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CHAPTER 16 – ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS
General Overview
In this final chapter our obligations to the larger non-human community and the rights that that
community may have are explored, especially practices involving animals whether it be for food,
sport, amusement, etc. What justifies our treatment of animals in this regard since many of our
practices involve inflicting pain, injury and death? Are animals simply inferior to humans – like
sticks and stones as Plato said, or soulless machines according to Descartes- such that the pain
we inflict requires little or no justification? How important is the possession of reason? Are we
separate from and superior to nature or inextricably bound to it? Appropriately, this final chapter
raises again some of the hardest questions of moral philosophy.
Class Suggestions
There are numerous exercises that you might get students to engage in here for this topic. One
popular scenario is to get students to imagine they have landed on a new planet with all kinds of
things that they don’t recognize flying, crawling and swimming. Some creatures appear to be
very intelligent. Their food supplies have run out and desperation will soon set in. They will have
to decide what they can eat and what they can’t. What criteria do they use? This kind of activity
will bring out assumptions that are often hidden, perhaps by the fact that animals seem to be
almost invisibly embedded in every part of our lives and that their use is taken for granted. Other
activities might include getting students to work out a hierarchy of animals based on categories
like “Kill /destroy it because it interferes with your quality of life” or “Own it or deprive it of its
freedom without any reason,” “Perform harmful experiments on it,” etc. This will bring out
many of our inconsistencies regarding how we treat animals, as would a careful consideration of
pets and why this particular group of animals are given special rights and to which we, as
“owners,” have special obligations.
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