Dr. Nigel Dower (University of Aberdeen)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

“Thinking About Sustainability: The Roles of Philosophical Ethics”

The first to be presented at the recent Sustainability Ethics Conference at Penn State University Park, Dower’s paper provided a clear outline of the key concepts and questions that are at work in discussions of sustainability. The paper began by situating the role of the philosopher as one who 1) analyzes concepts, 2) identifies ethical issues and any underlying theories that might already be in use regarding these issues, 3) offers normative arguments for preferring some theories over others, and 4) considers implications of the application of those theories. His paper followed suit by raising questions about concepts like “sustainability” and “development.”

One of Dower’s key points was that certain concepts, such as “sustainability,” are contestable concepts. Sustainability presupposes a value, but is not itself a value–sustainability is neither good nor bad, it all depends on the value of what is being sustained. This is related to the ambiguity contained within the “able” of “sustainable.” Just because something might be capable of being sustained does not necessarily mean that it is worth sustaining. For instance, one could strive to sustain one’s tyrannical regime or one’s extravagantly carbon-producing lifestyle, but this is not what most people have in mind when thinking about the values that are presupposed in sustainability ethics.

But even if there is consensus on certain issues within sustainability ethics (e.g., that we should consider the equality of all life, environmental and economic demands, and the well-being of future generations) there are still different assumptions about values at stake. If we’re talking about justice, for example, what kind of justice is this? Is it inter-generational? Is it a global justice? Is it a liberatarian model of justice (marked by a “trickle down effect’) or a more Rawlsian picture that might involve state intervention, taxation, and redistribution policies? Regarding future generations, are we considering only the next two future generations, or future generations in general? And are these future generations of humans, or are the lives of future non-human creatures also relevant?

Finally, there is also a question of what it is that we are trying to sustain? When couched in terms of sustainable development, “development” is also a contestable concept. Often understood in light of liberal models of economic growth, Dower notes that development might also be thought of in more qualitative terms, such as fostering basic capabilities and quality of life for others. Whereas sustainable development might seem like an oxymoron if understood strictly in terms of economic growth, thinking about development along the lines of well-being and the flourishing of human and non-human life might offer us a different framework within which we can imagine and think of sustainable practices and policies.

Dower’s paper sheds an important light on our tendency to take certain things (i.e. concepts and values) for granted, whether we work in the humanities, the sciences, or on the side of politics and institutions. In addition to quickly outlining the value of philosophical reflection on these issues, I think that the crux of Dower’s paper is important by virtue of how it corresponds to an earlier point that was made by Donald Brown during the opening comments for the entire conference. In short, Brown insisted that any research agenda on sustainability should pay attention to what has already been done and what hasn’t worked. Since sustainability has been a topic of concern for the past 15 or more years, even if it hasn’t been such a “sexy” or, rather, urgent topic as it is now, we ought to pay attention to the values that have so far influenced previous efforts for “sustainability” and especially “sustainable development.” For those who express frustration that we haven’t gotten anywhere and continue to simply talk in circles (perspectives that were energetically expressed in the question and answer session that followed), it might be helpful to take another look at what sort of presuppositions have so far motivated our research and policies.

In this way, Dower’s paper did more than offer an argument about the value of philosophical reflection on questions of ethics, it also made a powerful point about the very possibility for practical and effective efforts for sustainability.,

Share →
Skip to toolbar