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Chapter: Professional Ethics in Engineering : Global Issues

Human-Centered Ethics

Human-centered, or anthropocentric, environmental ethics focuses exclusively on the benefits of the natural environment to humans and the threats to human beings presented by the destruction of nature.



Human-centered, or anthropocentric, environmental ethics focuses exclusively on the benefits of the natural environment to humans and the threats to human beings presented by the destruction of nature. In their classic formulations, all of them assume that, among the creatures on earth, only human beings have inherent moral worth and hence deserve to be taken into account in making moral decisions concerning the environment (or anything else). Other creatures and ecosystems have at most ―instrumental value‖—as means to promoting human interests.


Utilitarians enjoin us to maximize good consequences for human beings. In developing an environmental ethic, the relevant goods consist of human interests and goods linked to nature. Many of those pleasures and interests concern engineered products made from natural resources.

In addition, we have aesthetic interests, as in the beauty of plants, waterfalls, and mountain ranges, and recreational interests, as in hiking and backpacking in wilderness areas. We have scientific interests, especially in the study of ―natural labs‖ of ecological preserves, such as the rain forests. And most basic, we have survival interests, which are linked directly to conserving resources and preserving the natural environment.


The typical argument of rights ethics is that the basic rights to life and to liberty entail a right to a livable environment. The right to a livable environment did not generally enter into people‘s thinking until the end of the twentieth century, at the time when pollution and resource depletion reached alarming proportions. Nevertheless, it is directly implied by the rights to life and liberty, given that these basic rights cannot be exercised without a supportive natural environment. A right to a livable environment is implied by rights to life and to liberty, and it ―imposes upon everyone a correlative moral obligation to respect.


In duty ethics, which makes duties rather than rights fundamental, respect for human life implies far greater concern for nature than has been traditionally recognized. Kant believed that we owe duties only to rational beings, which in his view excluded all nonhuman animals, although of course he did not have access to recent scientific studies showing striking parallels between humans and other primates. Nevertheless, he condemned callousness and cruelty toward conscious animals because he saw the danger that such attitudes would foster inhumane treatment of persons. In any case, a duty-centered ethics would emphasize the need for conserving the environment because doing so is implied by respect for human beings who depend on it for their very existence.


Finally, virtue ethics draws attention to such virtues as prudence, humility, appreciation of beauty, and gratitude toward the natural world that makes life possible, and also the virtue of stewardship over resources that are needed for further generations. Thomas E. Hill, Jr., offers an anecdote: ―A wealthy eccentric bought a house in a neighbourhood I know. The house was surrounded by a beautiful display of grass, plants, and flowers, and it was shaded by a huge old avocado tree. But the grass required cutting, the flowers needed tending, and the man wanted more sun. So he cut the whole lot down and covered the yard with asphalt. The man‘s attitudes, suggests Hill, are comparable to the callousness shown in strip mining, the cutting of redwood forests, and other destruction of ecosystems with blinkered visions of usefulness. All these human-centered ethics permit and indeed require a long-term view of conserving the environment, especially because the human beings who have inherent worth will include future generations. Not everything of importance within a human-centered ethics fits neatly into cost-benefit analyses with limited time horizons; much must be accounted for by means of constraints or limits that cannot necessarily be assigned dollar signs.


Yet, some have argued that all versions of human-centered ethics are flawed and that we should widen the circle of things that have inherent worth, that is, value in themselves, independent of human desires and appraisals. Especially since 1979, when the journal Environmental Ethics was founded, philosophers have explored a wide range of nature-centered ethics that, for example, affirm the inherent worth of all conscious animals, of all living organisms, or of ecosystems. Let us consider each of these approaches.

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