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Environmental Ethics between Action and Reflection

Environmental Ethics asks for reasoned arguments regarding our handling of, dealing with, and behavior towards nature. From this general starting point, there are two different routes of inquiry and reasoning.

One route is practical: As a field of applied ethics, environmental ethics aims to guide action. It starts from moral norms and principles (e.g. a Kantian, virtue ethical, or utilitarian position), concepts and ideas (e.g., sustainability, deep ecology, environmental justice) and develops them into guidelines, rules, and objectives for practical engagement and policy-making. Lines of reasoning along this route engage how to resolve specific environmental problems (such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, freshwater scarcity, protective area management, soil fertility, and the like). Along this practical route, environmental ethicists take the role of engaged intellectuals, policy counselors, and even campaigners.

The other route is reflexive: As a field of applied ethics, environmental ethics acts as the bridge be-tween lived practical problems and the conceptual reflections that illuminate them critically according to their presuppositions. By doing so, this philosophical route immerses one in (meta-)ethical, episte-mological and ontological questions. Along this reflexive route, environmental ethicists take the traditional role of philosophers. By way of example, justifying the preservation of biodiversity leads to the question of what biodiversity actually is, and thus to an epistemology of the biological sciences. Getting an ethical grasp on climate change presupposes a position regarding the ethics of risk. Furthermore, reflexivity leads to tricky epistemological questions regarding the validity and reliability of (climate) models. Reasoning a stance regarding the aesthetics of nature involves both asking about experiencing nature and can thus lead to phenomenological investigations as well as positioning oneself in regard to aesthetics more generally. And investigating the demarcation problem leads to questions about burdens of proof and about morally relevant features of natural entities and thus leads into metaethical questions about moral cognitivism and realism.

Both routes are interdisciplinary: On the one hand, in aiming at action-guiding arguments, environ-mental ethics necessarily builds on a reasoned opinion of what and how the world actually is. This is why arguing for the preservation of biodiversity builds on insights from biology and ecology, and arguing for mitigation and adaptation presupposes physical models about how greenhouse-gases actually produce climate change. On the other hand, analyzing the presuppositions of different kinds of arguments being used in environmental discourses, heads the inquiry into neighboring a) philosophical sciences such as metaethics, ontology, and epistemology respectively, but also b) into other disciplines, such as political science, anthropology, economics, etc.

Finally, both routes are intertwined. That is, in tackling the question how to deal with and behave towards nature, environmental ethics performs and operates in between philosophical reflection, interdisciplinary research and practical engagement. The practical route is not merely “applied” but also raises our awareness of philosophical problems. The conference shall mirror the current scope of environmental ethics with respect to both action and reflection.

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