20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Philosophy and the Environment

Case-Based Environmental Ethics

Jack Weir
Morehead State University

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: Cases have been widely used in medical ethics and law. In both fields, numerous books and articles about cases have appeared, including book-length catalogs of cases. I argue that pluralistic casuistry provides an adequate approach to environmental ethics. It retains the strengths while avoiding the weaknesses of the other approaches. Importantly, it resolves some broader theoretical issues and provides a clear, explicit methodology for education and praxis.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

Cases have been widely used in medical ethics and law. In both fields, numerous books and articles about cases have appeared, including book-length catalogs of cases. What I propose to do in this paper is to discuss whether environmental ethics should be case-based as in law and medicine.

The relationship of cases to theory has received intense scholarly debate. At issue is which takes priority. A similar situation exists in the sciences, as well as in most other disciplines. There are the so-called "pure" or "research" scientists, and also the "applied" or "practical" scientist. Field biologists, conservation biologists, restoration ecologists, landscape engineers, sylvantologists, and so on, are applied scientists. Which takes priority: theory or application? What I want to discuss is whether environmental ethics, like medicine and law, would benefit from case-based methodology.

The long-term aim is to develop an approach to ethics that will help resolve contemporary issues regarding animals and the environment. In their classical formulations and as recently revised by animal and environmental ethicists, mainstream Kantian, utilitarian, and virtue theories have failed adequately to include either animals or the environment, or both. The result has been theoretical fragmentation and intractability, which in turn have contributed, at the practical level, to both public and private indecision, disagreement, and conflict. Immensely important are the practical issues; for instance, at the public level: the biologically unacceptable and perhaps cataclysmic current rate of species extinctions, the development or preservation of the few remaining wilderness areas, the global limitations on the sustainable distribution of the current standard of living in the developed nations, and the nonsustainability and abusiveness of today's technologically intense crop and animal farming. For individuals in their private lives, the choices include, for example: what foods to eat, what clothing to wear, modes of transportation, labor-intensive work and housing, controlling reproduction, and the distribution of basic and luxury goods. What is needed is an ethical approach that will peacefully resolve these and other quandaries, either by producing consensus or by explaining the rational and moral basis for the continuing disagreement.

The basic strategy will be to present criticisms of the theoretical approaches, and then an exposition and defense of the case-based approach to ethics. There are three main theories in contemporary ethics: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. All three theories have been developed both in general as normative theories, and in particular as they apply to animals and the environment. I will argue that the theories are not completely mistaken but that they are inadequate in scope. Each theory emphasizes important appeals that in some particular instances (cases) may be determinative. In other words, I will argue that a case-based approaches preserves what is best in the other approaches.

The main issue emerging from the debates over Utilitarianism (that is, theories like Peter Singer's and John Passmore's) is whether animals and the environment have the kind of value that would prohibit using them as mere means for human ends (or as "anthropocentric resources," as environmental ethicists prefer to say). Even if it is agreed that such usage should not be wanton and so must be justified, still at issue is whether the resulting ethic will be adequate to prohibit environmental abuse and cataclysm, and to guarantee long-term sustainability and biodiversity.

The deontological theories (such as Tom Regan's and Paul Taylor's) fail to include the non-living components of the environment, except as instrumental resources or as defeasible and tradeable intrinsic goods. The theories provide no way to resolve actual conflicts among individual entites allegedly having equal inherent value. No explanation is given for why psychological criteria (namely, sentience, consciousness, self-consciousness, and rationality) do not entail superior moral status and commensurate deontological constraints.

Deontological constraints are not entailed by ecosystemic holism, despite the contentions of Holmes Rolston, Baird Callicott, and others (including myself in earlier papers). To the contrary, ecosystemic holism reduces to a consequentialism of pluralistic intrinsic good, albeit ecosystemically and holistically conceptualized. Prioritizing the ecosystemic community and its commensurate virtues will entail to some extent the subordination of individual autonomy to holistic ecosystemic ends, which subordination has been labeled "fascist" by Regan.

My criticisms of Utilitarian, Deontological, and Virtue theories will show that each theory in isolation is inadequate as a comprehensive theory of environmental ethics. Nevertheless, each theory has important contributions to make. What is needed is a theory that will incorporate their strengths while avoiding, or at least compensating for, their weaknesses.

Pluralistic casuistry provides an adequate theoretical structure and practical methodology for animal and environmental ethics. I will do this by explaining and analyzing pluralistic casuistry, by arguing that it coherently includes animals and the environment, and by showing how it incorporates the strengths and resolves the weaknesses in the other approaches.

The two leading contemporary casuistries are: (1) Jonsen and Toulmin, and (2) Brody. For my purposes, what is important in Toulmin is the Aristotelian distinction between epistemé and phronesis. I think that Brody's theory is better due to its reliance on multiple appeals, employment of Ross's notion of judgment, and ability to explain disagreement and intractability.

Brody's theory is structurally similar to the scientific method. Analogous to science: cases provide (i) data, from which (ii) generalizations are constructed, which generalizations then are combined into (ii) theoretical appeals. For Brody, these theoretical appeals are five: (1) consequences, (2) prima facie duties, (3) respect (Brody's term for the Kantian notion of treating all persons as ends, as equals), (4) virtue (integrity is major importance here), and (5) distributive justice. Because of his reliance upon five appeals, Brody calls his theory "pluralistic casuistry." Importantly, theory is case-driven, although the analysis of new cases is admittedly and explicitly theory-laden in the sense that the moral agent is attuned to the five appeals. Also, subsequent cases either confirm theory or lead to revision of theory. As in the sciences, occasionally an anomaly will occur. All this is similar to scientific methodology, and is as it should be because the methodology is inductive, not deductive.

Pluralistic casuistry makes the following responses to the central problems among animal and environmental ethicists. Using animals and the environment as resources is an important and necessary consequentialist moral appeal. We must use the environment if we are to have even basic necessities. Yet, consequence-based environmental ethics fails to include adequate constraints against short-term and local (non-holistic) profit-taking. In pluralistic casuistry, these constraints are provided by a pluralism of moral appeals, namely: long-term sustainability (including future generations of living individuals and species); psychological criteria (sentience, consciousness, self-consciousness, and rationality); the intrinsic value of both the living and non-living components of ecosystems; and the instrumental and intrinsic value of ecosystems as wholes.

My major criticism of the duty-based theories (deontologies) of Regan, Taylor, Rolston, and Callicott is that these approaches lack an adequate theoretical structure and practical methodolgy for resolving actual conflicts of duties. In contrast, pluralistic casuistry adequately resolves such conflicts in one of three ways. First, some cases ("easy" ones) will fit clearly within a particular appeal and its paradigmatic cases. Second, some cases will involve multiple appeals and paradigmatic cases. At issue will be how to balance the multiple appeals and paradigmatic cases. Following Ross and Brody, I will argue that a judgment must be made in these instances of conflict, and that the judgment is fallible and revisable. Importantly, the notion of making a judgment explains why disagreement sometimes occurs in such cases among morally good persons who are equally well informed. Finally, some cases ("hard" ones) may be irresolvable and intractable. Yet, when praxis necessitates, a judgment must be made. A strength of casuistry, I think, is that it explains the intractability and the limited and fallible moral authority for such difficult decisions.

Finally, I would like to conclude by briefly indicating how an environmental ethic based on pluralistic casuistry would enter into and respond to two broader theoretical concerns. First, Callicott holds that his Humean theory is found in Aldo Leopold. I think that an exposition of Leopold's works would show that Leopold was actually using pluralistic casuistry. The issue here is importantly theoretical and not merely historical-expository. Leopold was a trained scientist and worked extensively as a field biologist in wildlife management and forestry. He was familiar with scientific methodologies (data, confirmation of generalizations, and theory construction), not philosophical and moral theorizing. Moreover, in debates over public policy, he pluralistically appealed to whatever theory (whether biological, evolutionary, ecosystemic, moral, economic, political, and so on) that suited his needs. His methodology is arguably case-driven, not theory-driven, even tacitly. Because pluralistic casuistry is case-driven and inductive, it provides a clearer and more objective theoretical structure and practical methodology than Callicott's Humean sentimentalism.

Second, if time permitted, I would argue that the contemporary debate between Norton and Callicott over anthropocentrism is misleading. Focusing on anthropocentrism oversimplifies exceeding complicated theoretical issues. In an article soon to be published, Kristin Shrader-Frechette enters into the fray and sides with Callicott against Norton. She argues that Norton's pragmatic theory of environmental ethics is vague, fails to provide adequate guidance in praxis, and entails relativism. My concern here is the one pointed out by Aristotle two-thousand years ago: ethics is an inexact and practical science. Until we have a comprehensive, monistic theory of ethics and everyone accepts that theory as true, we must allow for disagreement-for pluralism and a certain amount of relativism. Case-based environmental ethics allows for an appropriate place for humans in the world's ecology, and explains why a certain amount of relativism and pluralism are necessary in ethics.

To summarize: I have argued that pluralistic casuistry provides an adequate approach to environmental ethics. It has the strengths and avoids the weaknesses of the other approaches. Also, it resolves some broader theoretical issues and provides a clear, explicit methodology for guiding praxis.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Brody, Baruch A. 1988. Life and Death Decision Making. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jonsen, Albert R., and Toulmin, Stephen. 1988. The Abuse of Casuistry. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Norton, Bryan G. 1995. "Why I Am Not a Nonanthropocentrist: Callicott and the Failure of Monistic Inherentism." Environmental Ethics 17 (Winter 1995): 341-58.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage