Environmental Ethics: How Does Your Ethical Yardstick Measure Up?

Published On: January 31, 2022

How do you as an individual know what is right and what is wrong? How do we as a society determine what is moral? Where are those individual and/or societal lessons learned? The concepts of right and wrong have been debated for centuries and continue to this day.

To improve our understanding we will explore some of the deeper ethical concerns with Risk-Based decision-making that drives a majority of federal and state environmental regulatory decisions. We will briefly discuss some moral philosophies that form a basis for the way western civilization view environmental values. We will reconstruct how those ethical considerations are lost in the web of technical jargon, unproven assumptions, uneven risk distribution and cost-benefit analysis that often accompany the myriad reports, applications and memos that are created during an environmental investigation and remediation project. 

The first ethical approach is Kant’s Moral Theory. On a basic level, this approach states that the only universal good is “good will” and we get good will from “Education” & “Civil Community”. Good will is affected by but not determined by bodily desires. Humans should act on rational principles rather than being ruled by our desires. The morality of an action itself must be considered vs. what good may come as the result of an action.

The other key ethical approach is Utilitarianism. If applying a Utilitarian moral approach, the morality of an action is judged by the amount of happiness which that action produces. Actions should always strive to maximize the amount of happiness/wellbeing that they produce for the maximum number of people.

These are two very different approaches to morality, but both can be considered when approaching environmental ethics.

There are several different groups that strive to instill ethics into the environmental field such as the National Society of Professional Engineers, the American Insistitute of Professional Geologists, and the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management.

Environmental ethics touches on a few key areas/values:

  • Safety (human health & environment)
  • Expertise (Improve Knowledge and Skill)
  • Truthfulness (even if directed otherwise by Employer or Client)
  • Enhancing the Honor, Reputation and Usefulness of the Profession

A CHMM’s primary responsibility is to protect the public and the environment. All actions taken on behalf of a client or employer must be consistent with this primary responsibility. The interests of individual clients and employers must be secondary to protecting public health and safety, national security, and the environment.

This can mean the consideration of a variety of ethical issues such as conflicts of interest, confidentially obligations, and the competence of involved professionals.

Conflict of Interest

  • Are they present?
  • If they are present – what are the next steps to address this?
  • Lawyer retaining an engineer/geologist/CHMM should attempt to anticipate such conflicts and provide in a written agreement or retainer letter how such conflict may be resolved.

Confidentially Obligations

  • All are guided by codes to not disclose confidential information, but they are all also guided (some more than others) in the protection of public and environment… CHMM is extreme where client is secondary.
  • Phase I’s with RECs… how are those addressed?  Who do you share that information with? 


  • Are there ethical obligations to consider in selecting a consultant or expert for an environmental issue?
  • How is the objectivity of their opinion ensured?
  • Discuss before hiring them about the process of how opinions are generated.
  • CHMM code states: “CHMM is expected to judge objectively his or her own level of competence and to function with that level of personal confidence and professional expertise.”

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