Environmental Ethics, Economics, and Property Law

Law and Social Economics: Essays in Ethical Values for Theory, Practice, and Policy. Mark White, ed. Palgrave Macmillan.

Co-Authored with Daniel Molling, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City

Reprinted in: Social Economics. Dolfsma, W., Figart, D. M., McMaster, R., Mutari, E., & White, M. D. (Eds.). Routledge. 2016.

Winner of the 2014 Warren Samuels Prize.

Working Draft –  Conference Paper, prepared for the 2014 ASSA meetings in Philadephia, ASE session on “The Environment, Law, and Social Economics.”



There are substantial conflicts between the standard methods of economists and the thinking of environmental ethicists which result in divergent policy proposals and concerns. We argue in this paper that economists can gain from a thoughtful consideration of two of the key insights of environmental ethics: inherent value and ecological context. Taking this ethical approach seriously, however, challenges some fundamental components of economic thought. Specifically, the dominant concept of property in economic and legal thinking supports an overly anthropocentric view of the economy, giving rights only to humans and requiring duties only to other humans, often ignoring the ecological context. We examine divergent approaches to environmental protection within the dominant property paradigm and find them lacking. We show how a modified property concept can accommodate some significant environmental concerns and can help resolve some of the common conflicts between economic and environmental interests. Moreover, this change can set the stage for a legal standing for animals and the environment that are not based on arbitrary political preferences.