Short Course on Environmental Ethics

Instructor: Dr Ho Hua Chew

August 2002



Course Description

The environmental crisis in the 20th Century has generated an impetus for a benigned and harmonious relationship to the non-human world. This is intensified by the global scope of the crisis in the late 20th Century --- with the mounting scientific evidence for the greenhouse effect, the ozone depletion, etc. Many people believe or feel that humans can no longer continue to treat the non-human world in the way that robber barons or conquistadors of old has done to the land or the world that was newly discovered. The use of natural resources has to be accompanied by an obligation to use wisely and sustainably such that the resources will not be wilfully or inadvertently degraded  or depleted for future generations of people.


The result is the urgent search for an ethic that would be relevant for the age of the environmental crisis insofar as such an ethic should and could provide a guide to our behaviour and conduct in relation to the non-human world. A new approach that transcends the anthropocentric orientation of traditional (humanistic) ethics and worldview appears to be urgently needed for the salvation of our planet that has become increasingly unfit or uncongenial for for human life as well as for many of its other denizens. Environmentalists, ecologists, conservationists and people who are concerned have debated for decades on this issue. The debate is still going on. Is there a need to go beyond our anthropocentric orientation in the way we treat or deal with the non-human world? Do we need to relate to the non-human world ethically in the same way as we treat our fellow humans --- conferring it moral consideration? If we need to, on what basis can such an ethical relation be justified?


This short course will introduce students to several major approaches that have been put forward by contemporary environmental thinkers to promote a benigned and harmonious relationship to the non-human world. The fundamental concepts,  underlying assumptions and major limitations of these approaches will be reviewed so that students will have a critical understanding of them and will be enabled to make their own judgements on the various relevant issues involved. The ultimate aim of the course is to promote a intellectually sophisticated understanding of the environmental crisis.





Session 1: The Anthropocentric World-view


Resource Environmentalism

On the Need to Transcend Anthropocentric Ethics


Session 2: Biocentric (Individualistic) Ethics

Animal Liberation

Limitations of Animal Liberation

Respect for Life Ethics

Limitations of the Respect for life Ethics


Session 3: Ecocentric (Holistic) Ethics

Key Ecological Concepts/Principles

The Land Ethic

Limitation of the Land Ethics


Session 4: Discussion

What is the approach that would be most appropriate and fruitful for promoting a benigned and harmonious relationship to the non-human world in the Singapore context? 



Prescribed Readings

  1. Zimmerman, et al (ed.) (1993), Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology, Prentice Hall, New Jersey.
  2.  Desjardins, J.R., Environmental Ethics: An Introduction to Environmental Philosophy.  



Course Instructor: Dr Ho Hua Chew

The lecturer is currently the Chairman of the Conservation Committee of the Nature Society (Singapore). He has been involved with the Nature Society for over a decade, contributing to the Society’s efforts in formulating conservation proposals, feedback to government on land-use plans and policies as well as ecological surveys. He obtained a Ph.D in Philosophy from the University of Washington and had for many years taught a course on environmental ethics in the Philosophy Department of the National University of Singapore. He has also an MSc. in Landscape Ecology, Design & Management (Imperial College) as well as an MSc. in Applied Ecology & Conservation (University of East Anglia). He has published articles on philosophical and conservation issues in local as well as international journals.