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Frontiers of Environmental Ethics

  • J. Baird Callicott
  • Andrew Light
  • Clare Palmer

Frontiers of Environmental Ethics

“Animal Ethics, Wild and Domestic”

  • Clare Palmer, Associate Professor, Philosophy and Environmental Studies
  • Washington University in St Louis
  • September, 26, 2008
  • March 26, 2010, 8 p.m.
  • Imholte 109


What are our duties with respect to wild animals? Do we have a moral obligation to treat their diseases, or to feed them through hard winters? Most people think not. Yet, at the same time, most people do accept that we have duties to care for, feed, and provide medical treatment to our pets and agricultural animals. But how could such different duties be justified? Generally, arguments about animal ethics center on animal capacities: do they feel pain? Can they reason? But it's very difficult to find a justification based on animal capacities for distinguishing between what's morally owed to wild and to domestic animals. So, this paper takes a different approach. While accepting that animals' capacities are important, especially with respect to causing harm, I argue that our obligations to assist an animal vary according to its context and its relation to humans. So, I'll maintain, we can consistently take a laissez-faire attitude to assisting wild animals, while at the same time thinking that we should assist domesticated animals. And, I'll suggest, this contextual argument also helps us think through any obligations we might have to feral animals and to other animals with whom we interact in the human/animal 'contact zone'.

“From the Land Ethic to the Earth Ethic: Aldo Leopold in a Time of Climate Change”

  • J. Baird Callicott, Professor, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
  • University of North Texas
  • September 27, 2008, 5 p.m.
  • Imholte 109


Aldo Leopold's “The Land Ethic,” published in 1949, is the seminal source for the subsequent development of environmental ethics as a subdiscipline of philosophy, beginning in the 1970s and growing exponentially ever since. The Leopold land ethic is also the environmental ethic of choice among natural resource managers, conservation biologists, and other applied environmental sciences. The land ethic, however, is scaled to local biotic communities and regional ecosystems: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”—wrote Leopold. The over-riding environmental concern of the present century, however, is global climate change. The land ethic cannot be coherently scaled up to a planetary scale—which is unfortunate, because of the enormous cache of the Leopold brand. Fortunately, however, Leopold sketched an "earth ethic" based on an anticipation of the Gaia Hypothesis in 1923, urging respect for the whole Earth as a living being. Like the land ethic, the earth ethic is holistic and nonanthropocentric, although Leopold also expresses concern for "unknown posterity" (future human generations). Its scientific foundation is biogeochemistry, not community ecology. Its philosophical foundation is more Kantian than Humean.

“Ethics and Climate Change”


With the effective end of the debate in the U.S. over the basic science of climate change, and the dramatic shift in our political response to this issue, we are now witnessing an impressively aggressive push to establish a national price structure on carbon and move toward negotiation of a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol. Combining those two efforts with the current global economic crisis is producing a perfect storm of climate policy. It is a commonplace in discussions of climate change to call it one of, if not the most, important moral problems of our day. But will there actually be a role for ethicists in meeting the pressing demands of a global response to climate change? After reviewing the current state of work on the ethics of climate change I will argue that if ethicists want to be part of this process then it will require the creation of new methodologies for doing philosophy. Just as a "clinical" form of bioethics emerged when ethicists had the opportunity to work directly with medical patients we need a new form of climate ethics -- more nimble, inherently interdisciplinary, and empirically based -- if we want to be part of the resolution of this critical problem.