Philosophy 120 (Fall 2019)

Environmental Ethics

Class Meets: Olin 192, Monday and Wednesday, 2:30-3:50

Prof. Patrick Frierson

Office Hours: Monday 10-11am and Wednesday 10-noon, and by appointment. 


Course GOALS:

The purpose of this course to introduce you to the main philosophical issues and debates in the field of environmental ethics.  You will learn the central arguments of those debates, and you will also learn various intellectual skills for doing philosophical ethics.  In particular, you will learn to carefully read and reread difficult texts, to analyze arguments for soundness, to express yourselves in writing and orally, and to work collaboratively and respectfully to further your understanding of complex issues.  The central question we will be looking at throughout the course is what sort of ethical obligations we have with regard to the natural environment.  Over the course of the term, we will consider such issues as what sorts of entities deserve moral consideration, whether we have any moral obligations to future generations, animals, plants, species, or ecosystems, whether the natural environment has “intrinsic value” (and what this might mean), and what sorts of policy implications our answers to these questions might have.  Our readings will primarily be contemporary, although a few older philosophical texts will also be included. 



All readings for this course will be online and linked from the syllabus, or available on the Canvas site.  You should bring copies of the readings, either electronic or printed, to class each day.


For most of the semester, the class will have a distinctive “flow.”  Weekends will be spent reading and thinking through several texts (usually articles) on a particular topic in environmental ethics.  There will typically be a lot of reading, so you should budget time accordingly.  In reading through the material, you should seek to figure out what the central issues are – that is, what people disagree about and what positions they are trying to defend – as well as what the most important arguments for each author’s position are.  For each article, try to identify a central thesis (the position defended) and to articulate in your own words the central argument for that thesis.  In addition, you should pay attention to the relevance of that article to the “resolved” issue on the syllabus, and you should briefly sketch an answer to any questions on the midterm study sheet that are related to that reading.  Monday classes will typically be a combination of lecture and discussion, but may also involve quizzes, small group work, or other pedagogical exercises.  The goal of these classes will be to equip all students with a good grasp of the readings and to begin our discussion of the key issues in them.  Wednesday classes will consist in debates about a particular topic related to the readings.  For those classes, there will generally not be any reading beyond the argument briefs (see below) you will receive from debaters.  It is essential that you read these briefs before class.  The debate format is described below.

In addition to this regular flow week-to-week, every student will be responsible for debating twice during the semester.  During weeks that you are a debater, you will need to meet with your debating partners over later part of the week and/or the weekend to put together a draft of your arguments, and then again with them after class on Monday to revise that draft in the light of class discussion and my comments on your draft, and then again after Wednesday’s class to revise the draft into the “final version.”  I also strongly recommend that debaters meet with me after class on Monday (and before turning in the “public draft” of their briefs) to talk about any issues or questions they have.  Those will be intense weeks, so plan accordingly.

debate days:  For most of the semester, Wednesday classes will be organized as debates about whether or not to accept a particular statement.  For each debate, two or three students (the Proponents) will lay out the argument in favor of the statement and two or three (the Opposition) will lay out the case against it, and we will end each class with a vote (by “secret” ballot).  Before each debate day, the Proponent and Opposition students will send out brief explanations of their key arguments, which must be read by the entire class before class.  On debate days, class will begin with opening statements for each side in the debate.  I will randomly decide which position will go first.  After opening statements, which will be strictly limited to 5 minutes for each side, there will be brief rebuttals, limited to 2 minutes for each side.  (Whoever gave the first opening statement will give the second rebuttal.)  Then we will discuss the arguments as a class for a little less than an hour, during which time the Proponents and Opposition may not speak.  At the end of our discussion, there will be an opportunity for concluding remarks by the Proponents and Opposition.  Each side will have no more than 5 minutes to lay out their closing case and no more than two minutes for short rebuttals.  The order of presentation at the end of class will be the opposite of what it was at the beginning.  After closing arguments, the rest of the class will write out their ballots, voting either for or against the proposition.  At the top of your paper, you should write either “Yay” if you agree with the proposition, or “Nay” if you do not.  You must then, very briefly, lay out what you found to be the most compelling argument for your position.  Your vote and your justification should reflect your own considered judgment about the issue, not your opinion about which side presented their case better.  You can include arguments not mentioned by any of the debaters (though I would hope that you would have mentioned such arguments in our discussions!)


AFTER THANKSGIVING:  After Thanksgiving, we have some flexibility about how to spend our class sessions.  There are several possible options for these days.  Last time that I taught the course, we spent two classes on guest speakers (on environmental entrepreneurship and on Hanford whistleblowers), spent one day discussing ecoterrorism, and spent our last day on a pleasant short passage from Thoreau.  We could also add substantive units to the course (with or without debates) on topics such as ecofeminism, global warming, wilderness preservation, urban environmentalism, environmental virtues, religious perspectives on the environment, or deep ecology.  These are all things I wish I could have included in the course but did not for lack of time.  We might also spend these classes discussing the material in your practical papers.  What we do during these last classes will be worked out by all of us together as a class.  I strongly recommend something that is either helpful to your final papers, low-key and fun, or both.  Remember, this will be a stressful time in your other classes.


Course Requirements:

TWo Argument Briefs (25% total). Most Wednesday classes will be organized as debates about whether or not to accept a particular statement.  For each debate, two students will lay out the argument in favor of the statement and two will lay out the case against it.  The students who will lead the debate for a given week are required to write argument briefs laying out their position and arguments.  Each group will have to submit three drafts of these briefs, due as follows:

First draft, due the Sunday before the debate, by noon: The first draft will be based on your own reading and processing of the material in the readings and will be due the Sunday before the debate.  I will partly base our class meetings on Mondays on these briefs, as they will give me a sense for what you understand well and what you do not.  You should make these as polished as possible, and their quality will partly determine your overall grade on the brief, but you should also feel free to add footnotes or comments expressing questions, confusions, and so on.  I will return these drafts with comments as quickly as possible (for drafts turned in on time).  Drafts must be emailed to me at in .doc or .docx format.  The filename should include the last names of all students who contributed to it, the date, and the word “draft” if it is a draft or “final version” if it is the final version (e.g., “Egoism Proponents Frierson Ireland Jenkins 9-2-2019 Draft.docx”).

Public draft, due the Tuesday before the debate, by 5 PM: The day before the debate, you must turn in your “public draft.”  This should incorporate changes made in the light of my comments and our class discussion on Tuesday.  I also encourage groups to meet with me on Tuesday morning to discuss remaining questions.  All students will be required to read these briefs before class on Wednesday.  This draft should be emailed to the entire class (including me) no later than 5PM on the evening before the debate.

Final draft, due the Sunday after the debate, by 9 PM:  The final draft of the brief should reflect any modifications made in the light of the debate itself, and you should “track changes” (in Word) so that I can easily see what these changes are.  You will be evaluated in this draft on its overall quality, not on whether (or how many) changes you make.  Thus if you think that the public draft was sufficiently excellent, you need not change it for the final version.  I will not comment on the public draft; the purpose of this additional draft is to give you a chance to improve based on your peers’ discussion of your position.  This draft should be emailed to me.

These briefs should lay out the best arguments for your position and respond to likely arguments against it.  They should make use of the readings we have done in class, with clear textual references for key claims.  Brevity is a virtue, so you should make as many points as effectively as possible in as few words as possible.  The briefs may not exceed 2000 words. 


NOTE: This is a course in philosophy, not in rhetoric.  The arguments laid out these briefs, while they should be persuasive to your classmates, will be evaluated in terms of the soundness, sophistication, clarity, and precision of argument as well as their effective use of the material we have read in class, not in terms of rhetorical flourish or general persuasiveness.  For example, deliberately presenting opponents’ arguments as straw men (that is, as weaker than they really are) may be rhetorically effectively but is not philosophically respectable. Each pair/group of students will submit a single brief, and you will be graded on it as a group.  If you believe that you did considerably more work than your partner or that your partner was in any other way deficient, please let me know and I will factor that into your partner’s final grade.  If your partner was particularly good, please let me know that as well.


Two Oral arguments (15% Total).  During the debate, you and your partner(s) must present your case orally.  You should clearly lay out your position and key arguments for it.  YOU SHOULD NOT SIMPLY READ YOUR BRIEFS OUT LOUD.  Even if you are going to read a statement, it should not be identical to what everyone in the class has already read.  The best arguments will draw attention to the key points in your brief but present them in a more intuitive way.  Also, the goal of these statements is to actually communicate your ideas orally.  If you speed through or mumble a lot of very good points, you will not get a good grade for your oral argument.  Just as a paper that makes good points but with poor grammar or bad style is not an excellent paper, an oral presentation that makes excellent points in too quiet or loud or meek or obnoxious or fast or boring a voice is not a good oral argument. 


As with your briefs, this part of your grade will be shared with your partner.  If you give an excellent opening statement but your partner bungles the closing, you will both get the same grade for oral arguments.  This means that you need to work very hard to equip your partner to do well in class.  Again, if you think that your partner is not pulling his or her weight during the preparations for class, you should let me know.  Especially with regard to oral arguments, I will take these comments much more seriously if submitted before the class discussion (even by a matter of seconds) than after.  (That is, I want to know that your partner didn’t prepare well, even if she happens to do well in class, and I don’t really want to hear excuses for poor performance after the fact.)


Some general tips for these arguments:

        PRACTICE.  Your presentation in class should not be the first time that you present your material.  Even your initial rebuttal can be practiced ahead of time, since you will have access to your opponent’s arguments in their brief.  When I make a presentation, I usually present it at least twice in front of a blank wall.  It’s even better if you practice it with your team, or in front of friends.

        do not read your briefs.  Everyone in the class is required to read your briefs before class, so you should present your arguments, but not read your briefs out loud.  Even if you are going to read something, it should not be identical to what everyone has already read.  (That said, you might draw particular attention to particular parts of your brief, reading short sections from it, if you can do this in a non-redundant and non-boring way.)

          Eye-contact and clear voice.  You should look at the class as much as possible.  Find a couple of sympathetic faces in two or three different parts of the room and speak to them.  Also gauge your audience.  If they look confused, repeat or clarify your point.  If they look bored, liven things up.  (Relatedly, and despite the cost to trees, it’s almost always better to read from index cards or paper than from a computer.)

         Listen.  Particularly for rebuttals and closing statements, it’s important to modify what you had planned to say in the light of what others have said.  Don’t respond to an argument that your opponents have already disavowed.

         Googledocs.  Last time I taught this class, a few groups realized that they could communicate through googledocs while other students were talking.  You should use this with care, since you need to actually listen to what is going on, but googledocs can provide a nice way to work on closing arguments together.  (If anyone needs a laptop, ask me as soon as possible – at least 24 hours – before the debate and I can get you one for that class period.)


Paper on practical ethics (20%).  Over the course of the semester, you should take up a practical issue in environmental ethics or policy and write a term paper analyzing that issue in terms of the topics we’ve discussed in class. You may choose any issue you like.  For example, for more personal/individual ethical issues, you might consider whether to be a vegetarian (or vegan), whether hunting is ethically acceptable, to what extent (and why) recycling might be morally required, etc. For a more social/political policy issue, you might consider the appropriateness of building dams (in general or in the context of a particular dam), the right approach to species preservation (e.g. how should the endangered species act be applied), how national parks/wilderness areas/etc should be managed (and for whose sakes), whether nuclear energy should be supported, etc. For issues that cross over ethical and political, you might consider the ethically and/or politically appropriate response to global warming, biodiversity loss, etc.  For these papers, you are responsible for doing the requisite research to get the facts right, but I am primarily interested in the philosophical richness of your argument, how effectively you draw from the relevant facts to give valid arguments for well-reasoned, well-supported, ethical conclusions.  These papers are not to be advocacy papers nor autobiographical narratives but genuinely thoughtful considerations of the issues, so you should give the best arguments for all of the most plausible positions, and then provide rationally justifiable arguments to show why you settle for the view you end up agreeing with.  Drafts of these papers will be due on Monday, November 25th (the first Monday of Thanksgiving break) and should be emailed to me at  Final versions of these papers will be due on December 16th, the Monday after the last day of class.  During the last two weeks of class, we may spend class time discussing and/or debating the topics of these practical papers, and you should be prepared to orally defend your thesis for the class.


Exam (25%). About 2/3 of the way through the semester, there will be a cumulative exam.  This will be a take-home, closed-book, closed-note, no-internet, timed exam.  I will hand out the exams on November 6th in an unsealed envelope, and you will turn them in the following class (November 11th).  You will have four (4) hours to take the exam.  You should study as long as you need to, find a comfortable quiet place, turn off your wifi/internet connection, settle down with your exam, and open the envelope. You should write down your start time and take up to four hours to answer the questions on the exam.  Then you should email me a copy of your answers (to, print out your answers, staple them to your exam, put your name and end-time on the exam, write out the honesty statement, put the exam back in the envelope, and celebrate finishing the mid-term.  You should not talk to anyone else about the content of the mid-term until after I have collected them all.  (If any of you are concerned about the integrity of your classmates and do not think that I should trust them with this sort of take-home exam, please let me know and we will have the mid-term in class.)  A study sheet for the mid-term is available here.  I recommend that you prepare answers for each question as you complete the relevant readings; this will make your study for the exam much more effective.


PARTICIPATION, IN-CLASS QUIZZES, “SECRET” BALLOTS, AND OTHER SHORT ASSIGNMENTS (15%).  Because a significant part of this element of your grade will be based on your secret ballots, I will give these a check, check-plus, or check-minus, so that you can get a sense for how you are doing on that part of your grade.  I may or may not give quizzes, depending upon my sense of how well you are keeping up with the readings.




Topics for Discussion


Proponents (arguing for the resolution)

Opponents (arguing against the resolution)


“In Defense of Relativism,” Ruth Benedict

"Ethical Relativism," Russ Shafer-Landau (on Canvas)

"Ethical Egoism," James Rachels

Ethics in General

Ethical Relativism and Ethical Egoism

Everyone ought to be directly concerned for the welfare of others.

Professor Frierson



"Famine, Affluence and Morality," Peter Singer

"On Duties to Animals and the Poor," Colin McGinn

“Response to McGinn,” Peter Singer

“Starving Children in Africa: Who Cares?” Lisa Cassidy

(Optional: Feeding People vs. Saving Nature,” Holmes Rolston III.)

(Optional: "The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin)

Obligations to Existing Humans







Obligations to Existing Humans


“Until every starving child in the world is fed, all Whitman students should use discretionary money they have to alleviate the suffering of others before spending anything on movies, alcohol, or eating at nice restaurants.”



Alejandra (Ally)


Sept 16

Watch this selection from WGBH’s “Toxic Racism”

"Environmental Justice," Robert Figueroa and Claudia Mills

Bjorn Lomborg, “Setting priorities and risks” (Skeptical Environmentalist, pp. 333-338), Bjorn Lomborg TED talk available here.

Ramachandra Guha, “The Authoritarian Biologist and the Arrogance of Anti-Humanism: Wildlife Conservation in the Third World”

Robert Bullard, The Quest for Environmental Justice, selection.

Lisa Sun-hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, The Slums of Aspen, selection.

Environmental Justice





NOTE: I will be at a conference in Indiana on the day of this debate, so I will have the debate video-taped.

Environmental Justice

Even if we also care about social justice, it’s important to start by focusing our energies on the most pressing environmental problems facing the world today (such as global warming, deforestation, endangered species, etc).

Jessica R.

Katie K.



Sept 23

Richard and Val Routley, “Nuclear Energy and Obligations to the Future”


John O’Neill, “The Constituency of Environmental Policy”


David Roberts, “Discount Rates”


Cameron Hepburn, “Ethics and Discounting Global Warming Damages”



John Broome, “Discounting the Future”

Obligations to Future Generations: Ethics and Economics








Sept 25


Our obligations to human beings living more than 300 years in the future should have a significant impact on our present-day actions.



Annie E.



"Energy Policy and the Further Future: The Identity Problem," Derek Parfit


The Repugnant Conclusion,” (Arrhenius et. al, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).


And these two entries from the 1000-word philosophy website:

The non-identity problem

The repugnant conclusion

Obligations to Future Generations: Metaphysical Considerations





Oct. 2


Obligations to Future Generations: Metaphysical Considerations


Our only obligation to members of distant future generations is to ensure that they have lives that are at least minimally worth living.



Emma H.

Ruby M.

Oct. 7

"All Animals Are Equal," Peter Singer


"The Radical Egalitarian Case for Animal Rights," Tom Regan


"Difficulties with the Strong Animal Rights Position," Mary Anne Warren

“Are All Species Equal,” David Schmidtz 

Optional: “Eating Meat and Eating People,” Cora Diamond

Animal Rights





Oct. 9


Animal Rights


Animals have rights just as strong as human rights.

Annie E.



Claire P.

Oct. 14

"Organisms," Holmes Rolston III

"Reverence for Life," Albert Schweitzer

"Competing Claims and Priority Principles," Paul Taylor

“A Refutation of Environmental Ethics,” Janna Thompson

(Optional: “Should Trees have Standing?,” Christopher Stone.)






Oct. 16




We should often kill non-native animals solely in order to protect native vegetation.

OR All non-sentient living things are worthy of direct moral consideration. 




Katie K.


Oct. 21

“Thinking like a Mountain,” Aldo Leopold


"The Land Ethic," Aldo Leopold


"Animal Liberation: A Triangular Affair," J. Baird Callicott


“Against the Moral Considerability of Ecosystems,” Harley Cahan


“Is There a Place for Animals in the Moral Consideration of Nature,” Eric Katz


“Can Animal Rights Activist Be Environmentalist,” Gary Varner






Oct. 23





Individual animals should sometimes be sacrificed for the good of non-sentient nature (even where this will not have a net positive impact on sentient beings).

OR: Non-sentient, non-living aspects of nature are worthy of direct moral consideration.

Claire P.




Oct. 28

“On a Monument to the Pigeon” Aldo Leopold

"Why Do Species Matter" Lilly-Marlene Russow

 “Philosophical Problems for Environmentalism,” Elliot Sober

"The Golden Rule – A Proper Scale for Our Environmental Crisis," Stephen Jay Gould

Optional: "Defining 'Biodiversity,'" Sahotra Sarkar

Species Preservation





Oct. 30


Species Preservation

Species matter (morally and for their own sakes).


Emma H.


Ruby M.

Nov. 4

"Non-Anthropocentric Value Theory and Environmental Ethics," J. Baird Callicott

“On Being Morally Considerable,” Kennath Goodpaster 

"Organisms," Holmes Rolston III

Summary: Environmental Values






Nov. 6


Summary: Environmental Values

Three-way debate, on two different propositions:

Only human beings have intrinsic value.

All and only _____ have intrinsic value.

(For this day, one team will defend Yay, Nay; another Nay, Yay; another Nay, Nay.)

Yea, Nay: Ally



Nay, Yea:



Nay, Nay:

Harrison Maddie

Nov. 11


“Annie Dillard’s Ecstatic Phenomenology,” Julia Ireland.

Annie Dillard, “Living Like Weasels,” available here.

Perspectives from Whitman philosophers 1: Julia Ireland




Nov 13

Brian Norton, Towards Unity Among Environmentalists, selections (pp. 237-43)

Andrew Light, “Finding a Future for Environmental Ethics”

Andrew Light, “Does Public Environmental Philosophy Need a Convergence Hypothesis”

Environmental Pragmatism

Nov 18

Katie McShane, “Anthropocentrism vs. Non-Anthropocentrism: Why should we care?”

Pragmatism, Continued.


Nov. 20

Intrinsic Value, Environmental Ethics, and Adam Smith,” Patrick Frierson.


Perspectives from Whitman philosophers 2: Patrick Frierson




Paper drafts are due by November 25th at noon.

Dec. 2

Chris Pinney

Dammed Ecosystems

Dec. 4

Rebecca Hanrahan

Animal Ethics

Dec. 9

If a Tree Falls, documentary available here.


Dec. 11


Final Drafts of Final Papers are Due by noon.