Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics

Nature


INTRODUCTION

When Paul TaylorʹsRespect for Naturewas published in 1986, it was an intellectually liberating event. Environmental ethics was a young field very much in search of its identity. While animals were on the academic agenda thanks to Peter Singer and Tom Regan, it was far from clear how to think sensibly about our moral relations with nonsentient nature. Environmental ethics had an uncertain relationship both to the academic world and to the environmental movement, sometimes seeming to combine the obscurantism of the former with the dogmatism of the latter. It is revealing that what were probably the two best...

Environmental ethics is concerned with the moral relations that hold between humans and the natural world. The ethical principles governing those relations determine our duties, obligations, and responsibilities with regard to the Earthʹs natural environment and all the animals and plants that inhabit it. I shall use the term ʺthe natural worldʺ to refer to the entire set of natural ecosystems on our planet, along with the populations of animals and plants that make up the biotic communities of those ecosystems.

The idea of a natural ecosystem as it is to be understood in this book means any collection of...

In this and the following two chapters the three main components of the theory of environmental ethics which I call ʺRespect for Natureʺ will be considered in turn. The first component is the moral attitude of respect itself. In the present chapter I shall offer an analysis of what it means for moral agents to adopt such an attitude toward the natural world and make it their own ultimate moral attitude. The second component consists of the biocentric outlook on nature. In the next chapter this belief-system, which constitutes a unified, coherent view of the world and of the place...

The attitude we think it appropriate to take toward living things depends on how we conceive of them and of our relationship to them. What moral significance the natural world has for us depends on the way we look at the whole system of nature and our role in it. With regard to the attitude of respect for nature, the belief-system that renders it intelligible and on which it depends for its justifiability is the biocentric outlook. This outlook underlies and supports the attitude of respect for nature in the following sense. Unless we grasp what it means to accept...