Ethics in Natural Resources Management: Some Concepts and Food for Thought1

Article excerpt


The objective in this paper is to highlight a few concepts and approaches from the discipline of ethics that might serve as food for thought when students are wrestling with controversial natural resource issues and ethical behavior as natural resource professionals. Overall, this discussion advocates critical reflection, empirical inquiry, and intellectual honesty with particular attention paid to the interrelationship between science and ethics. I suspect not all will agree with everything I suggest, but, as in the classroom, my purpose is to stimulate thought and dialogue and share experiences. First, I present some foundational concepts followed by a simplified summary of classical approaches to ethics. I then briefly discuss the field of environmental ethics and caution against the unclear use of language and fallacious thinking. Finally, I advocate a common-sense interpretation of the precautionary principle and a clear distinction between means and ends.


A desirable objective in preparing students for success in the controversial and contentious realm of natural resources management is to instill the intellectual virtues of critical reflection, empirical inquiry, and intellectual honesty. This is consistent with an overall curricular goal of producing technically competent and ethically responsible professionals (see Wilson, 1999 for details on these intellectual virtues). The ethical domain has become a focus of general education or "core" degree requirements at many colleges and universities, as well as a dimension of some accreditation standards (Society of American Foresters, 2003; ABET, Inc., 2004). As individual instructors trained in specific natural science or social science disciplines, how can we provide guidance for discussing the ethical aspects of natural resources management? The objective of this paper is to highlight a few concepts and approaches from the discipline of ethics that might encourage these intellectual virtues and serve as a useful framework when wrestling with natural resource issues in academic and professional settings. I am particularly going to focus on the relationship between science and ethics.

Likely most students can rattle off the basic steps of the scientific method; it is less likely they are familiar with any systematic approach to ethical analysis. In response to the perennial student question "Who's to say what's right and wrong?" Pojman (2002) answers "those who can provide the best reasons." Tom Regan (1983, p.126-135) offers at least a set of conditions conducive to making ideal moral judgments: conceptual clarity, information, rationality, impartiality, coolness, and reference to a valid moral principle. Even in the teaching of science, students may need to be reminded that knowledge is advanced by empirically testing and refuting hypotheses and not by conducting opinion polls (Popper, 1934). Furthermore, science is conducted by fallible human beings and therefore operates under an implied set of ethical standards (National Academy of Sciences, 2003; for a critical view of how science can get off track see Crichton, 2003a). In what follows I attempt to provide for students and practitioners of natural resources management a useful context and framework for ethical discussion.

Useful Concepts

Science and ethics are very much interdependent fields of human endeavor. Ethics without science is at best uninformed and at worst delusive, while science without ethics is at best suspect and at worst downright dangerous. Perhaps the clearest principle regarding the relationship between science and ethics is "ought" implies "can." "Stop continental drift" cannot be an ethical mandate! While one might pontificate that we "ought" to stop the "homogenization" of the world's ecosystems or cultures, it may be something we just cannot prevent.

While "ought" implies "can," the inverse is not true. "Can" does not imply "ought. …