William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review
Seeking a Seat at the Table: Has Law Left Environmental Ethics Behind As It Embraces Bioethics?
Long before its crystallization as an academic discipline in the 1960s and '70s, bioethics was evolving from isolated ideas and theories into a coherent and practical field. Today, people train in academic bioethics programs and seek careers as bioethicists. Hospitals, universities, government organizations, and corporations hire bioethicists, where they use their training to help make decisions regarding life or death issues in science and medicine. Although there is controversy over the extent and content of the influence they exert there, bioethicists have achieved a seat at the decision-making table.
Environmental ethics also emerged in the 1960s and'70s, beginning most notably when Rachel Carson opened America's eyes to the environmental ills of the times. There are now many major environmental laws and countless volumes of regulations implementing them. However, while people study environmental ethics, mainly in philosophy programs, they do not train for careers as practicing environmental ethicists. It is difficult even to find people who hold themselves out as "environmental ethicists" rather than "environmentalists" or "environmental activists," with the exception of those who are really academic philosophers. Unlike bioethicists, environmental ethicists have not achieved a place at the decision-making table. They have, at best, a stool outside the door.
In this article, I explore the development of bioethics and environmental ethics. Although I consider various definitions of the fields and what their practitioners seek to achieve in practice, primarily I consider the role of law in the development and practice of bioethics and of environmental ethics. I ask whether the existence of laws and legal opinions encouraging the use of bioethicists in decision making was pivotal in promoting the development of that field, and correspondingly, whether the absence of similar laws and opinions promoting the use of environmental ethicists has retarded the development of an influential field of applied environmental ethics. Finally, I suggest that environmental ethicists propose a statement of ethical principles for environmental decision making, similar to the work done by bioethicists in the Belmont Report, in the hope that those principles begin to be considered in law making, leading law to encourage the use of environmental ethicists in environmental decisions.