Ethical basis

Why does it seem wrong that one generation can consume natural resources recklessly and leave none for future generations? Why do consumers protest when businesses plunder our ecological resources and threaten biodiversity in the name of economic progress? Why are some citizens outraged when governments announce new freeways as a solution to ease traffic congestion and gridlock?

Balance scale

The simple answer is that for people who care about sustainability, these actions contradict our ethical principles. Through exploring ethics in a little detail it becomes obvious as to why some people hold strong ethical views about sustainability.

Ethical Theories

There are essentially two main schools of ethical theories: those which consider the intentions of the actions (deontological theories), and those which consider the outcomes of those actions (teleological theories). Neither one is right nor wrong per se, and sometimes they generate contradictory conclusions.

Utilitarian Ethics

One of the most popular ethical theories is that of utilitarianism. This considers an action to be ethical if the desired outcome benefits more people than it harms. This principle is often used within business to justify actions that produce economic benefits. Economic benefits improve the wellbeing of citizens and therefore actions that support economic benefits can be considered ethical. Governments can also use utilitarian ethics to justify policy changes, especially where difficult actions are taken ‘in the national interest’.

There are two main difficulties using utilitarianism to ethically evaluate the sustainability of actions:

The first is that the actual consequences of non-sustainable actions are, by definition, always felt long into the future. Therefore it is almost impossible to get an accurate assessment of the winners and losers.

The second problem is that it seems immoral that on matters of global significance, such as climate change, the benefits of one group of people (e.g. American car owners) are offset with another group of people (e.g. climate-change affected populations).

Those who object to an action on the basis of sustainability will often calculate that the costs are higher and the benefits are lower than those who find no ethical objection to an action. For example, in a choice between either protecting the Southern Brown Bandicoot or opening up land for Sydney’s growing population, some people place no value on the Bandicoot.

It is therefore very hard to use utilitarian ethics to support sustainability, as people will have considerably different values on the costs and benefits of most actions. Sustainability ethics involves decisions which always involve an uncertain future.

Kantian Ethics

The 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant founded a branch of ethical thinking known as Kantian ethics. Kant believed that the ethical basis for any action or decision can be determined by understanding the individual’s motivation for performing that action. Regardless of whether or not the outcome of that action was ultimately good or bad, Kant believed that it was the intention which can determine whether an action is ethical or not.

At the time of Kant, there was not much concern for animals or the environment. In fact, to Kant neither the environment nor animals (apart from humans) held much inherent worth as only humans can be considered moral agents. What were of concern for Kant were moral imperatives, where actions can only be ethical if they could be applied consistently and universally as though they were law.

Kant’s categorical imperative of universality helps us consider sustainability from the view that if everybody did the same, would this be acceptable? This idea fits neatly within the concepts of sustainability. For example, it is clearly unacceptable if the developing world would emit the same carbon, on a per-capita basis, as the developed world. Thus it is unethical for us to continue emitting as the same rate since we would be hypocritical not to allow others to do the same.

Kant also insisted that humans respect each other, and treat our fellow man merely as an instrument to our own means. With companies transferring manufacturing to low-cost overseas countries; it is worth considering whether the humans who made these decisions have done so by considering their fellow man as humans, or as costs to be minimised?


Based on the two ethical theories presented above, it is clear that the Kantian (deontological) view matches much more closely than the utilitarian (teleological) perspective. Yet Kant’s views were controversial at the time and remain so today, as they refuse to consider the consequence (either positive or negative) as having any bearing over the ethicality of an action.

For some people, the end can justify the means.  For some people, the end just doesn’t matter anyway.   For sustinability, it’s always important to keep the end in mind when considering that actions to take today.

Categories: Finance - Ethics, Society - Ethics

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