Evolution of Environmental Ethics
Values and Cultures
Nature and Us
Nature as Us
Ethics and Technological Responsibility
Internet Links
Other Resources
Ethical System PDF
Printer-Friendly Web Version



"The environmental crisis is in part a crisis of concepts as well...We are many things: men or women, Americans or other nationalities, as well as mammals, animals, life forms, earth beings. Could we not as well say that we must invariably think as earth beings, since we are earth beings too? ...

In fact we can escape the crisis. We can return to the community of life, we can re-situate ourselves, in thought and experience, within and not against the more-than-human world. But we will not do so if we continue to suppose that we face only a practical problem: how to recycle better or pollute less or save the forests...all of this is crucial too...the environmental crisis ultimately lies deeper, challenges us more profoundly, more philosophically and offers us unsuspected and fabulous opportunities...Welcome to the adventure."

- Anthony Weston
An Invitation to Environmental Philosophy,
Oxford University Press, 1999.

Thus begins a book on Environmental Philosophy. Philosophy itself is an important area of study. It is the "love of wisdom," and it is wisdom, perhaps more than knowledge, that is central if we are to think and act constructively in our environment. Where is this wisdom to be had? Part of it is indeed clear knowledge about the systems that make up the environment—natural, anthropogenic, technological, ethical, and social—and the complex interactions among them now, in the past, and evolving into the future. In addition to what we normally call "knowledge" (scientific, empirical, expressible in terms of words and numbers), we also ought to look inward into our spiritual feelings about nature, our inherent understanding of place, and of the passage of time.

The ethic we use toward nature and towards each other—as people or countries—will ultimately decide our fate as a civilization and even as a species. Recently some authors have argued that "ecological integrity" needs to be our ethic in order that we and subsequent generations of humans and all the beings on Earth co-exist in health and peace.

When we think of the environment, we think of all that surrounds us (en- viron- explain?) as if we too are not part of it. Perhaps nature would be a better word to describe our topic of study. But through separation of areas of study, human psychology, sociology, physiology, biology, and certainly philosophy have come to represent the study of different aspects of the human condition. And, all of these lie outside what we typically think of as "nature" or as "study of the environment." The study of the environment is often considered in terms of science, even engineering and architecture. Even ecology, the study of natural systems, is a recent addition to science. This too is revealing that it is an addition to science rather than to philosophy. However, our wisdom on this score is dawning. Environmental ethics, environmental history, and even ecological economics have joined the ranks of environmental studies.

In this unit, we examine the values, attitudes and behaviors we hold toward the environment as individuals, societies—and as exhibited in social systems such as economics and technology—that we have adopted as part of our civilization.



The root word of ethics is ethos, meaning "fundamental spiritual characteristics of a culture." This "culture" can be an organization or a discipline, so we might speak of the academic ethos or scientific ethos. The word ethic, derived from ethos, refers to a precept or a founding or practiced principle. Thus we might refer to the justice ethic or care ethic, or say that someone has a certain work ethic. Ethics is the study and definition of formal systems of thought and practice that define and elaborate obligations and duties. These obligations are based on a fundamental set of values that may be organized as a religion, or be part of a belief and practice system, often containing unarticulated tacit knowledge and values or a mythology that prescribes behaviors. Environmental ethics, then, refers to the study of formal frameworks that examine human relationships to the environment.

In this section, we use the term ethical system very broadly, to stand for the different belief and value systems that have represented human attitudes and shaped our behaviors towards the environment as individuals and as societies. Thus we touch on the fundamental religious tenets that defined our relationship to the environment through positioning of nature in the religion and through practices. We also describe the informal sets of attitudes and behaviors toward the environment and formal systems like economics and values such a competition that have guided these.




  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.