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Unit information: Philosophy and the Environment in 2020/21

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Unit name Philosophy and the Environment
Unit code PHIL30112
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Burch-Brown
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Philosophy
Faculty Faculty of Arts


This unit explores topics in environmental ethics, environmental aesthetics, and green political theory.

1. Environmental ethics There are many reasons for us to value the natural world. Some philosophers argue that all of these reasons are grounded fundamentally in human interests. Human societies depend materially on the resources we harvest from the environment. Spending time in nature can be pleasurable, invigorating and rejuvenating. And of course the sciences of natural history, ecology, biology and physical geography all offer fascinating subjects for exploration. Given the richness of these ways of relating to the natural world, might we conclude that all of our reasons to care for the environment can be grounded in anthropocentric concerns, or reasons to care for our fellow human beings? On what grounds might it be argued that non-human animals, plants, species, ecosystems, and wildernesses are intrinsically valuable, or that they have independent moral standing? We will look at diverse responses to these questions, including sophisticated anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric approaches, and discover some unexpected possibilities.

2. Environmental aesthetics Many people place value on nature because of the aesthetic experiences that they have in relation to it, such as experiences of beauty, wonder, or awe. In what ways are our aesthetic responses to nature similar to our aesthetic responses to art? In what ways are they different? What would it mean to value nature aesthetically ‘on its own terms’? Might it be argued that all of nature has positive aesthetic value? If not, would this give us reason to alter those parts of nature that are ugly, boring, disgusting or somehow objectionable? And finally, in what ways, if any, does aesthetic appreciation of nature depend upon background knowledge, such as understanding of natural history? What other sorts of knowledge might enhance aesthetic appreciation of nature, and what role does the imagination have to play?

3. Green politics and economics In the final part of the unit, we will look at specific cases of environmental decision-making from the UK and elsewhere in the world. Amongst our questions will be: What tools should we use to capture environmental values in a political or economic context? What principles or values should guide decision-makers dealing with environmental problems in liberal societies? How can we do a good job of balancing competing priorities, such as social concerns having to do with economic development, justice and local autonomy; and environmental concerns such as those having to do with habitat preservation, climate change, and biodiversity?

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will be able to demonstrate:

(1) a strong knowledge of the literature in one or more areas of environmental philosophy;

(2) a critical understanding of central concepts and approaches in environmental philosophy, e.g. independent moral standing, intrinsic and extrinsic value, discounting, the precautionary principle, duties to future generations, cognitive and non-cognitive approaches to environmental aesthetics;

(3) the ability to philosophically analyse and critically appraise the main arguments in the literature;

(4) skills in philosophical writing and argumentation, appropriate to level H.

Teaching details

Lectures, small group work, individual exercises, seminars and virtual learning environment. The unit tutors will use regular journal entries as a chance to give feedback on progress.

Assessment Details

FORMATIVE: Digital Presentation (ILOs 1-3) + SUMMATIVE: take-home open book exam - 100% [ILOs 1-4]

Reading and References

  • Benson, John. Environmental Ethics: An Introduction with Readings. Routledge, 2000.
  • Gardiner, S, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson and Henry Shue. Climate Ethics: Essential Readings. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Brady, E. The Aesthetics of the Natural Environment. Edinburgh: Ediburgh University Press.