Science in the Spotlight: EVST 219: Philosophical Environmental Ethics

Philosophical environmental ethics considers our generation's responsibilities to the future inheritors of the planet. Our current actions—or inactions—will decide who will be left to reckon with the climate crisis in future years. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Stephen Latham, JD, PhD, stumbled upon bioethics by happenstance in his first job after law school. Now the director of Yale’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Latham is perhaps best known for his popular spring-term course, Bioethics and Law. His new course this fall, Philosophical Environmental Ethics, focuses on the philosophical questions relevant to the climate crisis.

First, Latham wants his students to understand the broad contours of the field since the 1970s. “At that point, environmentalism was a fight against dumping stuff into the water, or releasing stuff into the air,” Latham said. Early environmental activists weren’t yet aware of greenhouse gases as a harbinger of climate change. They decentralized human affairs in their discourse, focusing their concerns on animals and ecosystems. Latham explained that the increasing visibility of the climate crisis in the public and scientific imagination has shifted discussion back toward humans. “Today, under pressure from the urgency of the need to do things about the climate, people are thinking about how we can save the climate for ourselves,” Latham said.

Currently, most environmental discussions center on the extractive value of the environment. “Philosophical environmental ethics raises slightly more technical questions about how to value nature in itself,” Latham said. For example, the “nonidentity problem” considers the responsibilities we have to future generations who will only exist because of present-day choices about climate change. “If we don’t do anything about climate change, people fifty years from now would be looking back on us and saying, ‘You left us this horrible planet,’… but you could point out to them that they only exist because we didn’t do anything about climate change,” Latham said. Our current actions—or inactions—will decide who will be left to reckon with the climate crisis in future years.

Topics in his course seem to beg for political action, and Latham hopes his students will respond to the impulse. “I want people out there protesting against more extraction of fossil fuels and in favor of renewable energy and carbon capture and so on,” Latham said. However, he also realizes that the ability to protest against climate change often comes from a place of privilege. “It’s hard to say to someone who’s just getting by, ‘You have a moral obligation to be thinking about climate change,’” Latham said. 

But the target of Latham’s instruction are Yale students—privileged by their education—who he hopes will leave his course equipped with the tools to address climate change in their activism, careers, and personal lives. “I’m arming them with arguments that they might be able to use in the future, whether it’s to a city council or to their intransigent uncle over Thanksgiving dinner,” Latham said. 

Trained as a lawyer and a scholar, Latham recognizes that the philosophical perspective he can provide on environmental issues is only one piece of the puzzle. Nevertheless, the ability to reason and write about our ethical responsibility to mend the environment can help his students contribute to political and scientific action.