A Guiding Ethic for the Socio-Economic System
Department of Chemical & Process
Engineering, University of Canterbury
Presented at the Sea of Faith (NZ) Conference, 27 November
The situation in which we find ourselves was summarised a few
months ago by former Director of the Environment Division of the
World Bank, Ken
"People are still walking, talking and even winning votes on the
assumption that in the globalized economy of perpetual growth
there are no limits, no resources which are depletable, no
hazards which hold the seeds of future economic collapse, a
totally stable climatic pattern and a nicely behaved bunch of
citizens who do not want to undermine the enormous power of
those who control state and corporate interests."
Piddington pointed out: "... if all this were true ... we
could possibly join the [New Zealand Business] Round Table in
relegating sustainability to the realm of academic theory
...". It was a central assertion in his paperwith which I
entirely agreethat the overwhelming weight of evidence
available to us today points in precisely the opposite
In this context, O'Connor et
comment that: "Economic analysis, as it developed in the 19th
century, has tended to portray a human economy as a
self-equilibrating mechanism, amenable to prediction and
mechanical control." In the closing weeks of the
(penultimate year of the) 20th century, most of us see an
instrumental or mechanical vision of the economic system as
hopelessly inadequate as we come to deal with large-scale
ecological-economic problems. We can no longer trust the
superficially tidy approaches of economic cost-benefit analysis
or engineering control theory, because today's
social-environmental reality is characterised by high levels of
uncertaintyindeed indeterminacyand of conflict. This is
related to the fact that people, industry and the environment
are connected to each other in incredibly complex ways, where
effects in one part of the total system may not become clear for
generations after causes have been put in place in another part.
In a situation such as this, as O'Connor et al also point out:
"We no longer have a simple equation between Science,
Progress, and Growth" "The science of emergent complexity
(post-normal science) is inseparable from considerations of
ethics and politics".
Funtowicz et al(3)
make the related comment that: "... scientific practice is
not fundamentally 'value-free' but ... has to find its
justifications by reference to prevailing social concerns."
Humanity holdsexplicitly or implicitly, for good or for
illto one form or another of a moral position on its
relationship with other life forms. For a practical expression
of that moral position, an ethic or ethical framework is needed
to rationalise one's actions. In what follows, I first look
briefly at utilitarianism, then suggest alternative approaches,
to clarify what I see as an appropriate moral position and an
ethical framework that can put it into practice.
But before I do so, I want to make the point that
Sustainabilityor Sustainable Development\is what is driving
me in what I have to say today. I am not going to define
the term, but I am going to declare it as a basic moral
principle. If we are concerned with it as a principle, involving
Justice both for society and for the environment, then obviously
we must move away from unsustainability or
non-development! In other words, we clarify our meaning
of the term through discourse and comparison with alternatives;
a dialectical process.
Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in
"Utilitarianism has been the dominant ethical theoryand,
inter alia, the most influential theory of justicefor much
over a century. The traditional economics of welfare and public
policy was for a very long time dominated by this approach,
initiated in its modern form by Jeremy Bentham."
Utilitarianismdescribed by Wordsworth as the "sordid lore of
nicely calculated less or more", is one important, and arguably
necessary, component of an ethical framework, but is not
sufficient of itself. That is because, as currently practised in
the dominant economics
- places humans in a privileged position such that other species
are of no more than instrumental importance;
- places a low value on the welfare and interests of future
- ignores the fact that markets do a poor job of measuring full
costs and benefits, and
- ignores the fact that markets alone cannot handle issues of
scale and distribution.
O'Connor et al (op cit) comment that because of scientific
uncertainties and political choice requirements, it is
impossible to estimate with any reliability, the incidence
across societies, present and future, of ecological costs and
benefits of different resource management actions.
Decisionmaking cannot be based on even exhaustive calculation of
the outcomes of resource allocation choices, because we can
never know the futureit is indeterminate, not just uncertain.
Taken together, these objections add up to a powerful set of
arguments against utilitarianism, as it is expressed in the
dominant strand of neoclassical economics. A response is that we
should reverse the traditional processes of decisionmaking,
moving away from "substantive rationality", where decisions are
made by referring to calculated outcomes. These are normally
based on narrow assumptions of individualistic,
utility-maximising behaviour by people. Instead, we need to move
towards a form of "procedural rationality", where the concept of
rational behaviour relates to the decision-making process
itself, and hence to the ethical base position adopted by those
participating in it.
O'Connor et al put it thus: "So we need an account of human
rationality in economic and environmental policy decision making
that gives weight, on the one hand, to the dimensions of our
ignorance, and, on the other hand, to our ethical sentiments of
A theological response to the problems listed above could
encourage us to look to the God of the Mountains rather than to
the Almighty Dollar. But if we limit ourselves to that aim, we
may not get very far. For example, how would we address
questions such as:
- How large should the population of a region grow?
- What is an appropriate level of resource consumption or
greenhouse gas emissions?
- How much of the habitat of other species should we take over for
These questions have legitimate utilitarian connotations and
cannot be ignored, no matter how distasteful we may find the
task. So what is the proper place for utilitarianism?
In response, I want to assert that these questions are in fact
secondary, and that the primary need is for humanity to adopt an
overarching moral commitment to sustaining the full complexity
and beauty of Life on Earthin other words, of Creation. This
implies consideration of the interests of future generations and
of other systems and species. As Brown et
"We need a new moral compass to guide us into the twenty-first
centurya compass grounded in the principles of meeting human
needs sustainably. Such an ethic of sustainability would be
based on a concept of respect for future generations."
By seeking to improve the sustainability of a system such as
society within its environment, we explicitly accept a
responsibility to future generations. Associated with a broad
enough basic ethic, that responsibility also extends to other
life forms. It is thus more than simple "enlightened
self-interest", because we cannot know the future, let alone our
own likely place in it.
For a systematic expression of a moral position on
Sustainability, however, I believe an explicit ethic is needed
to rationalise our actions. There are a number of ways in which
one may approach this issue. A common distinction is between the
deontological (e.g. Kantian "categorical imperative") and the
consequentialist or utilitarian (e.g. Benthamite "greatest good
for the greatest number") viewpoints (Vesilind and
As I understand it,
deontology addresses the significance of individual
agency, albeit in a holistic way. Consequentialism or
utilitarianism reduce the issue of right action to one about the
sum of the piecemeal good or harm that there would be in all the
various elements of the vast complex of potential consequences
of the action. This good or harm is taken to be itself
elementary or given. Deontology, by contrast, has a
whole-before-parts, holistic orientation.
I am drawn towards the deontological position, as a means of
acknowledging the integrity of the total system of life, and of
humanity as parts of that system. However, I also recognise that
my interpretation goes substantially beyond the conventional
deontological position, in that I assert that moral regard must
be had for systems (assemblages) comprising many persons and the
natural systems on which they impinge. Indeed, I assert my
regard for the moral integrity of the total system, not just for
some of its parts.
In practice, my approach (in concert with other colleagues) has
been to adopt an ethic that makes most sense to me, in the
context of addressing the sustainability of society, economy and
environment, jointly seen as a complex evolving supersystem.
This, in my opinion, is closely analogous to a deontological
Our small group has, in effect, chosen to develop a concise
statement from Aldo Leopold's (Sand County Almanac) Land Ethic,
Bossel's Ethic of
a more generic, a priori statement that relates to all living or
non-living systems, present and future: "All systems that are
sufficiently unique and irreplaceable have an equal right to
present and future existence and development".
Depending upon the connotations that they hold for people,
alternative words to Partnership, such as
"Kinship", "Relationship", "Mutuality"
may also be useful in this context. Bossel's ethic, which I
believe is clearly based on the Sustainability moral postulate,
implies human behaviour standards that are markedly different
from those which the dominant mainstream political economy
currently promotes, but which are still entirely sensible and
reasonable for most people. Implications of the ethic are that
Bossel's ethic points us in a general direction, but that still
leaves open an enormous range of possible paths for the future,
which will be inclusive of a wide range of social and ethnic
groups. These paths do not imply any particular static shape or
form for future sustainable society; they do imply the
possibility of a coevolutionary, dynamic and sustainable process
of development. It is a "bottom line", deontological-type ethic,
which in practice will be expressed via rules such as the
(Perrings(13)), rather than a utilitarian, consequentialist,
arithmetic-based cost-benefit "balance".
- share available resources equitably
- protect all unique systems for their intrinsic value
- give all parts the chance to contribute to the development of
A cut-down, "everyday" version of Bossel's apparently stringent
ethic has been found to be more acceptable to community groups.
It has been developed out of extended discussions and summarises
the consensus reached. The ethic reads:
All people have their basic needs satisfied, so they can live in
dignity, in healthy communities, while ensuring the minimum
adverse impact on natural systems, now and in the future.
With thisor otherclear ethical statement, we can begin to
see the proper place for the utilitarian perspectiveas a
tool, not a blueprint. While utilitarianism has no place in
setting the basic ethic itself, it can be of real value in
helping us examine some of the alternative ways of serving the
ethic. In other words, it is an essential part of a "both-and"
relationship, but in a secondary position.
Putting the Ethic into Practicethe Importance of Stakeholder
How can local knowledge and accumulated wisdom of people in
communities (including indigenous peoples) be incorporated into
the process of determining whether a system is sustainable, and
whether it is proceeding towards or away from itsimplicit or
explicitgoal? Related to this is the question of how experts
can be induced to let go of power and control, while remaining
within the loop and continuing to contribute to the process as a
To me, this issue centres on means to clarify an understanding
of the nature of the common good, as an ethical basis for policy
development and decision-making in society. As quoted in
process [is] an attempt to formulate and reliably choose a
conception of the common good with which to guide society".
There is little doubt that an understanding of the nature of the
common good will differ, at least in some respects, from one
community to another. Once it is acknowledged that people in
community have a viewpoint, and that their viewpoint is relevant
to policy-making and decision-making outside the bureaucratic or
corporate groups that currently dominate policy discussions, it
could be possible for a process to be put in place to "guide
society" in a direction that is actually chosen via
participatory, deliberative processes involving citizens. It is
not enough to simply aggregate their individual interests
("revealed preferences"), especially if the latter are evaluated
via actual or surrogate markets (Sagoff, op cit;
Bromley(15)),based on implicit but unexamined utilitarian
comments: "Getting closer to a socially and ecologically
sustainable society cannot be reduced to technicalities.
Ecological economists should take part in a debate about old and
new political ideologies and about ideologies in the broader
The process of values clarification would benefit markedly from
Funtowicz and Ravetz's suggestions of "extended peer reviews"
Such forms of participatory process can help ensure that
local knowledge and values are appropriately incorporated into
"Deliberative democrats aim to foster public space for citizens
to come together to reason about collective concerns in a free
and open speech situation.... Deliberative democracy fosters
practical reasoning (the giving of good reasons) in a process of
critical argument as an alternative to technocratic domination
of decision making.... Citizens transform their preferences by
reasoning together about public minded ends or a common good
rather than competing for the promotion of the private good of
points out that:
"An action is not necessarily ethical just because I can accept
it. It is ethical if all parties involved can accept it. Ethics
refers both to a conversation process and to the action which is
the product of the conversation."
I believe community values would be most appropriately expressed
via the ethic that we use to guide the process of selecting
indicators that reflect community concerns. I have proposed one
here, as a basis for discussion. I welcome feedback as to its
relevance. One important outcome could be acceptance of the need
to construct a new economics, based on sustainability of both
the whole and of its important component parts.
Let me finish by referring back to the question implicit in the
theme of this conference: "Mother Earth v Father God?". My
response is to take a punt, and veer towards what I understand
to be an ecofeminist position. I think we should first declare
as our moral imperative, nurture of and avoidance of further
damage to Mother Earth, because She is the embodiment of
Creation. Having made that commitment, we could perhaps look to
the Father for tools that will enable us to serve Her more
Notes and References
1. Piddington, K (1999) Financing
Sustainable Solutions Precis of comments to the Sustainable
Energy Forum Conference, University of Auckland, Auckland, New
Zealand, Friday 25 June
2. Martin O'Connor, Sylvie Faucheux,
Geraldine Froger, Silvio Funtowicz and Giuseppe Munda (1994),
Emergent Complexity and Procedural Rationality: Post-Normal
Science for Sustainability, in (ed) R Costanza, 0 Segura and J
Martinez-Alier, Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications
of Ecological Economics, International Society for Ecological
Economics and Island Press, Washington DC p 223-248.
3. Funtowicz, S. Ravetz, J and O'Connor, M.
(1998)Challenges in the use of science for sustainable
development, Int. J. Sustainable Development, v1 n1 pp 99-1O7
4. Actually, I understand it is the
"Bank of Sweden Award in Memory of Alfred Nobel". Nobel
himself did not endow an economics prize.
5. A Sen (1999), Development as
Freedom, Knopf, New York p 58.
6. Quoted in Brian Easton (1999) Beyond
the Utilitarian University, plenary paper to the National
Education Forum, 17 November 1999, University of Canterbury
7. Herman E Daly (1995) Reply to Mark
Sagoff's "Carrying Capacity and ecological economics"
BioScience v 45 n 9 pp 621-624, October.
8. Brown, Lester R, Christopher Flavin,
Hilary French et al (1999) State of the World 1999,
Worldwatch Institute and WW Norton & Company, New York and
London p 21.
9. Vesilind, P Aarne and Alastair S Gunn
(1998) Engineering, Ethics and the Environment,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
10. Catton, Philip (1999) private
communication (Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies,
University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand).
11. Vesilind and Gunn (1998) op cit p96.
12. Bossel, Hartmut (1998) Earth at a
Crossroads: Paths to a Sustainable Future, Cambridge
University Press, Cambridge and New York. ("Partnership
Principle" p 92)
13. Perrings, C. (1991)The Precautionary
Principle: "... implies the commitment of resources now
to safeguard against the potentially adverse outcomes of some
decision": See Perrings, C, Reserved rationality and
the precautionary principle: Technological change, time and
uncertainty in environmental decision making", p154 in R
Costanza (ed) Ecological economics: the science and
management of sustainability, Columbia University Press, New
14. Sagoff, M. (1998), Aggregation and
deliberation in valuing environmental public goods: A
look beyond contingent pricing, Ecological Economics V 24 n
2, 3 pp 213-230
15. Bromley, D.W. (1998), Searching
for sustainability: The poverty of spontaneous order,
Ecological Economics V 24 nos 2, 3 pp 231-240
16. Söderbaum, P. (1999), Values,
ideology and politics in ecological economics, Ecological
Economics v 28 n 2 pp 161-170
17 Funtowicz, 5.0. and Ravetz, J.R. (1991)
A New Scientific methodology for Global Environmental
issues, in (ed) R. Costanza, Ecological Economics: The
Science and Management of Sustainability, Columbia Univ Press, New York, p
18. Funtowicz S. and Ravetz, J.R. (1994),
Emergent Complex Systems, Futures 26 (6)
19. Hayward, B. (1997) Talking
Ourselves Green? A 'Deliberative' Approach to Sustainability,
paper delivered as part of the "Symbols of Sustainability"
lecture series, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand 5
March11 June p 5.
20. Pruzan, P. (1997) Ethical
Accounting in a Nut Shell, Copenhagen Business School,
Denmark, short paper
Related material available from the author
John Peet, Energy and the Ecological Economics of
Sustainability, Island Press, Washington DC, 1992.
John Peet and Hartmut Bossel, Ethics and Sustainable
Development: Setting the Agenda for Engineers, IPENZ Annual
Conference, Auckland, February 13-16, 1998
John Peet and Hartmut Bossel, Ethics and Sustainable
Development: Being Fully Human and Creating a Better Future,
International Society for Ecological Economics Conference,
"Beyond Growth: Policies and Institutions for Sustainability",
Santiago, Chile, November 15-19, 1998.
John Peet, If Solar is the answer, what is the question?,
Plenary address to Solar 98 Conference, Christchurch, New
Zealand, 25-27 November, 1998
John Peet, A New Economics of Sustainability and Justice. Why
undifferentiated growth and globalization are not progress,
Engineers for Social Responsibility (ESR) Conference,
Wellington, 7 February 1999
John Peet and Hartmut Bossel, Ethics as the grounding of a new
paradigm of ecological economics for community, Opening Plenary
address to Australia and New Zealand Society for Ecological
Economics (ANZSEE) Conference, Brisbane, 5-7 July 1999.