Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Environmental Ethics

A Course Syllabus

Ernest Partridge


This course most recently offered at Northland College ,Winter, 1997.


The Essay, "Environmental Ethics - An Introduction" and Section Introductions to the unpublished anthology, Environmental Education: Approaches and Issues may be found in this website.



The course will examine the following topics:

(1) The bearing of the themes, concepts, problems, theories and methods of moral philosophy upon current environmental issues.

(2) Value implications of ecological principles and concepts.

(3) Five approaches to environmental ethics (i.e., perspectives on man's relationship and responsibility to nature) -- viz. Anthropocentrism, Animal Liberation, Rights of Nature, Gaia-Centrism ("The Land Ethic"), Biophilia (evolved needs for nature).

(4) Issues in Environmental Ethics: Moral Psychology (Attitudes toward the Environment), Responsibility toward the Environment, The Significance of Wilderness, Environmental Policy-Making, and the Duty to Posterity.

In a research paper, the student will either (a) propose, explain and defend an environmental policy or law exhibiting a code of responsibility to nature -- an environmental ethic; or (b) write an imaginary dialog, exhibiting the student's understanding of two opposing viewpoints regarding a timely issue of environmental policy or philosophy, and his/her critical evaluation of these positions.

There will be two essay examinations, a mid-term and a final, with questions selected from a list distributed early in the course.


The instructor's preferred definition of Environmental Ethics, is "human responsibility to nature and the remote future." The key concept in this definition is responsibility, which entails: (a) knowledge of the consequences of an act or policy, (b) capacity to carry out that act or policy, (c) freedom to do otherwise, and (d) a value significance of those consequences -- as these consequences affect the welfare or worth of morally significant beings (persons, animals, natural objects, etc.). Environmental ethics is a new field of moral philosophy, primarily because of the recent emergence of knowledge (in science) and capacity (in technology) regarding humanity's impacts upon nature and the future.


  • To become acquainted with concepts and methods of philosophical ethics that apply to issues regarding mankind's dealings with the natural world.

  • To critically assess alternative approaches to, and defenses of, a code of responsibility to nature (i.e., an "environmental ethic").

  • To gain a clear understanding of the obstacles in moral philosophy, public policy-making and public attitudes to a coherent and sound system of environmental ethics.

  • To offer the student a repertory of resources and skills with which to formulate his/her own environmental ethic and to articulate and defend these ideas with clarity, consistency and coherence.


Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, (eds), Environmental Ethics and Policy Book, (Wadsworth, 1994).

Ernest Partridge (ed): Readings in Environmental Ethics, (Portions of an unpublished work in progress: Environmental Ethics -- Approaches and Issues).

Ernest Partridge (ed): A Handbook for Philosophy Students, (On Reserve, Library)


The final grade will be determined by (a) attendance and class participation, (b) written assignments, (c) The Mid-Term and (d) Final Examinations, evenly weighted.

PLEASE NOTE: The success of this course depends upon preparation, attendance, and timely submission of assignments. Accordingly, most classes will being with a brief (five-minute) quiz on the assigned readings at the beginning of class. In addition, students will be required to submit, at the beginning of each class, a 3x5 card with a question or comment on the assigned readings. The three lowest grades (or absences) on the cards and quizzes will be excused. Please note that these quizzes and cards also serve as a check of attendance. Late submission of assigned papers will be penalized.


 This class has a "folder" on the campus computer network: [Discontinued]. Here you will find all handouts (except the Anthology), my lecture notes, Discussion Questions on the readings, and "late breaking" news and notes. In addition, you will find such items of general interest as advice on writing term papers, taking exams, study strategies, and our departmental newsletter, The Digital Gadfly.



Give a brief account of a recent solitary encounter with wilderness. Impressions and feelings are to be emphasized more than events or ideas. (For more about this assignment, see pp. 1-2 (only!), Introduction to Section 13.




A -- "There Oughta Be a Law!"

(a) Select a controversial issue in Environmental Policy or Philosophy. For Example:

Population Growth and Control
Cost-Benefit Analysis in Policy-Making
The Rights of Animals and Nature
Wilderness: Development vs. Preservation
Individual vs. Collective Responsibility
Responsibility to Future Generations
Traditional Religion and Ecological Values
Anthropocentrism vs "Eco-Centrism"
Etc. (Student's choice, with approval of instructor).

(b) Propose a Public Policy, Executive Order or a Law pertaining to this issue. (In a paragraph of not more than 200 words).

(c) Explain the meaning and implications of this Policy or Law.

(d) Present a "Brief" (a defense) of this Policy or Law, designed to convince a legislature.


B -- "Dialogue on Two World-Views,"

(a) Select a controversial issue in Environmental Policy or Philosophy. (See List (a), above).

(b) Construct a dialogue between two radically opposed positions. For Example:

Population: Paul Ehrlich vs. Julian Simon
Wilderness: David Brower vs. Floyd Dominy
Religion and Ecology: Lynn White vs. Paul Santmire
Shallow and Deep Ecology: Gifford Pinchot vs. John Muir
Animal Rights: Tom Regan vs. Baird Callicott
Economics & the Environment: Mark Sagoff vs. William. Baxter.

In this dialogue, display the two points of view, their essential differences, and their points of conflict and agreement (if any). Have each participant criticize the other's position. Be sure that the primary focus is on the philosophical/ethical issues, rather than empirical facts and/or theories.

(c) Late in the dialogue, or in a concluding section of the paper, express your position regarding this controversy. Respond critically to the issues raised in the dialogue, and defend your position with citations and other evidence of independent research.

Note: There is no need to portray faithfully the points of view of actual persons (current or historical). If you prefer, you may present the well-considered and coherent positions of hypothetical proponents


In a sense, everybody has an environmental ethic. Everyone, that is, has an operating pattern of attitudes, feelings and behavior toward the natural environment and future generations. Very few have a critical, informed, or even explicit environmental ethic -- e.g., an ethic with philosophical merit. The overriding objective of this course is to invite you to improve the philosophical merit of your codes of responsibility toward the natural world -- your "environmental ethic."

The following themes are prominent in the course:

  • "The kit of philosophical tools." Early in the course you will be introduced to basic distinctions of moral philosophy such as facts and values, rights and duties, and utility and autonomy. You will also examine such fundamental moral concepts as person and responsibility. Methods of moral deliberation will be briefly examined. Topics in this opening section of the course have been selected for their proven applicability to subsequent material.

  • "The Question of Cognitivism." This is simply the issue of whether or not an environmental ethic can be said to have a rational foundation -- that is to say, whether or how facts and logic have bearing upon competing claims of responsibility toward nature and/or toward the future.

  • "The Anthropocentrism/Eco-Morality Debate." Is "human interest" morally supreme? Or must it, in recognizable circumstances, give way to the interests of other creatures, or even, in some sense, to the "interests" of non-sentient nature?

  • "The Moral Ties that Bind." A major task of moral philosophy is the identification of the restraints that morality places upon our capacities and unreflective impulses. Morality teaches us that there are limits upon our behavior towards other persons, and conversely upon their treatment of ourselves. These limits are conventionally referred to as rights, duties, and obligations. In environmental ethics, we ask if analogous restraints apply to our dealings with other organisms, species, and ecosystems.

  • "The Reductionism/Holism Controversy." Is man's responsibility to nature best understood by examining the "elements" of biological knowledge and of human desire and need, or is such moral insight best acquired by "grasping" the context of the organic man-life- nature system. In brief: do the parts imply the whole, or does the whole inform the parts? This leads directly to the next theme:

  • "Games, Paradoxes and Moral Psychology." Philosophers have long noted that hedonism and egoism are self-defeating -- i.e., that a determined and deliberate search for pleasure ("hedonism") and self-interest ("egoism") is less likely to secure these ends than the pursuit of other-directed objectives. This ancient insight is supported by contemporary research into game theory and moral psychology. Is there an analogous "paradox of anthropocentrism," which indicates that humanity's welfare is best achieved by focusing, not on humanity alone, but also upon the welfare of nature?

  • Principles, Preferences, and Policy. The enduring philosophical question of "what is the nature of the Good" appears in environmental policy as the question, "what Goods should we seek, and what 'Bads' should we avoid, in our collective dealings with the natural environment?" The predominant method of environmental policy analysis is to define these "goods" and "bads" in terms of individual preferences as reflected in economic (or "market") benefits and costs, which in turn reflect "consumer preferences." We will ask if this approach gives sufficient weight to moral principles.

The course is designed to be "open ended." You will be introduced to concepts and methods of critical moral reflection and invited to consider a variety of theories of ecological morality. These "tools" and "approaches" will then be elaborated and tested through their application to specific environmental issues (such as extinction, wilderness preservation, population, pollution, policy-making, the duty to posterity, etc.). Ideally, you will complete the course with an attitude sited comfortably between the apathy of extreme relativism or skepticism, on the one hand, and unyielding dogmatism on the other. This "middle ground," called falliblism, holds that while one is entitled to hold beliefs based upon sound evidence and logic, that belief should always be open to revision or even abandonment in the face of new and stronger evidence and logic.

The course adopts no particular philosophical position. Indeed, the suitability of traditional philosophical perspectives and methods to deal with many environmental issues is open to serious scrutiny. (Many contemporary philosophers have displayed an untypically dogmatic inclination to apply ready and familiar philosophical concepts, methods and notions in their treatment of issues of environmental value and responsibility). It may be true that "environmental ethics" might best be regarded as an extension of traditional ethical theories. But if so, that contention requires validation. It is, in itself, one of the fundamental issues of environmental ethics.

The perspective and approach of this course, then, is foundational. It reflects the assumption that the problems of environmental ethics are grave, urgent, and, in many cases, unprecedented. In addressing these problems, it is assumed that some traditional habits and modes of thought and analysis must be re-evaluated, and in some cases may have to be reconstructed or even discarded and replaced. That option remains open throughout the course.

The formulation of a personal environmental ethic remains, ultimately, your own responsibility. Hopefully, it will be a life-long quest.



The Asterisk (*) Indicates Readings in VanDeVeer and Pierce.
Otherwise, the Selections are in Readings in Environmental Ethics.



1. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction (Partridge)

2. Ethics for Environmentalists

*VanDeVeer and Pierce ("V & P"): "Moral Argument and Ethical Theory
*V&P: "Influential Ethical Ideas and Theories"
Warren/Partridge: "Ethics, Moral Problems and the Concept of the Person."
Partridge: "Can the Environmentalist Escape Philosophy?"

3. Ecology for Ethicists

*Ehrenfeld: "Why put a Value on Biodiversity?
*Wilson: "The Diversity of Life"
*Wilson: "The Little Things That Run the World" / Sidelight
*V&P: "Preview" Degrading the Planet
*Carson: "Silent Spring



5. Anthropocentrism: Man Is the Measure

*Baxter: "People or Penguins. . . "
*Simon: "Can ... Natural Resources Really be Infinite? Yes!"
Hardin: "The Born Again Optimist."
Partridge: "Holes in the Cornucopia"

6. Animal Liberation & Animal Rights

*V&P: "Preview" The Other Animals.
*Singer: "Animal Liberation"
*Regan: "The Case for Animal Rights"
Partridge: "Three Wrong Leads..."

7. Rights of Nature

*Stone: "Should Trees Have Standing?"
Feinberg "The Rights of Animals and Unborn Generations"

8. "Gaia-Centrism" -- The Land Ethic

*Leopold: "The Land Ethic"
Partridge: "The Foundations of Aldo Leopold's 'Land Ethic'"

9. Alternative Views of Environmental Ethics

*Momaday: "Native American Attitudes to the Environment
*V&P: "Preview" Deep Ecology...
*Devall/Sessions: "Deep Ecology"
*Warren: "The Power and Promise of Ecological Feminism"



10. Biophilia: Evolved Needs for Nature

Krieger: "What's Wrong With Plastic Trees?"
Iltis: "Can One Love a Plastic Tree?"
Wilson: "Biophilia"



11. Moral Psychology and the Environment

Partridge: "Are We Ready for an Ecological Morality?"
Feinberg: "The Paradox of Hedonism"
Partridge: "Why Care About the Future?"

12. Responsibility for the Environment

Partridge: "Holism and Contextualism"
*Hardin: "The Tragedy of the Commons"

13. The Significance of Wilderness

Abbey: "Desert Solitaire"
(Several): Literary Reflections on Wilderness
Stegner: "The Wilderness Idea"
Partridge: "Meditations on Wilderness"

14. Economics and the Environment

*V&P: "Preview," Letting the Market Decide.
*Freeman: "The Ethical Basis of the Economic View"
*Sagoff: "At the Shrine of our Lady of Fatima..."
*V&P: "Preview"
*Kellman: "Cost Benefit Analysis: An Ethical Critique"
*Leonard & Zeckhauser: "Cost Benefit Analysis Defended"
Parfit: "An Attack on the Social Discount Rate"
*Daly: "Boundless Bull."

15. The Duty to Posterity

R. & V. Routley: "The Nuclear Train to the Future"
DeGeorge: "The Environment ... & Future Generations"
Partridge: "On the Rights of Future Generations"
Partridge: "Posterity and 'The Strains of Committment'"

16. Summary: An Ecomoralist's Summary and Credo.




Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .