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Consequentialism and Environmental Ethics.

Avram Hiller, Ramona Ilea and Leonard Kahn (eds.)

Consequentialism and Environmental Ethics

New York and London: Routledge 2014.

ISBN: 978-0-415-82380-7 (HB) $125.00. xvii + 194pp.

Consequentialism and Environmental Ethics is the latest volume in Routledge's Studies in Ethical and Moral Theory series, and the first focusing on environmental ethics. The volume contains an Introduction by two of the editors, Hiller and Kahn, and eleven original essays, divided into two sections: the first on 'Environmental Value and its Structure', and the second on 'Consequentialism and Environmental Decision Making'. As far as I'm aware, this is the first collection that systematically explores consequentialist approaches to environmental ethics, and as such it makes an important contribution both to environmental ethics and to normative ethical theory.

Hiller and Kahn's introduction defines a consequentialist as someone who 'holds that the rightness or wrongness of an agent's action depends solely on the value of the consequences of this action, compared to the consequences of any other actions that the agent could have undertaken' (p. 3). This definition in hand, they helpfully set up the book by distinguishing different forms of consequentialism (such as act vs. rule, expected vs. actual), outlining the role consequentialism has played in environmental ethics, and briefly introducing each of the papers in the collection.

The first section of the book, on consequentialist axiologies, contains papers by Katie McShane, Robin Attfield, Avram Hiller, Alan Carter and Ben Bradley. McShane's paper distinguishes between broadly Kantian and consequentialist approaches to value, taking Kantians to view value as 'value-to-be-respected', and consequentialists to view value as 'value-to-be-promoted' (p. 18). While both approaches, she argues, may correspond to different parts of our moral psychology (p. 25), the Kantian approach may seem the more 'familiar and natural', in that it primarily concerns our relationships to particular things and persons. However, environmental challenges such as climate change create difficulties for Kantian approaches: we are unable to protect many particular others, claims of different individuals compete, and we need to think about a general future of currently non-existent individuals. In this context, it may be better to take a broad, general perspective that aims to minimise harms, rather than a 'nearsighted' focus on those particular others with whom we have relationships; which means 'consequentialist approaches to value might be more helpful than a Kantian approach' (p. 30).

McShane's paper, providing a clear outline of key differences between broadly Kantian and consequentialist approaches to value, admirably sets up the remaining four papers in this section. Attfield's paper continues his ongoing defence of biocentric consequentialism against a variety of challenges. While elaborating on arguments made elsewhere, his paper here is best read in the context of his longer debate with Carter, including Carter's exposition of 'indirect multidimensional consequentialism' in this volume. Hiller argues for what he calls 'system consequentialism' in which 'the goodness of human ends depends (at least to some extent) on the goodness of the whole system of which the end is a part' (p. 59). This allows, within a consequentialist framework, for an explanation of why doping to win a competition creates a 'less good' victory than a competition won through diligent training: the victory is not isolated from how it is achieved, but is part of a whole 'competition system'. Equally, Hiller argues, even if consumers were to gain the same enjoyment however some item was produced, since the item is part of a 'production system', an unsustainably produced item can be less good than a sustainably produced one. Inevitably, given the constraints of a paper, Hiller cannot develop key ideas here, especially concerning the identification and delineation of relevant systems, and how this argument relates to existing holistic approaches to environmental ethics; further exploration of system consequentialism would be very welcome. Lastly, Bradley examines both consequentialist and non-consequentialist arguments that there's something intrinsically problematic about human interference with nature, concluding that none of these arguments succeed; the only plausible reasons not to interfere concern contingently bad consequences of intervention.

Two of the six papers in Section II, by Holland and Hale, are sceptical of consequentialist approaches to ethics. Holland's principal worry is the consequentialist idea of aiming at 'best outcomes'; in many cases, he argues, we can't clearly identify the outcome of actions, and 'best' outcomes can only be measured in relation to alternatives that are unknowable. While a consideration of consequences is important to our actions and policies, he maintains, 'it can never determine them' (p. 119). Hale defends a non-consequentialist approach to environmental wrongs: environmental wrongs are best understood as unauthorised trespasses, or instances of disrespect, characterised by failing to take others into consideration, and acting on reasons with which others could not be expected to agree. It is these trespasses, rather than harms, that lie at the heart of environmental wrongs; and as such, they can't straightforwardly be remediated, as consequentialist accounts might suggest. Hale's argument here is interesting, although more work is needed to develop the argument that trespasses rather than harms are what really matter, and (for environmental ethicists) his paper also raises questions about how trespasses against non-humans might be understood. Bykvist, in contrast both to Hale and Holland, defends a relatively traditional form of consequentialism against difficulties raised by evaluative uncertainty, that is, uncertainty about value, rather than factual, judgments (p. 122). He argues that if we distinguish between what is rational and what is morally right in situations of evaluative uncertainty, we can still continue to work within a consequentialist framework. Bykvist's paper is the most technical in this collection, and although it's perhaps the paper with the least direct connection to environmental issues, it nonetheless repays careful reading.

The three remaining papers all directly address environmental concerns. Both Habib and Driver focus on ideas about offsetting. Habib critically examines the claim that if one generation uses exhaustible resources, it should compensate future generations for that use by passing on an offsetting amount of value; Driver explores the vexed moral issues around carbon offsetting (in one of the first philosophical papers to do so). The final paper, by Donner, argues that aspects of Mill's moral and political philosophy--like Carter, she emphasises the importance of the Art of Life to understanding Mill's work--could be interpreted as anticipating key ideas in current-day ecofeminism, including a thread connecting the oppression of women to lack of respect for the 'free spontaneity' of nature (p. 182). While this paper strikes a somewhat different note from the rest of the collection, it's a reminder that thinking about consequentialism and environmental ethics involves historical study, as well as work in contemporary ethical, political and economic theory.

Although this collection is useful in numerous ways, its principal sig-nifcance lies in showing just how much serious work in ethical theory can contribute to the development of environmental ethics. Now that collections have been created exploring environmental ethics in the context of two major traditions in ethical theory--consequentialism and virtue theory--it's clearly time for someone to step up to edit a collection on Deontology and Environmental Ethics!


Sandler, Ronald and Philip Cafaro (eds.). 2005. Environmental Virtue Ethics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.


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Author:Palmer, Clare
Publication:Environmental Values
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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