03: Philosophical Underpinnings (old)

This module draws on the traditions of environmental ethics (Taylor 1986), bioethics/biomedical ethics (e.g. The President's Council on Biomedical Ethics 2006), and basic responsible conduct of research (Shamoo & Resnik 2003). However, we focus primarily on the enterprise of research conducted in nature. Our ethical framework aligns most closely with the concept of "ecological ethics" as defined by Minteer & Collins (2005a, 2005b), which include elements from the four domains of environmental ethics, but we expand that concept to incorporate the ideas of Farnsworth & Rosovsky (1993), Marsh & Kenchington (2004), and some of our own.

The first three domains referred to by Minteer & Collins (2005a, 2005b) have been developed in great detail elsewhere and we will not attempt to cover them thoroughly in this module. We hope that you will have already had some exposure to normative ethical theory, examples of which are the deontological theory of Immanuel Kant (conduct guided by moral principles) and the utilitarian theory of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (conduct guided by outcomes that provide the greatest good for the greatest number).

In considering contributions from environmental ethics to the developing field of ecological ethics, we have been particularly influenced by Taylor's (1986) biocentric theory. Taylor (1986) suggests that humans should move from a human-centered to a broader, life-centered approach to environmental ethics. Indeed, Taylor (1986) argues that there are really two kinds of environmental ethics, one anthropocentric (based on respect for and duties owed to humans), the other biocentric (based on respect for and duties owed to all living things). Although Taylor (1986) rejects the anthropocentric perspective as the basis for environmental ethics, we will still identify cases where right behavior can be justified solely from an anthropocentric basis. Taylor’s (1986) main thesis is that, just as humans have moral duties toward other human beings, humans also have moral duties toward nonhuman forms of life. In particular, he argues that these nonhuman forms of life are to be treated with respect because they are entities that possess inherent worth. Further, while nonhuman organisms may or may not be moral agents, Taylor (1986) argues that "all living organisms as well as certain groups of organisms" are moral subjects and that "moral subjects are entities that have a good of their own." In other words, "animals and plants are creatures whose lives can intentionally be made better or worse by our conduct" (Taylor 1986). Taylor’s (1986) biocentric position makes both conceptual and normative claims that we have duties and obligations to fulfill toward plants and animals because of their status as moral subjects. Taylor (1986) does not make a similar claim for inanimate objects, but does note that we have duties to behave in certain ways relative to such inanimate objects because of duties we must fulfill to the moral subjects affected by such inanimate objects. Thus we should refrain from polluting a river because this would harm the organisms that live in the river.

Author: Dr. Thomas R. Wentworth and Ms. Kristen Rosenfeld
Maintained By: Gary Comstock
Last Updated: 2008-08-12