Deontological environmental ethics

ROBERT ELLIOT

This extract comes from a chapter on normative ethics in a book on environmental philosophy. Robert Elliot discussed human-centred, non-human-centred and consequentialist environmental ethics before this section and virtue-based environmental ethics afterwards. Deontological ethical theories tend to focus on 'doing what's right' and on moral duties, principles, rules and rights, largely independent of consequences. Historically the ideas of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) about morality as a matter of duty have been central to deontological theories. Contract theories following the ideas of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) are also considered deontological because they suggest that we, as members of a community, support an agreement that creates moral rules, rights and duties and accept certain restrictions on the free pursuit of our individual interests. Contemporary examples of the use of deontology in environmental contexts include Garret Hardin's 'The tragedy of the commons' (Reading 18) and work on animal rights such as that of Tom Regan.

This reading does not cover all aspects of deontology but it does distinguish deontology from consequentialism, and it discusses rights theories as deontological, Kantianism and some of the practical implications of using deontology.

§ [...] Deontological ethics are often characterized as ethics of principle rather than ethics focused on promoting intrinsic value. Unlike con-sequentialist theories, they offer principles of obligation or duty that do not reduce to functions over value, allowing the judgment that actions are obligatory for reasons in addition to the value of their consequences. Deontological theories claim that certain kinds of action are obligatory, permissible, impermissible, and so on, in virtue of specific, non-consequential properties of that action. They do not, however, necessarily exclude such axiological or value assessments, and complete deonto-logical assessments may require some prior axiological assessments.

Thus it might be claimed that, since some natural object has intrinsic value, it is obligatory not to destroy it. The property of being destructive of a thing with intrinsic value would, according to this ethic, be a wrong-making property; the relevant maxim or principle being 'do not destroy things which have intrinsic value.' While this maxim has about it the flavor of a consequentialist principle, the normative assessment is not carried out by calculating the loss of intrinsic value associated with the destruction of the object and figuring it into some principle of obligation, such as [... with ...] variants of consequentialism [...] - that is, a function over value. Instead, the wrongness of the act can be established without having to look beyond the fact that it involves destroying something of intrinsic value. There is, then, no suggestion that one need look to the consequences of such acts or that one ought to act in accordance with some function of the intrinsic value of the consequences of the act and that of its alternatives. There is, moreover, no suggestion that it is permissible to destroy something of lesser value in order to protect or create something of greater value, which is one reason some environmentalists have felt less unease about deontology than consequentialism. The difference is akin to the difference between a principle that enjoins us to minimize pain, which is consequentialist, and a principle that forbids us to cause pain, which is not consequentialist. Indeed it may be impermissible to act in ways that maximize, improve, or even maintain intrinsic value - for instance, in situations where the only means of doing one of these things involves the destruction of something of intrinsic value contrary to the prohibition on destroying such. There is, then, a deontological structure that would sustain a distinctively environmental normative ethic, the scope of which extends beyond human interests and concerns. Thus destroying or degrading the natural environment could be wrong because, among other things, it is an act of destroying things which possess natural intrinsic value. But the wrongness does not result from the reduction of value as such: the wrongness results from an independent non-consequentialist principle.

There are other ways of fitting a distinctively environmental ethic into a deontological structure. Theories of rights, for example, are often presented as deontological theories because they imply the proscription and prescription of acts independently of the consequences of those acts. Thus, someone's right to life might be said to result in an absolute proscription on taking that person's life, except perhaps in self-defense or in a judicial context, irrespective of the consequences. The fact that value b is increased as a consequence is not, it is often claimed, an acceptable £ justification for violating the right. Much environmental ethics might be l cast in terms of rights. Most obviously it makes sense to invoke the rights £

^ of non-human animals in objecting to the destruction of natural habitat.

¡2 But some have wanted to extend the concept of rights beyond the set of o x sentient creatures, suggesting that, in addition, plants have rights, that "o species have rights, or that ecosystems have rights. This proliferation of rights generates problems. In the first place there is the issue of whether a the extension of rights in these ways is conceptually sound (Feinberg "5 1974). Does it, for example, make sense to attribute rights to entities that ■g do not even have desires, that are not even conscious? And do we even want to suggest that non-living natural items, such as rocks or glaciers .! or rivers, could have rights?

Equally important is the practical problem of how to process and adjudicate the barrage of rights claims that would be generated by such profligate deontological ethics. The problem would be ameliorated if we could be sure that the rights in question would not conflict, but that is not at all clear even where we are focusing only on the rights of humans. In the context of extended rights theories, conflicting rights seem inevitable, with attendant problems of weighing up, balancing, and adjudicating countless apparently competing rights claims. Furthermore, the problem seems more acute for a deontological theory than a consequentialist theory because the former eschews trade-offs based on consequences. How exactly do we respect the rights of every organism? Is there a hierarchy of rights? Is there a hierarchy of rights-bearing individuals, such that, for example, the rights of humans have priority over the rights of sentient non-humans which have priority over the rights of other living things? The answer, even in theory, is not clear and the ethic that suggests the principle might therefore be thought vacuous. The prospect of vacuousness is brought out if we consider the claim, often associated with the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess's (1986) deep ecology view, that every living thing has an equal right to flourish. Life on earth is such, though, that particular organisms can flourish only if others do not. Taking the right literally seems to leave no room for action.

Some are tempted to say that the problem just sketched is the general one that affects ethical extensionism as the method for generating an environmental ethic, namely that things go awry when we focus on individual entities at too fine-grained a level. Such theorists might suggest that we should be focusing on macro-entities such as whole ecosystems or the biosphere as the pertinent rights bearers. This move might stem the proliferation of rights but it still leaves the problem of how to make sense of the claim that entities that lack consciousness or desires could have rights. Of course there is no parallel problem in the suggestion that they have intrinsic value, and so no problem in a deontological theory that prohibits the destruction of what has intrinsic value. It is odd, however, to suggest that they have rights in the sense that humans and sentient non-humans have rights. For one thing, unless an entity is conscious there seems no content to the suggestion that from its point of view things are going well or badly. And the point of rights theories seems to be to create a set of entitlements on the part of individuals that allow things to go well from an individual's point of view.

In any case, there would still be a residual ranking problem in working out the respective priorities of the rights of sentient creatures, ecosystems, and the biosphere. A simple solution would be to give absolute priority to biospheric rights. This solution would be unpalatable to many because it would demote human rights to little more than an afterthought, making human interests subservient to those of the biosphere. Perhaps, though, this is an idea that we could get used to if we are convinced of the intense ethical significance of the natural environment. While there are limits to the capacity of a deontological theory based on rights to support the moral sentiments expressed by many environmentalists, such a theory can accommodate many. Certainly, acts of environmental destruction and degradation will be wrong for human-centered and animal-centered reasons that a deontologist would likely find compelling. For example, such damage would wrongfully injure and kill non-humans and wrongfully impose costs and burdens on humans, including future humans. The attendant ethical concerns can be powerfully and coherently expressed in the language of rights.

There is a deontological theory, Kantianism, deriving from the views of the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant [...], that is similar in structure to the rights-based theories and which deserves some comment. The central tenet of Kantianism is that each person is an end in herself or himself, having a capacity for rational autonomy and therefore requiring respect as a person. The idea of respect for persons indeed might be thought to be the basis of theories of rights that, among other things, articulate and elaborate the idea of respect for persons. At first sight, Kantianism, emphasizing as it does respect for persons, might not seem to provide an amenable structure for anything much more than a human-centered environmental ethic. At least one prominent theorist, the American philosopher Paul Taylor, has, however, elaborated a normative environmental ethic with a Kantian

flavor. Taylor (1986) asks us to see all living things as autonomous, in b that, at the very least, they have biologically based goals that are defin- t itive of the kinds of organism they are and that define for them what = counts as flourishing. He suggests that just as Kantianism enjoins us to ®

^ respect the rational autonomy of persons, so too a naturalized Kantian-¡2 ism enjoins us to respect the natural autonomy of all living things. The x force of Taylor's position derives from whatever success he might have in "o convincing us that there is a useful analogy between rational autonomy and natural autonomy, and, of course, our views about the significance a of rational autonomy. And Taylor, by the way, does not seem to want "5 natural autonomy to swallow up rational autonomy, seeking instead to ■g maintain a moral distinction, with hierarchical implications, between persons and other living things.

The conceptual and proliferation problems that affected rights-based £ deontological theories are present in Taylor's theory. The analogy between rational autonomy and natural autonomy might well founder on the fact that so much of the latter involves no consciousness of preferences or desires. Although we might well see the point of allowing that non-sentient living things have a kind of autonomy, we might think the conceptual distance between the autonomy of, say, an orchid and that of a primate is too great to sustain the mooted ethical extension. Moreover, the theory runs into problems of ranking claims based on natural autonomy. How, for instance, do we adjudicate situations in which human welfare is promoted, or rational autonomy protected, at the cost of destroying entities, such as plants or microbes, that have natural autonomy? One response to these problems is to try to render Taylor's insights in a non-Kantian form. Thus we might accept that there is something ethically significant about natural autonomy but suggest that its significance is best articulated through the concept of intrinsic value. We can say that natural autonomy is a basis of intrinsic value and either plug that into a consequentialist framework or into a non-Kantian, non-rights-based deontological framework.

There is a final problem that should be sketched. Taken literally, deontological ethics apparently render impermissible actions that do not seem impermissible and that may even be obligatory. For instance, the degradation of some small area of the natural environment in order to create a firebreak may be necessary to ensure the protection of an extensive area. If what we value is wild nature, then surely it is permissible to make the firebreak even though it involves the destruction of items of value. Thus a strict deontology is likely to deliver normative conclusions that are difficult to accept. One response, not unproblem-atic, is to suggest a mixed ethic, containing both consequentialist and deontological components. If enough of value is at stake, then it may be judged permissible to act in a way that a strict deontology would proscribe. By the same token, the deontological component would act as a brake on consequentialist justifications of environmental degradation (Sylvan and Bennett 1994). [...]

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  • Casey
    What human experience does deontology focus on?
    9 years ago
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    Does deontology support animal rights?
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    Why is deontology the best approach to global environmental crisis?
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    What obligation do we have to the environmentdeontology?
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    How would a kantian view environmental issues?
    12 months ago
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    What would a deontologist say about climate change?
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