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To Be or Not to Be Sustainable: the Care Ethics of the Environment vs. the Tragedy of the Commons

08 marzo 2019 -
To Be or Not to Be Sustainable: the Care Ethics of the Environment vs. the Tragedy of the Commons

Contributo selezionato da Filodiritto tra quelli pubblicati nei Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Palade Brîndușa[1]

[1] National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (NUPSAA), Bucharest (ROMANIA)



Over the last few decades, a decisive paradigm shift has taken place from a care ethics concerned with vulnerable humans and animals to a more global ethical movement aimed at protecting the ecosystems and the planet. One may argue that this movement has been encouraged by scientific warnings regarding the potentially catastrophic impact of current trends in global warming; and by the far-reaching explorations of extraterrestrial space, which have helped scientists understand the singular conditions for life that are apparently provided by the Earth’s protective atmosphere and liquid water. Another shift has occurred in the self- understanding of many individuals, especially in the West, from privileged beings that regard themselves as the center of the world (anthropocentrism) to ethical beings that are responsible toward other species and the environment upon which humanity depends. At the same time, however, the environment is often subject to the well-known tragedy of the commons. As a result, in large areas the responsibility for its protection is still avoided by some economic agents and particular individuals. Many even prefer to rationalize an environmentally aggressive behavior, notably in the United States. This article is meant to review these opposing forces and to inquire into the possibility of finding “an Archimedean point” from which we could impartially assess the sustainability dilemma, which can also help us tackle the environmental challenges of the future.


1. Care ethics and the environment 

Rights-based, deontological and utilitarian ethics are built either upon rationalistic and individualistic presuppositions, or upon impartiality and equality [1]. By contrast, the care ethics that has emerged in the late 20th century, especially through the writings of feminist philosophers like Carol Gilligan [2] and Nel Noddings [3], is a relational ethics motivated by partial emotions toward beings who are dependent or vulnerable. Care ethics follows to some extent in the tradition of the sentimentalist ethics whose main classic theorist is the empiricist philosopher David Hume [4].

Although Gilligan has later attempted to harmonize care with justice, she has never abandoned the idea that there is “a different voice” based on moral intuitions and “sentiments”, rather than rule-bound or consequentialist rationalizations. Whether or not we see this voice as “feminine” (we may prefer a more gender-neutral approach, since it allows us a broader moral application of human emotions such as empathy and compassion, and it avoids essentialisms) it clearly provides the ground for an ethical theory that is less competitive and hierarchical than the classic normative theories: deontological and social contract-based ethics, on the one hand, and consequentialist and utilitarian ethics, on the other hand. Some philosophers, like Charles Taylor for example [5], have even argued that most Western modern thinking about morality, as well as the political tradition of liberalism, bears the mark of an individualism that tends to omit obligations towards communitarian goals. The relational model of human agency that is presupposed by the ethics of care provides a clear contrast to this atomistic mindset.

On the other hand, if an ethics of care may balance the standard Western individualistic approach to ethics by highlighting the need to protect vulnerable beings, in some non-Western societies shaped according to more communitarian values it is precisely the neglect of individual rights that may sometimes account for abuses of power and corruption. An ethics of care that values social networks but is deprived of a right-based notion of justice that applies to each and every individual may easily lead to favouritism, nepotism, and discrimination.

Carol Gilligan’s seminal theorizing of care ethics did not pay attention to vulnerable animals, being more concerned with dependent humans. Nel Noddings, on the other hand, has added to the ethics of care the moral obligation of humans to care for proximate animals, although only if they are open to caring completion and are capable of reciprocity (a stray cat that shows up at one’s door is preferable, according to her views, to a rat that does the same). Noddings rejects Peter Singer’s assertion that it is specialist to prefer humans over animals, or that one is under the moral obligation to become a vegetarian – otherwise, any care for animals would be meaningless [3, pp. 157].

According to Carol Adams and Josephine Donovan [6], a feminist care ethic is preferable to a deontological defence of animal rights, since, instead of purely formal and abstract moral rules, it provides a moral foundation based on a relational ontology to the human obligations toward animals. This kind of moral foundation acknowledges the value of love, compassion, and empathy in strengthening the connection between humans and animals.

In recent decades, the applications of the ethics of care have extended to the provision of environmental security to the next generations. In other words, care ethics has expanded its object from the protection of vulnerable humans and animals to the conservation of ecosystems or even the planet as a whole, which is the home which will be inherited by the coming generations. A global environmental ethics, which takes into account the interdependence of various organisms and ecosystems while emphasizing the virtue of “caring” for these networks as a moral agent embedded in them, rather than as a solitary and detached rational individual, has nowadays gained a wider audience than in the past. Given the environmental challenges of our time, especially the degradation of local ecosystems and the climate change, the emerging care ethics of the environment is expected to become a mainstream branch of applied ethics.

The care ethics of the environment is not to be understood as a paternalistic way of “caring for” or “protecting” the weakened environment [7], but rather as an extension of care ethics from particular beings and organisms to ecosystems and global networks in which the agent is inserted. This global extension was “paradoxically” encouraged by the more far-reaching recent scientific explorations of extra-terrestrial space, which have so far revealed the singular conditions for life provided by our planet. Indeed, the Earth’s magnetosphere, its atmosphere, and liquid water create an environment that is more hospitable to life than the one that was discovered on planets which are located not only in our solar system (since the Earth seems currently the only habitable planet in our solar system, occupying the “Goldilocks” zone), but also in our galaxy and beyond. Even if the scientific exploration of exoplanets that are similar to Earth has only recently begun, it is safe to say that so far, no reachable Earth-like planet, which provides similar conditions for life, has been identified. So, protecting the global network and ecosystems on the home-planet Earth seems a vital concern for the present and the future generations of “Earthlings”.

Articolo pubblicato in: Diritto dell’ambiente


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