Ethical Perspectives on Ecosystem Preservation

November 30, 2001

What Are Ecosystems?

To understand the ecological ethic we need to define "an ecological system"; it is an interrelated and interdependent set of organisms and environments such that: (i) the activities of one of its parts affects all the other parts and (ii) the survival of each depends on the survival of other parts.

An ecosystem is like a complex self-perpetuating machine. Like some machines, it may have parts which are themselves complex systems. As each part of a machine has its own role or function to play in the operation of the whole machine, so each animal species has its own role or function in the whole ecological system. As it is sometimes put, each species has its niche (corner, location) in the system, defined by its relations to other species, including those whose members its members consume and those whose members consume its members.

An economic system is interestingly related to an ecosystem in two ways. The economy is a whole consisting of many parts, held together by circular flows of goods, services and money. The parts must stay in balance or the whole economy collapses, as happens, for example, if nobody can purchase what has been produced or education fails to train workers so the effective labor force shrivels up. The same thing is true of ecological systems--it consists of many parts held together by energy flows (e.g., the food chain) and the return of minerals from decomposing animal corpses to the soil.

But unlike the ecosystem, which at least originally was a reality independent of human beings, the economy is a creation of our culture. Moreover, an economic system, such as a market economy, is an abstraction twice over from an ecological system. First of all, an economic system is but part of a larger social system. The social system of which the market economy is part also includes a legal system (without which contracts would not be effectively binding). Moreover, social systems--or human communities--are embedded in and do not exist apart from ecological systems.

Market economies include only those parts of the ecological system that enter into exchange and pricing; but underneath all the market activities is the living world of earth, air, water, and unowned animal and plant species without which there would be no economic system.

Concept of "spaceship earth"=biosphere, an ecological system over the entire earth's surface, incl atmosphere.

An Argument for Ecosystem Preservation
Based on Rights of Future Human Generations

One of the issues of environmental ethics is the justification for conservation: conservation may be defined as the saving or rationing of natural resources for later human use. Such "natural resources" can include nonhuman species and ecological systems.

One argument for conservation appeals to the rights of future generations. Are there such rights? John Rawls provides a framework for appreciating the claim that future generations have rights.

Rawls' Method:

We are to imagine persons located in what Rawls calls the Original Position. They are all self-interested rational persons. (This self-interested rationality represents the part of each of us that desires the means that will enable him or her to pursue happiness, each in his or her own way.)

These idealized persons are also behind a "Veil of Ignorance," which is to say they do not know: their sex, race, physical handicaps, generation. (This feature of the Original Position is a limitation designed to ensure that the procedure of selection that they use is fundamentally fair.)

Self-interested rational persons behind the Veil of Ignorance will choose the principles that shall govern actual world.

(For more on John Rawls, see John Rawls on Justice.)

Self-interested rational persons behind the Veil of Ignorance would not want to belong to a race or gender against which discrimination is possible or to be a handicapped person in a society where handicapped are treated without respect. Similarly, they would not want to belong to a generation which has been allocated a lower than average quantity of resources. So they would endorse the principle:

"Each generation should have roughly equal resources"


"Each generation should leave to the next at least as many resources as they possessed at the start."

The corollary of this, in rights terms, is that all generations have the same rights to resources, future as well as present. It is a short logical step, involving the factual premise that ecosystems will be valuable to future generations as resources, to the conclusion that we have a strong duty to preserve ecological systems.

Non-anthropocentric Approaches

The preceding argument for an ethical approach to the environment focused on justice between human beings. And yet, obviously, animals, plants and ecosystems suffer from human failures to deal adequately with the environment. Two other ethical strategies treat nonhuman elements of the environment as having intrinsic moral worth.

Animal rights

According to this viewpoint, animals are like humans in having a prima facie right to life and self-development. A prima facie principle is one that is considered binding unless it is overridden by some other very serious reasons.

What this means is that nonhuman animals should not be killed or prevented from developing whatever capacities for self-expression they have, provided there are no good reasons to the contrary.

Among animal rights theorists, there are (hedonistic) utilitarians and deontologists. Remember that deontologists reject consequentialist reasoning in ethics, relying instead on basic notions of duty or rights or justice.

Deontologist animal rights advocates claim that animals have rights, which imply very strong duties on our part; we cannot override them merely because a large number of human beings find it convenient or pleasant to do so. This kind of animal rights advocate is understandably inclined towards vegetarianism. Deontologists among the supporters of animal rights tend to regard all animals as libertarians or Kantians regard human beings. (Libertarians regard human, or at least mature humans, as rights-bearing individuals. Kantians regard humans, or rational beings, as having inherent dignity.)

Utilitarians are more willing to consider animal-human trade-offs. Among the utilitarians who measure costs and benefits in terms of pleasure and pain, utilitarians concerned with animals can claim to be more consistent than anthropocentric utilitarians. Utilitarians sensitive to animal interests are hedonists. They insist that the pleasures and pains of nonhuman animals, like those of humans, should be taken into account when the morality of an action or a practice is being considered.

Hedonistic utilitarians are most vehemently opposed to various practices in industry and agriculture which (1) involve great suffering to higher animals (monkeys, rabbits, chickens, etc.) and (2) produce relatively little or inessential benefits to human beings.

Some utilitarians may be vegetarians on the ground that meat production causes suffering to animals. Still, a consistent utilitarian might be able to argue in favor of meat-eating, provided that he or she can make the case that the pleasure meat-eating brings humans more than compensates for the suffering caused the animals in the process of their being raised for human consumption.

Hedonistic utilitarianism may provide a fairly strong argument against certain research programs involving animals, say, the use of animal testing in the cosmetic industry. But it is a relatively weak basis for an argument for preservation of ecological systems, since ecological decline concerns death of individuals and extinction of whole species of living beings, not the increase of suffering of individual living beings.

Non-anthropocentric Arguments for Ecosystem Preservation

One can defend ecosystem preservation from an anthropocentric perspective, e.g., appealing to the idea that they will continue to be important for future human generations, thus linking up with the present generations have duties toward future generations, or that future generations have rights we should respect. See above.

Deontological Animal Rights Argument for Ecosystem Protection

One can also defend ecosystem preservation from the deontological perspective of animal rights. This perspective holds that we should value nonhuman animal individuals in essentially the same way as we value human individuals. Animal individuals, it argues, are subjects of a life, which is to say they are aware of their environments, they retain experiences from their past and have orientations toward the future, plus, of course, they are able to suffer pleasure and pain.

On this basis, defenders of animal rights argue that animals have a right to life similar to the human right to life, a right to liberty similar to the human right to liberty, a right not to be maliciously harmed similar to human individuals, and even a right not to have their habitat and food sources destroyed (analogous to the human right to property). The interest (related to survival, health, and physical activity) that individual animals have in their environment is an interest in the preservation of ecosystems. If this interest is protected by animal rights, then it would be wrong, on the face of it, to destroy ecological systems.

The Inherent Value of Ecosystems as a Basis for Their Preservation

The animal rights argument for ecosystem protection justifies protection of ecosystems as an instrument or means to respect the rights of individual animals or the inherent value of individual animals. The land ethic and similar positions hold that ecosystems have intrinsic or inherent value in addition to whatever instrumental value an ecosystem may possess for individual human or nonhuman animals.

For the "wholistic" non-anthropocentric view that we should defend ecological systems at least partly because of their own value, see the web page on Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic.