Ethical Aspects of Sustainability

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Ethics or morality has to do with the principles, standards, rules, norms of conduct that make cooperation, justice, and freedom possible. Ethics is inseparable from questions of cultural meaning and social power; it provides a philosophically based touchstone for an ideal of justice, right relationship, and the proper use of power and authority.

The ethical analysis typically has the following four central components:

  • an evaluation of the character and intentions of the agent—what virtues/vices does the agent exemplify?
  • an evaluation of the inherent properties of an action—what rights or duties does the action fulfill or violate?
  • an evaluation of the consequences (most often understood as causal effects) of an action—what benefits or harms are brought about by the action?
  • an evaluation of the context within which actions take place—does the action support or undermine the system or context which makes the action possible and meaningful in the first place?

This fourth aspect has the most direct connection with the commonsense meaning of the concept of “sustainability”—not undermining the prerequisites of what you are doing, living on the land without ruining it, using without using up, limiting how much you draw down reserves so that you do not deplete fast than you replenish. But all four aspects are relevant to sustainability, which is not only about living with constraints, parameters, and limits but also about prescribing some inherently wrong or causally harmful types of action, and about creating the proper kind of sensibility, motivation, and moral commitment in people. In sum, virtue, rightness, consequence, and context are all ethically important in navigating sustainability.

A sustainable society lives within the carrying capacity of its natural and social system. It has a system of rules and incentives that promote replenishing and limit depletion and pollution. A sustainable society builds upon the commitment of its members to conform to these rules voluntarily, and it enforces them when necessary.

One final note about ethical discourse in general as it pertains to the issue of sustainability. Ethical analysis is deeply affected by the initial ontological starting point or orientation one assumes. In general, there are three such orientations, the theocentric, the anthropocentric and the biocentric. In the interests of time, I mention only the last two here. The human-centered orientation denies that non-human things have any inherent or intrinsic moral value; their value is only instrumental to human values, goals, and well-being. The biocentric perspective holds that value in the world does not reside within human beings alone. The value in the world—for the sake of which ethics and morality exist in the first place—resides in the natural and biotic context of which human individuals and societies are a part. Therefore, ethical rights and duties, and the good for which ethical agency and action strive, should be understood in terms of systems of interdependency, relationship, sustainability, and resiliency.

Human-centered ethics is the default position of our politics and public policy today, and it leads to a position that might be called unsustainable rapacity. (Not to put too fine a point on it.)

The biocentric perspective gives us three different variants on the ethics of sustainability, which have been in contention throughout the history of American conservation and environmentalism, particularly in the area of forestry policy, where the concept of sustainability originated.

(1) Sustainability as efficient management of resources. This is the scientific and sustainable forestry of gifford Pinchot.

(2) Sustainability as the preservation of wildness and the radical rejection of an ethic of human use in favor of an ethic of human respect and non-interference. This is the argument proposed by John Muir.

(3) Sustainability as the land ethic or land citizenship—a synthesis of both well-managed human use and respect for the requirements of the systemic properties necessary to the integrity, functioning, and health of a biotic community of which human beings are a functional part. This is the synthetic position developed by Aldo Leopold. (Precursors of it can be found in Alexander von Humboldt, Thoreau, and George Perkins Marsh.)

Arguments in favor of unsustainable rapacity tend to be arguments of convenience, expediency, and self-interest, rather than arguments of principle, so I would not call them ethical arguments at all.

The three versions of sustainability, however, are each grounded on recognizable and serious ethical arguments. No definitive ethical solution to this debate exists. Our navigation of sustainability will be a tacking back and forth among these three orientations and the policies and practices that follow from them. That tacking is a good thing, and it is on the border line between ethics and politics. For me, however, the overall course and direction of our navigation should be set by the third conception of sustainability as land citizenship.

Sustainability as efficient management inevitably falls prey to human ignorance and human hubris. And experience since Pinchot’s day shows that, despite its genuinely ethical and biocentric intent, it too easily falls back into an anthropocentric orientation in which nature alive becomes nature dead; that is, a system that supports us becomes a stock of raw materials for our consumption and use.

For its part, the conception of sustainability as wildness drives too sharp a wedge between humans and nature and is not ontologically sound, nor is it workable because the problem of sustainability is an agricultural, suburban, and urban problem and is not limited to undisturbed ecosystems in remote or protected areas.

The land ethic, a notion of democratic ecological trusteeship, provides the best moral compass for navigating sustainability in the Hudson Valley and beyond.

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  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.

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