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1.5: Environmental Ethics

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    The concept of ethics involves standards of conduct. These standards help to distinguish between behavior that is considered right and that which is considered wrong. As we all know, it is not always easy to distinguish between right and wrong, as there is no universal code of ethics. For example, a poor farmer clears an area of rainforest in order to grow crops. Some would not oppose this action, because the act allows the farmer to provide a livelihood for his family. Others would oppose the action, claiming that the deforestation will contribute to soil erosion and global warming. Right and wrong are usually determined by an individual's morals, and to change the ethics of an entire society, it is necessary to change the individual ethics of a majority of the people in that society.

    Moral extensionism defines how far a persons values extend outside of themselves (Figure 1.5.1). There are many variables that can influence where the limit lies for each individual person. For example: religion, culture, education, and personal interests (just to name a few).

    Scope of consideration for moral extensionism from me, to family, to humanity, to wildlife, to habitats, to the world
    Figure 1.5.1: Scope of consideration for moral extensionism. Image by Rachel Schleiger (CC-BY-NC).

    Most human societies today aim to protect biodiversity through rules and regulations. An alternative approach is to change the fundamental materialistic values of modern society to values that prioritize genuine and lasting human well-being. This is the goal of environmental ethics, a discipline within philosophy that emphasizes the ethical values of biodiversity. The foundation of environmental ethics lies in the philosophical principle that every organism of Earth has a right to exist, regardless of its usefulness to humans, so any action that negatively impacts biodiversity would be considered unethical.

    Because human quality of life is intricately linked to the ability of the natural world to prosper, the ethical arguments for biodiversity conservation hold even for people who value only human life. Or, in other words, respect for human life—even our instincts for self-preservation—should compel us to preserve biodiversity. In contrast, if we neglect our assumed responsibility to act as guardians of life on Earth, future generations will suffer with a lower quality of life. We can already see signs of this today: as species are lost and natural ecosystems replaced with sprawling cities, children are increasingly deprived of the wonderful experience of seeing a ‘new’ animal (Figure 1.4.1) or pretty flower. We can imagine that we are borrowing Earth from future generations, and that it is our responsibility to ensure that they receive it in good condition.

    Figure 1.4.1 A ragged-tooth shark (Carcharias taurus, VU) fascinates two kids at the Two Oceans Aquarium, South Africa. People—and especially kids— enjoy seeing wildlife, as shown by the increased popularity of protected areas, zoos, and other institutions where biodiversity can be seen. Photograph by Karen Schermbrucker, courtesy of Two Oceans Aquarium, CC BY 4.0.

    Because of this close link between nature and human well-being, the concept of nature preservation has permeated through the value systems of human cultures, philosophies, and religions throughout history. Often traditional societies have a deep connection with nature that is woven into their spiritual beliefs and customs (Figure 1.4.2). Our responsibility to protect animals is also explicitly described in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Other major religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism also strongly support the preservation of non-human life. In light of accelerated biodiversity losses, faith-based groups have recently started playing a more active role in conservation, particularly among urbanized people. They do this by informing adherents that it is wrong to allow the destruction of nature, and that such destructive activities can have negative consequences for all people on Earth. These links between faith-based organizations and conservation have given rise to consortiums such as the Forum on Religion and Ecology (, the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (, and the SCB’s Religion and Conservation Working Group (, as well as the emerging field of spiritual ecology (Vaughan-Lee, 2016).

    Figure 1.4.2 The spiritual connection between people and nature features strongly in ancient rock art made by Bushmen (also known as San, or First People) of Southern Africa, believed to be the oldest human population on Earth. Pictured here is a common eland (Tragelaphus oryx, LC), drawn by shamans to open the portals of the spiritual world. Photograph by Alan Manson,, CC BY 4.0.

    Environmental ethics has strong links to the environmental justice movement and has recently established strong ties to the social justice movement. Some of the most exciting developments in this direction involve initiatives that combine protection activities with community upliftment programs that improve the well-being of local peoples. These developments have shown that when poor and marginalized people are empowered to protect the environment, they may act as strong local guardians of forests, coastal areas, and other ecosystems that may have been destroyed otherwise.

    1.4.1 Conservation biology’s ethical principles

    Conservation biology rests on a set of underlying ethical principles that is generally agreed upon (Soulé, 1985) and can be summarized as follows:

    • The diversity of species and biological communities should be preserved: Most people appreciate biodiversity. Hundreds of millions of people visit national parks, game reserves, zoos, botanical gardens, and aquaria each year. They spend money and take actions to protect these places and species. People also recognize that biodiversity has economic value, whether through tourism, consumption, or other services.
    • The untimely extinction of populations and species should be prevented: Throughout history, species have occasionally died off as a result of natural, non-human causes. The loss of a local population was generally temporary, until a new population established itself through dispersal. However, human activities have increased the rate at which species are going extinct by more than a hundredfold. Meanwhile, there is no similar increase in the rate at which new populations and species are being created.
    • Ecological complexity should be maintained: In complex natural environments, biodiversity expresses many of its most valuable features and interactions. Although the biodiversity of species may be partially preserved in captivity, maintaining ecological complexity requires that natural areas be preserved.
    • Evolution should continue: Evolution creates new species, increases biodiversity over time, and facilitates adaptation to changing environmental conditions. People can help preserve these evolutionary processes by maintaining genetic diversity in wild populations and allowing populations to exchange genetic material. In captivity, many natural evolutionary processes do not occur, which can hamper survival when species are reintroduced in the wild.
    • Biodiversity has intrinsic value: The value of species, communities, and ecosystems does not depend on their utility to people. They are intrinsically valuable on their own, with unique evolutionary histories and ecological roles. There are certain iconic species that people simply want to have around, but other, lesser-known species or species seen as problematic to people are not less valuable.

      These principles are not absolute, nor are conservation biologists required to agree with them—they are actively discussed and debated. But many individuals and organizations agree with two, three, or all the principles, and support conservation efforts.

    This page titled 1.5: Environmental Ethics is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.