Ethics: The Expanding Circle of Environmental Ethics

  • Christine Sorrell Dinkins, PhD
    Christine Sorrell Dinkins, PhD

    Christine Sorrell Dinkins received her B.A. with Honors in philosophy from Wake Forest University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University.  She is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy department at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC, where she teaches courses in Ancient Greek philosophy, 19th- and 20th-century German philosophy, philosophy of law, and philosophy through literature. Her interest in environmental ethics is reflected in the learning community she co-created and taught, A World on the Edge: Philosophical Perspectives on Contemporary Science. Dr. Dinkins is the co-editor (with J. M. Sorrell) of Interpretive Studies in Healthcare and the Human Sciences, vol. V, Listening To The Whispers: Health Care Ethics In The 21st Century, University of Wisconsin Press, May 2006.

  • Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, PhD, RN, FAAN
    Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, PhD, RN, FAAN

    Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, PhD, RN, FAAN, is Professor in the School of Nursing, College of Health and Human Services at George Mason University. She earned a BSN from the University of Michigan, a MSN from the University of Wisconsin, and a PhD from George Mason University. Her scholarly interests focus on philosophical inquiry, writing across the curriculum, qualitative research, and ethical considerations for patients with chronic illness. Her current research uses interpretive phenomenology to explore ethical concerns in the lived experience of patients and caregivers with Alzheimer's Disease.  Findings from the research are presented in a video, Quality Lives: Ethics in the Care of Persons with Alzheimer's, and a play, Six Characters in Search of an Answer, both of which received Sigma Theta Tau International Media Awards.

Environmental ethics is the discipline that studies the moral relationship of human beings to the environment (Brennan & Lo, 2007). The articles in the May 31, 2007, OJIN topic, "Environmental Health: Important Choices for a Greener World," suggest the many ways in which nursing can be instrumental in advocating for a new awareness of the need for environmental ethics. Exploitation of the environment has exposed us to a wide variety of diseases caused by chemical, physical, biological, and psychological agents; and there is increasing evidence that global climate changes are already affecting human health. Thus, we must clarify the role nursing should play in a new era of environmental health activity.

Ethics asks us to live mindfully, taking care about how we act (Weston, 2002, p. 2). Through the past 30 years, the circle of our ethical concerns has grown, becoming more inclusive. The inspiration for environmental ethics was the first Earth Day in 1970 when environmentalists started urging philosophers who were involved with environmental groups to focus on ethical concerns in the environment. Today, philosophers remind us that we must begin to view all of nature ethically, taking a new look at whole ecosystems. We are becoming increasingly aware of the enormous creativity, complexity, and depth of nonhuman aspects of the world and the delicate balance of nature. Weston (2002, p. 80) points out that 30 years ago, we did not imagine something now as basic as recycling bins in our homes or whale songs on CDs, heralding a new period of unimagined ethical growth.

One way to continue and strengthen this forward vision may be to look far into the past for guidance, to the ethics of the ancient Greeks. Plato’s famous allegory of the cave captures well our current relationship with our environment and the means to finding a better way to live in, and live with, the world. In Plato’s story, prisoners are shackled in a dark cave where firelight and shadows and echoes of distant voices are all they know. To them, the cave is the world – no exit, and no other world, can be imagined. Eventually one prisoner leaves the cave, making his way up to fresh air and sunlight, and only then does he realize that the cave in which he was shackled only seemed to be the real world. The world of sunlight is far more real. Plato’s lesson here is that we are all prisoners shackled in a cave. Our morals and systems of justice are only mere shadows of the ideals that we could and should be striving toward. In order to discover and pursue those ideals, we first need to unshackle ourselves from our current misconceptions and problematic way of life.

Living in today’s world, it is easy to feel shackled to a way of life that will inevitably lead to further destruction of the planet and therefore of ourselves. But how do we escape our way of life? How do we change it dramatically enough to make a difference? How do we even see the light of the right way to live, when all we know are shadows, all we know is how we have always lived?

We have, in the last few years, finally made the important first step toward escaping Plato’s cave. We now understand that we are in a cave: we know we are shackled in a world of our own making. Indeed, the situation today with climate change and dangerous chemical and biological pollutants can begin to feel like a Cave. But are we trapped? Is this how things Have to Be? It is difficult to see a way out when, paradoxically, our quality of life seems to necessitate the creation of yet more pollution and greenhouse gasses even when those by-products at the same time threaten our quality of life, or the continuation of life at all. But just as one prisoner journeyed out of Plato’s cave, each of us individually can find our way out of the cave. Each person’s path may be different, ranging from personal energy conservation to boycotting polluting companies to raising a child who respects the Earth and its flora and fauna. Now that we understand there is a better way-of-living and way-of-being-in-the-world to strive for, we can find that way.

One realization that all human beings must make is featured in Quinn’s Ishmael. The lesson is taught to a confused human by a talking (and very wise) gorilla. The gorilla points out that human beings are the only species to ignore the primary law of nature, “take what you need and leave the rest alone” (Quinn, 1992, p. 127). We are consumers, we are hoarders. We populate beyond the earth’s ability to sustain us, and then force the earth to give up more than it healthily can to support our increasing numbers. As Heidegger (1993) describes it, we treat the earth as “standing reserve” (p. 322), as a mere resource for our needs and desires. Instead, he says, we must learn to appreciate the mystery of the earth, in all its richness and wonder. And we should meditate on the truth that we are in the world and of the world. We are not apart from the world. We are not other. We are world. The world is us, and to sicken and destroy it is to sicken and destroy ourselves.

Weston (2002) describes an expanding circle of ethics in which our values and ways of living them out will change. We tend to be self-centered and not notice things around us until they hit us in the face. Our sympathies and understandings need to expand and deepen. In this context, we need to begin to advocate for an active and systematic environmental ethics, which can serve as a framework for the reflection on the consequences of the environmental crisis.

Returning to the story of Plato’s cave, a ray of hope can be found: Each person who escapes the cave can then return to guide another to the light, through dialogue and education. Nursing can play an important role by offering programs of health education and promotion, which emphasize incorporation of environmental values. Each nurse can identify a path, whether through educating patients, students, or nurses; joining an environmental advocacy group; or making some other contribution, to expand the circle of ethical concern.

It is important that nurses grasp the effects of global warming and advocate for policies and practices that will decrease the global warming process. As noted by Guenther and Hall (2007), it is not difficult to imagine that if Florence Nightingale were with us today, she would be continuing her work of providing high quality, safe, patient care. In this way, she not only left the cave to forge a unique path of advocacy, but guided others, as well, leading us today to demand healthy buildings, advocate for policies that ensure chemical safety and clean air, fight for an adequate budget for needed changes, and implement innovative health education measures to expand the circle of nursing involvement in environmental ethics.

Christine Sorrell Dinkins, PhD

Jeanne Merkle Sorrell, PhD, RN, FAAN

Brennen,  A., & Lo, Y. (2002). Environmental ethics. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved June 29, 2007from:

Guenther, R., & Hall, A. G. (2007). Healthy buildings: Impact on nurses and nursing practice. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing, 12(2). Retrieved July 28, 2007 from

© 2007 OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing
Article published November 30, 2007

Citation: Dinkins, C.S., Sorrell, J.M. (Nov. 30, 2007). Ethics Column: "The Expanding Circle of Environmental Ethics" OJIN: Online Journal of issues in Nursing, Vol. 13, No. 1.