How and why have ecologists criticised conventional moral thinking?

Ecologists believe that conventional anthropocentric moral thinking has caused the ecological crisis.

Ecologists believe that conventional moral thinking has caused the ecological crisis. This is because it is based upon anthropocentric assumptions, in that it is orientated around the pleasure, needs and interests of human beings. Therefore, the non-human world is invested in value only to the extent that it satisfies human ends, regardless of the ecological consequences of these ends. Consequently, because conventional moral thinking does take into account the needs of the environment, the ecosystem is damaged, some would say irreparably.

Some ecologists have tried to modify ethical anthropocentrism. One way in which this has been done is through the idea of futurity, a care for future generations. This follows that the consequences of our actions will not be felt until decades or even centuries to come. For example, the accumulation of nuclear waste has been seen to be a problem for those yet to be born. Ecologists extend the notion of human interests to encompass the human species as a whole, making no distinction between the present and future generations. The present generation has a natural duty and obligation to ensure that the living standards of future generations are at least the same as for those currently living. This can be seen to be reflected in the idea of ecological stewardship, where the natural environment must be conserved for the benefit of generations to come. Therefore, whilst futurity clearly expresses anthropocentric moral thinking it does at least go some way to addressing current thinking by arguing that future humans are just as important as ourselves.

Another way in which conventional moral thinking has been criticised is human’s attitudes to other living creatures. Some ecologists believe that moral standards and values must be applied to other species and organisms. This is most obviously seen in the idea of animal rights. Peter Singer argued that animals are capable of suffering and thus followed a utilitarian view that animals have an interest in avoiding pain. Consequently, he condemned any attempt to place human interests above those of animals as ‘speciesism’. However, Singer’s analysis was limited in that he only applied it to living creatures, and not non-living entities such as rocks.

Singer’s ideas can be extended further to the idea of biocentric equality. Arne Naess, argued that all species have an ‘equal right to live and bloom’, thus reflecting the benefits of biodiversity. Therefore, all organisms in the ecosphere are of equal moral worth. This has led to deep ecologists believe that nature has value in its own right (intrinsic value). Environmental ethics has nothing to do with human instrumentallity and cannot be articulated simply through the extension of human values to the non-human world. Thus, a change in consciousness is needed, to an ‘ecological consciousness’. This paradigm shift changes how we approach and think about the world. As a result, no distinction is made between the self and the ‘other’. Thus, it embraces radical holism, in that the whole is more important than its individual parts, with ecological balance prioritised over narrowly human ends.

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