2.2 Political–legal level

On this level we are dealing with the definition of collective, binding, normative regulations and aims for political actions (e.g. environmental-quality goals). Every definition of this kind presupposes certain environmental attitudes and other political decisions in the past. All relevant environmental aims and programmes are decided and set in force by political organs such as governments, parliaments and public administrations. The most important instrument in this process is the existing environmental law. Environmental law combines ethical principles and the results of political decision-making in the form of laws and other ordinances that are obligatory for all citizens of a state. The coverage of legal directives is normally extensive: not only strict binding laws but also guidelines, quotas and standards may be defined. Within the context of political–legal regulation, environmental consulting can help to weigh different individual and collective claims and rights to use environmental resources and media (such as water, soil or air). To what extent has an industrial entrepreneur the right to free use without contamination of water or soil? How far can liberal societies restrain individual rights in favour of communal rights? Under what conditions can the claim of protecting the workplace and the societal claim of conserving an intact and healthy environment live in harmony? More generally, how can we harmonise a consistent environment policy with legitimate economic interests? How is it possible to achieve long-term environmental political aims of sustainability (e.g. concerning the consumption of fossil fuels or other raw materials) and short-term interests of private profit?

Environmental ethics can contribute to making environment policies efficient and to raising public awareness and consciousness. For example, the environmental ethicist may leave inner academic circles and intervene in the public debate about the definition of climate goals, the rescue of tropical rainforests or fish stocks in the oceans, or about the problem of ‘environmental justice’ (the disadvantage or discrimination of marginal groups in their own society or of people in the developing world). In particular, the skills of environmental ethicists are required to determine environmental aims, quality standards and limits of reasonability, because in these cases the qualitative dimension of environmental political and legal decisions is affected. An adequate determination of the relationship between people and society on the one hand and nature on the other is an essential precondition for regulating behaviour towards the natural environment, because environmental ethics provides the arguments to legitimise our behaviour as acceptable.