Paper Assignment, Environmental Ethics, Spring 2010

The paper should be 5-7 pages (double space, typewritten) and explore the ethical and/or philosophical dimensions of an environmental issue. (Please use recycled paper, print your paper on the back side of already used paper, or print doubled sided, if at all possible.) The paper counts for 34% of your course grade and so it should be a significant effort. You choose the topic.

A one page paper proposal is due Friday, March 19h. Please put a hard copy in my 1st floor mailbox inside 14 Glebe by 1pm or send it sometime on Friday by email ( It should include a tentative title, a characterization of your topic, the major lines of argument you intend to pursue, a tentative thesis and/or conclusion, and a brief summary of one key philosophical article you will use in your paper (including how you will use it). The paper is due on Friday, April 9tth. Please put a hard copy in my 1st floor mailbox inside 14 Glebe, by 1pm. Staple the paper description (with my comments) to the back of the final paper, and keep an extra copy of the final paper for yourself.

The paper can focus on a specific topic (such as the alleged conflict between animal rights and environmentalism, the morality of hunting/fishing/zoos, or the debate over the naturalness of humans) or consider more general issues (such as an evaluation of anthropocentric environmental ethics, animal rights, or biocentrism). You could write a paper developing your own coherent environmental ethic, in light of those we have studied. A few key points:


•         This paper should be a philosophy paper in which you focus on normative, evaluative, or conceptual issues (rather than factual questions addressed by the natural and social sciences). For some topics, factual and scientific information will be necessary. But the focus should be on the ethical and conceptual dimensions and on the questions of public policy involved. (Always ask: What should we do concerning this issue and why? What are the philosophical, ethical, and conceptual questions which must be answered if this issue is to be resolved?)

•         The paper must show that it was written by someone who took this course. If an assigned article has bearing on your topic, you must discuss what it says about it and your response. Try to tie your paper into the central themes of the course: Are you assuming an anthropocentric, sentiocentric, individual biocentric, or holistic ecocentric view of moral standing? What would each of these positions say about your topic? Are you accepting (or rejecting) individualism or holism, egalitarianism or inegalitarianism? If the issue you are discussing (and the position you are taking on it) would be illuminated by addressing these questions, you should do so.

•         At least one outside (meaning not assigned in the course) philosophical reading is required for this paper. Find a philosophy article that importantly relates to your topic and use it in your paper. I suggest using the journals Environmental Ethics, Environmental Values, Ethics and the Environment, Ethics, Place and Environment, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, and Between the Species (all are in the library and all are available electronically, except Between the Species). The library has excellent holdings in most areas of environmental philosophy; you should be able to find something on almost any topic you choose. I can help you find specific articles relevant to your subject if you are having trouble finding them. You might also look for philosophy articles under “Miscellaneous” column on the class website. Three suggestions for searching for articles by keyword:

           •         Bibliography of International Society for Environmental Ethics:

           •         Philosopher’s Index, through the library here:

           •         My personal bibliography, available on course webpage:

Don't get bogged down on this dimension of the paper. I want you to think for your self. The outside reading is meant to ground your paper in philosophical thinking on your topic and to help stimulate your own thinking. I do want every paper description to include such an article (fully referenced so I can find it) and a discussion of how you will use it.

Talk with each other (and me) about your ideas. Read ahead for topics on the syllabus we have not yet discussed. Make sure you write on an issue you want to spend some time thinking about. .

Some Possible Paper Topics, Environmental Ethics

(These are suggestions only; their aim is to stimulate your own creative energies in choosing your topic.)


•         Discuss the aesthetic value of nature. How is the aesthetic appreciation of nature different from the aesthetic appreciation of art objects? Is nature always beautiful? Does nature's aesthetic value provide adequate support for strong environmental protection?

•         Moral issues concerning pets. The propriety of pet-keeping. Companion animals, paternalism, and community. Are pets degraded wild animals with less value than their wild counterparts? Should someone who believes in animal rights reject the institution of pet ownership? Is having a pet an anthropocentric way of relating to nonhuman nature? . Which animals may be kept as pets?

•         Animal/environmental ethics and zoos. Are zoos morally acceptable? Can we justify putting animals in "prisons" for our viewing pleasure (or even for educational purposes)? Are zoos an anthropocentric way of relating to other animals? More specifically, should we allow the confinement of marine mammals (or other mammals?) in "zoological parks?"

•         A moral evaluation of hunting

•         Compare and contrast the morality of fishing vis-a-vis the morality of hunting. Is fishing acceptable even though hunting is immoral? Do hunted animals feel pain while fish do not? Is fishing just as morally legitimate/illegitimate as hunting? Is catch and release fishing more legitimate (or less illegitimate) than fishing for one's dinner? How does fishing morally compare to other human uses of animals?

•         The promise and limits of the movement to restore the environment. Is restoration a big lie, involving the further domination of nature?

•         Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism: What is it? Does it exist? What are the moral issues involved? What should be done about it, if anything? (Use Peter Wenz’s article.)

•         International Environmental Justice and Climate Change

•         Property rights and the environment. Do environmental regulations unfairly "take" private property without just compensation? If government/community regulations which decrease property values require compensation to the property owners, then does government/community actions that increase property values require compensation from the property owner to the community? Why or why not? Are property rights natural or created by the community? Does a community's right to environmental integrity (or the environment's right to environmental integrity) outweigh an individual human's property rights? Does the right of an endangered species to exist outweigh a human's property right?

•         Duties to Endangered Species: Would it matter if the spotted owl went extinct? Ought we to preserve all or only certain species? Do other species have inherent value independent of their usefulness to human beings? Do they have a right to exist? Is it worse to kill members of endangered species than to kill equally psychologically sophisticated members of common species? Why?

•         Philosophical, ethical, and policy evaluation of the Endangered Species Act: Does the act need to be revised? Why or why not? If so, how should it be revised? What moral/ethical basis underlies your recommendations?

•         Is environmentalism (and environmental ethics) an elitist concern of the rich and of the developed world--one that is irrelevant to the poor and the peoples of the developing world? Does the developing world have legitimate criticism of the environmentalism of the developed countries?

•         Should we preserve wilderness? Why or why not? Is the ideal of wilderness (as a place humans visit, but do not remain) flawed since it fails to realize that humans are a legitimate part of nature? Is the idea of wilderness flawed since it ignores that ancient humans (as well as modern society) has so affected the landscape that no pristine wilderness remains to be preserved? Isn't wilderness preservation simply adding recreational facilities for rich elitist college kids (and their professors) who have the time, money, and energy to backpack into it? Is putting the focus on wilderness to miss a more important focus on sustainable development? What is Cronon’s critique of wilderness?

•         The natural and humans: What does it mean for something to be natural? Is the natural better than the unnatural, artificial, cultural? Are humans part of--or separate from--nature? In what sense can or should humans follow nature? Does the fact that something is natural give us a reason to imitate it? Should we, as Aldo Leopold suggests, "reappraise things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free?"

•         What is the proper religious perspective toward the nature? What does religion have to say about environmental issues. What should it say? Are the new eco-theologies on the right track? Is Christianity responsible for the environmental crisis or does it provide a strong ethic for responsible treatment of the environment? Would other religious views (e.g., those of Native American's) foster a better environmental ethic? What view of moral standing does the proper religious approach to the environment take?

•         What are the Native Americans attitudes toward nature? How are they different from the traditional Western European approach toward nature? What can we learn from the Native American's approach, if anything? What should we reject?

•         What has moral standing (=is morally important in its own right)? Do (certain or all) animals? Do plants? Microbes? Do ecosystems? Land forms? Natural processes? In virtue of what does something have moral standing?

•         Is egalitarianism in environmental ethics a preferable approach to various inegalitarian approaches (including moral hierarchies)?

•         Are humans superior to other animals and to plants? Explain and evaluate Paul Taylor's views on this issue.

•         Environmental individualism versus holism: Is intrinsic value (and/or moral standing) located in organic individuals or in biological communities? What are some of the different practical implications of these styles of environmental ethics? Consider, for example, the morality of hunting, saving of endangered species, and the importance of human individuals.

•         A critique or defense of anthropocentric environmental ethics. What are the different versions of anthropocentrism? Are some stronger than others? Is anthropocentrism the best environmental ethic?

•         Do we have any duties to future generations of people? Why or why not? What are these duties? How much nature do we owe to future generations? How can we harm future generations by destroying the environment, if they wouldn't have existed but for this destruction?

•         Can animals feel pain? Why or why not? Which animals? Assuming they do feel pain, does their pain count morally? Does it count equally with the same pain of a human animal? Can animals feel the same sort of pain a human can feel? Discuss the implications of your views for our treatment of animals.

•         What is speciesism? Is it a morally acceptable or not? Is it morally analogous to racism and sexism? Why or why not?

•         The morality of eating (e.g., meat eating versus a vegetarian diet or hunting for one's meat versus buying it in a grocery store; eating sea creatures). What do animal and environmental ethics suggest about ethically appropriate eating?

•         Are wild animals more morally important than domesticated animals? Are there any morally relevant differences between them? Why or why not?

•         Describe, evaluate, and adjudicate the alleged incompatibility between animal liberation and environmental ethics

•         Is human population (growth?) an environmental problem? Should government regulate population? Do we have an obligation to stop increasing the world's human biomass? Why or why not? What sorts of methods are morally allowable and practically feasible to control human population, if any?

•         The moral justifiability (or unjustifiability) of civil disobedience for environmental causes (e.g., Greenpeace). The moral justifiability (or unjustifiability) of ecological sabotage: Spiking trees, putting sand in earth-movers, etc. to prevent destruction of natural areas (e.g., Earth First!).

•         The justifiability of Animal Liberation Front activities.

•         Deep ecology: What is it; how is it different from shallow ecology; what is to be said in its favor and against it; what changes in our lifestyle does it require?

•         Ecofeminism: What is it and is it an important or necessary approach to environmental issues?

•         Social ecology: Is the root cause of environmental problems the capitalist economic system in which businesses make decisions which effect public environmental quality on the basis of private economic self-interest?

•         Should we or should we not let nature take its course in national parks?

•         The morality of field research on animals. Is it morally permissible to sedate, capture, radio collar, take blood samples from, etc. (say) grizzly bears? What sorts of ethical guidelines must field researchers follow in the interference with and handling of wild populations of animals? Is killing birds (and other animals) for museum specimens morally justifiable?.

•         Consumerism and the environment (including issues raised by Peter Wenz).

•         The use of animals in teaching (e.g., frog or cat dissection).

•         An ethical evaluation of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

•         How ought animal activists think about and respond to predation in the wild? Should we lament predation? Should humans police nature?

•         Urban environmental ethics

•         Are any animals (significantly) moral agents, that is morally responsible or morally virtuous/vicious?