Environmental ethics covers a number of areas, it includes preservation of endangered species, conserving natural habitats, the effects of deforestation and the effects of pollution and is concerned with human attitudes towards and our impact upon the biological world. It considers whether it enhances or diminishes the well-being and diversity of other life on earth. Overall there are three key approaches linked to environmental ethics; deep ecology which is an approach concerned with the intrinsic value of the natural world it sees all life form of value and believes human life is just one part of the biosphere but instead all life has intrinsic value, eco-holism which places the emphasis not on individual human rights but it lends intrinsic value and inherent worth to species or eco-systems or the environment as a whole entity, as it sees it as intrinsically valuable therefore valuable in itself and shallow ecology which is an approach that states the environment is a means to human survival therefore it needs to be conserved in order for humans to flourish, animals are seen as having only instrumental value as their value lies in the usefulness they are to humans.
When discussing utilitarianism as an approach in terms of environmental ethics, we must consider the strengths and weaknesses not only of the general theory, but specifically to the three different types as utilitarianism is not a single theory but a group of theories, by focussing on this we are able to make conclusions about whether it is or is not the best approach to environment ethics, and if it is not what approach is more appropriate. As a form of normative ethics utilitarianism is all about how people make moral decisions, it is therefore based on the consequences of a person’s actions which makes it a consequentialist theory as it judges an action on whether it is right or wrong according to their outcome therefore it is relative in its application as nothing in itself is right or wrong, instead when evaluating the environment they would look towards the end results not necessarily the initial action however this can provide a disadvantage as we cannot predict the consequences of our action therefore we cannot evaluate whether an action is right or wrong based on just the end result. Therefore as a consequentialitst theory it may show why it is not the best approach because when making moral decisions about actions concerning the environment, we must look not only forward but also backwards. Overall utilitarianism is concerned with the end or purpose of actions making it a teleological theory.
The most traditional form of utilitarianism was derived by Bentham, who as a headiest stated that happiness consisted of pleasure minus pain, for Bentham he would weigh up the benefits of the proposed actions against the effects and would apply the principle of the maximisation of the greatest pleasure for the greatest number. Therefore believed that quantity was greater than quality and an action was greater it is benefited the majority rather than the minority, and proposed an idea of conservation ethics as he proposed the value of something depends upon the pleasure or usefulness it provides to humanity. In order to access the quantity of pleasure, Bentham derived the Hedonic Calculus, which he believed was a mathematical way to weigh up the amount of pain and pleasure generated, it involves applying seven key factors to the action.
For example in order to decide whether Pollution is justifiable, Bentham would first look at the extent of pollution therefore how many sentient beings are affected, he would then look towards the certainty of an action, for example with the spillage of oil what are the chances of it spilling and polluting again the benefits of the products being produced, he may look at whether the products being produced will lead to an intense of lasting pleasure. However although by applying the calculation is a flexible approach, and takes into account individual situations therefore allowing for different circumstances (for example by building a road in Rwanda could mean an increased way of transporting vital medicines therefore although it may lead to pollution in such an underdeveloped country it may be seen an minimal compared to the benefits gained however if a new road was built within the UK in a densely polluted area, the increase in cars which would lead to a significant increase in pollution could have a greater impact than the benefit gain of a reduction in travel time and a more convenient travel route for the minority) problems still arise when applying the principle of the ‘greatest pleasure for the greatest number’.
Firstly it is hard to predict the damage or benefit that any action will bring, therefore it is impossible to say whether an action will actually produce the desire effect of the greatest good for the greatest number. A question is also raised over whether the good of the majority can really justify ignoring the minority (for example although deforestation may result in more land being provided for agricultural reasons, or more home being provided to sustain the growth in urban sprawl do these factors justify the loss of habitats for the 70% of the land animals and plants that live in the forest, or the rise in greenhouse gases resulting in a rise in global warming which may not affect in the short-term but will bring issues for future generations).
As a theory Act Utilitarianism could lead to exploitation of the minority, and from this Mill derived a form of Utilitarianism that stressed the importance of justice for all, and therefore stated that an action should not be based on whether it brings the most quantity of pleasure instead the focus should be on whether the actions bring the greatest quality of happiness. Whilst as Bentham composed a mathematical calculation in order to weigh up the amount of pain and pleasure, Mill stated that humans have higher and lower pleasures, higher being for example reading literature or appreciating fine art and lower being physical attributes such as sexual pleasure. Therefore Mill believed that humans have a great claim to the earth’s resources, than other life forms as we are able to perform and experience ‘higher pleasures’, therefore he held a anthropocentric view as he placed human interests above any other species. For example if farming required destroying the habitats of birds, Mill would state the destruction could be justified if it brought a higher quality of pleasure to humans. This could lead to humans having a higher authority over the environment, which could lead to further destruction which in turn would result in more issues for future generations.
Overall classic utilitarian’s see the small things that protect the environment (for example the reduction of carbon footprint) as ethically right as it will bring generally more pleasure than pain, however in terms of the specific theories some may favour Rule over Act, as within Act each situation is taking individually and if on an occasion more pleasure was bought by doing something to the environment than they would allow it as it applies to the principle of the greatest pleasure, however rule would see that overall the greatest pleasure was coming from persevering the environment and therefore the preservation of it would be made a rule.
However for some issues it is hard to apply the principle of pleasure therefore is not the most practical approach to environmental ethics. An deontological approach, such as Kant maybe see as a more appropriate approach, as rather than being based on a subjective view it is absolute so universally forces people to the right course of action in order to preserve the environment. For example when looking at the issue of deforestation it is hard to apply an ethic that is based on pleasure, whilst as Kant would apply a universal law and therefore state that deforestation should not be allowed because if it was made a universal law of nature that trees were taken down automatically in order to allow for need of home to be met (this a utilitarianism may see this as right as the greatest pleasure is being met for greatest number), we would in the future run out of the vital resources and oxygen that we need.
A more contemporary form of utilitarianism is preference, which considers that the moral course of action should not be measure on the amount of pleasure instead you should look towards whether the action is the greatest preference for those involved "the good to be maximized by our actions is not a net gain in pleasure or happiness, but instead a net gain in preferences fulfilled’. For example in order to decide whether a building a hydroelectric dam across a gorge should be allowed they would weigh up the two preferences, for this example they may state that the those who hold the preference that it will provide a cost-effective energy supply would outweigh the preferences of the walkers who would lose a favored beauty spot.
However a question is raised as to whether the fate of not only the present but also future environment should depend upon a human’s subjective preferences, things that some people may see as a greater preference may in fact not reflect the right course of action (for example by building a new road within the UK, may be a more favored preference as it will provide a more convenient travel route however it would lead to significant increase in pollution). Preference utilitarianism is linked to Hare and Singer both who take a preference utilitarian stance on many ethical issues. Singer believed that sentience is the basis of moral obligation; he claimed that humans as well as non-human animals have the ability of ability to experience pleasure and suffering pain. Therefore he believed that "moral consistency requires the equal consideration of interests, irrespective of the nature of the beings that hold them’.
However he still did not view non-humans as equal to humans, as he stated that they lacked in the kind of intellectual, linguistic and moral attributes that characterize humanness. Some could therefore see Singer’s argument as still granting little importance to animals, as although he focus on sentient animals and states they should be taken equally into account as sentient beings, he still condemns the vast majority of the planets inhabitants to ‘a state of thinghood, having no intrinsic worth, acquiring instrumental value only as resource for the well-being of an elite sentient beings’. Bernard Williams is known for rejecting Singers view that plants which do not experience anything cannot be rightly held to possess ‘interests’, as he argued that plants do in fact ‘experience’ change as a result of the growth process therefore they do have interests. Overall however Peter Singers preference utilitarian approach to the environment is seen as a much less anthropocentric approach than the classical forms of utilitarianism therefore is seen as out of the three a more appropriate approach to apply to environmental ethics.
However for some people it can be seen as unhelpful to use utilitarianism ethics, as even when applying preference the morally right choice can go against the majorities preference, therefore a more absolutist deontological approach may be considered more useful when focussing on environmental ethics as it forces people to do the right course of action in order to preserve the environment this is done by ensuring that they do their duty by fulfilling an objecting moral law. Some may state therefore that an approach such as Natural Law may be a more appropriate approach. Aquinas who proposed natural law stated that in order for a being to be morally good they must fulfil the purpose set by God, they must therefore live in accordance with nature, their human nature and the entire natural scheme. The general end of all human beings is to get closer to God, this is done by doing good and avoiding evil, therefore a follow of natural law would see that by protecting the environment therefore God’s creation a morally good act is done therefore resulting in getting closer to God.
In my own opinion I consider both humans and animals to be sentient, the reason for this is because both are capable of experiencing pain and suffering, therefore I would favour Singer’s form of utilitarianism over Mill and Bentham as by taking into account species as well as humans. However overall as an approach it is seen as too weak as it is a subjective to individual circumstances therefore although you cannot forced a person to do an act, as more absolute approach may encourage more people to follow the right path and not only look towards the short-term gain but also the future generations to ensure that there is also long-term gain.