What Reviewers Say about Robin’s Books
Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the 21st Century (Second Edition)
Structurally the book consists of 7 chapters, with Chapter 1 devoted to the matter of clearly defining what makes a problem an environmental problem. Here Attfield focuses on these as being concerned with the problems caused through human interactions with the “objective encompassing system of nature” (2), such as pollution, deforestation, climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss, with environmental ethics defined as the “study of the ethics of human interactions with and impacts on such systems” (15). Though supportive of the biocentric view that “moral consideration should be shown to all living creatures”, Attfield rejects system-based views, holding instead that “systems matter because of the individual lives which depend on them and which they make possible” (9), and wraps up the chapter with some broad reflections on the various accounts of the causal roots of our current ecologically destructive dynamics. This takes the work neatly into the start of Chapter 2, in which Attfield first examines the debate over Christian dominion and stewardship traditions, then gives a potted history of the early days of environmental ethics and starts to outline the basic details of his own position. Maintaining that “not even the combined arguments of sophisticated anthropocentrism show it to comprise an adequate or acceptable normative ethic” (42), he argues that his biocentric consequentialism emerges from the “need to combine a biocentric understanding of moral standing with a form of consequentialism that recognizes the full range of capacities whose development or fulfilment comprises the good of various creatures including human beings, and which also recognizes the greater value of the interests that relate to complex and sophisticated capacities such as autonomy” (44). Attfield then examines non-consequentialist alternatives to his position and some meta-ethical debates (cognitivism vs non-cognitivism, objectivism vs subjectivism, modernism vs postmodernism) before finishing the chapter with a thoughtful appendix on ecofeminism. The latter is one of the most significant second edition upgrades here, as are Attfield’s engaging treatment of environmental virtue ethics, both of which were wholly absent from the original edition.
With the general scene-setting thus done, Chapters 3 and 4 deal respectively with critiques of environmental ethics and with questions about our obligations to the future and its inhabitants, both human and nonhuman. Here matters become rather more philosophically substantial, and Attfield’s varied arguments against the different anthropocentric ethical approaches taken by John O’Neill, David Cooper and John Benson (in Chapter 3) and Bryan Norton (in Chapter 4) are well worth specialist examination. The core of his anti-anthropocentrist case is that indirect protection of the components of nonhuman nature via a broadened conception of human wellbeing or long-term self-interest simply won’t do the necessary work: “the particular argument from natural goods being constitutive of the flourishing of current human beings cannot supply grounds for preserving enough non-human creatures” (76). This argument, aimed largely at O’Neill, Cooper and Benson, also spins off to contribute to Attfield’s rejection of Bryan Norton’s convergence hypothesis between anthropocentric and nonanthropocentric policies, as he maintains that future human interests in Norton’s model “fail to underpin sufficiently strong policies on biodiversity preservation, population levels, colonization of the earth’s surface, and probably genetic engineering” (124). The question thus naturally arises as to whether or not similar applicability problems might afflict his own scheme, and so Chapter 3 also examines a brief series of possible critiques of biocentric consequentialism. It ends with a brief discussion of the charge made by Alan Carter that Attfield’s scheme would imply maximizing the number of humans who have most of their essential capacities (e.g., autonomy, self-consciousness) to some degree developed even if doing so caused some non-human species extinctions, since higher intrinsic value is granted to satisfying the basic needs of creatures with self-consciousness and autonomy. (This is in fact part of a longer ongoing exchange on this topic between Attfield and Carter, and readers wishing to learn more should see their competing essays in Hiller, Ilea & Kahn, 2014). Attfield responds by denying the assumption that what holds for the present generation will hold for all future generations, and argues that since humans and other terrestrial species with complex capacities could become extinct long before other species, the value of those other possible future creatures “is relevant to current decisions about whether to colonize or otherwise take over the habitats of their current counterparts (their possible ancestors), and would not be outweighed by conflicting human interests from the same generation” (95-6). Chapter 3 thus ends on a note exemplifying the fabled trait of ethical consequentialism – its admirable flexibility or its pernicious slipperiness depending on your philosophical orientation – and leads to the next chapter’s concerns with duties to the future and what has come to be called sustainability. Here Attfield espouses universalism and rejects contractarian and communitarian groundings to obligations, repudiates the idea of discounting the future other than in cases where particular significant constraints apply (such as uncertainty), and opposes the familiar identity problems excavated by Parfit: “there can be obligations with regard to whoever lives in a certain future period, despite their identity being currently unknown and hitherto undetermined, and hence… obligations are not invariably owed to someone or something in particular” (104). There are thus clear moral grounds, in Attfield’s view, for caring about posterity, and interestingly he attaches the concerns of the environmental justice movement to this area, since current environmental injustices also tend to ripple into affecting the future prospects of unjustly treated groups. Concern for justice, however, does not exhaust the list of agents’ psychological motivations for attending to future obligations. Inspiration here may come from several sources, with the human concern for self-transcendence being significant amongst them, and for this second edition, Attfield has added a brief but informative section on developments in environmental aesthetics and their motivational significance.
Having set up the philosophical core, Attfield next moves on to the matter of institutional instantiations and debates around current practice. Chapter 5 deals with sustainable development (including the thorny issue of population), competing conceptions of sustainability, the sustainability-liberal democracy relationship, the precautionary principle, and the challenges posed by genetic modification and synthetic biology technologies. As one might expect, Attfield explains the familiar distinction between weak and strong sustainability, and on his account the former refers to sustainability that involves sustaining a particular economic level via human made capital being routinely and continuously substituted for natural resources, whilst strong sustainability must be embraced “if such unlimited substitution would undermine either natural systems or social systems” (144), and it thus mandates a stress on preserving more natural resources in their present form. I confess that I think Attfield’s implication here that weak sustainability advocates might be defined by their embrace of “unlimited substitution” is a little misleading; I know of no economist who goes that far, and indeed as Attfield himself states on the next page, insofar as “the question of substitution can be asked about natural resources (construed as natural capital), the answer must surely be that there are limits to substitution, at least in practice” (145). Quite so, but if that is the case then the defining ideal character of weak sustainability is going to be a position that nobody actually holds. A less fuzzy way of putting the distinction might have focused on competing normative views of the acceptability of substituting natural capital by technology, and this would also have had the advantage of fitting in with the ethical critique that Attfield advances towards much sustainability discourse. Here he is on much stronger ground, as his biocentric consequentialism leads him to question the anthropocentrism that is frequently presupposed even in many accounts of strong sustainability. The problem with the economic debate about sustainability, he protests, is that the language of natural capital and resourcism ignores “the fact that trees, whales and tigers are living creatures with a good of their own, and cannot be regarded as nothing but resources”, whereas a proper ethically engaged biocentric model would support “the preservation of intrinsically valuable natural creatures, and thus of as many species and habitats (some of them as wilderness) as possible” (146-7). Given likely possible impacts on wider interests, Attfield goes on to make his biocentric view of strong sustainability here cohesive with his embrace of a radical interpretation of the precautionary principle, and this in turn gets connected to his perspective on genetic modification technologies and synthetic biology. Eschewing the ontological revulsion felt by many greens at these new deep technologies, he opts to deal with them instead via a scientifically informed “case-by-case consideration informed in part by the Precautionary Principle, as well as by other relevant ethical principles including principles of human wellbeing, of human and animal rights, and of justice” (165).
After a broad concluding endorsement of the capacity of liberal democratic regimes, in principle, to accept and move towards sustainability, Attfield turns to issues of global community and citizenship in Chapter 6 before examining the largest single current global environmental problem, climate change, in Chapter 7. He advocates a form of global cosmopolitan citizenship, and in perhaps the most significant formulation in the book, explains what this means in ethical and political terms: every “bearer (present or future) of moral standing, or considerability… is thereby a global citizen (in a broader sense) but where citizenship implies responsibility it is restricted (short of the arrival of intelligent extra-terrestrials) to human beings and (derivatively) their institutions”. In this sense of collective global citizenship, “the resources of the planet may be regarded as the common heritage of mankind” and “humanity is not justified in deploying its resources for human good alone”, for “the current generation inherits the responsibility to protect natural goods for the benefit of present and future generations of all species” (196). Accordingly, there needs to be radical reform and democratization both of current governments and of international bodies like the WTO, and few topics illustrate this need better than the vexed problem of climate change, to which Attfield dedicates his new concluding chapter. Here he gives a straightforward and effective overview, drawing on the work of Simon Caney especially, and outlines a solidly argued if unexciting set of recommendations: responsibility for action lies centrally with governments and corporations but all of us have obligations as part of our collective responsibility, the most promising international policy model is probably a modified version of Contraction and Convergence, and some milder forms of geoengineering technologies might be acceptable to supplement mitigation efforts but the more radical versions should be ruled out, and the real danger that unrealistic technofix promises could undermine ethical and political imperatives in this area should not be underestimated.
Such is the book’s content, and all of this is well and good so far as it goes. Attfield has, however, been quite horribly unlucky in the timing of this second edition and its release so far as the climate ethics issue is concerned, especially given that the new chapter on that topic is the single most significant substantive upgrade from the book’s first edition. For the unfortunate fact is that since 2011 we have seen the publication of 3 different volumes which already appear likely to be classics in the climate ethics literature, namely Stephen M. Gardiner’s A Perfect Moral Storm, Dale Jamieson’s Reason in a Dark Time and most recently J. Baird Callicott’s Thinking Like a Planet, and the timing of the composition and publication of this revised edition was such that Attfield’s work contains references to none of them. The upshot is that this expanded edition rather misses its target in precisely the area where it aimed to remake itself as especially newly relevant, and those who might be tempted to use the book as a class text – a role for which it is well suited – would probably be best advised to supplement the book with other climate ethics readings. The book is still well worth reading, but it is unfortunate for the author that a fine effort is thus sadly undermined by the vicissitudes of fortune.”
Piers H G Stephens
To my mind, Attfield misses an opportunity here to argue against such a narrow interpretation of the role of ethics. From identifying a problem to implementing a solution, all environmental decisions implicate certain values, so a more pertinent task is to assess why there are such power differentials in terms of who gets to make decisions beyond, say, purchasing organic or fairly traded produce.
Chapter 4 addresses the role of ethics in deliberations about future human and non-human generations, which covers interesting terrain including whether we have different responsibilities for immediate and non-immediate future generations, the role of aesthetics in ‘motivating environmentalist commitment’ (p. 120) into the future, and the inheritance by future generations of existing environmental injustices.
In Chapter 5, Attfield scrutinizes ‘sustainable development’. He argues that the primary focus of ‘sustainability’ is on sustaining capital (including ‘natural’ capital) but is cautiously optimistic about the ability to interpret ‘sustainable development’ in broader terms to also accommodate social justice issues, such as the distribution of resources and the full participation in decision-making processes of those who are ultimately affected, as well as promoting the view that non-human nature is of value beyond direct human utility. This is an important discussion, but I am left wondering whether such accommodation is possible simply because ‘sustainable development’ is one of the most nebulous terms in the environmental lexicon.
Attfield examines the ‘global’ nature of environmental challenges in Chapter 6, positioning environmental resources as the ‘common heritage of humankind’ that need to be managed through international cooperation. In turn he posits the emergence of a ‘global’ environmental ethic, and the development of ‘global citizens’, as a necessary response to such challenges. He argues that the latter is best exemplified—and further developed—through channels already well embedded within representative democratic frameworks, including international NGOs, governmental agencies such as the UN, and news and media outlets, rather than anything more radical. This focus on the global, which pervades the whole book, does not stem from any sense that the particular or the ‘local’ is not important; rather, for Attfield the development of a global environmental ethic is one that recognizes the trans-boundary nature of contemporary environmental problems, but more importantly (from an ethics perspective) helps inoculate people from only acting on behalf of those near and present, rather than distant and future.
A concern for environmental ethics at a global scale is carried through to the final short chapter (which is the most substantial addition to the book in its second iteration), wherein Attfield examines the ethics of climate change. He covers a lot of ground here, such as international and intergenerational responsibilities for climate emissions, and the desirability and feasibility of contraction and convergence, or carbon budget approaches to addressing climate change. He also contemplates the role of geoengineering, arguing that ‘less risky’ forms, such as carbon sequestration through afforestation, could buy time for the implementation of the much larger social and political steps that are necessary to keep below an average surface temperature increase of two degrees centigrade (as compared to the pre-industrial average temperature).
Throughout the book, Attfield makes his own normativity be known, particularly in regard to how to address specific environmental issues in a way that places social and ecological justice front and centre. Nonetheless, the book aims for an inclusive and accommodating overview of environmental ethics, and so stops well short of didacticism. Even if one is not persuaded by Attfield’s arguments—and I certainly have my reservations—a reader becomes acquainted with how different ethical positions relate to one another, which is useful for those who may only be tentatively dipping their toes into the environmental ethics field. Attfield also provides reading lists and websites relevant to the contents of each chapter, a glossary of key terms, and a series of questions dotted throughout the book that would form the basis of interesting class discussions. The book would thus make an excellent core text for undergraduates on environmental studies, geography, politics, or planning courses, who are grappling with the significant social and ecological crises we collectively, though unevenly, face."
Jonathan Prior | Lecturer in Human Geography, Cardiff School of Planning and Geography, Cardiff University, UK
Environmental Ethics – A Very Short Introduction
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 beings).
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 environmental problems?
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 non-human world.
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 consciousness.
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.” Workineh Kelbessa | Department of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University
“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.
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 our respect.
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 their armoury.” Patrick Riordan | Campion Hall, Oxford
Ethics: An Overview
John Nightingale | The Philosophical Quarterly
Claire Brown Peterson | Asbury University, Journal of Moral Philosophy
Mary Midgley | Author of "Beast And Man: The Roots Of Human Nature
Dieter Birnbacher | Professor of Philosophy, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany