Ethical fundamentals H 2 In answering the question about which action is the correct one, we enter the field of practical philosophy or ethics. According to the usual view in philosophy, ethics describes thetheory ofthe justification of normative statements, ie those that guide actions (Gethmann, 1991; Mittelstraß, 1992; Nida-Rümelin, 1996a; Revermann, 1998). A system of normative statements is called ‘morals’. Ethical judgements, therefore, refer to the justifiability of moral instructions for action, which may vary from individual to individual and from culture to culture (Ott, 1999). On what basis can the ethics of human behaviour or behavioural norms be assessed in a binding way that is also intersubjective? The answer to this question depends on whether the primary principles, in other words the starting point of all moral systems, or secondary principles or standards are subjected to an ethical examination. The first case is about the fundamental principles of moral action. Although many philosophers have made proposals in this respect, there is a broad consensus today that neither philosophy nor any other human authority is capable, beyond doubt and for all humans, of defining binding metacriteria by which to derive or examine such primary principles (Mittelstraß, 1984). The problem of not being able definitively to derive ultimately valid principles, however, seems to be less serious than would appear at first glance. For, regardless of whether the basic axioms of moral rules are taken from intuition, observations of nature, religion, tradition, reasoning or common sense, they make broadly similar statements.Thus, there is broad consensus that each human individual has a right to life, that human freedom is a high-value asset and that social justice should be striven for. But there are obviously many different opinions about what these lofty principles mean in detail and how they should be implemented. In spite of this plurality, however, discerning and well-intentioned observers can usually quickly agree, completely in line with theWBGU guard rail concept (for details on this, see WBGU, 1998a), whether one ofthe basic principles has clearly been infringed. It is more difficult to decide whether they have clearly been complied with or whether the behaviour to be judged should clearly be assigned to one or several principles. In particular they help to reveal the implications of such primary principles and standards. Unless primary principles (such as human rights) are concerned, the ethical discourse largely consists in examining the compatibility of each ofthe available standards and options for action with the primary principles. This is a matter of freedom from contradiction, consistency, coherence, adherence to structures and other broadly logical criteria (Gethmann, 1998). As the result of such an examination, it is entirely possible to arrive at different conclusions that all conform to the laws of logic and thus give rise to new plurality. In order to arrive at binding statements or valuations here, the philosopher can either conduct a discourse ofthe ‘mind’ and let the arguments for various standards compete with each other (rather like a platonic dialogue) or engage in a real discourse with those people affected by the action. In both cases, the main concern is to use the consensually agreed primary principles to derive secondary principles of general action and standards of specific action that should be preferred over alternatives that can be equally justified. The distinction between categorical and compensatory standards is especially important for the assessment of actions and instructions for action. Categorical standards must not be infringed under any circumstances, whereas, with compensatory standards, compensation with other competing principles is allowed. Protecting the life of a human, for example, is a categorical standard: sacrificing a human being for some other asset (such as money or a clean environment) is in the main rejected, no matter how great the gain. Only when the lives and assets of others are threatened can this categorical standard be transgressed (eg in the case of self-defence). An example of a compensatory standard would be the freedom to use property. Although an owner is entitled in principle to use his or her property as he or she thinks fit, other standards (such as environmental protection, social obligations) may restrict
278 H Valuing the biosphere: An ethical and economic perspective the applicability ofthe principle ofthe protection of property. These preliminary considerations lead to some important conclusions in relation to the matter ofthe application of ethical principles to the issue of human action with regard to the biosphere. First of all, it is not consistent with the self-image of ethics to develop separate sets of ethics for different contexts of action. Just as there can be no different rules for the logic of deduction and induction in science, depending on what object is concerned, it does not make any sense to postulate an independent set of ethics for the biosphere (Galert, 1998). Justifications for principles and moral systems must satisfy universal laws (Nida-Rümelin, 1996b). Secondly, it is not very helpful to call for a special moral system for the biosphere, since this – like every other moral system – has to be traceable to primary principles. Instead, it makes sense to specify the generally valid principles that are also relevant with regard to the issue of how to deal with the biosphere. At the same time, it is necessary to define those specific standards that are appropriate to the use ofthe biosphere and that reflect the principles that are valid beyond the biosphere. Thirdly, it is neither helpful nor practical to contrast ethical with economic actions, as is frequently done in popular statements. Economic action is just as much determined by moral standards as environment-related action. Even the selfish pursuit of one’s own personal interests may be ethically justifiable, for example as a means of freely developing one’s own personality or as an incentive for an achievement that benefits society as a whole. With reference to ethical aspects, however, it must be asked critically whether this behaviour does not contradict higher standards or principles (such as the principle of sustaining the lives of other people) or whether it is in conflict with equally important standards or conflicts (equitable distribution of assets).