and Legal Environmental Ethics
Some ethical commitments of policy
makers--and their intersections with environmental problems.
Policy cannot be value- neutral. If
people didn't have different views of things, interests (economic and
otherwise), values, and conceptions of "the good," we would have no
conflicts and no decisions would require balancing competing "goods."
o One basic idea of politics is that
it is far preferable to resolve these conflicts without violence. If we resort
to that, then we end up being ruled by the most powerful. Power does not
reliably correlate with being intelligent, wise, fair, just, consistent, open-
minded and open-hearted, compassionate, or trustworthy. Yet these are the
characteristics of rulers who can create the conditions in which human life can
flourish, and problems be solved well. So politics is a commitment to the use
of reason, and conflict resolution that allows life to continue.
science has a long long history of thought and disagreement on how politics
should be organized. Plato at one point wished for "philosopher
kings"--wise people with absolute power. Authoritarian regimes are not
usually so enlightened, however. Democratic theory, fearing the corruption
power may bring, holds that le gitimate power is that which receives the
consent of the governed. (Modern intellectual descendants of Plato, for their
part, bemoan the depth to which the 'tyrrany of the majority' can sink. Modern communitarian theory looks beyond institutional
governance to the fabric of the community as what is most important in civic
life. Still others seek to found government on the developmental potentials of
humans--an important point, since education and other positive forces have a
lot to do with the quality of person, and thus society.
o Benjamin makes the point that our
politicians must balance their roles as "trustee" and
"delegate." As delegates they "represent directly the wishes and
interests of their constituencies," but as trustees, they must "use
their judgment in making what they regard as the best decisions on particular
matters even if in certain cases this means taking a position different from
the majority of their constituents" (p. 143 in readings). This indicates
that politicians should not look only to opinion polls in their decisions, but
should also seek to be informed. Their judgment in the "trustee" role
very likely to be essential in
o But note, too, in Benjamin's
discussion of Cuomo's response to Meehan, that "The political
question--the question of how best in certain circumstances in a pluralistic
society to translate personal conviction into public policy--is not fully
settled by what one regards as the correct answer to the moral question"
(p. 146). Later: "A competent politician... is one who manages to retain
an independent moral identity while also, in the interests of the integrity of
the community as a whole... acknowledging the positions of those whose world
views point in a different direction" (149).
theorists (such as Heilbroner, and Ophuls) have argued that the "consent
of the governed," especially when combined with an expansionist-
industrialist political economy (whether capitalist or socialist), fails in the
real world of ecological limits. Both authors are also critical of the
environmental records of authoritarian regimes as well. Whether one agrees with
their prognoses or not, one thing is clear: environmental policy must
incorporate scientific knowledge into many decisions. Science is what tells us
(within sometimes large degrees of uncertainty) where the
limits are, and can help us predict
the outcomes of different policy options.
o One principle that follows from the
role of science is that learning must
be paramount in environmental policy. We need to track our management attempts
and constantly adjust based on what we find out. This approach is often called
o But as mentioned in concepts in ethics, "is" does not justify
"ought." The way things in fact are, tells us nothing about how they
should be. (This point does not, however, ultimately hold absolutely--a
difficult issue in metaethics that stems from any ethical theory's basis in
unprovable assumptions about the nature of reality.) In the general argument
underlying any environmental policy proposal, there are usually empirical
premises, derived from science. They pertain to what causes what; based on them
we can expect certain results from certain actions. But which results ought we to choose? Science doesn't tell
that. So, policy proposals also have ethical premises, which
that question. Thus, anyone dealing with policy should be able to articulate,
compare, select, justify,
defend, and critique the ethical
assumptions of policy
choices. Not all of these are
substantive environmental questions, but some must be.
· Some ethical premises of specific
areas of environmental policies are contained in other portions of this course.
Briefly, a few of the important dimensions are:
Which humans matter in environmental
ethics? Only those with the resource to know the risks and hire lawyers and
lobbyists, or all people? Only those in our nation, or beyond? Only ones alive
now or others in the future?
o What environmental obligations do we
owe other humans? Is there a 'right' to a healthy environment? One that can
provide for a full range of needs? Of opportunities too? An enjoyable one? How
do we define these in specific policy areas?
o Do only humans have ultimate value?
Nonhuman animals? Any organism? Populations? Species? Not unitary things of any
sort, but instead communities? Systems? How can any of these units be defined,
and our obligations toward them justified? How do we deal with the many
conflicts that arise when we grant any nonhumans moral standing?
o How do we deal with uncertainty and
complexity of natural systems? Does this have implications for the burden of
proof? For what we protect and how thoroughly we protect it?
o How do we think of environmental
obligations? In cost-benefit terms? In some other way? How do we balance
· Much of environmental policy boils
down not to concrete solutions, but to formulating, maintaining and correcting processes which create solutions when
values conflict ineluctably. What procedures should be used to resolve specific
conflicts? The law in general, and especially administrative law, is full of
such procedures for the many many kinds of conflicts present in society. See
the page on ethical decisions; the second part lists some key values which such
procedures should embody.
in policy positions are politically elected, others are not. Either way, such
pos itions carry responsibilities of any civil service career. These include a
commitment not only to serve constituents, but to act as wisely and responsibly
as possible. All such positions, because of the decision- making powers they
include, carry potential for corruption and abuse. Ethical public service means
self-policing, and supporting reasonable systematic checks, against such
corruption. See information from groups like Common Cause, that work on
campaign finance reform.
· Political work, in its very nature,
thrusts participants into controversies. It is often up to them to work out
compromises on very difficult issues. See the Benjamin reading on the multiple
senses of compromise. Benjamin argues that compromise, as in a less-than-wished
for "splitting the differnce" between 2 irreconcilable principles or
interests, does not have to mean one compromises one's integrity. He points to
supervening values that must be called into play in such situations: the value
on working together nonviolently, on preserving the possibility of working
together on another issue later, on reducing polarization and stasis insociety and government. These, he argues, are among the most
important values when others conflict utterly.