04 October 2006

James Griffin on Environmental Ethics

The history of ethics is a history of successive extensions of the boundaries of concern—from family to community, from community to humanity, from humanity to animals. What is now being attempted is a further extension to the environment. Will environmental ethics always see itself as constrained to find a link to someone’s interests? Our obligations to individual animals, as bearers of interests, tell us nothing about the respect that we may owe to their species—or, in general, to the environment. Environmental ethics is itself in its infancy, and may develop in either of two ways. We may be able to develop it by developing the resources of an already established ethical tradition. Or we may find that the problems it presents are so discontinuous with the concerns that shaped older ethics that we must develop quite new concepts, which would then have in some way to be tied in with our old ones. There have been distinguished attempts to follow the first course, but my guess is that in the end we shall have to follow the second. I suspect that we should see environmental ethics as a search for responses that are ‘fitting’ or ‘appropriate’. There are things in the environment—a virgin forest, say, or the ecosystem of a coral reef—to which the appropriate response is awe or wonder, and the appropriate behaviour is the behaviour that awe and wonder prompt. That there need be no interests at stake does not mean that there are no appropriate or inappropriate actions. It is probably better to speak, though, in terms of appropriate and inappropriate actions rather than in terms of forests’ having ‘rights’ and humans’ having ‘duties’ to them.

(James Griffin, Value Judgement: Improving Our Ethical Beliefs [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996], 126-7 [endnotes omitted])

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