Philosophy 120 (Fall 2012)

Environmental Ethics


Class Meets: Olin East 129, Tuesday and Thursday 1:00-2:20


Prof. Patrick Frierson


Office Hours: Tuesday 4-5, Wednesday 11-noon, and by appointment


Course Description:

The purpose of this course is to introduce you to the main philosophical issues and debates in the field of environmental ethics.  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 put online or on our Cleo site.  You should bring copies of the readings, either electronic or printed, to class with you each day.


debate days:  For most of the semester, Thursday classes will be organized as debates about whether or not to accept a particular statement.  For each debate, two students (the Proponents) will lay out the argument in favor of the statement and two (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 Proponents 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.  While you may write comments about the effectiveness of the students who presented the various sides, your vote and your justification should reflect your own considered judgment about the issue, not your opinion about which side presented their case better.


Course Requirements:

TWo Argument Briefs (25% total). Most Thursday 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, by no later than 4 PM on the day before our class debate, to email me and post to Cleo brief statements of their arguments for or against the proposed statement.  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 of students will submit a single brief, and you will be graded on it as a pair.  If you believe that you did considerably more work than your partner or that your partner tewas 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 (20% Total).  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, and I don’t really want to hear excuses for poor performance after the fact.)


Paper on practial 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 Wednesday, November 21 (the Wednesday before Thanksgiving) and should be emailed to me at  Final versions of these papers will be due on December 8th, two days after the last day of class.  During the last two weeks of class, we will probably spend class time 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 8 in an unsealed envelope, and you will have to turn them in the following class (November 13).  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 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.)  I will make a study sheet available for the mid-term as soon as possible.  It is likely to include short answer questions, quotation analysis, and a longer essay.


PARTICIPATION, IN-CLASS QUIZZES, “SECRET” BALLOTS, AND OTHER SHORT ASSIGNMENTS (10%).  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


Aug. 28

Introduction – no reading

Ethics in General

*Nature and structure of the course

*Varieties of ethical theory

*The distinctive problems of environmental ethics

*The distinctions between meta-ethics, normative ethics, and practical ethics


Aug. 30

"Ethical Relativism," Russ Shafer-Landau

"Nature," John Stuart Mill

"Ethical Egoism," James Rachels

Ethics in General

Ethical Relativism and Ethical Egoism

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

Sept. 4

"Famine, Affluence and Morality," Peter Singer

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

Obligations to Existing Humans



Sept. 6

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

“Response to McGinn,” Peter Singer

Optional: "Limits on Our Obligation to Give," James Otteson

Optional: “Asking too much,” Garrett Cullity.

Obligations to Existing Humans


“No Whitman student should go to a movie, drink alcohol, or eat at a nice restaurant until every starving child is fed.”

Sept 11

"Environmental Justice," Robert Figueroa and Claudia Mills

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

Optional: Bjorn Lomborg TED talk available here:



Sept 13

"Should We Let People Starve -- For Now?", Dan Moller.



“We should prioritize meeting the needs of the world’s poor most efficiently, even though this requires deferring some environmental goals.”

Sept. 18

"Nuclear Energy and Obligations to the Future," Richard and Val Routley

John Broome, “Discounting the Future”


Obligations to Future Generations



Sept. 20

"The Constituency of Environmental Policy," John O'Neill

Obligations to Future Generations


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

Sept 25

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

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



Sept 27



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

Oct. 2

"All Animals Are Equal," Peter Singer

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


Animal Rights



Oct. 4

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


Animal Rights


Animals have rights just as strong as human rights.

October 9

Mid-semester break

Mid-semester break

Mid-semester break

Oct 11

“The Quest for Meat” (pp. 76-89 of The Heart of Dryness), Jamie Workman
 “On the Morality of Hunting,” Ann Causey.

Animal Rights


Kalahari bushmen should not hunt.

Oct. 16

"Organisms," Holmes Rolston III

"Reverence for Life," Albert Schweitzer




Oct. 18

"Competing Claims and Priority Principles," Paul Taylor




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

Oct. 23

“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




Oct. 25

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

 “Can Animal Rights Activist Be Environmentalist,” Gary Varner




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.

Oct. 30

“On a Monument to the Pigeon” Aldo Leopold

"Why Do Species Matter" Lilly-Marlene Russow

 “Philosophical Problems for Environmentalism,”

Elliot Sober

Species Preservation



Nov. 1

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


Species Preservation


Species matter (morally and for their own sakes).

Nov. 6

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

 “On Being Morally Considerable,” Kennath Goodpaster 

REREAD: "Organisms," Holmes Rolston III

Summary: Environmental Values



Nov. 8



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.)

Nov. 13


“Beyond Intrinsic Value:  Pragmatism in Environmental Ethics,” Anthony Weston

“Pragmatism and Policy: The Case of Water,” Paul Thompson


Environmental Pragmatism


Nov. 15

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

Environmental Pragmatism






Nov. 27


Practical Ethics Sessions 1&2


Nov. 29


Practical Ethics Sessions 3&4


Dec. 4


Practical Ethics Sessions 5&6


Dec. 6


Practical Ethics Sessions 7&8