The relationship between the environmental movement and the philosophical discipline of environmental ethics is long-standing and, I believe, potentially harmful. It is not surprising that asking philosophical questions about environmental problems owes its roots to a more general concern for the natural world that is not necessarily philosophical in nature. However, the connection between these two distinct arenas is significant, and potentially harmful to the future of environmental ethics as a respectable philosophical discipline. We should first be clear about the distinction that we are making, as many will find these terms to be somewhat synonymous.
Environmental ethics is the systematic, philosophical study of moral questions concerning man’s relationship with the natural world. It includes questions about value, appropriate usage, protection of species and ecosystems, aesthetics, and a host of other rich philosophical questions. One key point is that a person need not be committed to protecting the environment through activism in order to be a good environmental philosopher. It is possible, and even beneficial, to ponder these questions from the standpoint of strict philosophical interest.
Environmentalism, on the other hand, is a participatory commitment to work actively toward greater environmental protection. Whereas an environmental philosopher might try to understand what intrinsic value is, the environmentalist assumes that intrinsic value is important and worth protecting. While the environmental ethicist has a particular research interest, the environmentalist has an activist agenda.
This is not a bad thing overall. The state of the world today requires that both environmental ethicists and environmentalists play a role in preserving natural systems. In fact, these two groups can benefit significantly from one another if the relationship is properly distinct. The issue, however, is that these two worlds are often intermixed in a manner that is harmful to both.
Environmental ethics should remain distinct from environmentalism for two reasons. First, a philosophical discipline requires that significant questions be approached in a minimally biased way. Studying environmental ethics with a pre-established tendency toward environmentalism causes one to overlook important concerns and overemphasize points that support one’s environmentalist leanings. In short, environmentalism makes for bad environmental philosophy.
In addition, environmental ethics should distinguish itself so as to avoid the negative stigma of environmentalism. Many environmental activist groups fit the bill of “environmental wackos” rather nicely, and if environmental ethicists wish to be taken seriously, it must be made clear that they are not simply the more rational wing of environmental extremists. Further, if environmental activists begin to utilize philosophically supported arguments for environmental protection as justification for their own actions, they begin to break the stigma of environmentalism. This is more readily accomplished by drawing from philosophical work that does not come from within.
For our own purposes, the distinction between environmental ethics and environmentalism is an important one. If one is interested in pursuing the study of environmental ethics, it is important to be aware that this line is often blurred, and that maintaining a separation will lead to more productive and fruitful philosophy. And if one is an environmentalist, it is helpful to understand that drawing on a richer philosophical position will enhance one’s own standing, and that this is most successful when that position is distinct from one’s own, rather than simply an extension of it.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.