1. Three areas of environmental ethics

Ethical reflection is an essential part of practical philosophy. It tries to give answers to the question ‘What should we do?’ Ethics aims to provide a normative orientation for human action. The relation between the actors is of particular importance: in accordance with which underlying criteria shall the interaction between people take place? Further: how is a given situation to be assessed, in order to behave in an ethically correct manner? Universal ethics (as, e.g., Immanuel Kant defines it) proceeds on the assumption that all moral subjects are axiomatically coequal and therefore are to be treated according to the same criteria. Social distinctions are therefore basically irrelevant: from the standpoint of ethics, which lays universal claim to validation, all human (rational) subjects are of the same value. Therefore, the acts of all humans are to be subject to the same criteria and ‘moral imperatives’. Thus, for example, lying is forbidden without exception for all human subjects. ‘White’ lies might be acceptable under certain circumstances, but sanction can never be given to untruthfulness in principal. What applies to one person applies to any other person as well. Whoever wants to be acknowledged by another person as a moral being, and wants to be treated in a just way, has to be willing on his or her part to accept the morality and dignity of any other person and treat him or her with justice (principle of equality and principle of reciprocity). Without these principles there would be no general human rights, and democratic societies would not be legitimised.

In general, ethics examines what is valuable in individual and social life, in relation to the world, in so far as ethical behaviour always consists of implementing ethical values. At the outset it may not be evident exactly which values are valid for all people (or ethical beings) and how in detail justice can prevail among people (what exactly is meant by ‘distributive justice’ or ‘justice of performance’?). Nevertheless there are certain ethical principles the globalised world cannot forgo, if it wants to live in peace: for this the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the foundation. Certain ethical values in mind-set and behaviour are necessary in order to lay down binding rules for a harmonious social, political, economic and cultural intercourse of people and nations and to be able to maintain it permanently. Yet how certain core values such as freedom, equality and solidarity are to be interpreted needs to be negotiated frequently on an interpersonal, intercultural and international level. In interpreting even such high-ranking values as human rights, conflicts of interest and values arise, as happens when the world-view of different people is affected by different religious, ethnic and political viewpoints that are not compatible. And there may be different reasons lying behind the same values when people come from different philosophical and ideological backgrounds. This can lead to different priorities of the values (within the hierarchy of values) and consequences for behaviour; so, for example, the value ‘solidarity’ is presented differently from a utilitarian position than from a Kantian or a Christian viewpoint.

A special problem in applying values originates when it is not really clear what belongs to the ‘ethical universe’. Environmental ethics has this application problem. Environmental ethics is an ethics of application. Its worth depends on whether moral intrinsic value is attached to the environment of the human society—that is, nature—or not. It is indisputable that nature is valuable for humans; but does nature own, as a whole, a value in itself, or do certain natural entities hold a value in themselves, as is considered to be the case for people? In other words, does nature—or do natural beings—own an intrinsic (absolute) value or only a relative (derived) value in relation to the good of humans (individuals or society as a whole)? Many environmental ethicists are of the opinion that such an autonomous value needs to be conferred on certain beings in the natural environment of humans, which has to be respected in our relations with them. Later we will amplify the different reasons for such an extension of the ‘moral community’ to nature.

Even though if one confines oneself to ascribing an indirect value to nature that only exists in relation to humans and their needs and interests, environmental ethics poses a challenge to the ethical, political and economic behaviour of people towards their natural environment. It constitutes a field with new forms of evaluation: for example, how one should proceed with scarce natural resources (e.g. fossil fuels), of which unconsidered waste can lead to a crisis for future generations. The interest in an immediate use comes into conflict with the interest in provisions for the future. We will return to that.