Critically assess a utilitarian response to environmental ethics.
Utilitarianism is teleological, concerned with the end or purpose of actions. It is also consequentialist, judging actions right or wrong according to their outcome. Many scientists, politicians and philosophers have expressed concern that the world is facing an environmental catastrophe. If this is to be believed, an ethical theory that focuses on the results of our actions seems most appropriate. Utilitarianism is able to take into account the risks to the environment of global warming, ozone depletion, pollution, deforestation etc.
Traditional utilitarianism would have done that using Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus. ...view middle of the document...
How can you decide how the pleasure of enjoying an unspoilt stretch of land compares with the convenience of being able to use a road?
There is also disagreement amongst utilitarians about whose interests would count in environmental calculations. Bentham talks of pleasure and pain, and would count any being that had the capacity to feel pleasure or experience pain. Even in the 21st Century, scientists cannot agree about this question. Mill favoured higher pleasures like reading and appreciating art, clearly putting human concerns above other sentient beings. This sort of thinking might agree with deforestation if cutting down trees provided homes for people. Even though many more animals may be displaced, humans count for more because they experience higher pleasures.
Hare talks of preferences, which makes it harder still to imagine completing any sort of calculation concerning the environment. As well as discussions about which animals have preferences, there is also the issue of how we can know what everyone’s preferences are, and how to weigh them up against each other. Take wind turbines, for example. Many people consider them an eye sore, and would rather not use them. However, many others see this sort of advancement as essential in protecting the world from global warming. It is impossible to balance one of these preferences against the other. It is also hard to see how seriously to take the threat of global warming – will it really affect generations to come? How many people and preferences will it affect? And how do you take account of the cumulative damage of the way we treat the environment?
This last point raises a very serious concern for utilitarians. Take the case of over-fishing. A fisherman goes out and catches a thousand cod. It is then revealed that the number of cod has become dangerously low, threatening the future of fishing in that area. Is this the result of...