Environmental Ethics

Steven G. Smith
Christian Center 11 – office hours posted
Home phone 601-354 2290

Philosophy 2120
Fall 2012

A specter is haunting the planet—the specter of ecocide.
—Ashley Dawson

In recent years, pollution and resource exhaustion threats, climate change, and the disappearance of plant and animal types have reached dramatic levels, making environmental ethics a prominent concern for informed citizens. But what does “environmental ethics” actually involve? This is deeply controversial and requires careful thought.

As for the “environmental” part: is it even proper to think of everything other than us, we who are having this discussion, as merely our “environment”? Mightn’t that be part of an important underlying problem, that we fail to appreciate how nonhuman beings are connected with “us” and instead treat everything nonhuman as mere material for doing our own stuff? But if, as a corrective, we want to think of ourselves as “part of nature,” how can we best understand “nature” and the “natural”? To what extent should we be guided by scientific ecology? To what extent should we take our cues from nonindustrial cultures? Or from the enchantments of childhood?

As for the “ethics” part: How do you adequately justify a course of action? Perhaps not always in the same way. It may depend on what sort of action you’re justifying and who you’re justifying it to. What happens to ethics when nonhuman beings are touchstones of justification? We will take a fresh look at major ethical approaches to gain a better sense of how ethical principles are properly used in our deliberations on what to do in relation to the natural world.

The course grade will be based on class participation and homework (25%), a take-home mid-term essay exam (20%), an Environmental Ethics Project (30%), and a take-home final essay exam (25%).

The required book for the course is Louis P. Pojman & Paul Pojman, eds., Environmental Ethics, 6th ed. Additional assigned reading will be in handouts or online.

subject to change by announcement

Aug. 21 (Tuesday 10:00) Introduction to course.

Aug. 22 (Wednesday 12:00) Introduction to course, cont.
The concept of anthropocentrism.
WRITE: On positive and negative implications of anthropocentrism

Aug. 24 (Friday 8:00) Approaches to ethics: Hill’s virtue perspective
READ: Hill, essay #2 in Environmental Ethics

Aug. 27 Approaches to ethics: Kant’s duty imperative
READ: Kant and Wilson, #4-5

Aug. 29 Approaches to ethics: Singer’s utilitarianism
READ: Singer, #6

Aug. 31 Approaches to ethics: Regan’s rights perspective
READ: Regan, #7


Sept. 5 Critique of Regan.
READ: M. J. Warren, #8

Sept. 7 Approaches to ethics: Schweitzer’s reverence for life.
READ: Schweitzer, #22

Sept. 10 The biophilia hypothesis.
READ: Kellert (handout)

Sept. 12 Why save species?
READ: Russow, #21

Sept. 14 The ethics of having pets.
READ: Midgley (handout)

Sept. 17 The ethics of sport hunting.
READ: Vitali (handout)

Sept. 19 Hunting as cultural heritage.

Sept. 21 Assumptions about nature: Mill’s classic progressive view
READ: Mill, #12

Sept. 24 Assumptions about nature: Leopold on the biotic community
READ: Leopold, #24

Sept. 26 Assessment of Leopold’s land ethic.
READ: Callicott, #25

Sept. 28 Rolston on intrinsic value.
READ: Rolston, #10

Oct. 1 Issues in Rolston’s value theory.
READ: Hettinger, #11

Oct. 3 Deep ecology.
READ: Naess, #14-15

Oct. 5 A critique of deep ecology.
READ: Watson, #17

Oct. 8 Human population size as an ethical issue.
READ: McKibben, #27

Oct. 10 Population, cont.
READ: Hardin, #28

Oct. 12 Critique of Hardin.
READ: Kasun, #29


Oct. 17 Eating and ecology
READ: Engel, #36

Oct. 19 Vegetarianism
READ: Fox, #38

Oct. 22 Genetically engineered food
READ: Rauch, #39

Oct. 24 Climate change and food
READ: The ETC report, #41

Oct. 26 More climate change issues
READ: Gardiner, #44

Oct. 29 Climate change, cont.
READ: Gardiner, cont.

Oct. 31 Optimal pollution?
READ: Bradford and Baxter, chaps. 33-34

Nov. 2 Environmental and social justice: ecofeminism.
READ: Griffin (handout)

Nov. 5 Environmental and social justice: ecofeminism, cont.
READ: K. Warren, #57

Nov. 7 Environmental and social justice: race and class issues.
READ: Wenz, #51

Nov. 9 Environmental and social justice: indigenous perspectives.
READ: Robyn, #55

Nov. 12 Capitalism and the environment: a contemporary progressive view.
READ: Cobb, #68

Nov. 14 Capitalism and the environment: a Marxist view.
READ: Magdoff and Foster, #69

Nov. 16 Capitalism and the environment: a middle way?
READ: Schweickart, #70

Nov. 19 NO CLASS (instructor at conference)



Nov. 26 Project reports and further applications.

Nov. 28 Project reports and further applications.

Nov. 30 Project reports and further applications.

Dec. 3 Project reports and further applications.

Final exam due Dec. 10. Final Project revision due Dec. 11.


Short homework writings will be assigned occasionally, more or less weekly. They will be graded minus, check, or plus depending on how carefully they are done. (Are they responsive to the prompt and/or reading? Are they clearly expressed? Are they well and truly pondered?)


In consultation with the instructor, you will deal with an appropriately focused topic. Browsing articles in the field (even just titles and abstracts in Philosopher’s Index) will give you a good feel for setting the scope of your topic. Your emphasis can be either “pure,” focusing on an issue of philosophical theory, or “applied,” where you try to establish some part of an ethically informed solution of a practical difficulty faced by human society. Either way, you will combine (1) a philosophical Argument with (2) some Documentation of a relevant state of affairs in the world.

(1) The Argument part of your Project will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words in length. That’s roughly 7-10 typed pages.

Since you are writing as a philosopher you will pay special attention to the constituents of your argument and how they go together. You will be explicit about the principles that justify your claims and how the principles themselves are justified. You will build on this kind of foundation:

Unnecessary destruction of innocent life is wrong. (An argument’s major premise is its governing principle, a plausible claim about what generally holds)
Killing animals to feed humans is unnecessary destruction of innocent life.
(An argument’s minor premise ties a particular matter of interest in with the general principle)
Therefore, killing animals to feed humans is wrong. (Conclusion)

Notice that this argument appears to be logically valid: the conclusion does follow from the premises. Whether it is sound, however, is debatable. Obviously further arguments are needed to explain and defend the premises. But in any case they should be stated so that we can see clearly what’s at issue.

You will also give explicit attention to some of the most significant objections that can be made to your reasoning. Within your space limitations you will lay out objections and your replies to them as fully as possible.

(2) No matter what position you are arguing for, there will be some evidence in the world that is relevant to it, possibly even crucial. For example, if you are claiming that killing animals to feed humans is (contrary to the above argument) necessary, your argument depends on the support of certain facts about human needs. For the Documentation part of your project you will go beyond merely stipulating such facts or taking them from someone else’s convenient summary; you will look into the matter (you might interview several vegetarians, for example, or do a mini-research paper on a certain nutritional element) and present your findings in 500 to 1,000 words.

You will have an opportunity to revise this Project, but don’t turn it in as a rough draft. It is expected to have a fully developed Argument and relevant Documentation, to be free of writing and typography errors, and to employ correct citation with a complete bibliography.


Journal articles in Environmental Ethics and other philosophy journals are helpfully indexed in Philosopher’s Index, which you can access under Databases on the Millsaps library website. If a relevant article isn’t in a journal Millsaps subscribes to, you can usually order it through Inter-Library Loan with just a few clicks of a button and get it in just a day or two.

The literature on environmental ethics is now very large, but I list below a few key works. I include some enlightening books on the history of thought about nature. Either the Millsaps library has them or I have them.

J. Baird Callicott, Beyond the Land Ethic. Albany: SUNY, 1999. Callicott is a leader in the new discipline of environmental ethics.
Peter Coates, Nature. Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times. Berkeley: U. of California, 1998.
Michael Allen Fox, The Case for Animal Experimentation. Berkeley: U. of California, 1986.
Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. Powerful mixture of poetry and analysis; pioneering work of ecofeminism.
Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World. New York: Columbia U., 2005. Anthropological survey from a religious studies perspective.
Peter Hay, Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought. Bloomington: Indiana U., 2002.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac. Charter document for the “land ethic” and ecocentrism. Charmingly written, too.
Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. More straightforward and scholarly than Griffin, but similar in thrust.
Mary Midgley, Animals and Why They Matter. Interesting argument for a “mixed species” way of life as natural for humans.
Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th ed. New Haven: Yale U., 2001. Useful survey of literature.
Val Plumwood. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge, 2002. Very smart assessment of many interrelated issues by a leading Australian philosopher-activist. Criticizes “centrism” of all sorts.
Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U. of California, 2004.
Holmes L. Rolston III, Environmental Ethics. Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia: Temple U., 1988.
Peter Singer, Animal Liberation. 3rd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Christopher D. Stone, Earth and Other Ethics. The Case for Moral Pluralism. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
Paul Taylor, Respect for Nature. Princeton: Princeton U., 1986.
Gary E. Varner, In Nature’s Interests? Interests, Animal Rights, and Environmental Ethics. New York: Oxford U., 1998.

The Animals Reader, ed. Linda Kalof & Amy Fitzgerald. Oxford: Berg, 2007.
The Biophilia Hypothesis, ed. Stephen R. Kellert & Edward O. Wilson. Washington: Island, 1993.
Deep Ecology for the Twenty-First Century, ed. George Sessions. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.
Ecofeminism: Women, Culture, Nature, ed. Karen J. Warren. Bloomington: Indiana U., 1997.
This Sacred Earth, ed. Roger Gottlieb. Broad range of arguments with religious points of reference.

Manufactured Landscapes, Edward Burtynsky (2006)
Avatar, dir. James Cameron (2009)
Koyaanisqatsi (Life Out Of Balance), dir. Godfrey Reggio (1982)
Reggio has a new one coming out this year: The Holy See http://forum.timescapes.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=8423
Princess Mononoke, dir. Hayao Miyazaki (1997)


1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.
One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the fourth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 8 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

3. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.

4. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarized work will receive no credit and will be referred to the college Honor Council.

5. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

6. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should register with Patrick Cooper (coopeap@millsaps.edu, extension 1228) and then discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.