Environmental Ethics

Environmental ethics is the field dedicated to understanding human responsibilities with regard to the natural environment. Some approaches to environmental ethics apply standard philosophical theories (e.g., utilitarianism and rights-based approaches) to environmental issues. Other approaches have sought to develop entirely new theoretical frameworks, such as “deep ecology” and “eco-feminism.”

A key debate within the field of environmental ethics concerns whether our concern for the environment should be anthropocentric or ecocentric. The anthropocentric, or human-centred, point of view argues that the environment should be protected because humans depend on the environment for their survival. The eco-centric, or nature-centred, point of view argues instead that the environment should be protected because it is ethically valuable in its own right, independent of human interests.

As it applies to the world of business, environmental ethics is centrally concerned with the impact that a company’s activities have upon the natural world. In particular, it asks what obligations a company (or its owners and managers) has with regard to the natural environment. For example, it concerns questions such as how much pollution is acceptable. Given that it is all but impossible to avoid pollution altogether, how much is too much? What responsibility do companies (or their owners and managers) have to use resources in a way that makes sure sufficient resources are available for future generations?

Questions also arise about the motivation for corporate attention to environmental concerns. Some have pointed out that there can be a strong ‘business case’ for environmental conservation. That is, they suggest it makes good business or economic sense, either from a societal point of view or from the point of view of an individual company, to take care of the environment. Others point out that environmental degradation can often, regrettably, be profitable, since the polluting company gains all the benefits of its pollution, but everyone shares in the costs.

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