On Philosophy

May 20, 2006

Is Environmentalism an Ethical Duty?

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 9:59 pm

I pose the question “is environmentalism an ethical duty?” not because I wish to explore the value of plants and animals specifically, but because it is part of a bigger issue, namely what ethical responsibilities do we have to future generations, and how should this affect our consumption of non-renewable resources? For example, consider our use of oil. No matter how much oil there is it will eventually be depleted if we keep using it at our current rate, because our consumption exceeds the rate at which it is replenished. Even if it won’t run out while we are still alive, are we being unjust to our descendants by using the oil they could otherwise have had, or do we have a right to use resources as we see fit without talking into consideration the needs of people who don’t exist yet?

First let me discuss how existing ethical systems would handle this issue. One of the simplest ethical systems is the principle that people should act to maximize their own happiness. This might seem like it would result in a world of overly selfish people, but to those who believe in this principle think that social pressures would prevent people from acting in a way we would consider unethical, for example people governed by this principle wouldn’t steal because society would punish them if they were caught. Under this principle it is perfectly acceptable to use all the resources you want, so long as they last for the remainder of your life (because you wouldn’t want to run out, nor would you want people to punish you for being wasteful). Future generations however cannot punish you, and thus you have no reason to restrain your usage on their account.

Utilitarianism, the principle that people should act to maximize the total happiness, on the other hand could dictate either that you should use no non-renewable resources or that you are free to use them up with no regard for the future. I already discussed this in an earlier post, but I will review the reasons, briefly, again. Basically it comes down to a question of whose happiness counts towards the total. If only the happiness of currently living people counts then you can justify using up all of the resources within your lifetime, because this would make the people currently alive happier. Of course if you believe that the happiness of future people counts towards the total then you shouldn’t use any non-renewable resources, because the ability to possess and to use the resource (which contributes to the happiness of future generations) is greater than your happiness from using the resource (after you use it you get no more happiness from possessing it).

Since these happiness based principles aren’t getting us anywhere let us turn to Kant’s categorical imperative. The categorical imperative states that you only have justification for an action if it is dictated by a rule that all people could rationally live by. For example you couldn’t justify theft under the categorical imperative because if all people became thieves society would collapse. Unfortunately, like utilitarianism, the categorical imperative can go either way on the issue of how to use resources. If you consider only the people alive to be under consideration for the ability to rationally will a principle then you can use up all the resources. Of course if the ability of future generations to rationally will the principle is taken into consideration then non-renewable resources cannot be used.

Since the existing ethical theories don’t seem to be of any help it is time to experiment with new ideas. After some consideration I came up with a principle that wouldn’t endorse either extreme. The principle is: when you take from someone your action must result in something of equal or greater value being given to that person (or in the prevention some equal or greater harm to them). Apply this principle to the question at hand I conclude that we can only justify our use of resources if we create something permanent of equal or greater value. This doesn’t mean that the resources have to be turned directly into this gift to future generations. Perhaps you use a lot of oil while creating a work of art, even though the work of art isn’t created from the oil it is still something that those future generations will be able to enjoy instead of the oil you consumed. Of course any use of resources can be justified in order to survive, since the future generation wouldn’t exist if the current generation didn’t survive (this falls under the case of preventing a greater harm).

Now let us turn this principle to the use of the environment. Clearly we might obtain some benefits from damaging the environment, but future generations will not receive these benefits, and they would have benefited from a healthy environment. Thus we must balance our destruction of the environment with the permanent accomplishments we are making. If we destroy the environment simply to achieve some momentary happiness (for example disposable consumer goods) then we incur an obligation to do something permanently beneficial. Personally I think that the lasting achievements we are making do not currently outweigh the damage we are doing to the environment, meaning that we either need to take better care of the world or to accomplish more.


  1. In accounting, money today is worth more than money tomorrow by a certain percentage. I think we could apply the same principle to this. We don’t know if there even is going to be a next generation, or what their interests are, so we’re justified in discounting their input on the present by a certain percentage based on how speculative the future is. So, for example if we know that I could either eat a chocolate today and get 5 happiness, or eat it tomorrow and probably get 5 happiness, but maybe not since I might be not in the mood for chocolate, I should go ahead and eat the chocolate now, since it’s a safer bet. Similarly, maybe in the future, people won’t need oil because they’ll have fusion or something. Based on the odds of us inventing something to replace oil, we can discount the wishes of future generations by some percentage.

    Comment by Carl — May 21, 2006 @ 2:33 am

  2. I had thought of the same thing you did, but discarded it because of the following problem: WE know that the existence of the next generation is fairly certain, I would say that it is probably 99% or better, but let’s use 90% just to be on the safe side. Now let’s say we calculate my happiness from burning a log as 1 unit. Now we would say that the next generation’s happiness multiplied by the probability of their existence is .9. However there is also the generation after that’s happiness to consider namely .9 * .9, and the generation after that, ect. The sum of this series is greater than the happiness you get from burning the log by far (9 points vs. 1 point) and thus you can’t justify burning it. Admittedly you could discount the happiness of future generations more, but I can’t really see a justification for doing so. Perhaps we should decrease their expected utility because we assume that they will have developed substitutes, but because we don’t know if such substitutes are even possible, how long they would take to develop, or how good they would be, it is impossible to actually proceed with the calculation, making such a principle impossible to use, which should motivate us to look for a different principle. Besides we would have to reduce the wishes of a future generation to a

    Comment by Peter — May 21, 2006 @ 11:23 am

  3. Gregg Easterbrook reviewed An Inconvenient Truth for Slate:

    “This raises the troubling fault of An Inconvenient Truth: its carelessness about moral argument. Gore says accumulation of greenhouse gases “is a moral issue, it is deeply unethical.” Wouldn’t deprivation also be unethical? Some fossil fuel use is maddening waste; most has raised living standards. The era of fossil energy must now give way to an era of clean energy. But the last century’s headlong consumption of oil, coal, and gas has raised living standards throughout the world; driven malnourishment to an all-time low, according to the latest U.N. estimates; doubled global life expectancy; pushed most rates of disease into decline; and made possible Gore’s airline seat and MacBook, which he doesn’t seem to find unethical.”

    The point he’s making isn’t quite related to yours, but I think you can see the connection: if we hadn’t used the oil, our lives would be devoid of its benefits, and future lives would also be. Since we used it, we’ve improved our lives, and hopefully, made it possible for the future to enjoy the continuing benefits of technology, presuming we can replace oil with something else. Obviously, we don’t have perfect information, but that’s exactly why I think it’s OK for us to discount the future a little. We don’t know if they’ll need oil or not, but we know we do. Now, will the world of 5 years from now need oil? Yes, 99% certainly. So, we shouldn’t use up all the oil before then. Will people 100 years from now need oil? It’s 50-50, I guess, but we know that we definitely do, so it’s fair for us to use it at a rate that might deplete it in 100 years, so long as we also take steps to ensure that in 100 years we won’t still be as reliant on oil then.

    Comment by Carl — May 24, 2006 @ 3:57 am

  4. That may be true, but you can’t discount all resources in this fashion. There are no substitutes for clean air, but I still think we can justify creating some pollution. Basically my concerns are:
    1- Can we justify using any of a non-renewable resource if there are no (possible) substitutes? (I think we can)
    2- Does it make sense to have a moral theory that requires more precise knowledge of the future than we can possibly have? I think that betting on when we have a substitute is based on too little information to be a reliable source for moral action. Although obviously not all future knowledge can be discounted in this way (such as the expected consequences of one’s actions) I think I viable moral theory should be able to guide our actions based only on facts that we are certain of.

    Comment by Peter — May 24, 2006 @ 8:18 am

  5. (please pardon any flawly English)

    The principle stated at the end of the article, and the conclusion not to support the extreme of non-use, only makes sense if one accepts some form of antropocentrism.

    Chances are that humanity will get extinct and another lifeform on this planet will become the dominant one in the future. This has happened many, many times in the lifetime of this planet, and the mass colonisation of our planet by ourselves is no reason to think this will not happen again.

    I think none of the “permanent accomplishments” we make, are of any value to those future beings and their happiness. Hence the extreme position of non-use. This, of course, will not be applied, since it is against our nature to trade our immediate happiness for some possible future happiness (let alone from other beings which we do not even know of).

    I see only one argument to contradict the above: we might soon be able to construct beings (human or not) with maximized happiness (genetics, nano-technology,… – imagine some “Brave New World” or “Matrix” possibilities). But probably this argument makes the value of happiness worthless alltogether.

    Comment by yupie — May 24, 2006 @ 6:37 pm

  6. I guess I am just an optimist and feel that it is much more likely to go on and expand beyond the solar system, possibly existing in some form until either the big-crunch or maximum entropy is reached. Even if humanity does go extinct it is possible some future race will dig up our accomplishments.

    Comment by Peter — May 24, 2006 @ 9:59 pm

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