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Unit information: Philosophy and the Environment in 2015/16

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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

Description including Unit Aims

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 have (1) developed a strong knowledge of the literature in one or more areas of environmental philosophy; (2) developed 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) demonstrated their ability to philosophically analyse and critically appraise the main arguments in the literature; (4) strengthened their skills in philosophical writing and argumentation, and (5) strengthened their skills in oral presentation of philosophical argument.

Teaching Information

Weekly lectures and weekly seminars.

Assessment Information

Summative assessment in three forms:

  • Essay (2,000 words) 40%.
  • Exam (2 questions in 2 hours) 50%.
  • Weekly journal 10%. Students will be asked to submit 10 entries in total over the course of the term, generally on a weekly basis prior to seminars. Entries should be 300-500 words. The student should use the journal entries to give a brief summary of one of the week’s readings, and then to reflect freely on the reading. For instance, in what ways is the author’s argument persuasive, and in what ways is it unpersuasive? What further questions does it raise, and how does it fit in with other material from the course?

No formative essays – instead, the instructor will use the weekly journal as a chance to give feedback on progress.

The journal, essay and exam will assess ILOs 1-4: (1) knowledge of the philosophical literature; (2) critical understanding of central concepts and approaches; (3) ability to philosophically analyse the main arguments in the literature; (4) skills in philosophical writing and argumentation.

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.