Foundation of environmental responsibility

Mendoza asked:

Explain the moral foundation of ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSIBILITY and how
far you can extend such as to: 1. Human centered 2. Animal right
centered 3. Ecocentered environment.

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

In a very fundamental sense, humans take responsibility voluntarily. There is nothing in the world to force us, except that:

(a) in social circumstances immoral behaviour is often punishable,

(b) in the sense of the survival of the species, immoral behaviour to the habitat may end up endangering human life on this planet.

So you could say that self-interest (the desire to avoid punishment, the desire to live rather than die, the desire not to become an extinct species) is the foundation of morals.

This assumes you do not accept the authority of the Bible or religious leaders that some guy up there in heaven wants us to be moral. That’s an entirely different story, although deep down it’s basis is exactly the same.

Accordingly all morals have their foundations in Point 1 of your question: They are human centred. They have (especially in recent times) become ecocentred, but not because we have a responsibility to the planet. The planet doesn’t care a straw. It is self-interest by looking at morals from the survival angle.

Point 2: Animals have no rights. In fact, humans have no rights either. Rights are a social convention – a mutual agreement on the basis of ‘don’t do to me what you would not have me do to you’. You know well that the conception of rights fluctuates widely in different human societies. In a tyranny, for example, you have no rights, in a democracy you have many rights. This is because tyrants usually want to dictate what’s good or bad in their state, and expect everyone to obey rather than agree. In a democracy people expect that their freedom is respected by others, and they are willing to respect the same freedom enjoyed by others.

Therefore animals rights are also a convention. Animals lovers do not wish us to treat animals badly, and so they invent the premise that animals surely have some rights, at least to live in peace. Well, that’s no different from the argument that humans have rights. Either there is majority agreement in a society (and then this can be turned into a law to protect animals) or there is not. In the end, however, the basis is once again survival. If we eradicate too many species of wildlife, we are doing ourselves a disfavour. Not only because we should love or at least respect life in any form, but also because we depend to a very large extent on the habits of other creatures from which we benefit (especially those which clean up all the filth we create).

In sum: ‘Rights’ are an abstract concept. Some philosophers have written fat books about them, and they’re not wrong, nor have they wasted their time. Because once such a convention exists, and we must all live by them, it is useful to analyse exactly what is involved in maintaining a moral basis in society. But the agreement and/or convention has to be in place first, and it must specify how far these moral obligations extend. Only then can we argue whether or not humans have moral responsibilities – to each other, to animals and the ecosystem.

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