Environmental Ethics

Matt Tedesco, Philosophy, Beloit College
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This course focuses on two sets of issues in environmental ethics. The first set of issues, emerging significantly from practices such as animal agriculture and animal captivity in zoos, research facilities, and other settings, concerns the moral status of non-human animals. What kind of moral consideration are non-human animals owed? Do they have rights, and if so, how extensive are those rights? As a philosophy class, our emphasis is on the analysis of concepts and the critical evaluation of arguments. Beyond gaining a familiarity with the issue of the moral status of animals (along with the second issue of the class, not discussed here, concerning global climate change), students should expect to develop their analytic and evaluative skills through in-class discussion and a range of writing assignments.

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Learning Goals

As an environmental ethics course that spends half the semester focused on the moral status of animals, I want students to have a working understanding of the central arguments made by scholars on this issue. This includes understanding the arguments themselves, as well as how the scholars work in dialogue with each other, offering arguments that respond to, in various ways, the work by other scholars on the issue.

As philosophy is centrally about the analysis of concepts and the evaluation of arguments, I want students to have developed their analytic and evaluative skills, both through in-class discussion and through their writing.

Context for Use

Environmental Ethics at Beloit College is designed for upper-level students, though with a prerequisite of sophomore-standing, it serves students from around Beloit College. Probably the biggest group of students in the course comes from the Environmental Studies major, but students studying Philosophy, Legal Studies, and a variety of environmental sciences are also well-represented.

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Questions surrounding the status of animals are central for both moral philosophers and legal scholars, and so this course engages thinkers from both disciplines, and places them conceptually in interaction with each other. Because some of the philosophical and legal issues raised in this course are continuous with biological and other neuroscientific issues cutting across the animal kingdom, it is also appropriate to make those connections explicit in the course.

Course Size: 15-30

Course Content: This discussion-oriented course is split into two halves. The first half of the semester is aimed at the question of moral community broadly, and is focused specifically on the moral status of animals. The second half--not discussed in detail here--concerns global climate change, and focuses on our moral responsibility to both future persons and distant persons. During the section on animals, our readings were roughly evenly divided between the work of professional philosophers and legal scholars, and included those who argue for a robust standing for animals and those skeptical of giving animals rich moral or legal standing. A particular focus in many of the readings concerned speciesism, and whether or not our common practices concerning animals can be fairly analogized to slavery and other pernicious historical discriminatory behaviors.

Course Features: Most directly, the reading assignments in the course are chosen in order to familiarize students with the key current arguments on the moral status of animals. These scholars are very much in dialogue with each other, and so accurately representing this dialogue by making explicit the interactions among our readings, are key parts of our class discussions. The first exam at the course, coming at the conclusion of the unit, is designed as an essay-based exam where every question concerns the connections between multiple arguments.

A number of particular assignments in the class are designed to help advance students' analytic and evaluative skills. Weekly e-mail responses, required *before* class discussion on our readings, help students to read both carefully and critically as active readers engaging the texts and coming prepared for class discussion. Every reading is then assigned six students--three defenders, three critics--who are expected to lead class discussion on the reading. These defender/critic roles are assigned by me, where I set them up so that these roles are shared evenly (helping to bring quieter students into class discussion), and every student has multiple opportunities through the semester to be both a defender and a critic, exercising different critical thinking "muscles." Lastly, a longer 5-6 page paper was designed so that students would have to critically engage the notion of speciesism, and to do so in active dialogue with multiple scholars that we've been reading in class.

Course philosophy: In the past, I've taught this course as a survey course. For a variety of reasons--ranging from the make-up of the students in the course, to the sprawling nature of the subfield of environmental ethics--I didn't find that format particularly satisfying or effective. So focusing in more depth on the question of moral community through the moral status of animals, and later on questions connected with global climate change involving our responsibilities to future persons and distant persons, allowed me to sacrifice some of the breadth of the survey course for a deeper, and I hope more meaningful, engagement with a smaller set of issues. While the focus in the first half of the course has specifically been on animals, I should note that I explicitly interrogated, at a number of points in the course, what ways the arguments we were encountering might be extended to other entities--plants, for example, or ecosystems.

One important consideration that informed this course design concerns who is taking the course. For the majority of students in the course, this will be their one time taking a philosophy course. Given my commitment to the importance of philosophy in contributing to the development of core critical thinking skills that are central to a good liberal arts education, I want that engagement to be as productive as possible. This means, first and foremost, engaging good, challenging arguments that force them to think deeply and carefully. The issue of the moral status of animals raises a number of important issues, concerning the concept of personhood, the nature of rights, and the scope of content of our moral responsibility to others. For all of these reasons, this was an ideal choice for helping me to expose these "one shot" students to good philosophy, while simultaneously deepening the philosophical education of students who have and will continue to have more extensive encounters with philosophy in their academic careers.

Description and Teaching Materials

Environmental Ethics paper topic (Microsoft Word 40kB Nov27 12)
Environmental Ethics exam questions (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 104kB Nov27 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Syllabus - Environmental Ethics syllabus (Microsoft Word 46kB Nov27 12)


With respect to students' working knowledge of the material we're reading together in the course, the first exam is designed to clearly show me whether or not students have gained this knowledge. It is a closed-book exam, asking students to explain arguments both with respect to how they work and how they are in dialogue with arguments offered by others.

Because the analytic and evaluative goals are more amorphous, the long paper associated with this unit of the course is aimed at giving some shape to these goals. That paper, included in the materials, focuses on the concept of speciesism. In it students, must make an argument, they must (drawing from our class readings) explain how a critic of their argument would respond to them, and they must respond to that imagined critical response. I strongly believe that good critical thinking involves thinking through arguments from multiple perspectives, and that the views we stake out are stronger as we understand the views of those we disagree with as charitably as possible. With that in mind, the paper was evaluated according to the following rubric (also included in the paper assignment):

Here is a rough outline of how the grades on this paper will be figured:

1) A-range: Very well-written and well-organized; offers a clear and accurate presentation of the source material; a compelling argument is forcefully offered and defended
2) B-range: Also well well-written and well-organized; also offers a clear and accurate presentation of the source material; a thoughtful argument is offered and defended
3) C-range: Some serious writing problems, OR some important misunderstandings of the source material, OR an argument is inadequately offered and defended
4) D-range: Any two of the following: some serious writing problems, some important misunderstandings of the source material, an argument is inadequately offered and defended
5) F-range: Some serious writing problems, AND some important misunderstandings of the source material, AND an argument is inadequately offered and defended

References and Resources

Cass Sunstein & Martha Nussbaum (eds.), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions
The Sunstein and Nussbaum book was ideal for this course; we read it cover to cover. The other book we read in this unit of the course was Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, which opened the course.