Richard G. Dawson
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


"RIGHTS" are commonly claimed only to apply to humans�to intelligent beings who can logically consider their own decisions and choose to act morally or immorally. Therefore, according to this model, your right to cut a tree is judged by whether you have a piece of legal paper from another person saying you "own" the land on which the tree grows, or have purchased or been given permission to cut this tree; the proposal to dam the Grand Canyon was defeated because people wanted the right to visit and marvel at the canyon.

In his book, Earth and Other Ethics - The Case for Moral Pluralism , Christopher D. Stone of the USC Law Center proposes a series of Utility and Non-utility "planes" with varying degrees of similarity to the "Moral Agent" living person directly involved in both the decision and the outcome of an ethical question.

Intended Audience:

High School to Adult; STS, Biology, Environmental Issues


The student will be able to demonstrate ability to:
  1. Analyze an environmental policy decision in terms of 6 or more types of interested parties, both human and non-human.

  2. Describe the difference between consequence-based and duty-based ethics, and give examples based on an environmental issue.

  3. Argue the case for giving standing or consideration to values other than those of human ownership or usage interest.

Time Frame:

1 period (discussion) to 6 periods (with research and panel)

Introductory Discussion:

The example Stone follows most closely is that of Bowhead Whales which are killed in migration by Inuit natives of Northern Alaska near their villages along the Beaufort Sea. An oil company has applied for a license to drill for oil in this area of the sea, and their dynamiting for gathering geologic information, as well as potential construction of oil drilling rigs, may affect the whales' migration and breeding pathways. However, this may also move them beyond the easy harvest by the Inuit. The explosions may cause pain or deafness to the whales, and their disorientation may endanger their existence as a species breeding in that area. Fees for drilling rights and taxes on the potential oil production will enrich the U.S. treasury. The oil will provide energy for Americans and make available other oil for use by people in other nations, but if we import less oil there will be less sold by oil exporting nations. Who should be considered in making the decision? People-which ones, where, when? Whales as individuals? As a species? The krill on which whales feed? Oil-eating bacteria that would benefit from spills? This example could be explored in class by teacher-led brainstorming, leading to recognition that there are many parties, human and non-human, present and future, to take into account. Then the Moral Pluralism Panel concept could be introduced.

Procedure For Student Groups/Panel:

In a classroom situation, a two-sided debate (Oil companies vs. Environmentalists) does not clearly address the complexity. A better approach could be in a panel format, either working toward a consensus, a majority vote, or a decision by a judge or judges which could be students from other classes, citizens, teachers from various departments, or other students in the class.

Groups of students could be assigned for each of the following roles, and within each group individuals could divide up research responsibilities and then come to a consensus as to the positions to argue on behalf of their " clients". While the oil/whale/Inuit/taxpayers situation could be used, looking at a current issue in the news would be more useful both because it is real, and because students could then be encouraged or assigned to take action to influence the real decision.

Environmental Impact Study Teams

Because these data are needed by other groups, this should be started earlier. One possibility is to study 3 or 4 different issues, and in the beginning to assign everyone to an EIS team for one of the proposals.

E-1 Current Environment

Find or prepare maps or descriptions of natural topographic and subsurface geology, natural areas and seasonal occurrence of wildlife from bacteria to vertebrates, climate patterns, historical artifacts, human land-use patterns from agriculture and parks to industries and housing.

E-2 Future Environment Without The Proposal

The environment, even without people, changes. With people multiplying, clearing land for agriculture, developing it for recreation, expanding industrial and housing coverage, building highways and dams, the decision is not between the proposal and the present condition, but the proposal and other alternative futures, some of which will be prevented by the action being considered here, and some of which will be made more likely.

E-3 Future Environment With The Proposal

This involves a careful description of what is proposed, where it would take place, and how it would affect the physical, biological, historical, economic, recreational, and cultural resources.

E-4 Future Environment With Alternative Proposals

One alternative, of course, is described in E-2. But this team looks at the benefits claimed for the proposal, and suggests alternative ways to gain some or all of those benefits, and then analyzes how each of them would change the environment for the future. You are looking at a number of possibilities, in hopes of finding one with what seems like a better cost/benefit ratio, whether looked at in economic or ecological terms. It may be after this that the EIS teams will decide to change the original proposal to one of these alternatives before presenting it to the rest of the class for the second half of the unit. This is, in fact, a major reason for doing environmental impact assessments � to take more factors into consideration and avoid unexpected secondary upsets due to lack of knowledge and perspective.

E-1,2,3,4 Final Proposal

This may be the original idea, or a new and better one, but it will include all of the knowledge gained above, presented in a form that students representing all affected parties, human and otherwise, can understand and work from.

Consequence- Or Utility- Based Ethics Teams

C-1 Persons Having Direct Benefit

This team develops and presents the arguments for the proposal (or chosen alternative) on the basis of their own values, which must be clearly identified and supported. It may be more food to be grown, jobs, better housing, more efficient energy production, less pollution, a guarantee of rights to liberty or property, a scenic view, but this involves direct benefits to people and would not apply if people did not exist in the area. It may be that the group cannot agree, and divides into persons having two opposing values, and therefore becomes two or even three groups � farmers vs. suburban home-owners vs. job-seekers at an industrial park vs. hikers and wildlife enthusiasts.

C-2 Future Persons Having Potential Benefit

This team's panel representative will speak for future generations, the impact of this proposal on their quality of life or economic position, etc. This considers the children and grandchildren and future generations from the present inhabitants, as well as the future people who will move to the area and have children, and who do not even know about the proposal today and so cannot defend their rights as neighbors-to-be.

C-3 Distant Persons Having Potential Benefit

If oil or a mineral is being mined, those manufacturing or purchasing products made from that resource are here considered. If a dam is being built, the electricity may mean pollution from burning coal will not be as great, or less carbon dioxide will contribute to global climate change � and the same can be said for a nuclear power plant. Irrigation from the lake could be used to grow food to help hungry people, or trees cut from an old-growth forest can build affordable homes.

C-4 Other Sentient Creatures.

If people have moral standing in part because they feel pain and stress, and respond by trying to avoid injury and seek pleasure, do we not see the same things in our pet dogs? Or in watching chimpanzees or gorillas? And does not the study of the brains of whales suggest human-like feelings and intelligence at least equal to that of a year-old child or an elderly person with Alzheimer's disease? Is not a dog entitled to as much consideration as a human body in a persistent vegetative state due to loss of oxygen to the brain? This team will look at other creatures involved in the proposal and draw a line beyond human beings, arguing for moral standing of these species as well, based on their having certain brain-based similarities to the humans and that the decision should take their interests into account as well as the human.

Duty - Or Moral - Bound Ethics Teams

These approaches, based on what are sometimes called "Deontological " arguments, do not just lay claim to human or sentient-creature benefits but to positions claimed as rights of existence. While this traditionally has applied in law only to duty to fellow humans, it can be extended and these teams have the assignment of helping to break this ground.

D-1 Duty To Persons

This is based on the principle that all human beings, of whatever age or sex or behavior or intelligence, have equal moral standing and deserve respect and opportunity and what we think of as Human Rights. The representative of this team may agree with some of the above panel members, and disagree with others � as may all of the spokespersons. None of these positions has to be mutually exclusive, and in fact the ideal is a solution that can be thought of as at least somewhat satisfactory to all � this is the aim of real Justice, isn't it?

D-2 Duty To Non-Human Sentient Animals

Here the argument is not bound to intelligence, but to animal life. This is often based on observation of squeals, jerking, rolling up, moving rapidly away from a stimulus which is therefore described as pain, and saying that people have the duty to protect other animals from such pain. This may lead to arguments for painless euthanasia of unwanted pets, moral revulsion at factory-raising of chickens for human food, or even opposition to catch-and- release fishing. One may be morally opposed to killing mice in the kitchen, saying they have as much right to be there as I do, or that I can only live- trap them and take them out to a field for release. The Duty to Non-Human Sentient Animals team will have to draw their line here and decide, based on the situation proposed, how to define and argue their case.

D-3 Duty To Non-Sentient Beings

What about the worm used to bait the hook? The krill that might live if the whales die? Do not all animals have equal rights, as products of evolution or of the creation of God? We all have our places in the scheme of things, and deserve respect. Even the most committed vegetarian usually does not campaign for saving the dandelion or the poison ivy, but may say while we have no choice but to use plants or starve, we have a duty not to waste their lives, to harvest only what we need and not to let it rot in the refrigerator. What about bacteria, the most abundant living things on earth, and the largest amount of biomass as well? Do we draw the line only at the Eukaryote nucleus, or do we owe duty and respect to the descendants of the primitive creatures that gave birth to our kind a billion years ago, limited only by our duty to defend our lives and those of "higher" creatures from disease? How do we weigh the lives of thousands of sea birds caught in an oil spill, against the lives of oil-eating bacteria multiplying there by uncounted trillions?

D-4 Duty To Ecological Systems

The Northern Spotted Owl has become the symbol of the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest United States, because our government enacted an Endangered Species Act giving legal rights for people to sue to preserve endangered species. But would the owl in a cage in a zoo be enough - or 500 or 10,000 such captives? Like one of your teeth, or a muscle from your finger, even if it could be kept "alive" nourished in a glass vial, it would not be engaged in the activity which is its role in life. There is no law safeguarding the existence of Old Growth Temperate Rain Forest, or Tall-grass Prairie, but there used to not be laws giving rights to slaves - if you cut off the leg of a slave, you owed compensation to his owner; he had no legal rights to existence. Moral duties do not stay constant. Are we ready to give moral standing to the ecosystem of a lake which is endangered by acid rain, or to a 20 million year old prairie, or the Chesapeake Bay as something other than water and rock and soil? And if so, are all ecosystems equal, or are some "more equal than others?" This team will look at the issue, and see where they come down in speaking for the rights of living systems, and how strongly they will rate those rights compared with the others being defended.

D-5 Duty To Membership Entities

Huh? You exist. So does a whale, a Sequoia tree. But what about " Bowhead Whales" as a species � does a species exist as an independent identifiable "thing" in the same way? Does Exxon Corporation, or Sony, have rights we owe it, or do we only have duties to its employees and stockholders? Do we have duty to preserve the Inuit culture, or only the people who came from ancestors who practiced that culture? In international law, one nation may claim damages from another, but do we really have a moral duty to even our own nation � not to mention the political framework setting up the organization of trade in Ghana?

D-6 Duty To Qualities!

Does a sunset have moral standing, or the beauty of a canyon unhampered by smoke from a power plant, or an eagle as a symbol of strength and courage? Does beauty or grandeur exist apart from human sensitivities? This argument does not have to go that far. In general, the law has required people to demonstrate direct personal damage from loss of a quality � an owner of a resort may claim compensation if an industrial plant is built and blocks the scenic view of a mountain that has attracted vacationers to pay high rates, but the potential vacationers have not been able to stop such construction just because they might want to enjoy the view. So is there justification for moral standing for preserving beauty or integrity of a landscape, or is it just valued by what people are willing to pay for it, and then only valuable to the person receiving the money?


Discussion or written paper on same or different issue.


Stone, Christopher D., 1975, Should Trees Have Standing�Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects, New York: Avon Books

_____ 1987, Earth and Other Ethics - The Case for Moral Pluralism , NY:Harper & Row.


These two charts are adapted from Howard Brody's Ethical Decisions in Medicine, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1976). They can be used by individuals, small groups, or an entire class, and can be used either separately or in tandem to give students a chance to evaluate which seems more appropriate for their use or current situation. Either takes 15 minutes or less.

  1. CONSEQUENCE-BASED (Utilitarian, Teleological) DECISION MODEL




    _____________________  _____________________  _____________________

    For each Alternative Solution, Predict CONSEQUENCES AND RATE EACH CONSEQUENCE as to value of happiness it would produce (+3, +2, +1, 0 -1, -2, -3)

    ________________  ___  ________________  ___  ________________  ___
    ________________  ___  ________________  ___  ________________  ___
    ________________  ___  ________________  ___  ________________  ___

    For each Alternative Solution, Determine OVERALL HAPPINESS VALUE OF CONSEQUENCES:

    _____________________  _____________________  _____________________



  2. DUTY-BASED (Deontological, Formalist, Idealist) DECISION MODEL


     LIST ALTERNATIVE                                   LIST DUTIES
         SOLUTIONS                              (RULES, PRINCIPLES, VALUES)
    _____________________                         _____________________
    _____________________    <--- COMPARE --->    _____________________
    _____________________                         _____________________
           DUTIES                 DUTIES                    DUTY
              |                      |                        |
              |                      |              DUTY, CONFLICTS WITH
              |                      |                     ANOTHER
              |                      |                        |
              |             SEVERAL ETHICALLY         LOOK FOR HIGHEST
              |             CORRECT CHOICES -        LEVEL DUTY OR RULE
              |              CAN CHOOSE AMONG         TO SOLVE CONFLICT
              |             THEM BY PREFERENCE,               |
              |           CONVENIENCE, COST, ETC.             |
              |                      |                        |
          ETHICALLY              ETHICALLY                ETHICALLY 
    _____________________  _____________________  _____________________

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