UtilitarianismThe concept of sustainable development is an attempt to balance twomoral demands placed on the environment. The first demand is for development,including economic development or growth. It arises mainly from the interestsof people who live in developing countries. Their present poverty gives them alow quality of life and calls urgently for steps to improve their quality oflife. The second demand is for sustainability, for ensuring that we do not riskthe future in the sake of gains in the present. This arises from the interestsof people in the future who will need access to a reasonable quality of life,non-renewable resources, unspoiled wilderness, and a healthy biosphere. Thesetwo moral demands do conflict. In fact, economic growth is the prime source ofthreats to the natural environment.
We have a rough sense of what a good quality of life for humans consistsof. Also, we can make some rough judgments about when a person’s quality oflife has increased or decreased. Utilitarianism about future generations saysthat people should weigh these increases impartially with respect to times. And,in particular, should not prefer a smaller increase in the present well-being tolarger increases in the future. We should try to maximize the sum of increasesin well-being across times counting future lives equally against those in thepresent. Our moral goal should always be to produce the greatest total of suchgains, no matter by whom they are enjoyed.
Utilitarianism has been extensively discussed by philosophers, and manyobjections have been raised against it. Two objections are especially relevanthere. First, utilitarianism is an extremely, even excessively demanding moralview for most humans. If we have a duty always to bring about the best outcome,than any time we can increase the well-being of others (which is just about atany time), we have a moral duty to do so. There is no moral time off, no moralrelaxation, nor is there a moral holiday. Humans are always duty bound tosacrificing something for the benefit of others at a given time. Second,utilitarianism can favor unequal distributions of well-being. In particular, itcan impose severe deprivations on the few for the sake of gains for the many.
Given its interpretations of impartiality, utilitarianism will count thedeprivations of the few as a moral cost. But, if they produce benefits forenough people, this cost will be outweighed. Even a severe inequality can bebalanced out and approved of by a utilitarian.
Some philosophers, feeling the force of these objections, have proposedreplacing utilitarianism about future generations with an egalitarian view.
This view cares not just about the sum of benefits across generations, but alsoabout their equitable distribution. We do not sacrifice the worst-offgeneration for better-off generations, but aim at equality of conditions amongthem. This egalitarian view can take many forms, but a good version has beenproposed by Brian Barry. He says that each generation has a duty to pass on toits successors a total range of resources and opportunities that is at least asgood as its own.1 Those generations that enjoy favorable conditions of lifemust pass on similar circumstances of life to their future. However,generations that are less fortunate have no such stringent obligations. What isrequired of each generation is that it just pass on a total package ofopportunities that is comparable to its own; whatever the exact composition ofthat package may be. Barry’s approach to the egalitarian view can easily beinterpreted as an ethic of outcomes. Assuming this interpretation, is theegalitarian view the best of our duty concerning future generations? Thereseems to be one major objection against Berry’s view.
Brian Barry’s egalitarian view does not place excessive demands on earlygenerations to make sacrifices for the sake of later generations. That isbecause it places no such demands-early generations need do nothing at all forlater generations. Surely early generations have some duty to enable theirsuccessors to live better than themselves. An ideal of sustainability, or of aconstant level of well-being through time, may be attractive to think of whenstarting from a high level of well-being. But, it is not so attractive whenstarting from a low level of well-being. There is nothing inspiring about aconsistently maintained level of misery. Yet Barry’s view allows consistentmisery to persist. It finds nothing objectionable in a sequence where the firstgeneration passes on a very limited range of opportunities and resources to thenext generation, and so on. Surely this sequence of events is objectionable.
There may not be as stringent a duty to improve conditions for futuregenerations as utilitarianism claims, but there must be some such duty thatexists.
Personally, there has to be a middle between utilitarianism for futuregenerations and Brian Barry’s egalitarian view. I feel that our so-called dutyis only to make the conditions of future generations reasonably good. If peoplefollow utilitarianism, then we will say that we have a duty to give futuregenerations a reasonable quality of life through demanding sacrifices ofourselves. And if people followed Barry’s egalitarian view, then futuregenerations may be stuck in the same rut as past generations. That is why amiddle-road must be used. By taking these two ideas, then we can see that eachgeneration should pass on to its successors a range of opportunities that allowsfor a reasonable quality of life. However, it should not be seen as a duty. Ifit is seen as a duty, then most humans may be turned off by the prospect oftaking care of their environment for future generations. If it is seen byhumans that our environment is a precious jewel, then we will more than likelywant to share it with our future generations.
Works Cited1 Brian Berry, “Intergenerational Justice in Energy Policy.” In D. MacLeanand P. G. Brown, eds., Energy and the Future Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield,1983pp.274.
Resources1. Barry, Brian. “Intergenerational Justice in Energy Policy,” in D. MacLeanand P. G. Brown, eds., Energy and the Future Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield,1983.
2. Danielson, Peter. “Personal Responsibility,” in H. Coward and T. Hurka,eds., Ethics and Climate Change: The Greenhouse Effect Waterloo: WilfredLaurier UP, 1993.
3. Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. London: Macmillan, 1907.
4. World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1987.