Environmental ethics
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Philip Sutton
Director, Policy and Strategy
Green Innovations Inc.
Tel & fax: +61 3 9486 4799
Revised 19th September 1998
Version 1.a/wii
Paper marked up in HTML format
by Philip Sutton.


What are the ethical frameworks by which we should judge efforts to create an ecologically sustainable economy?

Who should we care about?

We should care for:

Environmental justice

Given the need to compensate for power inequalities in society, when conflicts arise between people or between humans and nature, the least powerful should be given consideration ahead of the most powerful. This should apply not only to the relationships between people but also between humans and other species.  (see statements of the intrinsic value of nature)

In a world where there are resource scarcities (eg. water and oil) and excessive environmental damage due to the overuse of some resources, access to the means-of-not-needing-a-resource is often more important than access to or the right to exploit the physical resource itself. In a world where the poor substantially outnumber the rich and where the dynamics of the economy are more powerful than the statics, non-exploitative investment by the rich to help create sustainable and ample livelihoods for the poor is probably more critical than marginal redistribution of income. In a world enmeshed in multiple crises active engagement in problem solving is probably more critical than charitable sharing. And in a world where some people are massively wealthy while others are struggling, measures to improve the livelihood of the well off are definitely of lower priority than measures to improve the welfare of the least well off.

Undiminished responsibility

In the past it was assumed that firms could single-mindedly pursue the private good because governments would look after the public good. But the changed balance of corporate and government power, attendant on the globalisation of the economy, means that governments are less willing and able to assure appropriate outcomes and the old division of labour will no longer work. Firms are now so powerful collectively that the private interest is likely to prevail over the public good.

What is needed now is for everyone, whether in the private or the public sector to adopt a principle of "undiminished responsibility" for the achievement of the general good.

What are some of the practical applications of this principle?

Of course no-one, by themselves, has the time or capacity to solve all of society's problems. What the principle of "undiminished responsibility" means then is that everyone needs to do some catalytic work to see that the public good is achieved. They will need to cooperate with other firms, the community and governments to ensure this outcome.

Holistic realism

In many people's minds realism and idealism are opposites. They may be complementary but they are still seen as opposites.

However the notion of holistic realism dissolves this opposition. We need to be realistic in both our goals and the means we adopt to pursue those goals. Interestingly realism about our social and ecological goals leads not to pragmatism but to idealism. For example, social wellbeing cannot be maximised unless poverty is eliminated and environmental wellbeing cannot be maximised unless the use of fossil fuels is eliminated (to prevent greenhouse warming). Social and environmental realism needs to shape our goals while economic and political realism needs to shape our actions (otherwise the social and environmental goals will not be achieved).

Practical idealism

Many people feel that idealists are impractical and pragmatists who get things done are much more impressive. However, pragmatism that achieves results that society would be better off without, is, if anything, worse than idealism that produces no results. What is needed is practical idealism.

Those who think that practical idealism is a contradiction in terms, forget that almost every improvement that society has ever witnessed is the result of the efforts of practical idealists. However the skills needed to be an effective practical idealist are not widely known in the community. This deficiency needs to be rectified.

Last modified: 19 September 1998 (minor format change 3/5/02)

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