Business's Environmental Responsibility

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Arts and Humanities | Business | Business Law, Public Responsibility, and Ethics | Environmental Sciences | Philosophy | Physical Sciences and Mathematics


Even under the most laissez-faire system, business can be said to have ethical responsibilities concerning the natural environment. Traditional categories of liability and negligence can be readily applied to business activities that cause environmental harm. Familiar environmental issues such as air and water pollution and toxic waste disposal, as well as the infamous cases of Love Canal, Bhopal, and the Exxon Valdez, speak to a wide range of environmental responsibilities for business. While there is a strong consensus that business has ethical responsibility concerning the natural environment, a more controversial claim is that business might have ethical responsibility to the natural world. On the former view, environmental responsibilities are indirect. Business has direct responsibilities only to human beings, but fulfilling these responsibilities sometimes requires certain action concerning the environment, e.g., do not pollute water, do not dump toxic wastes, etc. On the latter model, business would be said to have direct moral responsibility to the natural world. If animals, plants, or ecosystems have moral standing, then business ethics must address business's moral responsibility to such natural objects. Environmental issues also pose significant challenges to mainstream economic thinking, particularly the commitment to economic growth central to neoclassical economics.