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Instructor Class Description

Time Schedule:

Jennifer W Atkinson
BIS 356
Bothell Campus

Ethics and the Environment

Examination of the "environmental crisis" and associated social conflicts, tracing them to their philosophical roots. Focuses on the facts of the current situation, on classic and recent readings from the environmental literature, and on ethical responses to current issues.

Class description

As the environmentalist David Orr once put it, "'Managing the planet' has a nice a ring to it. It appeals to our fascination with digital readouts, computers, buttons and dials. But the complexity of Earth and its life systems can never be safely managed. The ecology of the top inch of topsoil is still largely unknown, as is its relationship to the larger systems of the biosphere. What might be managed is *us*: human desires, economies, politics, [and] ethics. It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants."

Expanding on some of these basic principles, our course will explore key philosophical issues and debates in the field of Environmental Ethics. Over the quarter we will examine questions such as: What are our moral obligations to nonhuman beings, ecosystems and future generations? Does nature have "intrinsic value," and what might this mean? How can we achieve environmental justice? Do animals, species or natural systems have rights, and what are they? Across all of these questions, we will consider the application of ethical principles to current issues in land use and the distribution of resources, wilderness protection, and agricultural practices/food systems on local and global scales.

While we will primarily focus on contemporary texts, our study will also draw on older works in philosophy to contextualize the historical development of different cultural attitudes towards nature and different environmental practices. We will explore environmental values not only in philosophical texts, but also in film, literature, art and poetry.

Our study of environmental ethics will also allow students to explore philosophy more generally, and familiarize them with traditions like utilitarianism, Cartesianism, phenomenology, socialism, deep ecology and ecofeminism. In addition, students will rigorously examine their own core beliefs and assumptions about themselves and their places in this world.

Student learning goals

• Develop knowledge of basic principles, concepts and methods of environmental ethics.

• Build understanding of philosophical and ethical perspectives on controversial issues in the field of environmental ethics and in public debates more generally.

• Cultivate an “ethic of ecological justice” and explore its application to particular environmental cases.

• Critically analyze a variety of positions on problems in environmental philosophy and ethics; speak and write persuasively in defense of one’s views.

General method of instruction

Seminar-style discussions and small group discussions/activities evaluating course issues and materials. Some brief lectures. Students will also be required to volunteer with a community organization working toward solutions to an environmental problem of the student’s choice.

Recommended preparation

This is a reading-intensive course. Be prepared for heavy weekly reading requirements.

Class assignments and grading

Evaluations of student performance will be based on participation in group discussions, completion of weekly online journal entries, a midterm paper, and a final service-learning/research project.

Evaluations of student performance will be based on participation in group discussions, completion of weekly online journal entries, a midterm paper and final project.


The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Jennifer W Atkinson
Date: 10/11/2012