Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moral Wrongs, Ecological Evils

As a teacher of ethics for over 20 years now, I’ve always been interested in what sorts of actions students view as morally wrong.  I typically start the semester off with an exercise like the following to get them to think about the scope of ethics and their own moral perspectives:

Which of the following individuals would you describe as behaving in a morally wrong way?  Be prepared to explain what it is about the acts of these individuals that you believe makes them wrong:
I then provide a list of about 20 fairly common activities that most people engage in regularly, beginning with ones that seem obviously wrong to most students:

  • A 17 year old high school junior who frequently gossips and reveals information told to her in confidence.
  • A 21 year old guy who believes that women are simply objects to be used for his pleasure.
  • A 25 year old woman who accidentally gets pregnant after casual sex and opts to have an abortion because she feels that having a baby will prevent her from advancing in her career as a corporate lawyer.
There usually is a great deal of consensus on these kinds of examples.  Most students feel that the individuals in question are wrong because they are causing intentional, direct harm to other human beings.  Occasionally a rare student might argue that the woman in third case is acting morally, because the fetus is not a person and therefore has no moral status.

At this point, some bright student might raise the objection that, even if the fetus can’t be morally harmed, the woman is wrong for the harm that she is causing herself by having casual sex.  This leads to another set of questions like the following:
  • A 27 year old man who has no ambition in life, who still lives in his parents’ house, and who is content to hang out and smoke pot every day rather than trying to be a “productive”  member of the community.
  • A 40 year old man who regularly eats chicken and hamburgers.
As in the case of the woman having casual sex, a student on occasion might argue that these two individuals are wrong if their behavior can be shown to be causing harm to themselves.  The majority of students, however, have argued over the years that the scope of ethics pertains only to harms caused to other human beings, and not to ourselves.   The two men in the above cases therefore, while perhaps imprudent, are not necessarily behaving immorally. 

But in 20 years of teaching ethics, no student has ever stopped to ask if the act of eating chicken and hamburgers in the second case might be wrong, even if the fellow eating them has such an amazing constitution that he can consume all the saturated fat and cholesterol he wants without any adverse impact on his health.  Is there something wrong, in other words with eating animals when other food choices are available?  When raised in class, this question, quite frankly, bewilders almost every student (except the rare vegan or vegetarian who might be in the class).  How can it be wrong to eat animals when animals have no moral status, they wonder?
Just to push the issue, we then go on to the real killers—those cases that usually demonstrate just how little the typical college students thinks about questions of ecological ethics:
  • An affluent 60 year old woman who owns several expensive fur coats and wears them regularly during winter.
  • A teenager who carves the name of his girlfriend in the trunk of a tree so deep in a forest that no one will ever notice it.
What on earth do these sorts of acts have to do with ethics, the students almost always wonder?  Who’s being harmed?  Who’s being wronged?

We know that it is wrong to cause direct intentional harm to other human beings.  If the woman in the first case had stolen her neighbors pet chinchillas to make her coat or the tree in the second case was in a neighbor’s yard, then students would probably argue that these two individuals are wrong because they caused harm to fellow human beings by violating their property rights.  But chinchillas and trees themselves have no rights and have no moral status, so we can do whatever we want with them and it is totally outside the scope of conventional morality.  At least that’s the way that most students look at these kinds of issues.
When I suggest that eating animals or using them for clothing is wrong because animals are sentient beings who have a right not to be subjected to unnecessary cruelty—and what can be more cruel than our American factory and fur farms—the students stare at me as though I were speaking in another language.  It not only confuses them to think that animals might have as much of a moral status as their fellow human beings, but it offends them deeply.  It means that they might be wrong for wearing their favorite leather boots, or going to McDonalds for lunch, or using cosmetics that have been tested on animals.  And that’s simply too much for them. 

And  when we get to the last case of the tree carver,  the bewilderment becomes universal.  Even if one or two students might warm to the idea that inflicting unnecessary pain on an animal is wrong, there is no way in hell that any of them are going to buy the idea that a tree, a mountain, a river, or an estuary has any rights or any moral status.   That is simply too damned extreme. 

And this I believe is the crux of the ecological crisis we are currently facing. 
Americans get the idea that if a company like GE pollutes a river, it should be forced to clean that river up, if it can be demonstrated that the pollution causes harm to human beings.  But climate change, for example, is a much more nebulous position.   The extreme temperatures, droughts, and wildfires that have been experienced all around our country are certainly harmful to human beings, but right-wing pundits have thrown doubt over whether these are indeed the result of climate change.  And, while climate change itself has the potential to cause severe harm to future generations, we don’t know exactly how much harm it will cause or to whom. 

We clear-cut entire forests for timber; we blow off the tops of mountains to get at the coal beneath them; we cram millions of pigs, chickens, and cows into vast factory farms where their waste products pollute rivers and streams, we allow fracking on public lands to extract gas and the chemicals that are used contaminate ground water.  These are ecological evils on a vast scale because they threaten the integrity of entire ecosystems. 

But we need to get to the point where we understand that every time we buy a piece of furniture made of wood that hasn’t been sustainably harvested, every time we cram a piece of chicken into our mouths when other plant-based food sources are available, every time we leave a light on in a room that’s no longer in use, we ourselves are guilty of participating in ecological evils.  Not just wrongful acts that have the potential to cause harm to individuals and groups, mind you, but evils which have the potential to devastate ecosystems, the wildlife that inhabit them, and the quality of life of future generations.

Is this way of thinking about ethics going to make you feel good about yourself?  Probably not.  But unless we start to include animals, trees, rivers, and mountains into our moral discourse we have the extreme likelihood of leaving behind a planet that is ill-suited for reasonable habitation by any species.   And if that’s not an appropriate topic of discussion for any ethics class, I surely don’t know what is.


  1. I agree that we are causing harm to the environment but in any society, we were born to affect the world in some type of way. It is a necessity to cut down trees for important purposes. As bad as it sounds, yes we are hurting the world to take care and satisfy ourselves. Honesty, who really thinks before eating a chicken or cow.... We don't even say we're eating animals. We call it meat...In my opinion, I don't think these points are things we even want to control because they are helping us with our lives. On the other hand, we can definitely improve our act of polluting and using unnecessary electricity.

    -Sunny C.

  2. I agree humans are causing harm to the one planet that we have as far as I know to sustain life. I never took into consideration that the animal products I eat, which is rare, their waste runs into the steams and soaks into the land which pollutes our water as well as cutting into the bed rock for natural gas and also polluting our water. I agree with people should pick up a vegetable based diet and eat vitamins to gain the nutrition lost from not eating meat. This diet would benefit our bodies from having high cholesterol etc. I am trying to pick up a green diet little by little. I am torn when it comes to killing animals for clothing, call it materialistic but I have a real leather jacket which I love. It keeps me warm, and it looks great. I try to forget the fact that an innocent animal had to get killed for my comfort and fashion. Call it mean but I do think survival of the fittest. We humans are higher in the kingdom therefore need to take care of ourselves. I don’t know. I am torn because I can see how protecting animals and water etc. can help save our planet because we all help one another, but on the other hand, humans have to do what they have to do to stay well and alive but do it more green friendly, regarding animals. :-/
    -Antoinette K

  3. The way that humans today are living is not fully acceptable in any way when it comes to being morally right or wrong. A change needs to occur in this world in order for people that are living here to understand and create a better way of living. I think that elections and people who campaign should spend some time focusing on the places we live and the wellbeing of not only the human race, but also animals. I believe that we were put on this earth for a reason and the reasons why this is going on is nothing more than a way for people to make money. Of course we need to eat in order to live, but I believe the root of these issues is the factory owners themselves or the fishermen themselves. They must create a way of live for their families, but I believe they are the root of this ongoing issue. Change is the only constant and I truly think that is what is needed here.

  4. Yes we are causing harm to this world but we just cant avaiod it all of the things that we use we really need them even if we might know the is polluting the earth. For example we can't stop using our cars even though we see how high gas is but we dont have option or is just the we are so used to those stuff even though we know they are affecting us we still used them. Maybe our diets are not the greatest but in one way or another we have to eat what is out there. Of course we need to change but at this point i think i'll be hard because we are accomadate with what we are available with. Olga Ag

  5. Great post, Mike. Looking forward to reading more comments from your students.

  6. Wow professor mike if I might say so. You raise so many good arguments. I agree that humans are causing harm to the environment, there are many proven statistics that show that. I never realized how my diet really affected the planet. Not only does It affect my health (which I know, it's just so hard to diet) but I never thought how it was wrong to that animal. I feel more aware, and would like to trying cutting out how much meat I eat weekly. It's such a tuff subject, because we live off of other animals to take care of ourself. Like eating other animals, using them for warmth. Not saying it's right for killing other animals to benefit us but this has what we've always known, so would extremely difficult to change now! Saying that we have to change is a lot harder than doing it.

    By: Sheika Baksh

  7. I agree that we are definetly causing harm to our planet but at the same time we cannot live with out the resources that we are using. For example the animal meat that we eat, yes we eat should better but at the same time our body need a little of every thing.

    Kadian G.

  8. I do agree that the way we are all living today is causing harm to the environment. But its not easy to change everyones lifestyle and change the way they dress and eat. Its sad to think that you can eat a hamburger or a piece of chicken and not even think twice about it. We look at them as pieces of meat and not a poor innocent animal that was killed. Everyone needs to eat but there are plenty of other choices for us out there. Or even cut down trees every day like its no big deal. This way of life was created for us and its the only way we know how to live. There has to a major change in the world around us because one day we will wake up and have nothing because we are destroying it.

  9. I absolutely agree with the statements in the post & the idea of the ecological "evils" that us as humans bring to ourselves, the Animals & the Environment. My favorite examples in particular are; the fur coat wearing lady, the burger & chicken eating man, the guy carving his girlfriends name in the tree, & the pot smoker who makes that a career & lifestyle of it. These examples would ask if its morally wrong to harm yourself & other beings including animals & trees, which I personally feel is wrong. If one person in a group of four would be the one to dress, eat, live & bring an enviromentally friendly attitude to the rest of their group & show it isn't as hard as it seems, little by little the world'll start changing for the better in many more ways than one.

  10. I believe as humans we are harming the environment. But this is how we were taught to live. We need wood to build houses and furnish them on the inside. We do this so we can protect our families and ourselves. I have never thought about the meat that we eat as animals. For me personally I enjoy eating meat and I don’t think I could stop that. As a society we do use way too much electric. I know in my house we are always leaving lights on when we go out. We are wasting so much. There are so many changes that we should do to help the environment but not everyone is willing to change.

  11. This article highlights many important things that I believe we all forget about now and days. I myself never posed the question of what about others not just humans. The examples shown in this article are very eye opening because many times I myself am guilty of leaving the light on in my room when I am not there. Stopping little things like that can really help our planet prosper. Letting others know of this issues and making them known as morally unacceptable can help stop the problems we are causing to the planet and help society unite for a good cause. Taking a deeper look and having someone like an ethics teacher help guide you by proposing questions that can be morally wrong can help open a student’s eyes. This article is very useful in learning about our surroundings.

  12. In reading the article, I agree with you that to one degree or another all of the examples had an action that would be considered morally wrong. I have to confess, I do like to eat meat but you are right, the killing of animals is cruel and morally wrong. Doing anything such as cutting down trees is hurting our planet. If we don't look and think deep into the things we do everyday, our planet will not survive. I definitely see what you are saying in all of the responses to the examples. It makes me think about my day to day activities and whether what I am doing in contributing to the destruction of our ecological system or whether what I do could be morally wrong or right.

  13. The way I was brought up was having electricity, eating meat, and cutting up wood to make fires. I think that generation after generation are doing these things which is making it "okay" for us to do. I do agree with you that it is morally wrong and is hurting our planet but I feel like this is what everyone has been doing for years and years and years and its hard to just take that away from them. Not everyone is willing to make a change and give up meat or stop cutting trees down to make fires to keep there house warm. As a society we use electricity was to much...thats is one of the many problems.
    -Sam B.

  14. Yes, humans are causing harm to the planet we live in, and i do agree with killing an innocent animal for our own pleasure and satisfaction is wrong. however humans were raised with this being normal to them. Most people don't eat meat and think their meat is a dead innocent animal, we are so used to the way we live that it is very difficult for us to change so fast. however everyone should begin with stuff they can do daily that wont harm the plant and is not so hard for them to do.

    Yelena M.

  15. I do believe that we need to treat animals, plants and our environment better. When I watched a video in high school about how fast food restaurants treat their animals I was repulsed and swore never to eat McDonald again but that doesn’t mean I don’t eat meat. And when I learned about how we destroy our environment by drilling, cutting and caring little about the planet I promised to do my part. But I don’t know if you could convinced billions of people to change their ways and to try to reduce the amount of destruction towards this planet. Since animals and plants do not have a voice to tell about the pain we are inflicting on them people do not stop to think about it. I know I do it too. I think as human beings we have to appreciate our plant and animals and all it offers us in a respectful way. We need to cut down on the amount of animals we kill and trees we cut down. Do I think we could stop entirely? No but we have to at less try to reduce it. It would be immoral not to after knowing how it affects our world and ourselves.

  16. As a child we are often taught to treat others as we would want to be treated. Now this statement is a valid staple in our morality, but we rarely take out environment into consideration. I must admit I am guilty of this injustice to my planet as well. Many people like myself have looked at our world as a necessity rather than gift that must be treasured. The environment deserves to be treated with just as much care as we would show our own family members. Only after a month of attending your class, i can't stop analyzing every action i make. Changing the way our world thinks surely isn't going to happen over night, but a start would be to educate students like us on these types of issues.

  17. I agree with many things said here. Many people including myself do not take into precaution the little things that may have a big difference. Like eating a piece of chicken or buying a new piece of furniture. I do understand that it is morally wrong, but at the same time it is more on the extreme side to think about every single thing you do before you do it, that just may make you go crazy. They're many great point brought up with strong meaning. I honestly think it would be a very difficult thing for all the harm to the environment to come to a halt, but change is always happening. Hopefully in future generations alternative methods for using animal products and harming the environment will be made. You never know what can happen and what can evolve, change is constant.

  18. I truly believe these ideals should be the norm. They are not too much to ask. Like any tool, the earth needs maintenance. If we continue to use and abuse it there will be nothing left. - Craig Calderone

  19. I definitely agree with this article the only issue is I feel like people don't go around basing their everyday life decisions saying to themselves "Is what I'm doing helping or saving the environment?" Honestly before this class I never put that much thought into thinking about how I myself am damaging the environment. A lot of good points are made in this article and I think that not just the students taking this class but everyone should really be confronted with these environmental issues.
    -Alexandra P.

  20. The world today has changed drastically, and we are accustomed to our daily routines. Whether they are correct or incorrect, moral or immoral, we are already so deeply used to this way of life that their is no change in it now. I wish their was a way to show people the right way of living, yet in today's society there is just simply bad habbits. Unfortunatley, this is the way we live.

    -Gabriella A.

  21. Humans cause a great deal of harm to the planet. I do believe that killing animals for clothes is unnecessary and cruel. I also do not agree with the way animals are treated in milk factories or slaughter houses. Although I don’t agree with these practices I still drink milk and eat meat. It is hard to let go of the foods I have grown up with. However; I am currently trying to make my diet greener. I never considered that the chair I am currently sitting on was chopped down immorally. It makes me question a lot of products I am using in my life. I don’t hold a tree to the same value as a human but for us to save our planet everything should be treated equally with no harm.
    -Brenna D

  22. As a society we do things that are morally wrong everyday even without thinking about it. I know in my own culture eating meat is basically an everyday thing, but it is wrong to kill an animal but it's even worse having them try to survive in a place where there is over population of their kind. Trees do get cut down a lot just to make more buildings and businesses which is wrong because we are killing the little oxygen that we do have. Although we cut down trees to make space for companies we do recycle the wood that is being cut down, but that doesn't justify what we are doing. We all use something that does harm the environment everyday and will in the long run cause severe damage to other generations.


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