Morality and sustainability

Sustainability is a moral issue. Morality is founded on the practice of care and the prevention of harm. Environmental harm hurts people now and in the future. It also hurts species, ecosystems and the whole of nature. In contrast, sustainable practices care for peoples’ well-being at the same time as caring for the natural environment.

Whilst humans might not be innately good, we are innately social. Indeed, humans have the most complex social system of any organism and morality is the glue that provides social cohesion. It is social cohesion that led humans to become the dominant animal on earth. 

The evil demons of human nature – things like selfishness, greed, envy, tribalism, rivalry and violence – are instincts from our evolutionary past. They were once helpful in aiding survival but now they are a harmful relic. In contrast, by cooperating and collaborating humans can survive more easily.

Morality is a way of balancing individual good and the common good. We have our individual survival needs including food, water, shelter and safety but we also have group survival needs including morals.

Who and what has moral standing

When thinking about environmental sustainability, and who and what we care for, we need to consider who and what has moral standing. Traditionally, western ethics has been anthropocentric, meaning that only living human beings have moral standing. However, as environmental issues such as climate change, nuclear waste, population growth, and resource depletion have unfolded many people argue that moral standing should include all future generations of humans as well. Even further, the animal rights movement argued for an extension of moral standing for some animal species, at least. Yet others wanted to go beyond even that, and extend moral standing to all animal species, to plants and to wholes such as ecosystems and wilderness areas.

The challenge is to define a non-arbitrary criterion by which the question of moral standing could be decided. On what grounds does one decide that one thing or another should be considered in moral deliberation? For instance, those who argued  for extending moral standing to future generations believe that temporal location was an arbitrary ground for denying moral status to humans not yet living. Supporters of animal rights cited characteristics such as sentience and being conscious as being appropriate criteria for moral standing. Others argue that the only non-arbitrary ground for assigning moral standing is life itself; this idea is called Biocentrism.

Sustainable goals

An anthropocentric view of morality can look at nature as an instrument for humans to control and use for their benefit, even if it is bad for nature. The biocentric view is that whilst humans inevitably must have some impacts, we should respect, honour and care for nature, and minimise the harm we do to it.

In all of the cases above, sustainability remains a moral factor because, in practice, it makes no difference whether we sustain the environment for living people, all people now and in the future, all sentient beings, or all life. The neat thing is that by sustaining the environment, we can achieve all the aims above.

Do the right thing

Broadly speaking, morality is about doing what is right; but how does one decide what is right? As mentioned it is about care: taking care, caring for, looking after. Additionally, morality is often a matter of responsibility and fairness. Most people are taught at a young age that if they make a mess it is their responsibility to clean it up. This is the basic moral principle of taking responsibility for your actions. If your actions do harm (e.g. make a mess) then you are responsible for it. The question is, is it fair that someone else should have to deal with, or cope with, the consequences of your actions. The answer is NO. Every person has a responsibility of care.

Morality isn’t black and white; fairness, for instance, is very complicated. People naturally wonder why they should act fairly and responsibly when others are greedy and selfish. People can be arrogantly defensive, and this hinders them taking responsibility. Also, there is a common attitude that whatever an individual does, or doesn’t do, is a tiny drop in the ocean and is therefore not worth it. However, doing nothing, or doing something, when we know it is harmful, is wrong.

There is also so-called ‘diffusion of responsibility’ (or bystander effect) which is a sociological phenomenon that refers to a reduced feeling of responsibility each member feels when they are part of a group.

These different forms of denial, apathy and passiveness are all selfish, irresponsible and even cowardly. Selfishness as a survival strategy is counter-productive in modern consumerist economies. Once you are surviving comfortably, which most people in the western can do, you can’t survive any more. In other words, over-consumption is a waste. Yet, selfishness and greed is built into our economic system. We are exhorted to ‘get ahead’; to work more and buy more than we need to. This is immoral because of the harm that is created.

Who makes morals

Laws, regulations, restrictions and proscriptions, from governments and other institutions, are a type of top-down sets of moral-like codes of conduct. I say ‘moral-like’ because it is arguable whether certain laws and regulations are actually moral. To differentiate them from morals, institutional codes of conduct are generally called ‘ethics’. In addition to these codes of ethics, our culture, and its institutions, have unwritten sets of social mores, customs, conventions and etiquettes that have developed over time. All of the above are generally accepted and obeyed because people naturally want to ‘fit in’ and be respected by others.

Factors like obedience to authority and loyalty to others are foundations of morality (based on Moral Foundations Theory). However, obeying an authority that is immoral, or being loyal to others who are immoral, is obviously wrong. In other words, being disloyal, disobedient and non-conformist can sometimes be the moral thing to do.

There are many who believe that sustainability is an issue that can be fixed with technological or market mechanisms, and not morality.

Technology is a tool, how we use it is moral or not

People believe that technological advances will help mitigate the harm we are doing to nature. This is not true, massive advances in energy efficiencies and clean technology have not seen the ecological footprints around the world decreasing, which is what is needed to stop harm. It should be noted that we already have the technology to live sustainable lives. We have:

  • Clean, renewable energy generation
  • Organic farming
  • Small-scale, craft production technologies
  • Sustainable housing
  • Natural, renewable materials
  • Clean transport options

The reason we don’t use sustainable technologies and systems like these is because they are not as profitable. Profit is immoral if it does harm. As Mahatma Gandhi said: There is enough for every persons’ need, but not for every person’s greed.

Governments, corporations and other institutions are not going to create environmental sustainability – we are mad if we think they will – and we can’t afford to wait. We can’t afford to be bystanders. Instead, it is the attitudes, values and moral behaviours of common people that will be the change.

Grass-roots morality

As noted above, the types of codes of conduct that are constructed by external institutions are often called ‘ethics’ to differentiate them from ‘morals’. Morals are more personal principles about what is right and wrong. Our individual moral compass develops as we experience and learn from life. You could say we have a moral instinct but the actual morals we adopt can vary depending on a variety of developmental factors including the morals of our parents, communities and cultures. The Moral Foundations Theory says that whilst moral codes vary they all have some factors in common. Those common factors all boil down to the aforementioned practice of ‘more care and less harm’.

It is the better angels of our nature, such as empathy, altruism, fairness, respect, care and consideration – along with foresight and will – that will bring us to sustainability.

Morality and sustainability

The environmental and social problems that we face are both local and global, and they are both temporal and perpetual. Individuals’ impacts are truly global, climate change can’t be contained within borders. This means we have to act morally towards people we don’t know and not just to our close care-groups. We can also act morally to people who haven’t been born yet. As the Native American proverb says: “We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our descendants”. 

Pay it forward by leaving the world a better place than when you found it.

So what is morally the right thing to do for sustainability? Probably the most potent way is to be the change you want to see in the world. This way you are being moral and, very importantly, you are setting an example for others.