As a first shot, one might say that environmental ethics is concerned distinctively with the moral relations that exist between, on the one hand, human beings and, on the other, the non-human natural environment. But this really is only a first shot. For example, one might be inclined to think that at least some components of the non-human natural environment (non-human animals, plants, species, forests, rivers, ecosystems, or whatever) have independent moral status, that is, are morally considerable in their own right, rather than being of moral interest only to the extent that they contribute to human well-being. If so, then one might be moved to claim that ethical matters involving the environment are best cashed out in terms of the dutes and responsibilities that human beings have to such components. If, however, one is inclined to deny independent moral status to the non-human natural environment or to any of its components, then one might be moved to claim that the ethical matters in question are exhaustively delineated by those moral relations existing between individual human beings, or between groups of human beings, in which the non-human natural environment figures. One key task for the environmental ethicist is to sort out which, if either, of these perspectives is the right one to adopt—as a general position or within particular contexts. I guess I don’t need to tell you that things get pretty complicated pretty quickly.
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