Cartoon of a woman in front of a forest fire
Children, young people and families, Climate and environment

Children’s moral judgments about environmental harm

The children are our future. But how do they feel about what's going on right now?

16 November 2011

By Christian Jarrett

Young children in northeastern USA see harms against the environment as morally worse than bad manners. And asked to explain this judgment, many of them referred to the moral standing of nature itself – displaying so-called “biocentric” reasoning. This precocity marks a change from similar research conducted in the 1990s, leading the authors of the new study, Karen Hussar and Jared Horvath, to speculate about “the possible effects of the increased focus on environmental initiatives during the last decade … Although typically thought to emerge in later adolescence, a willingness to grant nature respect based on its own unique right-to-existence was present in our young participants.”

Hussar and Horvath presented 61 children (aged 6 to 10 years) with 12 story cards: 3 portrayed a moral transgression against another person (e.g. stealing money from a classmate); 3 portrayed bad manners (e.g. eating salad with one’s fingers); 3 portrayed a mundane personal choice (e.g. colouring a drawing with purple crayon); and 3 portrayed an environmentally harmful action (e.g. failing to recycle; damaging a tree). For each card, the children were asked to say if the act was OK, a little bad or very bad, and to explain their reasoning.

The children rated moral transgressions against other people as the worst of all, followed by harms against the environment, and then bad manners. Mundane personal choices were judged largely as “OK”. There were no differences with age.

Asked to justify their judgments about environmental harm, 74 per cent of the explanations given referred to “biocentric” reasons (e.g. “A tree is a living thing and, it’s like, breaking off your arm – someone else’s arm or something”); 26 per cent invoked anthropocentric reasons (e.g. “Because without trees we wouldn’t have oxygen”). The ratio of these categories of explanation didn’t vary by age, but did vary by gender, with girls more likely to offer biocentric reasons. This fits with a wider, but still inconclusive, literature suggesting that women tend to base their moral judgments on issues of care, whereas men tend to base their moral judgments on issues of justice.

Hussar and Horvath said it was revealing that the children placed environmental harms midway between harms against other people and bad manners. “This environmental domain [of moral harm] implies a sophisticated comprehension by young children such that consideration is afforded to environmental life over social order, but, at the same time, consideration is afforded to human life over environmental life.”

In contrast with the present findings, research conducted in the 90s found that young children tended to offer anthropocentric reasons for the immorality of environmental harm, only invoking biocentric reasons more frequently in late childhood or adolescence.

“To conclude, it is evident that the participants in the current study are constructing morally-based views about nature and humans’ place within it from a very young age,” the researchers said. “This moral stance was succinctly articulated by one of our participants: ‘Even if there’s no rules you should respect … (and) be good to the environment.’.”


Hussar, K., and Horvath, J. (2011). Do children play fair with mother nature? Understanding children’s judgments of environmentally harmful actions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31 (4), 309-313 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2011.05.001