Ethics in Focus: Environmental Ethics

Issues surrounding our environment, such as climate change, are especially pressing today. In this course, we learn what a 18th-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, has to say about environmental ethics. But how can learn anything meaningful from a philosopher who does not live in our times, and who thus could not experience issues of our environment in ways we are experiencing today? In countering this worry, this course aims to derive meaningful insight into environmental ethics by deconstructing Kant’s rationality-centric approach to our environment and contrasting it with a nature-centric approach offered by Alexander Baumgarten, the most influential Kant’s predecessor.

This class will be delivered online via the online platform Zoom. Enrolling students need to ensure they have an email, a reliable internet connection, microphone/speakers and access to a tablet, smartphone or computer.


  • Baumgarten, A. G.: Ethica philosophica [Philosophical Ethics], 3rd ed. (Halle, 1763) [As there is no translation of this work into a modern language, I will provide my own].
  • Kant, I.: Conjectures on the Beginning of Human History, in Political Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Kant, I.: Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Kant, I.: Lectures on Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Kant, I.: Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  • Kant, I.: Critique of Pure Reason (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • Kant, I.: Critique of the Power of Judgment (Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  • Kant, I.: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  • Kant, I.: Critique of Practical Reason (Cambridge University Press, 2015).


  • Share your own views on environmental ethics: What are the most pressing issues surrounding our environment for you today? Do you think we can learn anything meaningful from the views on environmental ethics held by 18th-century German philosophers? Or, would you dismiss this idea by saying that they did not experience what we are experiencing today?
  • Rational and nonrational beings: Kant sharply distinguishes between rational and nonrational beings. Can we assume that humans are rational beings? What does it mean to treat our natural environment from a rational perspective? Is our natural environment a rational or nonrational being? Are we justified in calling environment a being in the first place?
  • Means and ends: Kant consider nonrational beings to be means and rational beings to be ends in themselves. In this context, he famously asserts that we should never use others merely as a means. But this assertion implies that we can use nonrational beings as a mere means. If we accept the view that our natural environment is a nonrational being, then, it allows us to use our environment as a mere means. But is this conclusion not problematic? Is there an alternative theory that could allow us to treat our natural environment as an end?
  • Direct and indirect duties: Kant argues that we do not have direct duties towards our natural environment. According to him, kinds of duties we have in regard to environment are indirect. By contrast, Baumgarten argues that we have direct duties towards environment. Where does this difference come from, and what are the theoretical bases behind each of these views?
  • Environmental ethics from an aesthetic point of view: Some scholars argue that Kant’s aesthetics raises the possibility of establishing noninstrumental environmental ethics. According to this argument, human beings and our natural environment are no longer in a relation of means and ends. What, then, would be the relationship; between humans and environment like? What are the contemporary implications of this noninstrumental environmental ethics?
  • Reflect on your views on environmental ethics: Have you changed your views on environmental ethics since the beginning of the course? Why or why not?


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Understand some of the major theories and debates in environmental ethics.
  2. Understand and analyse arguments in the relevant literatures.
  3. Evaluate these theories and arguments critically.
  4. Develop their own views and arguments through consideration and analysis of the views and arguments presented in the course.
  5. Engage constructively and respectfully with the views and arguments of others, even if they disagree with them.

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