Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Environmental Ethics

The Gaia Hypothesis (eco-holism)

James Lovelock argues that we are part of planet earth and not masters of it. He argued for the existence of 'Gaia' - a self-regulating living system which controls the earth and keeps everything constant. Lovelock says that Gaia keeps the planet at a constant state of management, and lists two examples to support this:

  • if there was any less than 12% oxygen in the atmosphere, fires couldn't burn
  • the salt level in seas has remained at 3.4% for millions of years
Lovelock says we shouldn't be anthropocentric (focussing solely on ourselves) but biocentric, and says that Gaia restores balance to the imbalance caused by humans.

The earth is, Lovelock states, a holistic system (a 'whole'). Gaia possesses the power to change everything. 

Deep Ecology

Deep ecologists argue that human life is just one part of the ecosphere. Arne Naess is a big name in terms of deep ecology, and refers to it as
"a philosophy of ecological harmony"
Leopold also comes along and says that something is good if it preserves
 "integrity, stability and beauty"
Naess argues that every living thing has a right to flourish. He criticises the Christian view of dominion, simply calling it
George Sessions also argues for deep ecology, and puts forward an 8-point manifesto in favour of it. The points are as follows:

  1. all life has intrinsic value 
  2. diversity creates well-being of all
  3. humans must protect this responsibility
  4. human impact on the environment is excessive
  5. lifestyle and population change are critical
  6. human impact must be reduced
  7. political and economic systems must change
  8. those who accept the above must commit to peaceful change
Obviously not all of these points need to be remembered for the exam. The main ones are probably 1 (which you can argue against), 4, 6 and 8.

Peter Singer, despite coming more broadly under the shallow ecology umbrella, argues that World Heritage wilderness should be preserved, which is a view similar to that of a deep ecologist. He says there is beauty in certain areas of wilderness which should be cared for.

Deep ecologists do, however, accept that the richness and diversity of the planet can be reduced if it is vital to human needs.

Modern examples of deep ecology groups are the Green Movement and the Green Party - the first Green Party member became a member of parliament in 2010 for Brighton - this possibly suggests that deep ecology is not necessarily an outdated belief.

Of course, deep ecology isn't without its weaknesses. The main ones are as follows:

  • for something to have rights, it must have reasons for existence - do plants have their own reason for existence? Our reason for their existence is for oxygen and food - but do they have reasons of their own?
  • deep ecology is arguably misanthropic (human-hating) and discourages a growing population 
    • however, deep ecologists would argue that by decreasing the population, the value of each individual increases
  • if followed to the extreme, deep ecology could lead to the destruction of the human race
    • this is a stupid weakness - attack it in an exam for being hyperbolic/far-fetched
  • Earth summits such as Kyoto have proved not to be very effective, raising questions about the practicality of Sessions's 8-point manifesto

Shallow Ecology

Shallow ecology is a little more anthropocentric. Shallow ecologists argue that the environment is a means for human flourishing; however, they accept that the environment provides happiness and benefits humanity, so it must be preserved. 

Animals and plants have instrumental value alone - that is to say their only value is to help humanity flourish. This is the main reason why Peter Singer isn't necessarily a shallow ecologist (he describes himself as in-between deep and shallow); Singer, as a benefit utilitarian, argues that animals have intrinsic value.

Shallow ecologists argue that something is only valuable if we perceive it to be so. 

Kant may have an issue with shallow ecology; he may argue that using the environment as a means for human flourishing is an example of using means to an end.

Peter Singer

Singer has a lot to say on the environment, but deserves his own section seeing as he doesn't properly fit into either deep or shallow ecology...

As he rattles on about in AS ethics, Singer is against speciesism because
"speciesism draws an arbitrary line."
He cites the example of animal experimentation for cosmetics etc. and argues that animals suffer pain for relatively small human benefit.

He uses the example of an antelope and human caught in a trap. If you're walking in the woods with your close friend, Singer supposes, and your friend gets caught in an animal trap, you would obviously go to help him/her. However, if you notice there is also a nearby antelope caught in the trap, who should you help? Many of us would be inclined to help our friend, but Singer would free the antelope first. He argues that humans can reason, so you'd be able to reassure your friend you're going to help them first, whereas the antelope cannot reason and so would arguably suffer more pain as a sentient being.

He simply sums up his beliefs in an easy-to-remember quote:
"I don't think ethics is only for humans."
Rather than being anthropocentric, it is perhaps more accurate to describe Singer as sentient being centred.

Singer also criticises the Christian approach towards the environment. He argues that the concept of dominion has harmed the world significantly, but does not criticise the later view of stewardship.

Singer is also up for preserving wilderness so long as it maximises human welfare.


There are several different Christian views on the environment...

St. Francis of Assisi spoke of creation spirituality - the notion that we are at one with nature. Francis felt so at one with nature that he referred to the moon as 'sister' and the sun as 'brother'. He loved nature that much he even spoke to trees (apparently they get quite lonely).

Matthew Fox is similar, and argues for panentheism. Panentheism is the belief that God is within everything. When anything alters, Fox argues, God also alters.

Fox criticised Augustine's views on natural evil and states that the suffering of nature is present because mankind is alienated from nature.

In order to breach the gap between humanity and nature, Fox said we should 'befriend' nature and treat it as a gift. He also said we should befriend darkness, by which he meant non-human pain - the pain of animals, plants and the earth. He also urged us to befriend the divine potential within ourselves.

Osborne argued that we need to "de-divine" nature and take God out of it as a concept. He advocated dominion but stated that dominion isn't the same as domination. Osborne believed mankind should have a covenant (contract) with nature.

He also spoke of concurrence: the belief that God works with every event without compromising human freedom. He deduced that we should participate with God in the development of the natural world.

Biblical views

Obviously this comes under Christian views - it just helps to separate the two.

The conflict between dominion (power over nature) and stewardship (care for nature) is often an issue with Biblical readings.

An example of stewardship is the notion of Adam and Eve being made to look after Eden in Genesis. However, the act of God naming the animals and giving plants for food suggests dominion is a more apt approach. It's fair to say that nowadays stewardship is more common, whereas hundreds of years ago dominion was favoured. Many Christians urge for a balance between the two.

The Church of England states that we should do the following to help the environment:

  • be economic in our use of energy resources
  • control damage done to flora and fauna (plants and animals)
  • minimise population (a similarity to deep ecology) in order to reach sustainable harmony
A more bizarre Biblical theory on the environment is Rapture Theology - the belief that if Jesus will rise again and the world will be destroyed, it's pointless worrying about the environment. Probably the laziest religious theory out there.

Kantian ethics

Kant has made his views quite clear, saying

"animals are there merely as a means to an end."
We should, of course, treat everything as an end in itself. This also applies to humans destroying the environment for our own benefit - Kant wouldn't agree.

Similarly, modern Kantian Stephen Clark argues that respect for humans should be extended to respecting animals too.


Singer's benefit utilitarian views have already been covered, and form the main bulk of how you can discuss utilitarianism and the environment.

Act utiliarian Jeremy Bentham challenges the suffering of animals, asking
"not can they reason, nor can they talk but can they suffer?"
Utilitarian professor Steven Rose also criticises head transplantation, bluntly stating
"I cannot see any medical grounds for doing this."

Natural Law

Aquinas simply doesn't care. The following quotes pretty much sum up his whole argument:
"it matters not how man behaves to animals."
"the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for men."

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics, being agent-centred, often takes the shallow ecology view.

Aristotle could be described as being something of a shallow ecologist and sees the value of animals as instrumental alone, stating
"natures has made all animals for the sake of men."


Environmental ethics often goes hand-in-hand with business ethics, and there have been exam questions on the two together before.

Mentioning earth summits, sustainability and corporate social responsibility are good ideas. Examples from the business side of the course may come in handy, such as the leakages in the Bhopal river. You can also bring in how virtue ethics/Christian/Kantian/utilitarian approaches to business may affect the environment.


  1. What is a simple definition of deep ecology?

    1. an environmental movement and philosophy which regards human life as just one of many equal components of a global ecosystem.