McDonough and Michael Braungart for providing creative and practical alternatives to our unsustainable growth economy.

Also, a word of thanks to my grandson Noah Traer, who at age five accompanied me on many walks while I was working on this book. “I’m always wondering about things,” he once said to me. Then, wanting to be more precise, he qualified this statement. “Well, I’m not always wondering about things. But mostly I’m wondering.”

Together we wondered about intricate flowers, brightly colored fallen leaves, sprouting mushrooms, spiders spinning fantastic webs, butterfly acrobatics, birds pulling up worms, tumbling clouds in the sky, and rain plunking on our umbrellas.

This second edition is dedicated to all my grandchildren: Christian, Quanisha, Cassandra, Noah, Rashaan, Arwyn, Willow, and Liliana. They keep me wondering about the ethical choices we all need to make for the sake of those who are young today and for future generations as well.



Environmental ethics is not science, but the reasoning process used in science is useful in doing ethics. Scientists rely on questioning and intuition as well as knowledge to construct tentative explanations (hypotheses) about what has happened or will happen. Then they test their hypotheses with other evidence, including empirical measurements and thought experiments.

Chapter 1 explains how we may rely on diverse patterns of reasoning to consider our experience, and then construct moral presumptions about what is intrinsically right and good. We test these ethical hypotheses by predicting the likely consequences of acting on them.

Second, science gives us insight into nature, and reminds us that our observations shape what we know. Also, the theory of evolution and the discipline of ecology enable us to see how human life depends on and impacts nature. Chapter 2 considers the relevance of these scientific insights for ascribing moral consideration to nature, and for constructing ethical presumptions about living more responsibly within the earth’s ecosystems.

Third, the public debate about environmental policy relies on the social science of economics to weigh the likely costs of preserving natural resources against the impact on economic growth. In order to assess this reasoning, we need to understand why economic theory and practice has failed to protect the earth’s biosphere. Chapter 3 considers this concern.


Moral Philosophy

An Adventure in Reasoning

The word ethics comes from the Greek ethos, for custom, but ethics has long meant prescribing, and not simply describing, what our customs ought to be. Ethics answers the question, how should we live? Some philosophers distinguish morality from ethics by claiming that ethics necessarily involves critical reflection, whereas morality may simply refer to the moral rules and customs of a culture.1 In everyday speech, however, the adjectives ethical and moral are interchangeable. Ethics is moral philosophy.2

Studying ethics, I suggest, is like hiking on a (conceptual) mountain, where the wider paths reflect the main traditions of ethical thought, and the narrower trails branching off these paths represent the arguments of individuals. As we have little time to explore this mountain (ethics), I will generally guide us along the paths (theories), but endnotes offer observations about some of the trails.

To illustrate what doing ethics means, consider how we might describe an actual mountain in diverse ways. We could emphasize its unusual rock formations, or point out a striking waterfall, or recall the sweep of the forest below the summit, or identify wildlife in the meadows. Each of these four descriptions would tell us about the mountain, but all four would be necessary to convey our impression of the whole mountain.

To offer an overview of moral philosophy, I will lead us along paths that reflect four patterns of thought, which I identify by the keywords duty, character, relationships, and rights, and a fifth path identified by the keyword consequences. Each keyword represents the crux of the debate within the pattern of thought it identifies. The first four patterns of ethical thought (concerning our duty, character, relationships, and rights) assert that some actions or ways of being have intrinsic worth. The fifth pattern of thought (predicting consequences) rejects the notion of intrinsic worth and argues that actions and goods only have extrinsic value (derivative or use value) based on their utility (usefulness).3

To prepare for our ethical trek, we “stretch” our minds a bit by considering four questions. How are the words right and good used in moral philosophy? What is the role of reason in ethics? How is environmental ethics different from traditional ethics? Why rely on diverse patterns of moral reasoning instead of deciding which ethical theory is best?


Traditional ethics is about human life in societies. The natural world, which is center stage in environmental ethics, has for centuries been merely the backdrop for the drama of moral philosophy. Because ethics developed without any direct concern for the environment, the main patterns of thought were constructed without considering many of the issues we now face.

Our challenge, therefore, involves drawing on the traditions of moral philosophy to construct arguments that address our environmental crisis. We begin our trek on the mountain (of ethics) below the (environmental) slope, along the main paths that have been worn smooth by seeking to know what is “right” and “good.”

What do we mean by taking the right action? We mean that we are acting “in accord with what is just, good, or proper.”4 We take a right action by correctly applying a principle (norm, premise, presupposition, rule, standard, or law).5 We offer reasons to justify the principle and its application. We do our duty, or act to protect a person’s rights. For instance, we might assert that not littering in a public park is right, because we have a duty to respect the rights of others who use the park.

By being a good person, we mean that a person is “virtuous.”6 Being good involves having the character and personal qualities that we recognize as having moral worth. The traditional word for a good character trait is virtue, and chapter 5 gives reasons for the virtues of gratitude, integrity, and frugality. Would a person who is grateful for the beauty of the flowers in a park throw a candy wrapper in the flowerbed? Not if he has integrity.

Because a virtue identifies a way of being good, it has no plural. That is, a virtue is not an action, but a way of aspiring to be good. It is how we can be or not be. We can be grateful, so the virtue of being grateful is gratitude. There is no such word as “gratitudes.” Similarly, an honest and trustworthy person has the virtue of integrity and a person who is frugal the virtue of frugality. It makes no sense to speak of “integrities” or “frugalities.”

Examples of other character traits that are often said to be virtues are patience, generosity, compassion, humility, courage, and diligence. None of these nouns has a plural, but each has a related adjective that is used to describe a character trait, which is understood to reflect a good quality of how we may be as persons.

The adjectives good and right are related in meaning, but are not synonyms. It makes no sense to speak of a “right person” when we mean a “good person.” Good has a broader range of meanings than right, and both words have meanings that do not involve ethics.

For example, we speak of the “good looks” of a person, or of a “good joke.” Saying someone is the right person for a job means that we think the person will do a good job, but in this statement the adjectives right and good have nothing to do with moral philosophy. The phrase “good science,” which appears in debates about climate change, does not refer to an ethical presumption, but to relying on proper procedures in scientific research.

Because ethics concerns how we ought to live together, our goal is “a good society.” No one argues that our goal is “a right society” or “the right society.” Also, we speak of “the common good” and “good relationships,” rather than “right relationships,” to identify the ethical goals of ensuring freedom, equality, and social justice for everyone. This sense of being good refers to the way a society is or to the hope shared by many of its members about how it should be.

Both adjectives, right and good, have opposites that help define their meanings. If an action is morally wrong, it is not right. A good person is not a bad person, and a bad person is not a good person. Yet the opposition between what is good and bad is more complex than the dichotomy between what is right and wrong. For example, a good person may act badly. We may distinguish between the bad behavior of a child and the child herself. In caring for children, we are told, we should refrain from calling a child “bad” when she is behaving badly.

Another distinction between the adjectives right and good is that good has comparative and superlative forms (better and best), but right does not. Good refers to a way of being that has a range of possibilities or levels of aspiration. There is nothing comparable when speaking of what is right, because right and wrong are opposites. It makes sense to speak of a “lesser evil,” or a “greater good.” It makes no sense, however, to refer to a “lesser wrong” or a “greater right.” What is good may not be as good as it could be, but if it is better than what is bad, it is good.

These distinctions usually become clear to us early in our moral development as children. Our actions are right when we follow the rules, or when we act responsibly by drawing an inference from the rules. Our actions are wrong when we violate a rule or behave in a manner that seems contrary to the intention of the rules.

In addition, we encourage children to act in a manner that involves being good with one another, and this means doing more than any set of rules requires. We want children to be more than obedient. We hope they will learn to be kind, fair, and forgiving in their relationships with one another.

These examples should help us see that good refers to a level of “goodness” and to “the quality or state of being good.” No matter how good we are, we may aspire to be better. Right, however, does not identify a level of rightness, as an action is either right or wrong. Another difference is that right takes the form of a verb, for we may try “to right a wrong,” but good does not have a similar verb. Being good is not an action, which may be right or wrong, but a way of being.

These differences in our everyday language are reflected in the diverse patterns of thought in moral philosophy. I suggest that the keywords duty and rights are largely concerned with right action, whereas the keywords character and relationships are primarily about being good persons. Right action and being good identify different paths on the mountain. Ethical theories emphasizing duty or rights branch off the “right action” path. Moral theories about character or relationships diverge from the “being good” path.

The words right and good are also nouns with distinctive meanings. A right refers to a moral claim that a person has against other persons. If backed by law, this moral right is a legal right. A good is a way of being (an end, a goal) that has moral worth in itself, not because it is a means to realizing some other value. Having respect for other persons, most moral philosophers argue, is a good not because we are likely to receive better treatment from those we respect, but because each person is capable of moral actions and so is worthy of respect.


Becoming More Responsible

BP’s massive oil spill in 2010 has prompted residents of south Mississippi to take more responsibility for protecting wildlife and the wetlands. In the Pascagoula School District on “environmental day,” sixth graders explore the wetlands in kayaks and canoes. “They see now that there are some things that they can lose that they value and cherish,” ecologist Mark LaSalle says. “A lot of what these kids are learning today is to appreciate nature.”

Analyze LaSalle’s ethical reasoning. What other arguments do you think would persuade people to take better care of the environment?

Source: “Gautier Students Learn to Care for the Environment,” Your Daily Update, October 28, 2010,

When I use the plural noun rights I am referring to legal rights, some of which are human rights under international law. Moral rights are not necessarily legal rights, as ethics has a larger concern than the law. Yet making and enforcing law is an ethical responsibility. The plural noun goods is sometimes used by moral philosophers to speak of moral values, interests, or ends. In economic theory, however, goods are simply commodities.


I agree with those who argue that ethics is “concerned with making sense of intuitions”7 about what is right and good. We do this by reasoning about our feelings. Biologists verify that: “Emotion is never truly divorced from decision-making, even when it is channeled aside by an effort of will.”8 Physicists now confirm that seeing the world with complete objectivity is not possible, as our observations affect what we perceive.9

Moral philosopher Mary Midgley writes: “Sensitivity requires rationality to complete it, and vice versa. There is no siding onto which emotions can be shunted so as not to impinge on thought.”10 We rely on our reason to guard against feelings that may reflect a bias, or a sense of inadequacy, or a desire simply to win an argument. We also rely on reason to refine and explain a felt conviction that passes the test of critical reflection and discussion. We rely on feelings to move us to act morally and to ensure that our reasoning is not only consistent but also humane.

Empathy and Reason

Scientific evidence supports this approach to ethics. As children, we manifest empathy before developing our rational abilities, and there is evidence for the same order of development in the evolution of the human brain.11 “Empathy is a unique form of intentionality in which we are directed toward the other’s experience.”12 This involves feeling, at least to some extent, what another person is feeling. Empathy means experiencing another human being as a person, an intentional being whose actions express a state of mind.

Empathy enables us to identify with others and may generate in us a feeling that another person deserves concern and respect. This does not guarantee ethical conduct, but encourages it. “Aid to others in need would never be internalized as a duty without the fellow-feeling that drives people to take an interest in one another. Moral sentiments came first; moral principles second.”13

We use the word conscience to refer to a person’s integration of moral sentiments and principles. We should each test our conscience, however, by explaining to others the reasons for our moral presumptions, and we should listen carefully to concerns they may have. Peter Singer probably speaks for all moral philosophers when he asserts that an ethical argument should only appeal to “emotions where they can be supported by reason.”14

Both our feelings and our reason reflect our moral community, which is made up of all those we care about (or should care about). As children, our moral community is our family, but this soon includes our friends and then is defined primarily by our school experience. As adults, our moral community may grow from our family and friends (at work, in our neighborhood or a support group, and perhaps in our religious community) to include our city, our country, and even all the people of the world, whose moral and legal rights are defined by international law. It may even, as we will see, also embrace nonhuman organisms, ecosystems, and the biosphere of our planet.

Critical Reasoning

A reason is a statement that expresses a rational motive and supports a conclusion or explains a fact. As a verb, to reason means to use the faculty of reason to arrive at conclusions. Reasoning is thinking. Being rational is the same as being reasonable, which means acting or being in accord with reason. In moral philosophy, arguing involves giving reasons for drawing a conclusion. Simply expressing contrary opinions or beliefs is not arguing. In ethics we are interested in the reasons for our opinions or beliefs. We argue not to “win,” but to clarify our reasoning.

This means unmasking rationalizations. In some disciplines of thought, to rationalize means “to bring into accord with reason,” but in ethics it means “to attribute (one’s actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of true and especially unconscious motives.”15 In moral philosophy a reason is not a rationalization, because reasoning involves analyzing our motives. It is often difficult, however, to distinguish reasons from rationalizations.


  • Praise from the Previous Edition:

    "In this well-done, three-part work, Traer offers a solid introduction to environmental ethics. … Traer presents opposing views fairly, and is good at explaining/applying concepts. Recommended.”

    "In the hands of Traer 'environmental ethics' become the critical search for wisdom for individuals and for society in dealing with the greatest crisis in human history. It includes, and draws from, the whole range of formal ethical systems, but it also treats specific environmental problems such as global warming. It shows how these cannot be separated from economic and political theory and practice. And it does all this in relation to our actual historical situation and cultural diversity. This is "ethics" at its transdisciplinary best."
    John B. Cobb, Jr., Claremont School of Theology

On Sale
Jul 31, 2012
Page Count
400 pages

Robert Traer

About the Author

Robert Traer holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, a J.D. from the School of Law of the University of California at Davis, and a D.Min. from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. He is a faculty member of the Dominican University of California. With Harlan Stelmach, he is coauthor of Doing Ethics in a Diverse World (Westview Press).

Learn more about this author