The Global Impact of Environmental Issues Calls for an Utilitarian Approach

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“Utilitarianism is the Best Approach to Environmental Ethics”

In modern society we are regularly reminded that as a planet, we are facing an environmental crisis. The melting of ice increases everyday, along with a rise in global temperature and escalation in sea levels. The problems we are facing call for a renewed approach to the way in which we resolve environmental dilemmas, and seem to require a diplomatic, and more ethical mind set with which we should attempt to approach them. Utilitarianism is an umbrella term for a variety of ethical approaches, all of which prioritise the aim of creating “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. It would seem logical to apply Utilitarian principles to the environmental crises, due to the global impact of such issues, and the need for an approach that prioritises generating a good outcome; however, the ideas of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle could also be viewed as relevant and applicable.

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Utilitarianism is a teleological and consequentialist theory, meaning that it is concerned with the end results of our actions, and evaluates them accordingly. The fact that Utilitarianism is both teleological and consequentialist enables it to be most suitable for aiding approaches to environmental issues, as the crisis we are facing forces us to be results-focused and intent on achieving a positive global outcome. The teleological aspect of this theory allows it to consider the effects of our actions, and to judge how and why we are damaging the earth – which will help us to achieve that outcome. By focusing on the overall goodness generated, this approach encourages the moral decision maker to act with a conscience, and to be very aware of the potential side-effects of their actions. An example would be the consideration of what the effect of littering may be before dropping some rubbish to the ground; when considered one would realise that the litter could become a danger to creatures inhabiting the area, potentially killing them – and that person would consequently avoid this action as it contributes to negatively affecting the environment. This suggests that Utilitarianism is the best approach to environmental ethics.

To fully understand Utilitarianism in its entirety, one must recognise the distinction between Act and Rule based thinking. Act Utilitarians focus on generating the greatest net utility. Jeremy Bentham was one of these, and agreed on treating each moral dilemma as its own unique case, rejecting a rigid, rule-based approach in favour of a thorough, and considered evaluation of each issue. Rule Utilitarians follow a two-pronged approach with an emphasis on moral law-making. Rule-based Utilitarians state that a moral rule is one that would create the greatest utility when included into our moral code, and an action is morally justified if it adheres to these rules. As a Hedonist; Bentham believed that in life we should strive to bring about pleasure and avoid pain, stating that nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”. To calculate which action one should perform, we should evaluate which action will bring about the greatest pleasure. This appears to tae into consideration the wellbeing of the environment, considering the “feelings” or welfare of animals and living creatures. For example, whilst an anthropocentric point of view may comment that cutting down trees to provide space for a new shopping mall would generate happiness for people, an Act Utilitarian would consider the wellbeing of the animals whose habitat is being destroyed. Bentham proposed the Hedonic Calculus, a simple means of calculating the amount of pleasure gained by an action, this involves considering the duration, purity, richness, intensity and certainty of each action. For example, an act utilitarian would have to judge whether or not the loss of habitat for a number of species outweighs the good brought about by a new shopping facility for hundreds of people to use. From this point of view Utilitarianism is a useful theory to apply to the environment, as unlike Rule utilitarianism it recognises that right and wrong is not always black and white, and therefore treats each case individually, allowing the welfare of all to be considered.

Kant’s deontological approach to ethics was centred around innate reason and rationale. He believed that all humans have an intrinsic understanding of what is right or wrong, and should act according to their “goodwill” – acting in a way that can not only be classed as good, but also having the correct motive and inclination behind it. This could be useful when formulating laws to apply to the environment; Kant’s Categorical Imperative dictates that we should behave as though we live in a “Kingdom of Ends”, where we focus on unconditional commands. This is the idea that each rule we formulate is intrinsically correct, and cannot be adapted or changed to suit individual circumstances. Kant’s statement that we should “Act only upon that maxim by which you can, at the same time, will that your maxim should become a universal law”, would not condone careless disregard for the environment, for example littering could not be universalised because it would wreak havoc on the environment, and rapidly increase the earth’s temperature. The idea of formulating “maxims” or laws that are urges us to act with dignity and to treat all matters of the environment with a seriousness. On the other hand, maxims could easily become confused; it is not clear whether the maxim “protect the environment” calls for merely a ban on littering or wastage, or extends as far as not damaging leaves, or foliage. In this light, Kant’s principles of unchanging duties and goodwill are useful when applying the theory to environmental ethics, however the teleological nature of Utilitarianism allows it to be results-driven and efficient – making it a better approach to environmental ethics.

Arguably, Virtue Ethics could be a useful theory to apply to environmental ethics. It shifts the focus away from duties and laws, to the improvement of the individual. This could be particularly useful when applying the theory to environmental ethics, as it helps to enhance good virtues, and in turn this could lead to the development of an environmentally acute person. Virtue ethics states that the right action is the action that a virtuous person would choose in that same circumstance; this would discourage habits such as energy wastage, littering and deforestation. Alasdair Macintyre proposed a cycle of thought that he believed lay at the centre of all morality: “Who am I?”, “Who ought I to become?” and “How will I get here?”. By considering these integral questions, one can identify the wrongs in their current lifestyle, and adapt to change and better their person. An example of Virtue Ethics working in the 21st century would be a business considering how their products are packaged, and identifying the flaws within their environmental principles, and then drawing up a plan to change this. A modern case study could include Obama’s new initiative in the lead up to the climate change summit; more the a dozen U.S companies pledged to invest $140 billion to help cut carbon emissions. This attitude to personal development and awareness encourages the creation of new legislation and similar “pledges” in other companies, and also by individuals everyday. Virtue ethics is comparable to Utilitarianism in that it helps create a focus on results and development, enabling it to be applicable to the environment. However, Virtue Ethics is arguably more suited to environmental application, as it questions the individual to consider their own everyday impact and behaviour, as oppose to merely considering what is best for the majority.

Arne Naess was an advocate of “Deep Ecology”, which is an argument in favour of the intrinsic value and diversity of all of the the natural world. Naess’s ecosophy defined the biocentric nature of his theory, rejecting the idea that humans have more value than all other living creatures due to their consciousness and autonomy. These views are in direct conflict with Kantian and Virtue Ethics; Kant believed that human’s inherent value lay in their ability to reason and tell right from wrong – this is what sets them apart from animals and plants, and arguably causes them to be superior. Similarly, Aristotle believed in a hierarchy of nature, with humans at the top – an anthropocentric view which Naess would define as “Shallow Ecology” – a human-centred approach to the environment, focused on the earth’s usefulness, not it’s value. Although Naess’s views may seem extreme or unpractical, ultimately an anthropocentric view to the environment prohibits us from viewing the earth as anything more than an instrument to human flourishing, and would result in the rapid depletion of it’s natural resources. A Utilitarian approach to environmental ethics seems to diminish this possibility; modern philosopher Peter Singer extended the bounds of Utilitarian theory, so that it considers the general good of all sentient beings who could consider pleasure or pain. This aids us in solving problems such as animal testing; there are no doubts that this would be instantly ruled wrong, because it disregards the animal’s basic rights. Due to these clear guidelines, and the all-encompassing approach of Preference Utilitarianism, it could be considered a more inclusive approach to environmental ethics then Bentham’s Act Utilitarianism, Kant’s ethics, or Virtue Ethics which do not seem to recognise the rights of non-sentient beings.

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