Utilitarianism


The concept of sustainable development is an attempt to balance two
moral demands placed on the environment. The first demand is for development,
including economic development or growth. It arises mainly from the interests
of people who live in developing countries. Their present poverty gives them a
low quality of life and calls urgently for steps to improve their quality of
life. The second demand is for sustainability, for ensuring that we do not risk
the future in the sake of gains in the present. This arises from the interests
of people in the future who will need access to a reasonable quality of life,
non-renewable resources, unspoiled wilderness, and a healthy biosphere. These
two moral demands do conflict. In fact, economic growth is the prime source of
threats to the natural environment.
We have a rough sense of what a good quality of life for humans consists
of. Also, we can make some rough judgments about when a person\'s quality of
life has increased or decreased. Utilitarianism about future generations says
that people should weigh these increases impartially with respect to times. And,
in particular, should not prefer a smaller increase in the present well-being to
larger increases in the future. We should try to maximize the sum of increases
in well-being across times counting future lives equally against those in the
present. Our moral goal should always be to produce the greatest total of such
gains, no matter by whom they are enjoyed.
Utilitarianism has been extensively discussed by philosophers, and many
objections have been raised against it. Two objections are especially relevant
here. First, utilitarianism is an extremely, even excessively demanding moral
view for most humans. If we have a duty always to bring about the best outcome,
than any time we can increase the well-being of others (which is just about at
any time), we have a moral duty to do so. There is no moral time off, no moral
relaxation, nor is there a moral holiday. Humans are always duty bound to
sacrificing something for the benefit of others at a given time. Second,
utilitarianism can favor unequal distributions of well-being. In particular, it
can impose severe deprivations on the few for the sake of gains for the many.
Given its interpretations of impartiality, utilitarianism will count the
deprivations of the few as a moral cost. But, if they produce benefits for
enough people, this cost will be outweighed. Even a severe inequality can be
balanced out and approved of by a utilitarian.
Some philosophers, feeling the force of these objections, have proposed
replacing utilitarianism about future generations with an egalitarian view.
This view cares not just about the sum of benefits across generations, but also
about their equitable distribution. We do not sacrifice the worst-off
generation for better-off generations, but aim at equality of conditions among
them. This egalitarian view can take many forms, but a good version has been
proposed by Brian Barry. He says that each generation has a duty to pass on to
its successors a total range of resources and opportunities that is at least as
good as its own.[1] Those generations that enjoy favorable conditions of life
must pass on similar circumstances of life to their future. However,
generations that are less fortunate have no such stringent obligations. What is
required of each generation is that it just pass on a total package of
opportunities that is comparable to its own; whatever the exact composition of
that package may be. Barry\'s approach to the egalitarian view can easily be
interpreted as an ethic of outcomes. Assuming this interpretation, is the
egalitarian view the best of our duty concerning future generations? There
seems to be one major objection against Berry\'s view.
Brian Barry\'s egalitarian view does not place excessive demands on early
generations to make sacrifices for the sake of later generations. That is
because it places no such demands-early generations need do nothing at all for
later generations. Surely early generations have some duty to enable their
successors to live better than themselves. An ideal of sustainability, or of a
constant level of well-being through time, may be attractive to think of when
starting from a high level of well-being. But, it is not so attractive when
starting from a low level of well-being. There is nothing inspiring about a
consistently maintained level of misery. Yet Barry\'s view allows consistent
misery to persist. It finds nothing objectionable in a sequence where the first
generation passes on a very limited range of opportunities and resources to the
next generation, and so on. Surely this sequence of events is objectionable.
There may