Environmental Ethics: Comparing Two Introductions

Dr Martin J Hodson

It is not often that one gets the chance to compare two books looking at the same topic. And even less often were you one of the authors!

My wife Margot and I published a Grove booklet “An Introduction to Environmental Ethics” in 2017. We were really aiming at a Christian audience and were writing very much in that context. We knew as we began that we would not be able to fit everything that we wanted to cover in a normal-sized booklet, and so we designed some additional web resources where we looked at topics such as other faith views on the environment and the interaction between animal welfare ethics and environmental ethics.

Robin Attfield is a well-known environmental ethicist, and has written a number of books on this area, and so it was not a surprise when I found that he had written the “Environmental Ethics: A Very Short Introduction” which was published in 2018. Despite its name, the Very Short Introduction (VSI) is longer than a Grove booklet, even if you take into account the additional web resources that we produced to accompany ours. But what are the other key differences?

First and foremost the VSI takes a much more philosophical approach than our Grove booklet. Perhaps that is not too surprising as Robin Attfield is an emeritus professor of philosophy, whilst I am a scientist and Margot is a theologian. In the early chapters of his book Attfield lays a lot of philosophical background. So, after an introduction in his key concepts chapter, he looks at nature, the environment, moral standing, and value. There follow whole chapters on the future and principles for right action.

Many of the same concepts are covered as in our Grove booklet, including anthropocentric, biocentric and ecocentric ethics, intrinsic value, consequential and deontological approaches and virtues. But in the VSI they get much more philosophical undergirding. The same people tend to get mentioned in both books: Arne Naess, Aldo Leopold, and Lynn White to name three. But there are a lot of differences as well.

After his first four pretty philosophical chapters, Attfield then changes tack to look at more practical matters in “Sustainability and Preservation”. There is some overlap here with our Grove booklet but the VSI is more detailed. The VSI material on “Social and Political Movements” was not covered by us at all.

One area where I believe our Grove booklet is stronger is in Christian environmental ethics, and in the ethics of other religions. Although the VSI has a chapter on “environmental ethics and religion” it mostly concerns Lynn White and stewardship. We covered a much wider range of Christian ethics and went into more detail on other religions in our web resources.

Attfield completes his VSI with a chapter on the “Ethics of Climate Change”, which we hardly mentioned. It is a good account, but does not consider climate scepticism, for which you might want to look at our other Grove booklet “The Ethics of Climatic Scepticism”.

So they are very different books! Which to read? Can I avoid bias here? If you have a reasonable background in philosophy then the VSI would be the best way in for you. If you have little philosophy and are a Christian interested in the topic then the Grove booklet will be better for you. For those on the CRES course, the Grove booklet is the set text, but I would recommend reading the VSI after completing the Grove booklet. Of course, there are much bigger and more detailed texts on environmental ethics that you might tackle after these introductions! I hope you will.

Dr Martin J. Hodson

Operations Director, JRI