Duties Regarding Nature: A Kantian Approach to Environmental Ethics

Kant Yearbook 4 (1):143-163 (2012)
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Abstract

Many philosophers have objected to Kant’s account of duties regarding non-human nature, arguing that it does not ground adequate moral concern for non-human natural entities. However, the traditional interpretation of Kant on this issue is mistaken, because it takes him to be arguing merely that humans should abstain from animal cruelty and wanton destruction of flora solely because such actions could make one more likely to violate one’s duties to human beings. Instead, I argue, Kant’s account of duties regarding nature grounds much stronger limitations on how humans may treat non-human animals and flora, since such duties are rooted in the imperfect duty to increase one’s own moral perfection. This duty proscribes actions affecting non-human nature that decrease one’s moral perfection, such as those that cause organisms unnecessary harm. Moreover, the duty to moral perfection prescribes (but does not strictly require) actions affecting non-human nature that increase one’s moral perfection, such as those that benefit organisms. Given this interpretation, I show that, contrary to a widely held view, Kant’s moral philosophy can ground a coherent and robust approach to environmental ethics.

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