One of the things philosophy functions to do is help us to go beyond our normal modes of thinking (i.e., it helps us think outside of the box). Philosophical ethics, accordingly, helps us to rethink our approach to moral problem solving. Environmentalism is just that sort of rethinking: it is a new paradigm of thought challenging us to go beyond utilitarianism and deontology.
A. Two Judeo-Christian Perspectives
One of the questions which preoccupies environmentalists is whether the needed paradigm shift requires us to jettison Judeo-Christian metaphysics. This question largely turns on which of two interpretations we give to the story of Genesis:
Despotic Interpretation of Genesis: Subdue the Earth, use it as you please, and repopulate it with humans;
Stewardship Interpretation of Genesis: Take care of and respect other beings, for they too are God's creatures.
If we adopt the "despotic" reading, it's very difficult (if not impossible) to make environmentalism consistent with Western Religion
-religion here demands that we treat our environment as a hostile place and our fellow species as antagonists to be subdued
-some argue that this is exactly where we are and that our current status with the environment is one where we have waged a war and are destroying everything
-if we are to stop this war, they argue, a war which no one can win, we must abandon the religious tradition which promoted such an antagonistic attitude
But if, on the other hand, we adopt a "stewardship" reading of Genesis, environmentalism seems less inconsistent with Western Religion
-religion here does not demand that we dominate and subdue, but care for our land as we would our own children
-here it is argued that what we have done to the environment is not only foolish, but in opposition to religious teaching
-the solution, then, according to this view, is a matter not of abandoning our religious tradtion, but following it more thoughfully
B. Three Secular Perspectives:
On the secular front, three readings of moral considerability have emerged in the last century:
Humanism: Animals and other beings have value insofar as they serve humans; humans are the locus of all value
Extensionism: Animals and other beings have value inasmuch as they share morally valuable traits with humans; sentient life is the locus of value
Biocentrism: All living things have value independent of human beings; life itself is the locus of value
The humanistic approach to ethics, which is consistent with both of the above Judeo-Christian perspectives, gives humans and only humans moral agency. moral considerability, and (generally) intrinsic value.
-plants, animals, ecosystems and the earth are valuable only as means to our ends
-Kantian ethics clearly sees moral obligation in this way in that it deems rationality as the locus of value and denies the status of rationality to all earthly dwellers besides human beings (there are those who seek to extend this status to others, but hold firm in the belief that rationality is what matters); utilitarian ethics is less prone to this view of moral obligation in that it does not make rationality the sole source of moral status, yet its proponent still tend to emphasize human needs above all others
The extensionist approach extends moral considerability and intrinsic value to other beings sharing certain traits with human beings. The predominant view is that sentience--the capacity to feel pleasure and pain is the main criterion of moral status
-non-human animals, especially those with "highly developed" nervous systems, are considered to have intrinsic value
-this view is inconsistent with most readings of Kantian ethics; utilitarian ethics, on the other hand, is the foundation for this approach inasmuch as it was born out a denial that reason is the sole source of moral considerability and proposed that sentience is the real source
The biocentrist approach moves beyond the other paradigms of thought by proclaiming life itself to be the locus of value and denying that analogy to human features has any bearing on moral status
C. Two Emphases and Six Environmental Positions:
Whatever the paradigm, moral theorists has disputed the issue of whether it was the individual or the whole that mattered.
Individualism: Every individual is a source of value and should be considered the primary unit of value, from which the value of the whole is derived
Holism: The whole is the source of value and individuals have value only inasmuch as they belong to a larger whole
We find this dispute in some of the controversies between Kantianism and utilitarianism, but we can also find it within and between a variety of moral traditions
As moral theorists have entered the environmental arena, they have brought with them this old dispute.
Given the previous classifications and the foregoing distinction, we can identify six distinct stances towards the environment:
1) the individual human is sacred, not to be sacrificed for the good of the whole;
2) human society is what matters most and individuals derive their value from the good of the whole.
3) the individual animal is sacred and should not be sacrificed for the good of the species, human or otherwise (animal rights);
4) the species is what matters, individuals derive their value from the whole to which they belong.
5) every individual living thing has value and must be given special consideration before being sacrificed for the whole (veganism?);
6) the system of nature (i.e., the ecosystem) is what matters most and all individuals derive their value from that larger system (ecocentrism).