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Is there such a thing as an ecological ethic?
Abstract disponibile solo in lingua inglese
Western thought has gone from a conception of the man-nature relationship as morally indifferent to the conception that it is morally significant. The ethical thought based on the expansion of the sphere of moral respect towards natural objects has been called "ecological ethic". The term conceals at least two ways of considering the moral value of relations between man and environment. The aim of this article is to discuss these two ways and demonstrate how one is more theoretically plausible than the other.
The supporters of the SEM (Shallow Ecology Movement) use the expression "ecological ethic" to mean something akin to an ethic applied to the environment: that is, not a "new" ethic but only an ethic acquainted with the main problems of the environment. The supporters of the DEM (Deep Ecology Movement), on the other hand, use the same term to mean an ethic that is deduced and obtained from the environment, an ethic for which the environment itself includes ultimate values. This, therefore, is a "new" ethic with new values and hierarchies of values, founded on the ecological notions of the "biotic pyramid", on the "organic unity" of living and non-living beings, and on the "balance of nature" etc. Whereas for the former—the supporters of the SEM—revision of traditional ethical theories suffices to establish man’s duties in the face of the environment (interest for the environment stems from interest for man himself), for the latter—the supporters of the DEM—the real danger is represented by "anthropocentricity", privileged consideration of human beings as opposed to the rest of nature.
The DEM approach appears unconvincing for a series of reasons: a) factual information cannot be regarded as a solution to moral problems; b) the thesis implies the aporia whereby the value of something (nature) is affirmed by denying the value of the only beings (men) that are capable of conferring the value in the first place; c) the DEM melts down ethics and makes it impossible to discern the borderline between "biotic community" and "moral community".
If we avoid these difficulties and contradictions and stay on this side of a human-centred horizon, it is possible—by referring to a series of principles (biological need for nature, manifold uses of nature, conditions of uncertainty and risk, "qualified preferences")—to identify, in contemporary ethical thought, a norm that may be identified as "ecological prudence, or of the species". Even from a utilitarian point of view, this norm reaffirms man’s role as a "moral agent" responsible for other species and for the biosphere.