Utilitarianism and the Environment
Discourses on environmental preservation have taken on ethical dimensions ever since the rise of modern industrialized states. This would make sense if people will begin to admit we are living in the anthropocene age where human actions can have such a significant impact on the natural order that we as a species are capable of whole eco-systems and indirectly change weather patterns.
Along with the construction of factories and increases in carbon emissions in recent years, environmental protection has gained a foothold in political as well as social life.
Indeed, ensuring environmental protection shall be guided by a moral framework upon which issues such as controlling climate change and saving endangered species are grounded. Much of this moralism is centered on an objectivist perspective in which such issues are best left to the holders of capital rather than the state. However, this framework fails instantly since the holders of capital themselves create the exploitative conditions affecting the environment.
With that said, a more consistent ethical system should be put in place. In this sense, utilitarian ethics remains to be an appealing area where discourses on the environment shall thrive.
Primarily an ethical system that should govern human conduct in the society, utilitarianism is much broader in its scope since several theorists from Bentham and onwards have had made nuanced assumptions if what it really entails. We can still however summarize the essence of utilitarian philosophy as consequential.
Rather than focus on the nature of an action and the factors that led to its application, utilitarian advocates have had made it a case to weigh only the consequences of an action. Moral legitimacy is therefore derived from the immediate effects an action brings about.
And how do we measure such an abstract concept as moral legitimacy? Bentham argues that we should look only at the number of people that benefited from the action. In other words, the efforts of mankind should always be directed towards the happiness (or in this case, the benefit) of many.
In bringing this logic into the table of environmentalism, we can safely navigate through the economic and social intricacies of mitigating the effect of human action on nature. For instance, developing states rely mostly on mining in order to benefit their citizens and improve their economies. Of course, development comes with a price since such countries are prone to making compromises with transnational corporations in exploiting natural resources. Such corporations make a compelling case that investment is only possible if states are able to provide them some measure of freedom in expropriating natural resources. What’s more, these same corporations would make an appeal by saying such forays will lead to job growth and eventually secure better living conditions for the local populace.
A utilitarian analysis will easily rip through this argument by looking at the larger picture. For one, much of the benefit from these investments (particularly in mining) will not go towards the state. On the contrary, much of the income from these ventures will return to the holder of capital.
With regards to long term impact, these investments seldom benefit the communities they are supposed to impact. Excavations and other activities that cause environmental degradation destroys ecosystems and hence deprive local populations of livelihood sources depended upon for generations.
From a utilitarian viewpoint, we can see how disparaging the effects that economic activities have towards the environment. Not only do this fail to benefit states, but also they fail to achieve happiness for many.