Utilitarianism and Environmentalism in Ethics Essay

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Is utilitarianism an effective approach to environmental ethics? Behaviors that demonstrate personal and collective responsibility to the environment can lead to tangible short-term and long-term objectives that benefit a large number of people. Reducing pollution, limiting deforestation, preserving natural resources, protecting sensitive ecosystems, and mitigating climate change bring about the greatest good for the greatest number, what John Stuart Mill (2017) refers to as summum bonum, the fundamental principle of utilitarianism (p. 1). Therefore, most environmentally conscious policies, business practices, and personal behaviors can be viewed in utilitarian terms.

Explanation of Theory

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory, which essentially means that its proponents focus more on the consequences of actions than on the motivations for the actions (Haines, n.d.). There are several types of utilitarianism, including act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism suggests that any act is morally right when it leads to consequences that are better than (or no worse than) any other potential action (Singer, 2003). Rule consequentialism suggests that any act is morally right when it follows the rules that reflect the best interest of the society (Haines, n.d.).

The foremost founder of the comprehensive theory of ethical utilitarianism is John Stuart Mill. Mill thoroughly outlined the core principles of utilitarianism, discussing the importance of promoting human happiness and pleasure as central ethical goals. Moreover, Mill traces the origins of utilitarianism to Epicureanism, the ancient Greek philosophy that stressed the value of higher human pleasures such as the pleasure inherent in learning, freedom, or peace. Once happiness or pleasure is established as a reasonable aim of all ethical theories, then all acts can and should be evaluated purely with regard to whether they cause happiness or whether they cause pain. An act that causes happiness has ethical merit or utility; likewise, an act that causes pain does not have merit or utility.

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Acts can also be ranked according to how much happiness they create within all affected persons, measured by the “greatest happiness principle,” (Mill, 2017, p. 5). The greatest happiness principle can also be applied to broader ethical problems, such as evaluating an act according to whether it leads to more people experiencing positive results. According to utilitarian principles, an act that benefits one million people would be preferable to an act that only benefitted ten people.

Application of the Theory

Utilitarianism has sometimes been used to justify resource exploitation, by focusing on short-term gains rather than on the long-term impacts of human economic activity or industrial development. Yet there is nothing inherent in utilitarianism that necessitates a short-term or narrow focus. Utilitarianism offers the potential for a more robust ethical heuristic, one that proves that long-term promotion of human health and well-being are directly dependent on environmental responsibility. Short-term economic growth also benefits relatively few numbers of human beings, mainly those who already possess wealth and power. The vast numbers of people on the planet are bereft of wealth and power. To promote the greatest good for the greatest number, it becomes necessary to promote sustainable economic growth. Sustainable economic growth means growth that occurs in accordance with promoting the greatest good for the greatest number. As Wolff (2008) points out, “When anthropocentric arguments are used to defend destructive and unsustainable environmental policies, the benefits to humans are nearly always exaggerated….....

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Haines, W. (n.d.). Consequentialism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/conseque/

Mill, John Stuart (2017). Utilitarianism, in the original version in the textbook, or in the version by Jonathan Bennett. Retrieved from www.earlymoderntexts.com

Singer, P. (2003). Voluntary euthanasia: A utilitarian perspective. Bioethics, 17(5/6), 526-541.

Wolff, B.G. (2008). Environmental studies and utilitarian ethics. Environmental Studies 34(2):6-11. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ859824.pdf

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