Duties Regarding Nature: A Kantian Approach to Environmental Ethics

Open Access
Svoboda, Toby Joseph
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
Committee Members:
  • John Philip Christman, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Nancy A Tuana, Committee Member
  • Jennifer Mensch, Committee Member
  • Daniel Leonhard Purdy, Committee Member
  • environmental ethics
  • animal ethics
  • Kant
  • virtue
  • teleology
This dissertation develops a Kantian approach to environmental ethics. After critically examining traditional approaches in environmental ethics that recognize direct duties to non-human nature, I argue instead that human beings have indirect duties regarding non-human nature. Specifically, I contend that humans have a duty to abstain from causing unnecessary harm to non-human organisms, because doing so erodes one’s virtuous dispositions. In the Doctrine of Virtue, Immanuel Kant holds that human beings have duties “regarding” flora and non-human animals. These duties regarding nature arise from a direct duty a human being has to herself, namely the duty to increase her own moral perfection. I argue that such moral perfection is constituted by possessing traditionally recognized virtues, such as benevolence. Kant mentions animal cruelty and wanton destruction of flora as examples of actions that diminish one’s moral perfection and hence violate one’s duty to moral perfection. I argue that one ought to abstain from such actions because they cause unnecessary harm to organisms, a kind of action that erodes one’s virtuous dispositions and hence violates one’s duty to moral perfection. Moreover, benefiting a non-human organism can increase one’s moral perfection, because such beneficence is a way of cultivating virtues and hence fulfilling one’s duty to increase one’s own moral perfection. Kant’s account of organisms, primarily presented in the Critique of Judgment, provides a basis for understanding what it means to harm and benefit non-human organisms. According to this account, human investigators are warranted in taking organisms to be natural purposes, or entities that are natural yet also exhibit teleological features of design. In particular, Kant holds that to judge an organism as purposive is to judge it as an entity that ought to be a particular way. I use the term “natural goods” to refer to those states and functions that are constitutive of what an entity ought to be as a natural purpose. I argue that judgments about the natural goods of a given kind of organism are best exemplified by the assessment of relevant experts. This conception of natural goods helps ground duties regarding non-human organisms: since organisms have natural goods, it is possible to harm and benefit them by inhibiting or promoting the achievement of their natural goods. These considerations ground a robust, virtue-oriented environmental ethic that has significant advantages over traditional approaches to environmental ethics.