Lecture 23 Class Notes: Ethics


Ethics: What actors should do – these are pre-analytic decisions

  • One may not be scientific in those value trade-offs, do try to be systematic to try to understand what the existing resources are in a given resource regime
  • Social underlying principles underlie treaties, agreements, institutions (norms, principles, rules, procedures)
  • Can’t say a priori that a given principle is the right one, can say that being more explicit can help in managing decisions and principles.

Principles are generally should statements.

  • Procedures
  • Norms/heuristics

Ethics are the higher level; they encompass principles.

  • Ethics gets at the distribution of benefits and harms
  • Ethical role to assign duties and obligations.

Frames about Ethics:

  • All decisions of consequence unavoidably have some moral or ethical component.
  • There is no single environmental or natural resource ethic
  • Ethics change over time depending on natural resource use, world views, etc. (depend on the conditions/context of the time)
  • To raise questions of ethics or moral behavior is not to moralize, to preach, etc. It's to be more systematic about tradeoffs. It's a tool for the toolbox, a way of framing the problem.

NRE Ethics have three essential components:
1. Have some conception of societal good
2. Some question about the proper and appropriate human role
3. Some concept of what the environment is

Four NRE Ethics:

  1. Dominion: the predominant ethic throughout human history, continues until today
    1. Societal good: use resources fully, don’t let them go to waste
    2. Human role: extract resources and produce that which is useful from the resources
    3. Environment: source of raw materials and a dangerous threat (unexplored wild)
  2. Utilitarian Conservation – (Ecology of Hope reading)
    1. Societal good: greatest good for the greatest number. One should make efficient use of the resource. Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot
    2. Human role: wise use of resources, scientific management
    3. Environment: source of abundance (e.g., forests are endless, can never deplete the forests). Distinction between renewables and non-renewables didn’t exist. Sense that even minerals mined would come back.
  3. Preservation – often went hand-in-hand with utilitarian conservation (around founding of SNRE)
    1. Societal good: have some pristine nature left. It’s a value to society to keep some of that. Inherent beauty in nature un-trampled/unspoiled by humans. Nature operates in some balance.
    2. Human role: set aside tracts of nature. Have portions of the natural world where there’s no human impact
    3. Environment: undisturbed nature
  4. Environmental Protection – Rachel Carson, NEPA, EPA
    1. Societal good: clean environment (previously, smokestack seen as a good sign of progress)
    2. Human role: Reduce pollution, serve as a trustee for the commons
    3. Environment: “the commons” – that which is held in common and for which there is no management structure (high seas, the atmosphere, biodiversity more generally). “Life-support system”

Examples from Cadillac Desert
1. Dominion:

  • (Page 214) – Dominy. Description of Hastings, Nebraska: Nature as a threat, anarchy of nature. Man should exercise as much dominion over the Earth as they can. We are on the Earth to fully use its resources
  • Bernard and Young reading re: TVA. River has many potential assets, can yield power, etc.
  • Page 242, Dominy refers to undammed Colorado River “useless to anyone”; “I’ve seen all the wild rivers I want to see”
  • Page 265, California, development of Colorado River for California use: ridiculous waste from allowing rivers of Northern California spill to the sea unused; unconscionable (wrong) to allow those rivers to go unused.

2. Utilitarian Conservation:

  • Pinchot and Roosevelt supported conservation (not because he liked nature like John Muir) because the timber industry was using all the timber. Utilitarian because it’s the greatest good for the greatest number.
  • p. 417: Colorado Water Conservation Board – booster organization for damming rivers.
  • p. 445: History of relocation of people, many resisted relocation. What the TVA did in 30s, Corps 40, Bureau 70s, they sniffed through community sniffing out avaricious members, spread rumors, give extravagant amounts to first to sell. Society as whole bought into this ethic that it was their obligation to move out when it was time for a dam to be built. Agencies did all this without a sense of shame because they believed they were doing this for the public good. They were preventing floods, offering power and light, feeding a hungry world, etc.
    • Easy to condemn rapacious dam-builders. But, they had their own ethic

3. Preservation

  • p. 283 – David Brower, someone who puts unspoiled nature above the material aspirations of mankind

In a given historical time, each of these make sense

  • In current times, these ethics still exist
  • Understanding the underlying ethical framework can help improve environmental decision-making
    • 1980s: new era for understanding global environmental issues. Need a new ethic that is informed by the global nature of environmental issues and the importance of local particulars and local action.
  • New ethic needed? Sustainability
    • Societal good: saving the life support system
    • Human role: up for debate
    • The Environment: “glocal”


  1. Ethical Decision Making- "The Method of Moral Reasoning"- Larue T. Hosmer
    1. 10 ethical principles. Rework to make more environmental.
      1. 3rd principle “religious injunctions” – rename service to one’s community, at various scales (neighborhood, cultural group, ecological community, etc.).
      2. 10 – “Contributive Liberty” – rational actor perspective, consider one selfish individual. Relational actor model, take self only in the context of embeddedness of relationship to social and biophysical relations.
      3. Can extend the context from business to decisions for society as a whole
  1. Aldo Leopold (1933) - "The Conservation Ethic"
    1. Essence of ethic is in first couple pages, elaborated throughout.
    2. P 181 Can have a biological ethic. Limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence ~~
    3. P 182 – Mode of guidance for meeting challenges
    4. He’s reacting to the extant ethics and pointing to a sustainability ethic.
  1. Ted Bernard and Jora M. Young, “Copernicus” and “Conservation Movement,” from The Ecology of Hope (1997)