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Reforming the Social Contract through Environmental Ethics: The Value of Normative Ethical Discourse in Addressing ‘Why’

By December 19, 2022No Comments

Author: Lisa Carroll
SRC Editor: Deniz Oğuzhan

This article is part of the “Topics on Political Theory” series by the Political Theory Research Committee of IAPSS.


It is widely accepted that the transition to a sustainable future will require a change in lifestyle particularly for those living in high-consumption affluent societies. The mode and means by which changes will occur are highly debated, both in the academic and policy spheres; however, these debates often only address the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions in solving the climate crisis. Rarely addressed are the ‘why’ questions: why the crisis has continued to escalate and why have we not sufficiently adjusted our behaviour in the face of long-standing evidence that human activity is adversely impacting the climate. A frequently cited answer in environmental philosophy lies in the human-nature relationship.

This article builds Dickson’s (2000) conception of the mediated relationship with nature. Dickson (2000) argues that the nature of the modern structural system [1], in that it consists of various processes, actors, and is spread across vast geographical areas, distances individuals’ fulfilment of their needs and desires from environmental interaction and the negative impacts of their actions. Dickson (2002) concedes that this distance has not blinded individuals nor cleansed them of responsibility; however, despite making this concession he argues that given the scale of the modern structural system, the barrier it places to sustainable transition is too large to be overcome by ethics alone. While this is correct, the question remains as to why attempts to overcome the structural barriers to sustainable transition have had limited effect. Attached to almost every discussion on measures to combat the climate crisis are concerns about the impact measures will have on the lifestyles of people in high-consumption societies. In essence, the ethics of the measures are questioned as opposed to the ethics that have led to the measures being needed.

Whilst humans in modern societies have inherited the structural system and resulting mediated relationship with nature, we must not fall into the temptation in thinking that it exists outside the realm of human action or that it is a self-perpetuating structure. It continues to be as we as a society tacitly consent to it [2]. This article contends that addressing structural barriers [3] only counters part of the issue. Addressing the empirical features of the modern structural system only addresses the what and how, whilst it fails to account for the why. Only normative ethical inquiry can address the crucial ‘why’ questions, redefining what we can permit as a society and what we require, reforming an unfit social contract.

Debating the Value of Environmental Ethics

Addressing questions about human behaviour through ethics is arguably one of the foundational branches of philosophy, and the human relationship to nature is a crucial ethical inquiry at this time of global environmental crisis. However, the value of environmental ethics and the insight it provides into human behaviour in contributing to possible solutions is still highly debated. Broadly defined, environmental ethics is the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship between human beings and the environment, as well as the value and moral status of the environment and its non-human contents (Brennan & Lo, 2016). The contention over the value or potential of environmental ethics to provide solutions to environmental problems lies in the theorist’s location of the cause of environmental problems. Dickson (2002) claims that due to the inherited nature of the modern structural system, humans do not feel directly responsible for environmental problems. His premise is that if an individual does not feel responsible for their actions, there are no grounds for thinking that their attitudes played an important role in causing them to perform those actions; therefore, environmental ethics does not have a major contribution to make to solving the climate crisis as solutions may not rest solely on ethical change (Dickson, 2000).

Callicott (1995) has a different view of environmental ethics. Callicottcharacterises philosophy as a form of activism, claiming that philosophy is “the most potent force of social change imaginable”(1995, p. 19). This is a strong conception of environmental ethics which this article does not follow. This is not to say that environmental ethics cannot produce a paradigm shiftin our culture through the deconstruction of the worldview at the root of our environmental problems as Callicott claims (1995, p. 27); however, the feasibility of environmental ethics alone in producing this paradigm shift is doubtful. This article follows a weak conception [4] such as that of Gunn (1994) who characterises philosophy as persuasion. Gunn (1994) argues for the use of philosophy to persuade people into adopting environmental values through the exposure of flaws in the arguments and assumptions that have perpetuated the modern structural system. Whilst this article agrees with Dickson’s (2000) criticism that often environmental ethicists overlook the constraints placed on individuals’ choices by the modern structural system regardless of their ethics, it contends that Dickson undervalues the role that values has played in creating and perpetuating the modern structural system. As aforementioned, the modern structural system is not something that exists outside of human action or is self-perpetuating. It was constructed by humans and continues to exist because it is allowed to. The value of environmental ethics and normative discourse lies in this premise that the modern structural system is tacitly consented to. In order to effectively bring about solutions to the climate crisis, the values that underpin this consent need to be challenged and changed.

Reforming the Social Contract through Normative Ethical Discourse

Modern societies have inherited the structural system which mediates their relationship with nature in the same way social contracts are inherited in contract theory. In replacement of the state of nature employed by contractarians, the modern structural system uses economic prosperity as its justifying basis. Economic prosperity is not a value in itself but rather a means to support other values. Many private sector leaders and governments maintain that the global economy’s purpose is to enhance human well-being by maintaining economic growth (Brown & Garver, 2009). However, what must be questioned is whether maintaining an economic growth that harms the climate is the ultimate path to enhancing human well-being and whether this type of growth really encapsulates our values as a society with regard to well-being. Examining the values that stem from our concept of well-being as a society is a critical juncture for sustainable transition; however, the issue lies not only in individuals holding particular values. The wide-spread adoption of environmental values will not necessarily result in a paradigm shift as many environmental ethics contend. As aforementioned, the structural system constrains an individual’s actions regardless of their values. Therefore, what is required is the recognition of the action necessary to promote our values. This article maintains that the action necessary is a systematic change not just in what we do and how we do it, but why we do it, and this requires a reformation of the social contract through normative ethical discourse.

Normative ethical claims are claims about what is right and what is wrong, including what is permissible and what is required. Environmental ethics formulated as normative ethical statements as to what is permissible and what is required is of particular importance to the reformation of the social contract, since ultimately the social contract outlines what human beings are willing to give over to an authority, political or otherwise, and what they expect to receive from that authority. This article does not hold that consent to the modern structural system entails consent to all possible negative effects (Westra, 1996); however, the primary issue with tacit consent is that it is defined by those inferring consent as opposed to those signalling consent [5]. In line with Simmon’s (1979) conception of tacit consent, the failure to provide a response when one is needed allows those inferring to infer tacit consent to the damage. The recognition of the values underlying tacit consent is crucial to its revocation. This returns the paper to my original claim that sustainable transition requires a change not just in what we do or how we do it, but why we do it. Only by questioning our own underlying assumptions that have permitted the environmental damage inflicted by the modern structural system can we recognise our actions that have signalled tacit consent, and the actions required to signal our disagreement. Environmental ethics provides the necessary framework for normative discourse that will allow this to happen.


I agree that environmental ethics in itself is insufficient to achieve the scale of change necessary for a sustainable transition. The recognition of empirical features of the modern structural system which constrain, and influence individuals’ action is important in addressing what we do and how we are doing it. The recognition of empirical features alone, however, is also insufficient as it does not address why we undertake such actions despite the consequences. The unquestioning acceptance of what is, that is inherent in a purely empirical way of thinking on these issues, severely limits the conception of what should be.

Modern societies have inherited the modern structural system; however, this system does not exist outside the sphere of human action. Human beings must not be tempted into thinking that their actions are merely reactionary to the system but must recognise that the system exists because they allow it to. Interactions with the modern structural system are unavoidable in affluent societies. Therefore, individual interactions must not be seen as signalling consent to environmental damage. Rather, the failure to respond to the global environmental crisis through a conscious reformation of the social contract so it includes environmental values, is the signalling of consent. I do not agree that environmental issues are essentially normative in nature, they are both structural and ideological and must thus be addressed in tandem.

I return one last time to my initial claim that sustainable transition requires a change not just in what we do or how we do it, but also why we do it. The value of environmental ethics in contributing to the solution of environmental problems is that only normative ethical inquiry can address the ‘why’ question. Why do we tacitly consent to the modern structural system? What do we permit and require from consenting to a structural system? These are questions fundamental to reforming the social contract and allowing the successful transition to a sustainable future.


[1] The modern structural system as it will be termed in this article refers to the modern globalised economy.

[2] In legal theory, tacit consent is consent inferred from the silence of a party when presented with the opportunity to refuse or reject a proposal. It differs from explicit consent in that it is not directly expressed through an agreement to an action but rather inferred from the allowance of the continuation of an action without interference.

[3] Structural barriers refers to the empirical features of the modern structural system which impede sustainable transition. For example, the primary use of fossil fuels in the production of energy and goods is an empirical feature of the modern structural system; however, dependency on fossil fuels as a result of this feature is a structural barrier to sustainable transition.

[4] Weak conceptualisation refers to the debate on the strength and use of philosophy as a tool to change one’s mind. Where a weak conceptualisation views philosophy as a tool for persuasion, a strong conceptualisation views philosophy as the ultimate way to change a mind.

[5] All contracts require at least two parties and consent. In contract theory there are two types of consent, express and tacit consent. As opposed to express consent where one party directly consents to an agreement with another party, tacit consent is signalled and inferred. A party signals consent when they participate in a contract; their participation is then inferred as consent by the other party. With regard to the social contract, the signalling party can be read as the average person in society and the inferring party as the authority or guarantor of the social contract.


Brown, P. G. & Garver, G. (2009). Humans and Nature: The Right Relationship. Minding Nature, 2 (1), 8-16.

Callicot, J.B. (1995). Environmental Philosophy is Environmental Activism: The Most Radical and Effective Kind. In D.E. Marieta & L.E. Embree (Eds.), Environmental Philosophy and Environmental Activism (pp. 19-36). Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Dickson, B. (2000). The Ethicist Conception of Environmental Problems. Environmental Values, 9(2),127-152.

Gunn, A. S. (1994). Can Environmental Ethics Save the World? In F. Ferré & P. Hartel (Eds.), Ethics and Environmental Policy (pp. 195-216). Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

Westra, L. (1996). Environmental Risks, Rights, and the Failure of Liberal Democracy. In L.P. Pojman (Ed.), Environmental Ethics: Readings in Theory and Application (3rd ed., pp.515-527). California: Wadsworth.

Author bio:

Lisa Carroll, from Dublin (Ireland) is a master’s candidate studying Environmental and Social Sustainability at Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel in Germany. She received her bachelor’s degree in “Politics, International Relations, and Philosophy” at University College Dublin in 2017 where she also completed her third year at the University of Melbourne focusing on issues of environmental ethics and philosophy.