2.3 Casuistic level

At the centre of the casuistic level are tangible cases of environmental contamination or destruction, responsible methods and measures for the protection or regeneration of a polluted or destroyed environment. Primarily, these measures are of a technical kind. Practical environmental management is required, and the know-how of environmental experts (environmental engineers, technicians, etc.) is central. Although environmental ethics cannot directly contribute to the technical solutions of environmental problems, it can enquire into the sense and significance of technological measures and of their normative legitimisation. And environmental ethics can assess alternative technical solutions, where the depth of intervention, the costs and the possible unintended side-effects of the submitted solutions are different. The execution of technical measures does not take place in an ethics-free room: such actions always touch collective or individual interests or rights protected by law as well as having to take account of the different interests and claims of people involved. Who has the disadvantage? Who bears the costs? How sustainable should the effects of the intended measure be? In an ethical comparison of alternative technological conceptions or programmes, especially, conflicts can arise between anthropocentric and physiocentric perspectives. What is most worthy of protection in such a case? Which has priority: the welfare of humans or the welfare of animals and plants involved in the environmental problem?

 Furthermore, is the intended measure even appropriate, if the given environmental problem is very complex and the success of the intended measure is uncertain? Technical interventions into complex ecosystems always take place with a certain uncertainty: will the desired effects be reached or not? And will unintended (and unexpected) effects outweigh the intended outcome? The assessment of technological effects in the real world is much more difficult than the assessment of effects in an isolated laboratory. Interventions in nature are always experiments with nature, often resulting in irreversible consequences despite their aim to improve or to regenerate a contaminated environment. There is no consensus among environmental ethicists about the significance of the respective economic or ecological methods for managing environmental problems: in particular, ecology is, for many environmental ethicists, a ‘weaker’ science with little predictive power. They do not believe that it is possible to evaluate achieved effects in an adequate quantitative (financial) manner: for example, how can we estimate the costs of an extinguished insect species in the Amazonian rain forest? Is it possible and sensible to calculate such damage in a monetary form?

Even the question of what exactly the supposed environmental problem is and how urgent its solution, may require environmental ethical considerations. This question goes beyond pure technical aspects and relates to normative aspects. And normative questions are always also ethical questions. And what is ‘good practice’ in environmental management anyway? Before conducting a risk-analysis we have to clarify in a normative way, what a real risk is and whether there is a real risk in the given case (this is a question of risk perception). Using the same consideration we have to make a cost–benefit analysis: we have to know, what values are involved and to what extent we are willing to pay for the conservation or re-creation of a polluted or damaged environment. How valuable is ‘intact nature’ for society? In addition, the ranking of the values involved has to be established before we take any measures. According to which normative criteria do we characterise ‘values of nature’? In a utilitarian manner, related to its possible use for humans? Or deontologically, related to an inherent or intrinsic value of nature? At this point we have returned to those questions of environmental ethics that we have already touched on at the philosophical level.

 Moreover, the question of what is a good aim for environmental protection or how we can recognise the success of a measure taken is often neither scientifically nor ethically easy to answer. Some environmental ethicists (coming from the concept of ecosystems) think that the balance of nature—its maintenance or restitution—should be the main goal of environment or nature protection. But it is often unclear when we can speak of a resilient and equilibrated system and how exactly we can determine the limits of the load capacity of an existing natural system (e.g. the global climate or a coral reef). Some could argue that certain disequilibria and instabilities that take place within nature are even desirable, because they are sources for change and evolution. Instabilities could even be the ‘motor’ of evolution; so long-term robust ecosystems are only exceptions within nature.

On the other hand, it is important for environmental ethicists to know which scientific and technical means (methods, tools, etc.) are at their disposal for purposes of environment protection. How far is it possible to determine the specific character of a given environmental problem and to assess the success of a measure taken in this field? It makes little sense, if we postulate ethically that all people have a right to clean drinking water but we do not have reliable methods to measure the quality of water and to determine and control threshold value for acceptable levels of chemicals. The fulfilment of ethical demands depends on the usability of methods of technical environment protection. Ethical norms often have to be translated into technical controllable norms (such as threshold values) to achieve practical relevance. Thus there is a controversy among environmental ethicists on how far environmental ethics should become scientific. In any case, modern environmental ethics does not ignore either the results of scientific ecology or the technological potentiality of practical environment protection.

As applied ethics, environmental ethics relies on the results of the empirical sciences; otherwise environmental ethics cannot formulate realistic demands and perspectives. Although, under an old philosophical principle, it is not allowable to deduce normative demands (duties) from being (existence) because ethical principles always precede empiricism, the practical success of environmental ethics depends on scientific knowledge: obviously it is not acceptable to decide only intuitively which the natural entities count as ‘moral agents’ to the ‘moral community’ and which do not. So we need a biological examination to recognise whether, for example, an eelworm has a nervous system and might be sentient and therefore—from a pathocentric perspective—worthy of protection. Also the question of what factors are responsible, and to what extent, for changes to the earth climate needs to be clarified by a detailed analysis of all processes playing a role in the climate change, before the true delinquents can be named and made accountable. But in the forefront of this analysis, environmental ethics can already point to possible risks and causes; moreover, environmental ethicists can demand scientific examinations and preach caution about current emissions. In this case they can refer to the obligation to maintain favourable life conditions for all people and other living beings. Confronted with a situation of unclear causation it is an ethical command to cut back the quantity of anthropogenic emissions for preventive reasons. Nevertheless environmental political and legal decisions need for their legitimisation not only ethical demands and doubts, but also scientific expertise and efficient means of technical environment protection.

Environmental ethics is undoubtedly of great importance in determining our relationship with nature and our behaviour towards it. In addition to internal struggles about what is the right position from a practical viewpoint, environmental ethics has to be based on the fundamental ideas of justice for all living beings worthy of protection and of ecological sustainability. Environmental ethics has the task of developing models (general orientations) in certain directions: (a) a model of sustainability, especially for resource ethics, (b) a model of species-appropriate handling for animal ethics, and (c) a model of intact nature in the area of ethics of nature. Environmental ethics provides the basis for environmental education. On the philosophical level environmental ethics offers reasons and arguments for distinct areas of environmental action on the political–legal and casuistic levels. Therefore environmental ethics is, and remains, a persistent challenge to modern society, because environmental ethics pleads emphatically for a cautious and ethical sensitive coexistence with nature.

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