By parallel reasoning with bioethics: toward unity and effectiveness in the theory and practice of environmental ethics
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Whether philosophy can contribute decisively towards alleviating humanity’s pressing environmental predicament I here argue in the affirmative. There are many considerations that challenge my case. Specifically, I show that environmental ethics, the subdiscipline of moral philosophy which was founded on the presumption of this possibility, has faltered. The field threatens to divide between “impractical theoretical” discourses within the academy, and “pragmatic” and largely atheoretical “practical” engagements with environmental science, policy and management.
To help environmental ethics advance beyond this dysfunctional division, I explore methodological comparisons with bioethics, the “most successful field of applied ethics”. My deliberations apply in novel ways Bartha’s model for evaluating the plausibility of scientific hypotheses that incorporate analogies. In an initial test application of Bartha’s model, I evaluate the relevance to environmental ethics of the failure of the “top-down” applied ethics approach in bioethics. I present good reasons to conclude that environmental ethics can indeed learn from this failure. I also conclude that my trial application of Bartha’s model is promising.
I then evaluate two proposals for reforms towards the greater practical effectiveness of environmental ethics. First I evaluate the plausibility of the proposal of Minteer and Collins for a new field of “ecological ethics”. They argue for the adoption of the broadly pragmatic methodological commitments now prevailing in bioethics. Because they focus primarily on supporting individual rather than collaborative processes of ethical judgment, I argue they risk facilitating an ethically pernicious “ecological paternalism” on analogy with the widely condemned practice of medical paternalism.
Second I evaluate Norton’s proposal to incorporate environmental ethics within the adaptive ecosystem management paradigm. By arguing that the tasks of seeking cultural and biophysical sustainability within spatiotemporally defined communities must be integrated, Norton offers a potentially vital interface for intelligent and just interaction between culture and wider nature. I also argue this interface may be of more general relevance to bioethics and moral and political philosophy. However, a significant theoretical challenge for Norton’s sustainability model is identified.
I argue that his model provides a thought experiment which illustrates the conceptual and practical incoherence of the primary liberal mechanisms for managing ethical conflict once these are applied to the sustainability challenge. Those mechanisms are the separation of public and private spheres and the simultaneous pursuit within private spaces of mutually exclusive conceptions of the good (and biophysically sustainable) life. I argue that rectifying this failure defines a vital, albeit daunting, theoretical and practical challenge for environmental ethics. That is to reconceptualise ethical conflict and to help design and facilitate practical processes to achieve sufficient common ethical agreement. Addressing this challenge is beyond the scope of this dissertation. However, some promising work and possibilities for further research are outlined.
I conclude that I have successfully defended the value of analogical comparison with bioethics for enhancing the unity and effectiveness of theory and practice in environmental ethics. I therefore further conclude that I am correct to affirm that philosophy can, and I believe indeed should, contribute more effectively toward alleviating humanity’s pressing environmental predicament.