Comparing Life-Centered & Human-Centered Environmental Ethics

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  • 0:01 Environmental Ethics
  • 1:00 Life-Centered…
  • 3:08 Human-Centered…
  • 5:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The moral relationship between humans and the environment is an important one. In this lesson, explore two of the main beliefs in this field, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Environmental Ethics

I love camping. Who doesn't? There's just something so wonderful about getting back to nature for a bit. But why is that? Is it because I am deeply, spiritually, and biologically connected to nature? Am I driven by universal moral obligations to respect the environment? Or, am I relaxed in nature because I am confident that the tools and gadgets in my backpack can overcome the natural world?

These are the sorts of questions asked by the field of environmental ethics, the philosophical study of the moral relationship between humans and the environment. According to this branch of ethics, we have specific moral duties to and with the natural world. However, philosophers disagree on what exactly those are, and what exactly our relationship with nature is. And here I just wanted to go camping for the s'mores.

Life-Centered Environmental Ethics

There are two major sides to the debate on environmental ethics. On one side of the campfire, we've got those who claim that human beings have a moral duty to nature for the sake of nature itself. This is the life-centered side of environmental ethics. The basic idea is that all life is inherently worthy and that it is only together that we create a complete, healthy, and functioning community of living things. This means that we don't have a moral duty to the natural world because it will benefit us. We simply have a moral duty to nature for its own sake. Therefore, we are morally obligated to protect the natural world and to promote the well-being of all living things.

The life-centered approach to environmental ethics comes with a few important ideas. First is the idea of inherent worth, which states, simply enough, that all living things have intrinsic value, and we are morally obligated to respect that value. This is one of the core beliefs in life-centered ethics. Our moral duty to nature is based in its inherent worth, not in the specific benefit to us as a species.

However, not only are we obligated to respect the value of living things, but we are morally obligated to act in ways that allow living things to perform their inherent value. Basically, let it do what it was made for. Let spiders make webs and eat mosquitoes, let birds fly, let sea sponges…do whatever they do. You don't necessarily need to understand it; you just need to respect it.

Life-centered environmental ethics recognizes that humans are part of nature, forged by the same evolutionary processes and made of the same basic sequences of carbons and proteins as everything else. It's all one big system, and we're just one small part.

Human-Centered Environmental Ethics

Well, that's one side of the debate. The other side of this is that the moral relationship between humans and the environment is framed by human needs first. This is the human-centered approach to environmental ethics. The scale of this argument ranges from the belief that humans have greater intrinsic value than nature to the belief that only humans have intrinsic value.

According to this approach, at the end of the day, humans are what matter. Our relationship with nature, therefore, is defined by the needs of our species. Why is it okay to damage an ecosystem to drill for minerals? Why is it okay to cut down trees so that we can build homes? Why is it okay to kill predators that are eating our livestock? Because human life has the greatest intrinsic value, and the preservation of human life is always moral.

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