Thursday, October 02, 2008

Ethical frameworks and sustainability

I'm teaching an Introduction to Ethics course with an emphasis on examining environmental sustainability. Although I've assigned a textbook that has some collected readings on ethical theories, the class is relying predominately on reading about environmental issues as they come up in non-philosophical venues.

I've had some difficulty illustrating the usefulness of Kantian ethics in the context of environmental problems. Any suggestions that readers have for how to apply Kantian ethics to such problems would be appreciated!

For instance, the class did work through the problem of overpopulation, achieving the insight that if everyone had large families, the human population would quickly exceed the earth's carrying capacity. But the implication that each and every one of us has a duty to limit family size to 2 children or fewer did little to guide recommendations for how that duty should be enforced or encouraged. Utilitarianism, by contrast, seems well suited to problems of global scope; increasingly, environmental and economic problems do have that scope.

Another problem that loomed was how to give theoretical ethical support to the lifestyle recommendations in Bill McKibben's Deep Economy. I happened across Peter Singer's recent book The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, which provides utilitarian support to some, but not all, of McKibben's views (a review here).

Singer, for instance, does not find an ethical justification for buying locally-grown foods. He acknowledges the environmental reasons to support buying foods grown nearby rather than those transported across the US. But he also believes that we are doing more good for others by buying foods imported from poverty-stricken countries than buying US-produced food, even when products are not the result of fair trade practices. Also, I find the utilitarian argument against speciesism to be, well, specious.

I think virtue ethics, though, is ideal for justifying the kinds of actions that McKibben endorses. Even its derivative, care ethics, can make sense of why people choose to buy local: people who have definable relationships to us, who live in our communities, have a greater claim on our consideration.

Peter Singer, by the way, is speaking at RIT tomorrow on "A Better, More Sustainable World" at 2:30 pm in Golisano Auditorium. All are invited.

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