Moral Obligation in Environmental Protection and the Planet’s Future
While exploring the concept of ethical action amongst human beings, Moore and Nelson posited that morality and ethics revolve around having a sense of universal responsibility, which they perceived as source of happiness and strength. Drawing from the sayings of Dalai Lama, the scholars argued that men of the contemporary society are at fault because of their continuous exploitation of the available resources such as minerals, water and trees without much care for the coming generations. They further posited that the contemporary problems facing the world present members of the society with uncountable opportunities to reflect upon their course and make amendments before the world become uninhabitable (Moore & Nelson xv).
It is universally agreed that human actions are responsible for the contemporary environmental challenges the world is facing. Overpopulation has led to clearing of forests to create human habitations, farms, road and railway networks, industries, and towns. Automobiles and factories emit huge quantities of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon fumes into the atmosphere. Burning of fossils by airplanes, cars, trucks, ships, and trains produces many pollutant gases into the atmosphere. Factories release chemicals and other substances into the rivers and lakes, contaminating water and causing destruction to aquatic life. Human beings are also responsible for poor disposal of chemicals and use of harmful fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides among other chemicals that cause extensive destruction of soil (Aggarwal & Rana 483-490). However, what is not agreeable leading to different schools of thoughts is whether humans have moral obligation to safeguard the environment for the future generations and the future of this planet.
This environmental ethics paper seeks to expound on this subject looking into various arguments and theoretical positions in relation to moral obligation in environmental protection.
Environment ethics relates to formulation of human moral obligations in relation to the environment. The ethics helps humans in grasping standards and principles that guide them in making choices that are morally right in their day-to-day activities. According to the works of Berkes, Carl and Madivan (1), environmental ethics involves intelligent judgment as well as voluntary action whenever a person is confronted by a conduct choice between wrong and right: A person faces choice between two or more alternative values. One must conceive moral judgment based on the principles that he proposes to act. An action qualifies as morally good if the principles manifested within it are right.
Ethics should propose alternative and more ideal means of resolving environmental problems faced by modern society and prospective problems based on contemporary human actions. Berkes et al. posited that “ethical behavior could inspire a collaborative culture of new thinking and unconventional ideas that push change in unexpected way” (1). They argued that environmental degradation has reached a stage that could be perceived alarming, threatening the future of the planet and generations to come, thus it is imperative to create a greater awareness on environmental problems and the role of individual human beings in safeguarding the world.
Moral Obligation to Environmental Protection
Determining whether human beings have moral obligation to protect the environment and the future of the planet has everything to do with their respective definition of what is morally upright. Moore and Nelson posited that an act can only be qualified as right if its repercussions enhances and protects whatever people value (1). If an act is wrong, the results do not promote or protect whatever is valued. Among the many things that can be perceived as valued by human beings is human well-being because the very aspect of valuing would be absent without humans (Moore & Nelson 1). The two authors argued that if there is anything that deserves protection and care, it is the future of humankind.
Any act that seeks to preserve and protect human life is praiseworthy and, thus, ought to be practiced. Protection of the environment is one such act that seeks to preserve and protect human life. The very existence of human life is dependent on various environmental factors. According to Moore and Nelson, the survival of humans is entwined with the ecosystem’s survival. Human lives entirely depend on the water, weather, air, and food which are made possible by the existence of a healthy ecosystem. Poisoning of the ecosystems amounts to poisoning of human beings and their death leads to human deaths.
The connection between humans and the ecosystem is demonstrated in different cultures, such as Judeo-Christian tradition that posits that God created humans from the soil and pueblo Indians who believe that first men emerged into the earth through an earthly navel (Moore & Nelson 1). Modern climate scientists have warned that continued destruction of the ecosystem undermines the basis of human life on earth. This implies that if people in the modern world do not protect the environment, the future of human beings on earth is not guaranteed. Human actions that contribute to environmental pollution undermine the basis of human lives in the future. The cultural as well as biological connection between the planet’s survival and survival of humans is inescapable (Moore & Nelson 1-2). It therefore follows, because human beings have an ethical and moral obligation not to destroy their own kind, themselves, and their cultures, they have a corresponding moral obligation to protect the ecosystem which is the foundation of human life and the future of humankind in the earth.
The sentiments of Moore and Nelson were shared by Rolston III who felt that human beings have moral obligation to protect the universe and everything within it because it provides them with their very home. The author noted that people cannot live in any other planet except the earth and the earth cannot accommodate them unless they take care of its contents, majorly the ecosystem that provides human with air, food, and weather (Rolston II 158-159). If every generation was to protect the environment during its stay on earth, the future generations would have an assured comfortable life because the ecosystem would have everything they require for life. Those future generations would also have a moral duty to safeguard the planet for other future generations in respect to the previous generations that made every effort to safeguard the planet for them.
According to utilitarian theory, a person’s judgment of an action as right or wrong is based on the assessment of the consequences. “Consequences that result in more harm than benefit are judged morally wrong, and those that bring about more benefit than harm are morally right” (Gudorf & Huchingson 4). Therefore, everything that one purposes to do or not to do should be put in a scale to determine both the benefits and the cost/losses.
The utilitarianism approach advocates for protection of the environment based on the benefits that are associated with such a move and also discourages human interactions with the environment that leads destruction of the ecosystems because of the effects of such actions (Gudorf & Huchingson 5-6). For example, while seeking to establish a factory to create jobs and improve the lives of the people in a given community, utilitarianism proposes that an entrepreneur seek to understand the side effects of such a venture to both the environment and the people’s future. If the costs/side effects outweigh the benefits, it then becomes morally wrong to establish such a factory. The few benefits to be enjoyed by the local population and other stakeholders should not be at the expense of the future earth dwellers.
The deontology theory can also be used in determining whether human beings have moral obligation to protect the environment and the future of the planet. Unlike the utilitarianism approach which is consequential, the deontological approach determines the morality of an act based on binding duty. An act is declared morally right if it satisfies or conforms to certain unconditional, absolute and universal standards and is ordinarily expressed as a duty/obligation (that which a person is obliged to do) or prohibition/proscription (that which a person must not do) (Gudorf & Huchingson 6). Duties/obligations and prohibitions emanate from different sources and authorities such as the constitution.
Therefore, the moral obligation to obey the call to duty should stop a person from destroying the environment thus propelling them to protect it and safeguard the future of the planet. For example, many countries have very clear policies and laws governing disposal of chemicals and other environmental pollutants. Every person living within the countries has a moral obligation to follow the directives of the law in disposing such chemicals, thereby protecting the environment. Therefore, one has a moral obligation to protect the environment through prohibition from destroying it.
Individuals opposed to the theories of sacrificing their lives by not exploiting resources to the fullest for future generations base their arguments on the ecosystem’s ability to undergo successions, which lead to periodic rejuvenation. As highlighted in the works of Rolston III, these individuals argue that “ecosystemic succession—disturbance, early succession, mid-succession, late succession, and climax” is not a novel theory traditionally embraced reality. To them, disturbances such as exploitation of current resources do not lead to destruction of the ecosystem because it has its own natural way of restoring itself for future generation (Rolston III 160). However, Rolston III noted that the rejuvenations depend on the frequencies and extensiveness of disturbances/interruptions. Some disturbances are permanent or may take hundreds of years to be restored. For example, if a natural forest is destroyed to create land for cultivation, attempts to restore such a forest may take several centuries because some of the trees in such forests are as old as three centuries. The author felt that the successive disturbances and rejuvenations/restorations are more ideal/theoretical than real.
Moral Obligation to Future Generations
A person may argue that his moral responsibility only extends to the presently existing people because the people in the future do not exist. The argument may be based on a feeling that just as a person living today is not obligated to past generations because they no longer exist, then future generations also do not exist thus one is not obligated to make sacrifices for them. However, this argument may be countered by the fact that one may not be obligated to the past people but has moral duty to respect their dignity such as by preserving their graves or proper treatment of their bodies. This same argument applies in relation to the future generations that are yet to be born. It is because the people in the past did not destroy the environment that people in the present generation enjoy the ecosystem’s products, otherwise present generations would have miserable lives or the world would be unbearable for them (Morris 49-50).
A child today has a moral right to blame past generations if their actions led to ecosystem destruction making his conditions unfavorable. Therefore, everybody has a moral obligation to make the world a better place for subsequent generations and to preserve the planet conserved by preceding generations (Morris 49). This moral obligation can be illustrated using the case of a terrorist group that launches a nuclear bomb killing millions of people in the present time. By so doing, the terrorists would have violated their moral obligation to safeguard human life. If the terrorists were to launch the nuclear today for it to explode a hundred years later, when that time comes and it kills millions of people, it would not be lesser guilty. The terrorist would still have violated their moral obligation to safeguard human life. The fact that the bomb went off a century later is morally irrelevant. A similar argument applies in relation to protection of the environment and the planet for future generations. If the environment is depleted all its resources today, the people who do so would violate future generations’ rights, which means that men have moral obligation to safeguard the world for future generation.
Everybody has a moral duty to be mindful about the needs of others and particularly, one must not be a willing party to destruction of the lives of other people. The principle of obligations states that a person should not use his liberty to do something that would significantly harm the important interests of another. The conditional moral duty demands that one be considerate about the interest of others before acting. Destruction of the environment today would harm the interests of others in the future, which means that such activities amount to violations of moral obligations to safeguard their interests (Jordan 91). For example, continuous extravagant burning of fossil fuels today will cause floods in the future, thereby significantly affecting the lives of future generations. Clearing forests today would lead to poor rains and draught in the future, which means that cutting of the forests in modern world, is morally wrong.
One of the major shortcomings of the utilitarian theory relates to the issue of leaving a better place for future generations. As mentioned earlier, the utilitarian approach is based on cost and benefit, where one weighs the benefits of their actions against the possible consequences or loses/effects. If the benefits surpass the effects, then one is encouraged to proceed with their actions (Gudorf & Huchingson 5). However, in relation to future generations, making sacrifices today for generations to come would be interpreted to mean that the present generations are of lesser importance than the generations to come. Why would the present generation not exploit all the resources at their disposal in the name of leaving a better place for others to come? The utilitarian approach fails to explain why people in the modern society would need to balance the benefits versus the losses, which will not affect their present lives.
It is evident that the actions of present and past generations in dealing with the ecosystem have affected the people in the contemporary would to a great deal. Forests cleared and coals burned several decades ago have caused highly destructive floods in some regions across the globe. The destruction of forests and industrial revolution years back by past generations have caused drought and deaths in many countries globally. These are just but a few indicators of how human actions presently can be destructive to the lives of future generations. If the present generations continue to just think about themselves and safeguarding their selfish personal interests, planet earth may eventually become uninhabitable, destroying human lives.
Thus, “every human being has a moral obligation to protect the environment and the future of the planet”. It is because of the past generations did not completely destroy the environment that the modern generation continue living comfortably, thus they have a moral obligation to safeguard the planet for future generation. The benefits of protecting the environment outweigh the cost of destroying it and man has a moral obligation to do that which is more beneficial. Man has a duty to do that which is right, thus should endeavor at protecting the environment because it is the good thing to do.
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