PHILOSOPHER HOLMES ROLSTON III makes an important point about environmental ethics when he writes, “Environmental ethics stretches classical ethics to the breaking point.… [It] stands on a frontier, as radically theoretical as applied.”1 By “classical ethics” Rolston means systems of morality that apply only to humans; such ethical systems are anthropocentric. Environmental ethics is not necessarily limited to humans, however. It attempts to expand the circle of moral concern beyond the human species to include at the very least other mammals, perhaps lower animals and plants, and, finally, even entire ecosystems.
Classical anthropocentric moral theories are not designed to address or resolve issues that go beyond the narrow circle of human life. These theories can be stretched to include some nonhumans—mostly of the “higher” sort—because such species share important and morally relevant features with ours, but they appear absurd when they are applied to plants or ecosystems. The frontier dimension of classical ethics is limited to areas of human life in which advances in science and technology have created new situations that require attention. This is most obvious in medicine, where novel moral questions are raised frequently in genetics, organ transplantation, and other new fields. Yet even here, moral deliberation often remains within the circle of human life.
In contrast, environmental ethics stands on the frontier. It must build whole new arguments to justify and explain why nonhumans should count morally and how conflicts in the environment should be resolved. The theoretical (why) and the applied (how) are not easily separated. Before one can