(Undergrad.) Environmental Ethics

Undergraduate course, University of Cincinnati, Department of Philosophy, 2017

Upper-level, seminar-style undergraduate course offered in Summer 2017 at University of Cincinnati to a small group students of diverse backgrounds (philosophy majors were the minority). Cross-listed as an Environmental Studies course.

Course organization: the first 1/3 of the course focused on basic theoretical and conceptual foundations; the remaining 2/3 were dedicated to a close reading of the 2015 book Thinking Like a Mall, by Steven Vogel.

Course Description

Many people will grant that the way humans affect the environment matters. But people tend to disagree about why it matters. Should we care about environmental degradation only when it could have a negative impact on human life? Or is the environment intrinsically worthy of moral consideration, independently of any potential consequences to humans? Many people intuitively think that it is morally wrong to destroy nature when destruction is avoidable, and moreover that, as a society, we should take steps to conserve natural resources and to protect endangered natural habitats as well as endangered plant and animal species—that is, we should save nature. But what do we mean by “nature”? It seems that we mean too many things: we apply the term “natural” to things that are not artificial and/or not affected by humankind (as in the notion of “pristine” wilderness); but we also apply the label “natural” to human-made consumer goods (such as some food and clothing items) as well as to engineered structures (such as buildings) when they are “green” or “sustainable”. The ambiguity of these terms raises a series of questions. For one, if we have a responsibility to protect the environment, does it matter if the environment is natural or not? Moreover, does it still make sense to talk about protecting what is natural when it is no longer clear what is natural and what is not? This course is a survey of environmental ethics with a focus on these questions. By examining classical as well as recent theories, students will gain a greater understanding of the relation between philosophical, scientific and economic perspectives, and will become better equipped to respond to pressing environmental challenges as responsible agents.

Student work

  • reading responses (200-word critical reaction to each assigned text)
  • three tests
  • three short papers (~600 words)
  • peer review of papers


  • Rachels (1999) selection from The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy
  • Aquinas (1264) “Humans as Moral Ends” [in D.R. Keller (ed.), Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions]
  • Descartes (1637) “Nonhumans as Machines” [in D.R. Keller (ed.), Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions]
  • Locke (1689) “Nature as Economic Resource” [in D.R. Keller (ed.), Environmental Ethics: The Big Questions]
  • Leopold (1949) selection from A Sand County Almanac
  • Sylvan (1973) “Is There a Need for a New an Environmental Ethic?”
  • Hardin (1968) “The Tragedy of the Commons”
  • Katz (1992) “The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature”
  • Vogel (2015) Thinking Like a Mall [entire book]

Sample of student comments:

  • “Positive attitude, very open and understanding of students different views”

  • “The class discussions over the material were great. Really gained an understanding of the material that way, as well as having the daily in class assignments. The end of the week writing assignments gave me the chance to demonstrate my understanding as well as my opinion. Great material and layout of assignments.””

  • “I asked a lot of questions and Gui was happy to answer all of them. I often stayed a few minutes after class to ask about other concepts and ideas and Gui was always patient and willing to engage in this extra time. I have taken about 5 or so philosophy courses at UC and found this class to be exceptional. Gui did a great job presenting and providing the topics through assigned reading rather than lecturing. He did offer short lectures if the class seemed to struggle with an idea. Once a common ground of understanding was achieved, he moderated discourse that allowed students to clarify ideas, parse differences between similar ideas and leave with a sense of comprehension. I wish all professors were as prepared as Gui.”