The ethics of environmental sustainability

I. An introduction to philosophy

In order to act as well as possible we each need to deepen our understanding of the foundations of ethics. Philosophy helps us do this. Philosophy also helps us appreciate how to apply that understanding in practice.

Today I will be outlining some fundamental ethical ideas which you can bring to bear when you make decisions, particularly those connected with sustainability. There are three sections. First I talk a bit about the nature of philosophising. Second, I discuss some fundamental ethical ideas. Third, I apply these ideas to the issue of sustainability. I will pause briefly for questions after the second section, and then take further questions after the final section.

In philosophy we seek to base our beliefs and our decisions upon rigorous rational arguments. We do not simply go along with what seems or feels right or appeals to us. It is important to recognise that we have all been influenced by chance events, including what genes, upbringing and past experience we have. For example, imagine you were by chance brought up in a community where everyone thought that the universe is 6000 years old and where everyone tries to maximise their own pleasure. As a child you naturally copy them and are similar.

However, as you grow up you can come to recognise that you have a choice. One option is to carry on as you are – but to do this is to leave to chance your beliefs about the physical world and how you go about making your decisions. The alternative is to reject leaving to chance your beliefs about the physical world and how you go about making your decisions and instead try to learn. If you do then you will, among other things, learn that the universe is approximately 4.5 billion years old. What though will you learn in ethics? Let us examine this…


II. The foundations of ethics: trying to do best for all and deepening understanding of shared goods

The first step is to become aware that there are three main components to your decision-making.

First, there is the question of which persons you will treat as an unconditioned end. Kant distinguished between treating a person as a mere means and treating him as an unconditioned end. To treat a person as a mere means is to first decide what outcome you want, and then from that infer what effect to have on that person. In contrast, to treat a person as an unconditioned end is to be concerned for that person, for his own sake, and to be guided in your decision-making by your effect on that person.

For instance, imagine Ruth treats only herself as an unconditioned end and aims to make herself more wealthy. And she treats Alice as a mere means. So she will have whatever effect on Alice ultimately makes herself more wealthy. For example, she might pretend to be her friend in order to be able to steal from her, or in order that Alice helps her get a well-paid job.

Kant argued that you should always treat every person as an unconditioned end. The argument to this conclusion is, roughly, that it would be arbitrary to treat some but not others as an unconditioned end. There are no rational grounds for sorting people into those you do and those you do not treat as an unconditioned end. Unfortunately, there is not time to explore this argument in detail. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more.

Second, there is your decision regarding what effect you will try to have upon those persons that you treat as an unconditioned end. For example, will you try to make them more wealthy, more unhappy, do what is best for them etc.?

Third, there is your decision regarding how to modify your worldview, and in particular your view of human nature and human interactions, especially what you take to be really best for a person. The main distinction is between seeing what is best for a person as being possession of competitive goods vs seeing what is best for a person as participation in shared goods.

Competitive goods have the characteristic that if you possess a particular instance of them then someone else does not. Examples include money, power, status and desire gratification. For instance, either you possess this pound coin, or I do. We have to compete for it. Competitive goods are components in a zero sum game.

In contrast, shared goods are ways of interacting which are mutually beneficial. Examples include cooperating to pursue shared goals, building shared relationships (e.g. friendship, love and camaraderie), creating beauty and sharing the experience of beauty, learning and teaching. Shared goods are the basis of win-win interactions.

For example, if you and I share a goal, then if I promote that goal it is good for you and good for me. And if you and I share a relationship then there is one thing that we both participate in and which partially constitutes who we are. If I make it better, more beautiful, then it is better, more beautiful, for both of us; and likewise if you make it better, more beautiful.

I argue for trying to do what is best for every person and conceiving of what is best for a person in terms of shared goods. Indeed, it is only possible to do best for all if you see human nature to be such that shared goods are what are best for a person. Get in touch if you would like the detailed argument for this conclusion.

Note that which of the acts available to you is best for all depends upon the details of the situation, including your relationship to each person affected by it. So for example, it can be best for all that upon seeing your friend in the street you give him a hug, but that you ignore a passing stranger rather than giving her a hug. You cannot be friends and have romantic love with everyone. But it can be best for all that everyone has friends and finds romantic love.

Trying to do what is best for all means trying to do what is best for current and future generations. Clearly a part of this is promoting humankind’s ongoing survival and flourishing. Because, without doing this, members of future generations will suffer great hardship, misery and death. Individuals would suffer the torment of watching their friends, family, community and all of humankind struggle and die, as human beings die off until none are left alive. This would hardly be best for them.

Furthermore, as Samuel Scheffler points out (in his book Why worry about future generations?), our projects, our children and everything else that we care about and which gives meaning to our lives are tied up with the ongoing survival of society. If we knew society would be destroyed tomorrow much would seem pointless, hopeless and meaningless. Yet ultimately there is no qualitative difference between the universe being destroyed tomorrow or in centuries or millennia. Furthermore, there is a sense in which we live on our contributions to society. So in helping build a society which survives and flourishes we help ourselves and others live on in our contributions towards society.


III. How can we optimally promote the ongoing survival and flourishing of future generations?

Humankind faces many threats including: climate change, pollution, exhaustion of natural resources, newly evolving bacteria and viruses, nuclear or biological war, asteroid strike and risky new technologies (including new chemicals, gene editing, nanotechnology and AI). Eventually the sun will cool, expand and engulf the earth so we will have to find a way of preventing this or more likely travel to a new planet to live on. In the long term we are threatened by the law of entropy (everything tends towards disorder) and the overall evolution of the universe (it may over-expand or collapse in on itself). Moreover, we have limited time to combat these threats. For instance, climate change will cause irreversible catastrophic change to our atmosphere if we do not take sufficient steps sufficiently quickly.

Some environmentalists focus narrowly on environmental threats and think that reducing growth, living a quiet peaceful life with minimal impact on the world, is the way forward. However, that will not protect us against the other threats we face. To overcome these threats humankind needs to make immense progress. We are seeing this with the world’s response to the COVID19 pandemic. Being technologically advanced and wealthy enough to produce and fund healthcare and PPE, research and manufacture a vaccine, and furlough workers, is likely to reduce the death toll to far below what it would otherwise have been.

For society to progress requires us to optimally develop and harness the potential of as many persons as possible. This involves ensuring persons have the upbringing and lifelong education required to optimally develop their character, ethics, intelligence, understanding, creativity, skills and abilities. And we need to organise society in a way which optimally harnesses these, ensuring individuals have the freedom and responsibility to deploy their talents in whatever way will optimally contribute towards progress and thence humankind’s longterm survival and flourishing.

Each individual needs to look at his effect on society and the world as a whole and consider how he can optimally contribute towards humankind’s ongoing survival and flourishing. One aspect of this he needs to consider is his impact on the natural world.

Many everyday activities damage or degrade natural resources. For instance, driving a petrol car destroys petrol, depriving future generations of access to it, and throwing away a battery or electrical device contributes towards making rare metals difficult for future generations to get hold of. On the face of it this seems bad for them. However, if we were to ban all activities which damage or degrade natural resources then society would grind to a halt. The clock would be turned back – society would regress rather than progress so humankind’s ability to overcome future threats (from new diseases, to asteroid strikes to the cooling and expansion of the sun) would be curtailed. This would not promote the goal we share with future generations, of promoting humankind’s ongoing survival and flourishing: it would be bad for all.

The solution is to say that if someone alive now engages in an activity which reduces the natural resources inherited by members of future generations then he should seek to
a) Mitigate any negative effects, for example promoting: carbon capture and storage; energy conservation; research into and use of alternative energy sources
b) Compensate future generations for any consequent reduction in their natural resource inheritance. This compensation takes the form of “primary goods” (in roughly Rawls’ sense) which will be valued by members of future generations as equally or more useful for promoting their flourishing and ongoing survival as the natural resources they have been deprived of. These are generated by promoting progress in the areas such as the following: scientific, technological and medical research; investment in the arts and in maintaining and displaying artworks, historical artefacts and architecturally significant buildings; investment in infrastructure, homes, factories, laboratories, machines, transport etc; robust constructive institutions in arenas such as government, justice, universities, schools, charities, business and media; investment in education and improving the ethics, culture and public life of the society; and other measures which are likely to be valued by future generations.

If each generation successfully implements this policy, then each subsequent generation inherits a “Commonwealth” of resources plus compensation (plus, perhaps, other things donated to the Commonwealth). Each generation should seek to ensure that the “Commonwealth” that it passes on is no worse – and if possible much better – for humankind’s ongoing survival and flourishing than that which it inherits.

You should strive to ensure that your overall effect on this Commonwealth that future generations inherit is as useful to them as possible for living a good life and promoting humankind’s ongoing survival and flourishing – and certainly more useful than it would have been had you not had any effect upon it. Only then can you be confident that the way that you are living your life is best for future generations.

Of course, some instances of destruction and degradation of natural resources cannot be compensated for: they simply have to be avoided. For instance, acts which cause extreme climate change, extinction of species or rare metals to be difficult to retrieve. When deciding between any two or more courses of action one should always look at the overall effect of each on humankind’s ongoing survival and flourishing.

Organisations should likewise assess their own overall effects – in conjunction with other individuals and companies – on what is passed down to future generations. In a modern interconnected economy this may be difficult, but it is not impossible. For instance, a local law firm or cleaning firm may not directly contribute towards augmenting the Commonwealth that future generations inherit, but in aiding other companies and individuals who do, they do make an important, if indirect, contribution.

In conclusion, we have seen the outline of an argument for thinking of shared goods as what is truly best for a person, and for striving to do best for all – including all who live in future. We saw this leads us to strive to promote the ongoing survival and flourishing of humankind. This involves taking into account one’s overall effect on the Commonwealth that one passes down to future generations, including (but not limited to) one’s effect on the natural world, the manmade environment (from buildings, bridges and wind turbines to machines, laboratories and artworks), humankind’s stock of ideas, and the understanding, culture and ethics of members of society.

Dan Dennis lectures on philosophy for the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford.

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