1.4 Caring for the consequences
The Light reading is an extract from the first part of a longer paper in which he goes on to argue for a more pragmatic approach from environmental ethicists to complement their important work on theorising over intrinsic value. Here you need register only the concern expressed by Light that ethicists should focus more on the immediate consequences of their endeavours in terms of being able to shape policy and action.
In thinking about such effects, Light might be regarded as following a consequentialist tradition of ethics. It is the consequences of what we do that must guide our thinking and action. In short, for environmental responsibility what matters in the first instance is the consequences rather than any predefined deontological principles or even any abstract notion of virtue. This does not imply that deontological principles (embedded in rules, regulations, rights, duties and contracts) do not matter; rather, it suggests that caring for actual and anticipated consequences should perhaps have a prime role from the outset, firstly in identifying what matters in any one particular situation, and secondly in shaping what rules and regulations are best suited to support an improved outcome in that situation. Both endeavours could then be regarded as constituents of what might be considered a prime virtue of environmental responsibility – caring for the environment.
The consequentialist tradition, like other ethical traditions, encompasses a broad range of positions. At one extreme there is the individualistic utilitarianism that is, as the Light reading testifies, often appropriately the target of criticism from environmentalists. For example, Oelschlaeger’s religion-based work on developing a narrative conducive to caring for creation, referred to earlier, suggests that individual utilitarianism is perhaps the most pernicious dominant narrative in the USA, responsible for much of the environmental crisis. Individual utilitarianism defines ‘what’s good’ within a narrow view of individual material wellbeing, and hence makes a justification of the measures required to fulfil this good, irrespective of any harm done elsewhere. So the exploitation of natural resources for profit and productivity is, under individual utilitarianism, considered perfectly legitimate.
However, most contemporary consequentialists now accept that non-human nature matters more than just as a resource. Robin Attfield provides a contemporary expression of a consequentialist ethic that supports a caring responsibility: biocentric consequentialism. This is described in Box 5.
Box 5 Attfield’s biocentric consequentialism
If reasons for action are ultimately grounded in intrinsic value and disvalue [negative value or worth], and it is states of the world that have such value and disvalue, the reasons that make actions, policies and practices right and/or obligatory must be grounded in foreseeable differences that can be made to the value and disvalue of states of the world. Hence it must be differences such as these that make actions, policies and practices right or obligatory.
(Attfield, 2003, p. 44)
For Robin Attfield, the state of the world is the starting point for consequentialism – and this need not be the human world. Biocentrism falls between the anthropocentric and ecocentric perspectives simply stating that all living organisms have equal standing.
Having equal moral standing, however, does not imply having equal moral significance. This is where Attfield differs from biocentric egalitarians such as the US philosopher, Paul Taylor: ‘It would be wrong to share the last available water equally between a plant and person both dying of thirst’ (ibid.). Citing the influence of Kenneth Goodpaster, Attfield agrees that moral significance is at a different level to moral standing. While we might attribute value and therefore moral standing to all living organisms, there is a distribution of significance. But what is it that provides the criterion for moral significance?
Attfield does not simply privilege sentience (the capacity to feel pleasure and pain), but rather ‘the full range of capacities whose development or fulfilment comprises the good of various creatures including human beings, and which also recognizes the greater value of the interests that relate to complex and sophisticated capacities such as autonomy’ (p. 44). The impacts or consequences of actions must provide the starting point, as they intuitively do anyway. But Attfield makes two caveats: ‘that impacts on basic needs outweigh lesser impacts, and that impacts on creatures with complex and sophisticated capacities such as autonomy and self-consciousness (in cases where these capacities are themselves at stake) outweigh impacts on creatures lacking them’ (p. 52).
Attfield focuses his ethic not just on principles but also on the context and circumstances. For example, he argues against the removal and use of vital organs from an ape to save a human life if that life has equal or less capacity for autonomy and self-consciousness (e.g. for reasons of irreparable mental condition). He argues that most people intuitively can and do weigh up amounts of good and harm; that they can and do prioritise basic needs; and that among basic needs, they can and do prioritise ‘those of the bearers of complex and sophisticated capacities (whether human or non human)’ (p. 46). Moreover, Attfield supports an intrinsic value for nature that is essentially objective, in a similar manner to traditions of ecofeminism and the narratives of many religious and indigenous peoples.
Activity 5 Caring for the consequences of climate change
This podcast is of an interview with James Garvey, who works at the Royal Institute of Philosophy and is the author of a book entitled The Ethics of Climate Change. Listen to this interview and make notes on how Garvey conveys climate change in terms of a consequentialist ethic.
Transcript: Climate change
SAQ 1 A unique issue?
Refer back to the notes you made in Activity 5. What makes Garvey feel that climate change is a unique issue for consequentialism?
According to James Garvey, climate change is a unique issue for consequentialism because it is a problem that affects everyone and that everyone’s actions can have a positive or negative effect on. As Garvey says (Climate Change, 2008):
There are lots of applied moral problems – there are things like euthanasia, abortion, and GM [genetically modified] crops and cloning and all that – and you can look at those from a safe distance, as it were from behind a couch, peering over. And hope that nobody is going to clone you. And think that if you skip through life happily, maybe there’ll be no euthanasia in your life, no abortion in your life – but climate change is a problem for every single human being who lives in a society that’s fuelled by fossil fuels. Everything that I do, hot showers in the morning, toast and tea and long-haul flights, all of that – I’m stuck with the question of whether or not what I do is right or wrong. Whereas maybe no-one will clone me ...
The consequentialist ethic, based on appreciating the intrinsic value of non-human nature, helps to support a caring attitude. The following section examines matters arising from the dimension of responsibility concerned with accountability, and particularly matters arising from an appreciation of the consequences of environmental harm that emerged in the late twentieth century and gave impetus to the notion of sustainable development.