This page lists a few reviews of Robin Attfield's books; more will be added.
First there are three reviews of Robin's VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION TO ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS - one by Workineh Kelbessa of the University of Addis Ababa and then one by Alan York, followed by one from Patrick Riodan of Campion Hall, Oxford. This short introduction is accessible to the lay reader and well worth buying.
(Below see John Nightingale's review of ETHICS AN OVERVIEW and John's review of WONDER, VALUE AND GOD)
Click her for some endorsements of ETHICS AN OVERVIEW
Workineh Kelbessa's review of Environmental Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, by Robin Attfield,
2018, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 137 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-879716-6
Robin Attfield discusses the environmental problems that humanity is facing today, and the contribution that
environmental ethics can make to ethical and sustainable management of our
environment. He argues that the human community has to act now – in a range of
more or less radical ways - to avert environmental catastrophe. His primary aim
is to establish the conclusion that human beings have a direct moral obligation
to care for the environment. He defends the claims that we are “stewards” or
“trustees” of the earth – and that the idea of stewardship is compatible with a
secular conception of morality (in particular with biocentric consequentialism
and perhaps other views too) as well as with the three great world religions
(Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Attfield further aims to show that the same
conclusion about a direct obligation to care for the earth can be supported by
or at least can cohere with many other incompatible worldviews or philosophies
(religious and secular). His philosophical project is important because the
environmental crisis affects the whole earth and requires a response from the
whole human community.
One attractive feature of the book is the way in which its eight chapters address or draw on each other.
Chapter 1, “Origins,” outlines environmental problems, the origin of
environmental ethics and major themes and issues arising in environmental
ethics. It is to be recalled that philosophical ethics before the 1970s tended
to neglect practical issues and to focus on the analysis and clarification of
The work of Aldo Leopold in 1949, Rachel Carson in 1962, and others influenced environmental thinkers and
philosophers to reconsider the human-nature relationship. Consequently,
environmental ethics began as an academic subject in a cluster of writings of
the early 1970s. Most of these writings advocated moving from anthropocentrism
(an approach which accords moral standing to human beings alone) to a
non-anthropocentric approach (which recognizes the moral standing of non-human
Chapter 2, “Some Key Concepts,” analyses different concepts relevant to environmental ethics and other ethical
fields. Chapter 3 focuses on future generations, identifying and analysing
different theories about their moral standing. Following Derek Parfit, Attfield argues persuasively that the
non-identifiability of most future people should not prevent the current
generation from having responsibilities to whoever will live in the foreseeable
future, as its future-related duties are not owed to particular individuals
only. He also argues that humanity should pay attention to the needs of
non-humans, partly because they can outlive humanity, and contribute to the
preservation of life on earth if and when humanity has left the scene.
Chapter 4 explains a series of different accounts of right action and evaluates these competing accounts. He
discusses how different theories (the contract model, virtue ethics,
deontological ethics, and consequentialism) deal with future generations, inter-species
equity, and the well-being of non-human animals and other creatures. According
to Attfield, among normative theories, consequentalist versions of biocentrism
are better grounded to address the concerns of future generations than
deontology, contractarianism, or virtue ethics. It should be noted that
Attfield defends biocentric consequentialism over egalitarian biocentrism.He
explains clearly why egalitarian biocentrism makes the survival and life of
human beings impossible, as they cannot even protect themselves from dangerous
animals and viruses.
Most biocentrists including Attfield hold the view that only individual living beings have intrinsic value.
However, Holmes Rolston III, John Baird Callicott and other ecocentrists do not
accept this view. Some ecocentrists including Rolston think that individual
living creatures, species and ecosystems have intrinsic value.
In Chapter 5, Attfield turns to “Sustainability and Preservation”. After briefly explaining the meaning of the
term “sustainability” and the achievements of Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs), he briefly outlines the conditions that led to the establishment of
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Attfield advises all parties to
use the Precautionary Principle which states that we should act so as to avoid
preventable disasters even in the absence of scientific consensus. Attfield
also states that global citizenship should be in place to address “the
worldwide and systemic nature of environmental problems” (p. 70).
Under the section on “Forms and Limits of Preservation”, Attfield discusses restoration of an ecosystem to its
condition prior to human intervention. Although his proposal that newly
introduced species which threaten the continued existence of the species
present before their introduction in different countries should be removed (p.
75) is theoretically acceptable, it is important to appreciate that there are
many cases in which such a policy would cause very serious social problems. In
Ethiopia, for example, eucalyptus and other species could not be removed
without introducing alternative species. Many peasant farmers in Ethiopia have
used eucalyptus trees as an important source of income although they have been
environmentally destructive. The most important question here is: what should
we do when the need to alleviate poverty clashes with the need to respond to
Chapter 6 briefly explores the contributions of some social and political movements including Deep Ecology,
Ecofeminism, Social Ecology, the Environmental Justice Movement, and the Green
movement to environmental ethics. Attfield concludes that the above mentioned
social and political movements can serve as correctives to each other and
contribute to the well-being of non-human creatures, intra- and
intergenerational justice, and obligations to future generations and to the
Chapter 7, “Environmental Ethics and Religion”, discusses the place of nature in different world religions.
Attfield claims that Christianity is not a human-centred religion. He defends
his position by citing the Old Testament and Jesus’ concern for the birds of
the air and the lilies of the field. After citing various examples, Attfield
concludes that Christianity, Judaism and Islam have adopted stewardship.
Attfield also acknowledges that celebrations of nature are found in different religions including in Confucianism,
Buddhism, African and indigenous American religions. Unlike colonial
anthropologists and other Western environmental philosophers, Attfield has
acknowledged the contribution of African religion to environmental
Perhaps the last chapter on “The ethics of climate change” is the most interesting chapter of the book. Attfield
makes a compelling case about the consequences of climate change and ethical
principles that can help humanity to address this problem. One virtue of this
chapter is that it provides an incredibly detailed survey of arguments against
and for the reality of increases in levels of carbon dioxide and other
“greenhouse gases” in the atmosphere, the allocation of entitlements to emit
greenhouse gases and responsibilities to pay for mitigation, adaptation, and
compensation, climate engineering and grounds for climate action.
Attfield is seeking a conception of our relation to nature that can be shared by people who endorse widely
different worldviews – and on which we have moral obligations not only to each
other and to certain kinds of non-human animals, but to all life-forms and to
the natural environment itself. He takes
this to be an important project because he takes genuinely united actions
against, for instance, climate change and poverty to be pre-conditions of
success in responding to environmental problems.
This book is an engaging, accessible book, one that both academics from various disciplines and
environmental ethicists will appreciate and benefit from; it offers something
of value for everyone who hopes to contribute to a
socially and environmentally sustainable and peaceful world. In particular,
this book will be essential reading to environmental ethicists, development
ethicists, practitioners and students engaged in the fields of environment,
development, global governance, climate change and climate justice. Environmental Ethics therefore
constitutes a timely intervention and provides a broad platform to inform and
stimulate further debate and research.
Department of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University, P.O. Box 150012, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; email:
Review by Alan York of Robin's VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION TO ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
This very readable book is a survey of the wide range of questions that faces anyone who thinks seriously about our environment and the future of the planet. Robin Attfield is a professor of philosophy at Cardiff University, and brings to the subject the depth of understanding and analysis of a professional philosopher, as well as the perspective of a Quaker - he is a member of Cardiff Meeting. If ethics is at least partly about the way we treat others, then the question arises, the author would say, as to what constitutes 'others: All of humanity is included. But does 'all' include future generations as well? Does it include all sentient beings - all animals, birds, fish, and then all living creatures such as insects, slugs and coral reefs? Do we include plant life, so that the net includes all living things? Attfield quotes the US philosopher Kenneth Goodpaster to distinguish between moral consideration and moral significance. A tree, for example, may be something to be given moral consideration, but a tree may have less moral significance than a human child, say, or a squirrel. Attfield considers various key concepts in depth - 'nature, the environment' and 'value - ranging across the ideas of various writers in the history of philosophy. He also looks at various social and political movements and their contributions to the `The influence discussion. Deep ecology, cal-feminism, social of religion on ecology, the environmental all of this is justice movement and the green political movements significant!. The influence of religion on all of this is significant. Judaeo-Christian attitudes to nature, where the world is sometimes seen as 'made for man', are counterbalanced by notions of stewardship which exist in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as well as by parallel notions in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religious traditions. Climate change is the most serious ecological problem facing humanity. The risk exists of human activity bringing about catastrophic change, leading to further existential risks for future human generations and numerous other species of living things. We have, thus, a moral responsibility for what we have brought about. 'There is the author says, 'a strong ethical case for vigorous and concerted action to mitigate climate change Indeed, the fact of climate change is a key test-case for environmental ethics, exemplifying all the themes past philosophers have brought into the discussion. Anthropocentric ethics will not be enough. The future of the planet, says Attfield, and all its species, is at stake. Everyone interested in the environment and the possibility of impending catastrophe should read this book.
Review by Patrick Riordan of Environmental Ethics. A Very Short Introduction. By
Robin Attfield. Pp. 137, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, £7.99.
This is a timely addition to Oxford’s series of Very Short Introductions. The
author, Robin Attfield, is a recognized authority in the field, with several
books on environmental ethics to his credit. As befits an introduction, the
material is presented in a manner designed to help the reader to gain an
overview of issues and debates in the field. There are eight chapters,
beginning with a brief history of the subject. Key concepts are explained in
one chapter and others deal with future generations, moral theories,
sustainability, social and political movements, the connection with religious
perspectives, and the issue of climate change. With each chapter there is a
brief list of references and suggestions for further reading.
Like any introductory work on ethics the author is obliged to provide a survey
of the principal moral theories to be found in the literature on environmental
ethics, including contractarian, deontological, consequentialist and virtue
ethics. While Attfield prefers a modified consequentialism, he acknowledges the
positive contributions that can be made from the various perspectives and
avoids the familiar trap of having to choose a single theory type as the
correct approach. He emphasises the values at stake in environmental ethics and
his consideration of the complexity of goods deserving respect modifies the
consequentialism adopted. Intrinsic value is widely present in the wellbeing of
both human and nonhuman creatures and should be considered in ethical decision
making. If moral theory focuses on the consequences of action, the range of
relevant impacts must be comprehensive and for this Attfield offers a discussion
of intrinsic value (chap. 2). ‘Things are valuable when there are reasons to
promote, preserve, protect, or respect them.’
While he surveys (56-59) the various relevant accounts of intrinsic value as a
series of ‘isms’—anthropocentrism, sentientism (Singer), biocentrism and
ecocentrism—it is noticeable that this selection contains a bias in favour of
living things. A broader perspective such as that proposed by Scott A. Davison, On
the Intrinsic Value of Everything (London: Continuum 2012), might be more fruitful for environmental ethics. As that title
suggests, everything is considered to have intrinsic value, and this is coupled
with the idea that intrinsic value is present in things in varying degrees.
Davison supports Attfield’s basic position that an account of the goods in
question has priority in environmental ethics, countering the predominance of
moral theories. But the more comprehensive account of intrinsic value could be
beneficial. It would provide a background theory of value to answer the
questions raised by Attfield about the intrinsic value of ecosystems, which
lack clear identity since they are always changing (58).
Attfield borrows from Holmes Rolston III’s 1975 essay ‘Is There an Ecological Ethic?’ a
distinction between instrumental value and intrinsic value. ‘But Rolston was
also drawing attention to the need for environmental ethics to adopt an
understanding of value that does not stop short at what is valuable merely as a
means (like money and resources), and instead goes on to identify what is
valuable for its own sake’ (9-10). Does this distinction avoid the confusion
identified by Kantian scholar Christine Korsgaard (‘Two Distinctions in
Goodness’ The Philosophical Review XCII, 1983)? She draws attention to the common confusion of two distinctions, that
between intrinsic and extrinsic goodness, and that between a thing sought for
its own sake, and a thing sought for the sake of something else. The first
distinction focuses on the source of goodness. Something is intrinsically good
if and only if it is good in itself, whereas something is extrinsically good if
and only if it receives goodness from another source. The second distinction is
drawn in terms of ends and means: what is sought for its own sake is an end or
final good, while what is sought for the sake of something else is a means, an
instrumental good. The point is that these two distinctions become interwoven,
when people define the intrinsically good as that which is sought for its own
sake. Attfield’s environmental ethic would be strengthened by adopting
Korsgaard’s clarification. It would enable an acknowledgment that those
creatures we use instrumentally can also be intrinsically good and can require
Chapter three is devoted to the question of future generations and what is owed
to them. This issue is labelled the non-identity problem and treated as
problematic in philosophical discussions. The paradoxical nature of the issue
emerges if one makes explicit the assumption that obligations are owed by
persons to identifiable individuals. With future generations, however, there
are at present no identifiable individuals. In addition, which individuals will
come into being depend on policies and actions presently existing persons
undertake. It cannot make sense to say that John now has a duty to care for the
interests of possible individual, Mary, whom Peter and Anne may or may not
beget, nor have any duty to do so. The contrast between the perspective of a
rigorous philosophical argument, and the common sense perspective of those
concerned about the quality of life they are securing or failing to secure for
their grandchildren should drive us to question the assumptions of the
philosophical argument. Perhaps the very different assumptions implicit in the
stance taken by Pope Francis in his letter on Care for Our Common Home,
referenced in this book (99), are more in tune with the engaged commitments of
those who seek an environmental ethics. This book will be a valuable asset in
Review by Patrick Riordan of Campion Hall, Oxford
JOHN NIGHTINGALE'S REVIEW OF “WONDER, VALUE AND GOD” BY
Reading this book reminded me of walking the Pennine Way. It is long, over 300 miles from Dovedale at the south end of the Pennines. The backbone of our country, it starts with the homely English meadows that are the common experience of us all, and goes through mist and rain, wind and sun, rock and bog, on or near the crest of a ridge, with Lancashire and the western counties to the left and Yorkshire and the eastern ones on the other side. The Pennines finish with Hadrian’s Wall but the Way is not over; it runs through the forests of the border country and finished among the rolling Cheviots which stretch into all directions. Not the easiest or always the most beautiful of journeys but of great variety, making myriad connections and giving lasting satisfaction when the walk is done. That was my experience with this book.
It starts with experiences of wonder common to us all, that of the natural world as illustrated by the striking cover photo of the Grand Canyon, with Louie
Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World” and the nature programmes of David Attenborough. These, like the fields and well-dressings of the Derbyshire
dales, we can all identify with. But once at Edale the path climbs steadily higher. The reader becomes dizzy from questions raised: what is the value of
what we wonder at? It is nature and society. It is its amazing quality and also the fact that it is there at all, its value in itself and also the benefits it
brings us. It provides an environment if which we can function and flourish, taking part in meaningful work.
By now we are high on the moors of Bleaklow. The mist comes down and we try to find our way through boulders and bogs. Doubts arise. Are our wondering and valuing just the product of our genes, our chemical, biological or even social imperatives, or are they also the result of our choosing and the activities of our will? Does what we wonder at and admire have value in itself so that we are right or wrong in valuing it? Or do values vanish if there is no one there to value them? Does it matter what the heavens look like if there are no eyes to view them? Dare one think of a path running between the Yorkshire grit of a deterministic science and the more romantic Lancastrian humanities? At this point in the mist inexperienced walkers get out their compasses and set a straight course over the flat hilltop only to find themselves rapidly losing their footing and sliding into a bog. But Robin’s book, like a Wainwright guide, takes you from cairn to cairn until you have left the bleak lands behind and come into more congenial country. The track leads forward towards a worthwhile life, something you might wish for yourself or others might wish for you. The sun comes out and you see other hills and walkers momentarily lit up. Can one, through a process Robin refers to as abduction, argue that this lovely and meaningful pattern so widely seen points to a general pattern of ordering which might be thought of as purposive or divine?
We are at the heart of our journey in the limestone massifs around Malham, a place of great beauty. On one side the rocks glow glorious in the sun, an expression of the value in Creation; on the other are the storm clouds and the rain, the suffering which is also so much a part of our world. In a splendid chapter on Disvalue Robin eloquently outlines the evils, natural and moral, which bring some to deny that the cosmos shows any signs of intelligence, let alone benevolence. In response he cites the free will defence and the vale of soul-making. He doubts that there could be any world running according to
general laws which intelligences were evolving to understand which did not have problems of this sort. Our world is certainly not perfect but, for the purpose of developing creative intelligences which a Creative Intelligence might desire, good enough.
Robin notes that there are distant hills lit up by revelation. However the specific witness of Scripture whether Christian or from other faiths he regards as off track, not relevant to the thesis of his book, which is that by reflection on common experience it is possible to get an understanding and appreciation of what belief in God might mean.
The landscape is broadening out as we approach the border country. Robin has a probing chapter, “Panentheism”, on the relationship of God and the world. Is the divine identical with the material world, Pantheism, as some like Spinoza would have it? Or separate as in the classic statements of the Abrahamic faiths? Or functionally together if notionally separable, like the relationship of the music played with the one who has composed it?
Robin goes on to think of the implications of his vision for human life. He sees it involving a discovery of real values and a response, however imperfect,
possibly leading to a change of pan, not only for humans but for God. Creativity builds on the past but leaps forward, with imagination, reflection
and feeling; it is part of the image of God, the purpose for which the universe is made.
At the end of the penultimate chapter the reader has reached Hadrian’s wall. For the last flat miles the Pennines have been left behind. The wall spreads east and west, as if it were a shoreline, with breakers stretching out ahead. Is not here a natural terminus? But no, the path leads on, first through rolling countryside and thick coniferous forests, until it crosses the border into Scotland and reaches the high Cheviots rolling round into the distance as far as the eye can see. Robin’s last and longest chapter on “Fulfilling our purpose” expands on his last by reflecting on the idea of “theosis” as employed and popularised by one of the Cappadocian Fathers, Maximus the Confessor. The term literally means deification, becoming a God, but is here used metaphorically to mean being ethically transformed into the likeness of God as far as is permissible for human nature. For the Orthodox theologians this required a belief in the Incarnation, something which Robin, a Unitarian wishes to avoid. However he has a working model of theosis which involves humans taking on all the divine qualities which can be theirs by grace. “Love (the ‘agape’, or Christian love, of 1 Corinthians 13) is a divine gift and involves every virtue, elevating humanity to the likeness of God ‘so far as it is possible for humankind’. Thus, through virtuous exercise of the will, ‘human beings become what God is while still remaining creatures’….. Such teaching about human transformation avoids the bleakness of moralism, and escapes the incoherence prone to arise from ignoring human limitations and frailty, while at the same time depicting the spiritual illumination of which human beings are capable.” Humanity is seen as a “priest of creation, potentially aware of the Creator’s intentions embedded in creatures, and capable of worship and praise”. These intentions would involve “flourishing, development of the virtues, a love of the natural world, meaningful work, creativity, understanding, and a sense of wonder”; also awareness of and respect for the purposes of the Creator for the flourishing of other living creatures, who may in their own time come to intelligence, thankfulness and praise.
Readers will have completed a long journey from the relatively mundane through steep ascents, picking their way through conceptual mists and bogs, been buffeted alternately by the sun of value or the storms of nihilism, to a vision of a divine intelligence to whom humans can respond in cooperation in praise. Here we are brought to highlands of doctrine, revelation and worship which it will take further journeys to explore.
Review by John Nightingale of Robin Attfield's ETHICS: AN OVERVIEW
This is described as a textbook for students from the second or third years of a first degree course upwards. In fact I think it could benefit the general reader interested in the subject and, within higher education, could be ideal for students from other disciplines taking a course with a philosophy department. Parts of it might be within the reach of some of the students now taking Philosophy A-level.
What makes Ethics: An Overview accessible is its clear style, based on its author’s long teaching experience, with technical terms
explained as they arise. Every chapter is divided into a sequence of related topics, each accompanied by its own study questions, reading lists and
references. A related website carries notes, background essays and a series of PowerPoint presentations, which could be useful for lecturers, tutors and student study-groups. The beginner is spared some of the grind of annotation, and so has more time for reflection, discussion and working out a personal response.
Each topic is discussed from a number of different points of view which are outlined clearly and fairly. The author, however, does not hesitate to argue for his own convictions, for example on the freedom of the will and the objectivity of moral judgments, but stresses that his purpose is to help students come to their own conclusions.
There are three interrelated strands of subject matter – the analysis of ethical terms such as “goodness”, “value”, “virtue” and “obligation”; the history of ethics, with a concentration of the thought of Aristotle, Hobbes, Hume, Kant and Mill; and Applied Ethics, with the example of medical and animal ethics, and the ethics of war, the environment, and development. The interweaving of these strands gives readers a grasp of the subject overall and a confidence that they are acquiring understanding and skills, which they can apply widely including to areas not mentioned in the book, as well as the ability to reflect deeply on aspects of ethics in which they find themselves involved.
However the book is not comprehensive, and in that respect its description as an overview could be a little misleading. There are major thinkers it excludes, such as Socrates, Plato, Aquinas, Hegel, Marx, and the modern philosophical traditions in mainland Europe. Among subject areas there is no mention of the ethics of business or the economy, nor of personal and sexual relationships which are all topics of contemporary significance. Nor, surprisingly, is there any reference to religion, which in today’s multi-faith society, for better or worse, is likely to be influencing many students and so needs to be brought into the philosophical debate. However these omissions do not matter if the book is seen as an introduction helping newcomers to orientate themselves, pick a path through semantic bogs, come across new conceptual landscapes and become seasoned ethical explorers. Unlike old-fashioned Baedeker travel guides it does not attempt to deal with everything. It is more like the student-friendly Rough Guides which help the newcomer reach and explore an area, with a sample of itineraries and major attractions, some key directions, a glossary, and guidance on where good food can be found.
Every student and teacher of philosophy should consider buying this book. For a closer look at the contents, some sample texts and resources, I recommend the website http://philosophy.attfield.continuumbooks.com. Happy the students of today for having such a guidebook to hand! Indeed it would be a godsend to any staff members landed with an ethics course out of the blue and at a moment’s notice. Even if they
disagreed with some of the arguments in the book, it is written with such clarity that it would make a wonderful ‘Aunt Sally’.
I would make one modest proposal: that the website be supplemented by a series of You-Tube videos in which the author in shown in debate with students and peers (like some of the sessions of Michael Sandel) and also by a blog to which anyone could have access. The viewer would then be a spectator at an up-to date Platonic Academy – or at a law court, with a moral philosopher on trial, but not given the hemlock yet!
John Nightingale 11th December 2013
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