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Ethics and sustainability

Dr Neil Sinclair talking about ethics and our moral obligations to future generations.
So here we are in session two of the course. We’re looking at the evaluation of sustainability as an idea. We’ll be exploring its history but also its ethics with Neil Sinclair. I think philosophy can contribute to our understanding of sustainability in two ways. First, philosophers are good at generating and testing definitions. So they can help with defining sustainability. Second, the notion of sustainability connects with the notion of well-being. And that’s a notion that philosophers have studied for a long time. So how should we define sustainability? Well I guess in the most general terms, something is sustainable if it can carry on. So a choice of mine is sustainable if I can carry on making that choice.
So for example, suppose I chose to heat my home by chopping down trees from the local forest and burning them. If the forest is growing at a quicker rate than I’m chopping down the trees, then that choice is sustainable. But straight away we face a problem. That choice might be sustainable if only I am making it. But if my neighbours are making it too and if their neighbours are too, then we might be depleting the forest, chopping it down at a rate where it cannot replenish.
So when talking about sustainability, we need to think not just in terms of the individual choices we make, but the choices that we can all make collectively and the ways of life that we can all follow. The next problem is defining the type of sustainability worth having. We assume that sustainability is something that we want, something good. But which practises are the ones that are worth preserving? Is it worth preserving the habits of a mediaeval peasant for instance? Well I think when we think about this, what’s really worth preserving when we’re thinking about sustainability is opportunities for living well, opportunities for making ourselves happy and enjoying ourselves. So for example, living in modern Britain affords us many opportunities for enjoyment.
We can take a walk in the park and enjoy nature. We can come to a university and enjoy exercising our minds. We can live in cities and enjoy interacting with other people. What’s really important in sustainability is that the actions of a present generation don’t deny future generations from having those same opportunities for living well. So this aspect of sustainability is concerned with the moral notion of living well, of well-being, and that’s where philosophers can help. So I think then that sustainability has at least two important elements. First of all, it’s not just about individual choices. It’s about choices that we can all make, collective ways of life that we can share.
And second, the ways of life that are important are the ones that afford us opportunities for living well. And living well is a notion that philosophers can help us understand. All that leaves two questions. First of all, I’ve been talking about living well, about well-being. But I’ve been focusing on the human case, human well-being. One issue to address in discussing sustainability is whether we want to sustain just opportunities for human well-being or opportunities for sustaining the well-being of other types of things, like animals and ecosystems. So one question is about the scope of well-being with which we are concerned. Second question is the question of the sources of our obligations to act sustainably.
Why should we try to preserve these opportunities for living well for other people? After all we won’t interact with future generations. That’s the question of our source of our obligation to act sustainably and another area where I think philosophy can help.

We finish week 1 of the course by considering some of the ethical dimensions of the sustainability agenda. Dr Neil Sinclair, Assistant Professor in Philosophy, challenges us to consider the sources of our moral obligations towards each other, present and future, and to the planet.

Watch Neil’s video, and then consider what drives us to care, before moving on in the next step to discuss with Neil why we should care. Those of you in China can also view this video on our Tudou channel.

Think about: What inspires your interest in sustainability – is it past history, present problems or future concerns? Is it family, profession, economics? What are the issues and values that drive you? Share your perspective here and respond to some of your fellow learners – do they share your position or are they driven by different factors?

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