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Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP)

Ethics for Environment and Development

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It is difficult to deny the seriousness of the environmental and development issues that we are currently facing. But what is the root cause of these problems? Environmental and development philosophers believe that we need to take a long, hard look at our relationships with both other humans and with the non-human world and ask ourselves some searching questions. For example, can we reasonably extend the concern we show for other human beings to non-human nature? Do we have responsibilities to provide a clean, safe environment for as yet unborn and unknown future generations, or should we be more concerned with environmental justice for the existing current generation? At what point does our use and necessary interaction with nature become abuse? To what extent is it justified to allow environmental degradation in order to drive economic growth and to relieve poverty? And how can contemporary global problems – such as climate change and biodiversity loss – be tackled in a just and equitable manner?

These questions are very far from merely academic. The way we view the world and the moral frameworks that we use to make decisions have very real impacts on other human communities and on the non-human world. This module aims to unpick and understand better the decisions that we take by looking at some of the work that has been done in the academic fields known as ‘development ethics’ and ‘environmental ethics’, and apply them to understanding key issues in areas such as sustainable development policy, environmental management and corporate ethics.

The module is designed to be accessible to those who do not come from a social science background – no prior knowledge of philosophy is necessary before attempting this module. The module aims to assist students to think more clearly about their attitude towards, and the decisions that they take that affect, other human communities and the non-human world, and to understand better the arguments that others, who may hold opposing views, can make. People can often make sweeping statements or hold assumptions about the world that, under scrutiny, they find difficult to defend. This module aims to provide students with the tools to construct and support with rational arguments and relevant examples their position with regard to development and environmental issues with an ethical dimension.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

By the end of this module, students should be able to:

  • discuss critically the ethical dimensions of key issues that relate to sustainable development, poverty reduction, environmental management and corporate responsibility
  • make connections and recognise inter-dependencies between the issues associated with environmental and development ethics
  • recognise, specify and interpret the underlying ethical arguments used by a range of commentators on a particular environmental or development issue
  • demonstrate critical understanding of issues of ethical pluralism and evaluate the quality of arguments containing ethical dimensions
  • construct clear, reasoned and consistent arguments based on sound ethical principles, and understand the main limitations of ethical frameworks.

Scope and syllabus

The module is arranged in three main parts. The first group of units starts in Unit 1 with an introduction to some of the central questions that concern moral philosophers. Units 2 and 3 then examine the fields of applied ethics dealing with development and environmental ethics, respectively. The next part of the module comprises Units 4–7, which cover the main ethical theories (utilitarianism and consequentialism, deontology, justice and equity, and virtue ethics, respectively) and applies them to a range of development and environmental issues. The final part of the module, Units 8–10, attempts to build on the preceding units by addressing some of the key questions which concern environmental and development ethicists, such as defining the boundaries of our moral responsibility and identifying paths for development that both respect a diversity of ethical views and yet work towards fulfilling common goals values. Throughout the module, important ideas and themes will recur and, hopefully, as you progress through the units you will develop confidence and competence in handling these key concepts.

Unit 1: Introduction to ethics
Unit 2: Development ethics
Unit 3: Environmental ethics
Unit 4: Utilitarianism and Consequences
Unit 5: Duties and Rights
Unit 6: Justice and Equity
Unit 7: Virtues and Character
Unit 8: The Scope of our Responsibilities
Unit 9: Finding Value in Nature
Unit 10: Freedom, Democracy and Sustainable Development

Module sample

P563 module uses a core text which is specially written and will take you through your self-directed study. Exercises, assignments and other activities, such as self-assessment questions, film clips and animations are included to help you with learning. Most module study guides are now provided in electronic format on a USB flash memory stick, but can also be downloaded from the online learning environment. Click the linked image below to view a sample of our e-study guide:

Suggested reading

  • Traer, R. (2013) Doing Environmental Ethics. 2nd edition. Boulder, Colorado Westview Press.
  • Wraight, C.D (2011) The Ethics of Trade and Aid: Development Charity or Waste? London, Continuum.