In this chapter we begin to review the philosophical dimensions that are relevant if we are to develop the substantive, enduring forms of ecological citizenship on which a sustainable society ultimately depends. This chapter deals with ethical theories and Chapter Six with political ones.
Environmental ethics concerns the question of whether or not our interactions with the natural environment, or our interactions between each other with respect to the natural environment, are subject to moral constraints or to moral requirements. But why might we hold that there are such constraints or requirements in the first place? Well, we certainly think that there are some proscriptions and prescriptions regarding our interactions with each other. It is uncontroversial, for example, that if you are an innocent, then I am morally required not to inflict gratuitous harm on you. It would be morally wrong for me to do so. And we can easily harm each other by how we interact with the natural environment. We can make it poisonous by polluting it, for example. And if we poison our environment through our daily activities, then we will harm each other. But what is the basis for moral constraints and moral requirements? The two most prominent approaches in ethical theory are consequentialism and deontology. Consequentialism, such as utilitarianism, holds that the rightness or wrongness of our actions depends on the overall consequences. Utilitarianism, for example, holds that we should, directly or indirectly, bring about that outcome containing the greatest good. In contrast, deontological approaches hold that (at least certain) actions can be right or wrong regardless of their consequences.