Opinion

Can environmental exploitation be morally acceptable?

By challenging the ambiguity of environmental exploitation, Piers Stephens has opened debates in environmental ethics, and the environmental space more generally.

Image: Kletr via Shutterstock, ID: 615370889

SEI recently welcomed environmental philosopher, Piers Stephens who presented a seminar titled ‘Exploring the Concept of Environmental Exploitation.’

The lecture asked the question ‘what is it to exploit nature,’ and argued for the need to better understand the notion of environmental exploitation.

Stephens argued that some forms of exploitation may be morally acceptable, and set out to distinguish between wrongful exploitations of nature in contrast to morally acceptable patterns of use. Below are the key points discussed by Piers.

Conservation vs Preservation

Stephens notes that, since the beginnings of environmental philosophy in the 1970s, there have been two major attitudes towards nature within environmental philosophy. One of these positions, conservationism, takes a more human-centred approach towards nature. It emphasises the need for the Earth’s resources to be used in an efficient manner so that these resources can be enjoyed by more people for a longer time. Under this view, the environment is seen in economic terms, as providing the means for certain human ends. The other position, preservationism, understands nature in its own terms. It suggests that natural things (organisms, ecosystems, species, etc.) have intrinsic value, separate from any value they have to achieve human ends. This view suggests that humans should disturb the natural world as little as possible, no matter how efficient their use of nature is.

Given this background, Stevens explains that the idea of environmental exploitation is ambiguous between something which is considered unethical and something which is considered morally neutral. Under a conservationist viewpoint, exploitation of the environment (through mining, logging, etc.) is not in itself immoral, so long as any environmental damage and waste are minimised. In contrast, under a preservationist viewpoint, environmental exploitation is always immoral.

Can environmental exploitation ever be acceptable?

Stephens aims to better understand the notion of environmental exploitation, and therefore to better understand when environmental exploitation is acceptable, and when it is not. He makes use of the ideas of philosopher Robert Goodin, who understands immoral exploitation of people as “playing for advantage where inappropriate”. Such an action is inappropriate when it is detrimental to the interests of the person being exploited. Stephens extends this conception of exploitation to environmental exploitation, by understanding parts of nature, such as ecosystems, as having their own interests.

Stephens suggests that a viewpoint somewhere between conservationism and of preservationism is ideal, but makes clear that not all forms of environmental exploitation are appropriate. For example, exploiting the ocean by using it as a rubbish dump is inappropriate, as it is detrimental to the interests of the ocean ecosystem. However, Stephens suggests that certain forms of environmental exploitation may be appropriate when they are performed in a way that respects the interests of the natural world.

Meeting in the middle through weak instrumentalism

Stephens discussed the idea of instrumentalism, and how this notion has been used and abused in environmental philosophy. Stevens wants to differentiate between strong instrumentalism, whereby the only value that things in nature have is their usefulness of humans, and weak instrumentalism, whereby things in nature do have value as resources for humans but have other values besides human uses.

Stephens argues that strong instrumentalism inevitably leads to a conservationist viewpoint, as only the human-centric values of nature can be recognised. Indeed, there is a degree to which strong instrumentalism is a self-fulfilling prophesy, as the environmental exploitation it engenders robs nature of any other value it could have. Under this viewpoint, nature is understood according to the device paradigm, where the only possible interactions with nature are those which further certain pre-determined human ends.

By challenging the ambiguity of environmental exploitation, Piers Stephens has opened debates in environmental ethics, and the environmental space more generally, to question whether or not environmental exploitation can be morally acceptable. Do you agree/ disagree with Piers Stephens argument? Let us know.

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Image: Piers Stephens and David Schlosberg


Anastasia Mortimer is the Knowledge Translation Officer & Communications Coordinator at The Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours in Sociology at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours.  Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power between the State Government and Kimberly First Australians in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.