A Guiding Ethic for the Socio-Economic System

John Peet
Department of Chemical & Process Engineering, University of Canterbury
Presented at the Sea of Faith (NZ) Conference, 27 November 1999

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 Piddington(1)
"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 paper—with which I entirely agree—that the overwhelming weight of evidence available to us today points in precisely the opposite direction. In this context, O'Connor et al(2)) 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 uncertainty—indeed indeterminacy—and 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 holds—explicitly or implicitly, for good or for ill—to 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 Sustainability—or 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 economics(4) writes(5),(6):
"Utilitarianism has been the dominant ethical theory—and, inter alia, the most influential theory of justice—for 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."
Utilitarianism—described 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 (Daly(7)), it:
  • 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 generations;
  • 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 future—it 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 joint responsibility."

Alternative Approaches

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 human use?
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 Earth—in other words, of Creation. This implies consideration of the interests of future generations and of other systems and species. As Brown et al(8) suggest:
"We need a new moral compass to guide us into the twenty-first century—a 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 Gunn(9)). As I understand it, (Catton(10)), 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 position.
Our small group has, in effect, chosen to develop a concise statement from Aldo Leopold's (Sand County Almanac) Land Ethic, namely that
Bossel's Ethic of Partnership(12) is 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 "Connectivity", "Kinship", "Relationship", "Mutuality" or "Extended Reciprocity" 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 people:
  • share available resources equitably
  • protect all unique systems for their intrinsic value
  • give all parts the chance to contribute to the development of the whole
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 Precautionary Principle (Perrings(13)), rather than a utilitarian, consequentialist, arithmetic-based cost-benefit "balance".
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 this—or other—clear ethical statement, we can begin to see the proper place for the utilitarian perspective—as 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 Practice—the Importance of Stakeholder Involvement

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 its—implicit or explicit—goal? 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 whole. 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 Sagoff(14): "the democratic 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 ethics. Söderbaum(16) 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 sense ...."
The process of values clarification would benefit markedly from Funtowicz and Ravetz's suggestions of "extended peer reviews" within "post-normal science"(17). Such forms of participatory process can help ensure that local knowledge and values are appropriately incorporated into the process(19) suggests that:
"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 each".


Pruzan(20) 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 creatively.

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 York, 1991.
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 137.
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 March—11 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.



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