Monday, June 14, 2010

Utilitarian Environmentalism?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Should environmentalists embrace utilitarianism as an ethos, or are they barking up the wrong tree?

In my recent conversations on pollution, and population growth, I've noticed that many environmentalists claim utilitarianism as their ethical lodestone. Usually, I bite, and try to argue from within the confines of utilitarianism, but occasionally I question the premise.  (For a good definition of utilitarianism, read this.)
Utilitarianism is a 'consequentialist' ethic:  The rightness or wrongness of an action depends only upon the consequences of the action.  In utilitarianism, therefore, the only good thing is some form of happiness, or pain aversion, and actions are deemed ethical or unethical by how effectively they can maximize happiness and avoid pain.  There are no inherently 'good' or 'bad' things, people or actions.  Also, therefore, the only equality among people is coincidental to the level of happiness or aversion to pain that particular actions may have upon them.

Personally, I have trouble reconciling an environmentalist worldview with utilitarianism both in theory and in practice.  For example, utilitarianism very easily supports the type of elitism that many people find unethical by requiring that smaller communities bear the burden of the pollution of larger communities, so long as the total good feelings win out.  Also, a person has to really go through contortions to use utilitarianism for arguing against over-consumption, or to even think about waste as a problem.

But where utilitarianism makes its biggest flub in environmentalism is the fact that it gives no inherent value to the environment.  To me, it seems reasonable that an "environmental" ethos values the environment as more than what it can provide to people.

Of course, it is up to today's philosophers to adhere to such strict codes as utilitarianism.  This is ironic, because philosophy literally means "love of wisdom", and usually wisdom teaches that such strict mathematical dogmas don't make it very far in this world.  But for environmentalists, it may be a better idea to acknowledge belief in the environment as valuable in and of itself, in addition to what it provides for us.  Utilitarianism can be a great decision-making tool at times and in particular ethical dilemmas.  But, it is not an environmental ethos.


wheeler4040 said...

I have to argue your statement that "But where utilitarianism makes its biggest flub in environmentalism is the fact that it gives no inherent value to the environment." This is not always true. Utilitarianism does not come with a book of values for each and every object on earth. It does not say that a tree is worth 2 utils and a mile of highway is worth 10. The values are determined by whomever is analyzing the situation. Therefore it is the policy-makers who are guilty of placing a low value on the environment - not utilitarianism itself. Utilitarianism works perfectly under any situation assuming that the people running the analysis are not biased and place accurate values on the objects they are analyzing.

Josh said...

wheeler, thanks for stopping by!

In utilitarianism, value is utility, or usefulness to people (hence the term "utils"). Therefore, the environment does have value, but only (like everything else) in its usefulness to people.

For example, if I were to argue utilitarianially (a joke) that the Amazon rain forests needed to be protected, I would have to argue that they are valuable because they benefit humans by providing clean air, clean water, etc. I would additionally have to argue that their benefits as a complete forest benefit more people than their benefits would if the land were all transformed into cattle ranches. What I couldn't do is argue that the rain forests have an inherent value that we must protect regardless of their relative value to humanity.

Utilitarianism's anthropocentric perspective excludes an inherent value for anything other than people, including the environment.

I do agree with you that those who use utilitarianism also apply it with bias, and that the bias often distorts the objective value to humanity in favor of our baser impulses.