Utilitarian Environmental Ethics: Characterization, Controversies, and Consequences

Environmental ethics is a branch of philosophy that tries to help us understand what is right when it comes to our relationship to the environment. Different environmental philosophies (sometimes known as eco-philosophies, or “ecosophies”) espouse varying beliefs on where humans stand in relation to nature, and what is moral when it comes to our treatment of the natural world.

Utilitarianism is a philosophy that argues that the only moral way to act is in a way that brings about pleasure, as opposed to pain, for the greatest number of people. These acts that bring about pleasure, or the greatest good, are thus the most utilitarian. 

How does this relate to environmental ethics? In this article, we’ll review what utilitarian environmental ethics are, what the eco-philosophy argues, and the implications utilitarianism has for how we treat the environment.

Background Information: What Is Environmental Ethics?

How Does Utilitarianism Fit Within Environmental Ethics?

Utilitarianism was not originally a philosophy applied to environmental ethics, and thus, there are a few different interpretations, or trains of thought, that have changed over time. We’ll review how utilitarianism was adopted by environmental ethics by first examining the basics of what utilitarianism is.

Classical Utilitarianism

The philosophy of utilitarianism argues that the most moral actions are those that increase pleasure (or freedom from pain, also known as utility) for the greatest number of people. In other words, acts that have the most utility are those that promote the greatest good, and are thus the most moral. Any actions that promote pain or suffering are morally wrong.

Utilitarianism is known as a “consequentialist” ethic, as it focuses on the outcome of actions (pain vs. pleasure) in order to define what is morally right. It’s important to note that utilitarianism was not originally an environmental ethic, but rather, a general moral philosophy. Its origins did not consider the environment, but focused entirely on what was most useful to humans.

Under utilitarianism, pleasure, or utility, is defined as satisfying one’s needs or interests. It follows that classical utilitarianism is often associated with acting in pursuit of personal pleasure, as only individuals, not groups, can really experience pleasure or satisfy personal interests. Under traditional utilitarianism, other parts of nature can morally be used to satisfy human needs so long as it brings about the greatest good for the most number of people.

Utilitarianism in Environmental Ethics

In the 1970s, the academic field of environmental ethics took off, with many philosophers beginning to argue for an expansion of our moral consideration to include nature, and not just humans. Many ethicists argued that we cannot extend moral treatment to humans alone, and instead, must take the environment (including living things and non-living aspects of the ecosystem) into account. Taken further, a belief that nature deserves moral standing led many ecosophists to contend that nature, such as animals, plants, or even parts of the ecosystem like water or soil, should be valued for its intrinsic value, rather than for its utility to humans.

Classical utilitarianism has generated much criticism from eco-philosophers who believe that utilitarianism is an inherently anthropocentric viewpoint, one in which human needs (and pleasure) are valued above those of other living things and the natural world. They argue that utilitarianism, as it has traditionally been applied, only recognizes the pain of humans, ignoring pain and suffering of other creatures. However, some philosophers took utilitarian thinking and applied it to the environment, resulting in an environmental ethic of utilitarianism that is not anthropocentric.

An environmental ethic of utilitarianism argues that the most moral acts are those that promote the pleasure (freedom from harm) of more than just humans alone. For example, in 1974, eco-philosopher Peter Singer argued that any being with sentience, or the capacity to feel pain and pleasure, is deserving of moral standing (a biocentric argument). If you take this belief into consideration, then this theory of utilitarianism requires all sentient beings to be included in “the greater good” – in other words, an act would only be moral if it helps meet the needs and satisfaction of all sentient beings, not just humans.

It’s important to note that Singer’s version of utilitarianism doesn’t argue that all sentient beings should be treated equally, but rather, that every living being’s interests should be given equal consideration. For example, not every species must be given the right to free speech, as most animals have no interest in free speech. However, each species’ interests must be taken into consideration when making decisions. Satisfying the most possible number of interests (and avoiding causing harm to the greatest number of beings) is how to act most morally.

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Critiques of Utilitarianism in Environmental Ethics

As noted above, many environmental ethicists critiqued classic utilitarianism for being too focused on fulfilling human needs, and ignoring the “pleasure” of non-human beings.

Even Singer’s utilitarianism (that argued that the most moral actions are those that enhance the pleasure for the greatest number of sentient beings) came under criticism from other eco-philosophers. For example, like Singer, philosopher Tom Regan argued that all conscious living beings deserve moral standing. However, Regan argued that all beings have an intrinsic value, and we must avoid harm to them at all costs (even if harming a few would bring positive benefits to the greatest number). Regan argues that there are limits to how you can treat any living being, even if the overall consequences of harming a single being stand to bring about a greater good.

Finally, some philosophers critique Singer’s utilitarianism by arguing that it doesn’t go far enough in extending moral consideration. Singer only takes into account conscious beings, which would exclude trees and other aspects of the ecosystem vital to natural processes. The idea that non-living beings also deserve moral consideration is known broadly as ecocentrism. Ecocentrists would argue that any truly moral philosophy must include the interests of non-conscious, non-human beings, such as plants. Thus, an ecocentrist utilitarian environmental ethic would argue that the most moral actions are those that take into account both non-conscious life forms, like plants, and even non-living parts of the ecosystem like water, soil, or air. This is often referred to as a “holistic” utilitarian ethic because it takes into account entire species and ecosystems, rather than the interests of individuals.

Implications of Utilitarianism: Environmental Utilitarianism in Practice

Following the principles of classic utilitarianism (again: moral actions are those that increase pleasure for the most people) has the potential to lead to environmental destruction and conservation, depending on how it’s interpreted. If we believe that the only beings deserving of moral consideration are humans, then it follows that we can use natural resources however we like in order to fulfill human needs. This certainly has the potential to lead to extreme environmental degradation through overuse of resources. For example, if killing animals for meat creates the greatest amount of pleasure for humans, then it’s morally acceptable.

However, if we accept that overuse of resources eventually leads to destruction of human societies that are dependent on those resources, then utilitarianism can lead to an ethic of conservation. Conservationists argue that we must protect the environment in order to sustain resources necessary to human life; in other words, we should protect nature in order to continue using it. (This is in contrast to preservation, which argues we must protect nature from any human interference). Conservationism falls in line with classical utilitarianism, as preventing the depletion of resources leads to the greatest good for humans: the ability to continue meeting human needs. For example, protecting clean water is ultimately good for humans, so we should continue to protect clean water in order to provide utility to humans.

Under an environmental ethic of utilitarianism, we must make decisions that consider not only consequences for humans, but also for animals. In other words, we must balance how our actions impact the environment, and seek to act in ways that bring about the most positive outcomes for the greatest number of people, animals, and plants. 

This is a far more nuanced view that can lead to different outcomes depending on how you interpret it – and raises many questions. For example:

  • How can we balance human needs for sustenance without harming animals? 
  • If we take every living being’s needs into account, which takes precedence? 
  • How can we make any of these decisions without a hierarchy of moral standing? 
  • How can we really measure what the greater good is? 

Making decisions based on a utilitarian environmental ethic becomes even harder if you take holistic entities like ecosystems into account – how can we practically take the needs of an entire ecosystem into account?

As we continue to face environmental challenges such as biodiversity loss and climate change, we will continue facing questions similar to those raised above. Utilitarianism can help guide us in making decisions based on ethics. Whether you interpret utilitarianism to be focused on meeting only human needs, or focused on promoting the greatest good for all sentient beings, is up to you.

Further Reading

You can learn more about utilitarianism in environmental ethics through these essays:

  • Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction”, by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer. Originally published in 2017, this booklet, as the title suggests, provides an overview of all forms of utilitarianism, including its historical origins, and how the philosophy relates to environmental ethics.
  • Environmental Studies and Utilitarian Ethics,” by Brian Wolff. This essay, published in Bioscene: The Journal of College Biology Teaching in 2008, discusses how utilitarianism should be taught to environmental studies students, and provides a helpful overview of the philosophy.
  • All Animals Are Equal,” by Peter Singer. This classic essay describes Singer’s theory of utilitarianism as it relates to animal rights. You can find it in Tom Regan and Peter Singer’s 1989 series of essays entitled Animal Rights and Human Obligations.

Or, learn more about other environmental ethics: