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Economics, ethics and sustainability: redefining connections.

What constitutes welfare has been a decisive question in economics. While its past focus has commonly been on material wealth and distributional issues another dimension has been added in recent years. Welfare, and particularly future welfare is determined also by the limits to expanding material wealth posed by the biological, chemical and physical parameters which characterize our environment. All economic activity takes place within the constraints posed by this environmental context.

A term which has come to characterize this added dimension and its tension with the traditional welfare focus of economics is sustainability. Sustainability refers to the recognition that economic activity cannot be sustained independent of the functions and services provided by the biophysical world, commonly referred to as the environment. Yet while the term sustainability has become commonplace in much of the policy debate of recent years its meaning remains opaque. Sustainability has been defined as maintaining the existence of the human species, maintaining intergenerational welfare, maintaining productivity and resilience of economic systems (Tisdell, 1991, p. 164), maintaining capital stocks -- including "natural capital stocks" (Costanza et al., 1992, p. 9) and as maintaining the regenerative capacity of the environment (Hueting, 1980; Hueting et al., 1992).

Perceived tensions or compatibilities between economic activity and ecological sustainability are as varied as its definitions. While some refer to sustainable economic development, or sustainable production others refer to sustainable growth[1]. The tension between these interpretations is evident in the WCED's Brundland report:

Many people fear that a more rapidly growing world economy will apply

environmental pressures that are no more sustainable than the pressure

presented by growing poverty. The increased demand for energy and other

non-renewable raw materials could significantly' raise the price of these

items relative to other goods. The Commission's overall assessment is that

the international economy must speed up world growth while respecting the

environmental constraints (WCED, 1987, p. 89).

Given these tensions between economic development and its environmental context, how does economic theory integrate sustainability into its we[fare considerations? Posed differently, what interpretation of sustainability is likely to become operative given the underlying assumptions regarding human decision making, resource allocation and valuation. Any allocation process is based on underlying principles of agency and decision making which both guide it and assess its outcome. This is the focus of the following discussion. It does not seeks to add yet another definition to an economically, biologically or ethically informed sustainability debate but instead raises the question how economic assumptions about human behavior and decision making shape the sustainability debate itself.

Sustainability and ethics

The task of integrating sustainability into economic welfare considerations could be approached in a number of ways. It might focus on the public good character of environmental services and functions and resulting questions of ownership or transaction costs (Coase); or the externality problem and questions of how to internalize negative externalities might be the central focus (Pigou); or the valuation of environmental goods and methodologies to assess use and non-use values (CV, hedonic pricing, or travel cost methods etc.) might be its focus. All three foci are familiar to economists, and all three accept the basic premiss of economic efficiency and its underlying goal of Pareto optimality[2]. The focus undertaken in this paper is one less familiar in modern mainline economics. It frames sustainability considerations in terms of the underlying ethical principles which affect the valuation of Pareto efficient allocation and thus the way in which mainline economics pictures its connections to and relationship with the environment itself. While marginal to today's economic mainstream, this ethical focus stands in the moral philosophy tradition of economics. The question of what allocation situation is socially optimal cannot be answered from within the framework of neoclassical economics alone. Within this framework a production possibilities and grand utility possibilities frontier can be determined. To pick out a single, uniquely optimal point (a constrained bliss point) on the grand utility possibilities frontier from among the infinite possibilities, requires that a social welfare functions is known. Only then can a unique social optimum be determined which reflects the combination of goods and services located on the contract curve for consumption that society deems "best". By implication, this unique optimum corresponds to a point on the production possibilities frontier indicating the allocation necessary to meet the socially optimal mix of goods and services. The construction of a social welfare function, however, confronts us with the ethical limits of economic efficiency. A social welfare function, per definition would need to embody the welfare judgments of society as to the fairness, or desirability, of the distribution of goods among its members. The necessity to determine such a social "iso-utility" function was first discussed by Abram Bergson in 1938. Since then various rules for determining a social optimum have been suggested. Kaldor's criteria for example suggests that a move from one point to another on the utility possibilities frontier is justified if the gains to some associated with the move outweigh the losses to others. Tibor Scitovsky amended the Kaldor criterion by adding the condition that after a change is made, overall welfare has to be improved compared to the original situation. In practice, the limits to economic efficiency are evident in the public policy debate on issues of zoning regulations, income distribution, health or environmental quality standards. Such standards, however, are repeatedly challenged by the very efficiency standards which make them necessary in the first place.

The reason for framing the integration of sustainability into economics in term of the underlying ethical framework is twofold. First, sustainability, by definition, addresses the relationship between economics and the environment, and thus focuses on the welfareist limitation of economics itself. As Jacobs has argued environmental issues are of an intrinsically ethical nature. This is so, because the negative external problem characteristic of many environmental dilemmas raise not simply allocation questions but questions of how individual behavior affects others, human and non-human. He writes:

Causing such negative externalities may be represented not simply as being a

matter of interest to others, but (because it damages them) wrong. But

environmental damage may be considered wrong even where it does not

specifically hurt others. This is because -- it may be felt -- the

environment has intrinsic value, or because living things have

rights, and so on (1995, p. 1).

Second, ethics addresses the norms that guide human behavior. Accepted ethical norms determine what is desirable, socially rewarded, and thus reinforced behavior that one seeks to emulate. In this way conceptions of ethical behavior shape our interactions as well as our assessment of these interactions as appropriate/inappropriate, desirable/undesirable, right/wrong. Ethics here is understood as "Ordnungsethik", that is, the "the teaching of how humans (in the economy) develop and apply the norms guiding their behavior ... or the principles shaping economics so as to develop and institutionalize the ethical norms guiding the organizing principles of the economy" (Biesecker, 1994, p. 21)[3]. The question what kind of ethic supports, rather than undermines sustainability is essential to defining and achieving sustainability goals, particularly since the sustainability debate continues to be shaped by economic conceptions of efficiency, and trade-offs between costs and benefits.

This paper then examines how the ethical concept underlying mainline economic theory shaped our understanding of the connections between economics and the environment and what kind of ethical framework could, if operative, lead to what kind of sustainability. Three ethical concepts are discussed to pursue this question. The first one, utilitarian ethic, is familiar to economists. It is the ethical framework most directly compatible with the utility framework which forms the basis of neoclassical consumer theory. The second one, discursive ethic, is what Ulrich (1990) refers to as "Grundlagenkritische Ethik", an ethic critical of the fundaments of economics and its assumptions. The third one, the ethic of care, has its roots in the gender debate of a relational versus a rules-based ethic. In each case the question is pursued whether the particular ethical concept contributes to or undermines sustainability.

Utilitarianism -- defining development

Utilitarianism both as a theory of personal morality and as theory of public choice has been most influential in economics. Both forms of utilitarianism share with Kantian ethics the notion that morality rests on universalizable, objective, and rational rules of decision making. Where Kantian and utilitarian ethic part way is on the question of what constitutes this universalizable principle of moral reason. For Kant morality is about what is right rather than what generates utility. Since utility is the guiding principle of a utilitarian ethics its definition is most significant. Utility has been defined more generally as the increase of pleasure and avoidance of pain. In today's economic mainstreams, however, its definition is much more narrowly understood as individual choice or satisfaction (Fisher, 1927; Harsanyi, 1953; Sen, 1970).

As a theory of personal morality utilitarianism states that decisions are to be rational, consistent and based on the utility they generate to the decision maker. Utilitarianism defined in this way constitutes the basic characterization of homo oeconomicus, the rational, economically acting, genderless (and thus, according to our dominant culture, male) being who is the idealized economic decision maker[4]. Homo oeconomicus follows the principles of utilitarian morality as he seeks to maximize his utility by pursuing his own individual self-interest. Utility as described by neoclassical consumer theory is generated by goods and services measured and evaluated in exchange value. A number of key assumptions guide the utility maximizing rational behavior of homo oeconomicus:

* More goods are preferred to fewer goods (non-satiation).

* Consumers are rational and consistent in their choices (transitivity).

* Consumers generally prefer a mix of goods to having all of one kind.

* Consumers are willing, in principle, to trade goods in order to maximize utility.

Preferences are assumed given and the context within which decisions are made can at best be considered peripheral. Attachments and social contexts are important only to the extent that they affect individual utility but have no importance in and of themselves (Williams, 1976).

As a theory of public choice, utilitarianism is more than an assessment of the satisfaction or preference ranking of individual actors. Public utility, while determined as the summation of individual utilities, has not just welfareist characteristic. It is also consequentialist, that is, it also provides a theory of correct action or a criterion for public choice which considers the outcome for the whole of society (Anscombe, 1958; Arrow, 1951; Sen, 1979). This understanding of utility conveys the idea of Adam Smith's invisible hand which states that each individual pursuing their own best interest in decentralized markets also achieves the best interest of the whole and thus interference in markets is suboptimal in its consequence. A minimalist notion of public choice utilitarianism can be seen in Pareto optimality which states that a socially optimal situation is achieved if no one member of a society can be made better off without another one being made worse off. Pareto optimality is the most widely used criterion of welfare in economics.

The conflict between an individual utility-based concept of Pareto optimality and a notion of sustainability is evident. Human induced environmental problems have their roots in the existence of market failures and negative externalities which spoil the aggregation. This makes sustainability first and foremost an internalization problem which can be solved by internalizing diverging private and social costs and correcting suboptimal resource allocation (Pearce and Turner, 1990; Tietenberg, 1988). A variety of market-based methods as well as expanded methods of assessing option, existence and future value of environmental resources have been proposed to accomplish the task of assigning contingent value to environmental goods and services in order to integrate environmental considerations into the allocation framework of Pareto optimality (Brookshire et al., 1992; Murdoch and Thayer, 1992; Smith and Desvousges, 1993)[5]. Yet even if appropriate prices were assigned, and even if prices were able to adequately communicate the exchange value of utility generating goods and services, the notion of social welfare based on individual interests communicated in perfectly functioning markets raises serious questions from a consequentialist perspective[6]. Individual and human needs based decisions, even if made from an enlightened sense of self-interest, may not lead to socially desirable outcomes. A more-is-better notion of utility which does not make any qualitative distinction between a television set or a swim in the river, between consumer goods or environmental good is not likely to include in its valuation the ecological limits to utility increases[7]. And finally, to add to the problem of interpersonal comparison of utility, the question needs to be raised why human utility, and not the utility of those ecosystems components (like N-fixing bacteria for example) should be considered on whose functioning both human wellbeing and the functioning of the entire food chain depend.

Rawls offers an interesting corrective. He begins with a thought experiment that asks individuals to imagine themselves being placed in a society without knowing what social standing would be assigned to them compared to everyone else. He argues that the kind of society most people would choose would be one with a relatively high degree of distributive justice. As a result our understanding of social welfare should be guided by as much income equality as possible, as long as a move to more equality does not reduce the total welfare to society and the income of the worst-off person. Here too, however, utility is self-interest defined and based on the decisions of an "under-socialized individual" (Biesecker, 1994) who is even more severely under-ecologized, that is, unaware of an embeddedness of one's individual utility in the wellbeing of others, human as well as non-human.

The decisive question then is what exactly constitutes utility. If individual utility is the sole basis for and measure of value, then Pareto optimality may be a decidedly important measure for achieving social welfare. If, however, others' rights impact one's individual valuation of utility, and if individual utility maximizing behavior affects the utility of others (human and non-human) thus generating feedback effects, then Pareto optimality must be rejected. Mirrlees writes:

People sometimes have mistaken conceptions of their well-being. At

least the conception must somehow be purified of obvious errors of foresight

or memory. More, one ought to be willing to entertain the possibility that

some experiences are not usually correctly valued by the individual: that,

in certain respects, people do not know what is good for them (1991, p. 64).

In other words, people make mistakes, are uninformed, short-sighted, or unaware of the gravity of the effects their decisions may have. Moreover, it may well be the notion of a detached decision maker guided by individual interest and a detached individually-based concept of agency which contributes to such misjudgments. This detached valuation justifies not only human control to meet human satisfaction but judges as irrational and inferior (and thus ultimately immoral) all those that do not meet the standards of its definitions. In this kind of morality economic success takes precedent over sustainability, and indeed defines sustainability as sustaining economic activity itself. Public choice, therefore, no longer constitutes a corrective to personal morality, but seeks to meet the criteria of economic rationality itself. Value is reduced to economic value, development to economic development, success to economic success, utility to economic utility. Location, regional differences and ecologically important distinctions are equalized. The result is increasing homogeneity and loss of both socio and biodiversity both of which affect the degree to which economic activity can be sustained (O'Hara, 1995).

So why is the moral minimalism imposed by a self-interested individual so powerful? One answer is that it offers the possibility of separating thought from action, the public from the private. The emotional morality of unreasoned norms belongs to the private realm while the objective morality of reason belongs to the public sphere. The rational decisions of homo oeconomicus are claimed to be essentially apolitical and essentially moral. This universalizing morality of self-interested rationality allows at once distance and universal identification in anonymous markets. Void of identifiable characteristics it brings everything and everyone into a defined perspective, manageable, determinable, and by enlarge controllable. No development is impossible, no non-conformity unadaptable, and no limit unsurmountable, not even that of our planet itself. Sachs points to the ambiguity of the new icon of sustainable development, the blue planet earth, both humbled as the invisible speck within its beauty and exalted as the observer of its totality. He writes:

In this unifying image, all traces of human reality disappear and only

the permutations of the biosphere are to be seen. No traditions, no

institutions, no history -- the world has vanished into the earth ... The

social appears to be resolved into the biological. Thus language of

international debate becomes increasingly characterized by biological

expressions: human beings become "populations", quality of life degenerates

into "survival" or "sustainability", and history stretches into "evolution"

... These terms signify the ascendancy of the Blue Planet and its associated

philosophy of biospheric utilitarianism (1994, p. 174).

Consistent with this image is a notion of sustainability as "maintaining productivity and resilience of economic systems" or of sustainable growth. This notion of sustainability does not see itself in conflict with its social or ecological context but instead defines sustainability from a perspective of economic usefulness. Only environmental functions and services perceived as useful (economically defined) enter into considerations of personal morality or public responsibility (see Figure 1).


Discursive ethics -- expanding rationality

Discursive ethics refers to a process of uncoerced and undistorted communicative interaction between individuals in an open discourse (Apel, 1973; Habermas, 1983; Wellmer, 1986). The discursive processes it refers to may take the form of such familiar processes as conflict resolution, dispute mediation or communicative settlements even though few of these may be aware of the conceptual framework on which they are based. Discursive ethics has its roots in the Frankfurt School of critical theory It shares with the Frankfurt School a critical view of instrumental reason. It argues that the instrumental reason, which once helped liberate humans from the constraints of unreasoned tradition and repressive systems, has itself become rigid and constraining. The solution, however, is not seen in abandoning a universal conception of reason but rather in broadening it. This broadening is based on discursive processes which facilitate access to the untapped potential of modern consciousness -- discursive reason. Discursive reason offers the capacity to make the life world (Habermas's Lebenswelt) conscious, that is, the context in which cultures, social relations and individuals are formed and interact. Awareness of the life world, freed from normative constraints of unthinking conformity, forms the basis for communicative reason. It is expressed in the discourse among diverse participants who bring to the discourse table all their facilities and awareness. Discursive reason is therefore no less rational than a socio-technologically or individualistically determined instrumental reason, but rather goes beyond it. It does not exclude utilitarian notions of morality or public choice but rather contextualizes them and makes operative assumptions and feedback mechanisms conscious.

Discursive ethics presupposes no norms other than accepting the potential for a reasoned, reflective and practical discourse, and the mutual recognition and acceptance of others as response-able subjects (Habermas, 1983, p. 92ff). This mutual recognition and acceptance is what constitutes its ethical quality. Reason thus is seen as inseparably linked to and informed by the human experience of a social, cultural, ecological life world which constitutes the context of human experience, and informs all discourse participants. This life world context includes the bio-physical world, albeit expressed in human voice.

Since reasoned communication is its sole prerequisite, discursive ethics remains embedded in the tradition of Kant and the Kantian notion of a universal ethical principle based on human reason[8]. In fact, Ulrich (1989) considers it one of the greatest achievements of discursive ethics that it offers a practical advancement to Kantian philosophy. For others the taste of a reason based Kantian ethic, which views tradition and rationality as opposites, has been cause for criticisms (Benhabib, 1986; Gould, 1988; Leonard, 1990). Habermas' response to such criticism has been that the concept of rational discourse simply provides a procedural framework for how arguments might be resolved and principles constructed. It does not attempt to determine any universal principle itself for either individual conduct or social arrangements (Bernstein, 1983; Habermas, 1979). Dryzek writes,

... consensus on what is desirable based on a reciprocal understanding of

the accepted legitimate (if different) opinions and conceptual frameworks

of other actor(s) is possible in the absence of a shared commitment to the

ultimate reason why it is desirable ... Even failing this

kind of consensus, simple compromise between different views is

defensible to the extent it is reached under communicatively rational

conditions (1990, p. 17).

We may not agree on fundamental moral principles but may still be able to reach agreement on moral aspects of practical issues[9]. How then does discursive ethics contribute to sustainability? The answer is threefold[10]:

(1) Discursive ethics adds a contextual dimension to the universal principle of a morality based on human reason. This dimension makes connections between human-human and human-environmental systems implicit and thus questions assumptions of isolated, self-interest motivated agency.

(2) Discursive ethics adds a communal dimension to the expression of human reason which cannot be expressed in isolation. This aspect is most obvious in a discourse process of what Funtowicz and Ravetz (1993) call extended peer communities (see also Dryzek, 1987; 1990). Socio-ecological complexities of sustainability cannot be adequately addressed in disciplinary isolation but rather require a broad-based interdisciplinary discourse.

(3) Discursive ethics cannot be conceived as a purely theoretical thought exercise and therefore adds a practical dimension to moral decision making which links private public spheres.

As individual conceptions of reason are expressed in a public discourse the separation between a private and public morality which follow different rules and which are kept neatly separated in moral thought and action cannot be maintained. Ulrich writes,

Such a discursive ethic of rationality does not simply stick to

formalities; rather it has concrete practical consequences which--in the

context of ecological questions--can be seen in the ethically based

necessity to create and secure fairer and uncoerced conditions for

communication regarding environmental policies among all those affected by

them (1989, p. 134).

Ethical discourse, therefore, has to be concerned with the conditions which support or undermine the potential for discursive processes. Such discourse can neither be content with the status quo of "experts" representing a public decision making process nor with distant governmental institutions or distant and abstract markets as the loci of decision making[11]. Implementing and institutionalizing such discourse, however, confronts us with the ingrained biases and exclusions that have become part of the very life world discursive reason seeks to make explicit. These biases are not simply expressed in who comes to the discourse table or what voices are represented in the public decision making process but, more importantly, in how contributions of participants are evaluated. The valuation of contributions as relevant/irrelevant, educated/uneducated, knowledgeable/ignorant has all too often led to the exclusion of women, minorities or indigenous peoples even when they have been given a place at the table[12]. In this context it is important to recognize the implicit biases of a discourse process based on language. Language holds the danger of perpetuating the biases and expectations of verbal expression. Language itself may preempt an ethical process when its expressions are narrowed. Not just diversity but especially the inclusion of those who usually go unheard, are un- or under-represented, those considered outside of the accepted mainstream must be sought.

A discursive ethic thus implies more than recognizing the practical limitations to its implementation by making the "other" or even the non-equal other visible (Biesecker, 1996; O'Hara, 1996). Ethical discourse requires a redefinition of the connecting links characterizing human-human and human-nature relationships which have shaped social power and control. As Ulrich argues:

It cannot be the purpose of an ecological ethic to conclusively define

environmental quality based on content criteria like systems of social

indicators attempt to do but instead it should work toward an institutional

and methodological opening of processes which form ecological policy

decisions ... Viewed in this way the ecological crisis points ultimately to

the functional weaknesses of existing democratic policy decision processes.

There is a deep connection between our political culture and the way we

deal with nature. Ecological questions have in essence to do with our

overcoming technocratic models of environmental policy which reduce them to

technical control systems of environmental processes' controls and with

showing instead more courage for ecological democracy (1989, p. 135).

To imply, however, that discursive democracy itself means giving up control would be perpetuating the very biases of control and power it seeks to question. Control is secured not simply by technocratic models but by conceptual models of understanding and meaning. It is the claim to a universal definition of meaning which makes a reason based concept ethics both powerful and deceptive. A story related by George Tinker, professor of multi-cultural studies at Iliff School of Theology and a member of the Osage Nation, may illustrate the point. Tinker recounts the preparation for a retreat on Native American spirituality. He took a small group of students up into the Colorado mountains and held a tribal ceremony to prepare the place where the retreat was to be held. Tinker recounts the return from the pipe ceremony:

The student started off by saying: "That was beautiful", and after a long

pause and more silence, he chimed in--"What did it mean?". The meaning

question is always prevalent for Euroamericans. How are we going to

categorize it? How are we going to explain this so it can become part of

our world? If we can't explain it, it can't be a part of our world. As I

thought about it, I was a little stunned. Finally I gave some answer. I

made it up ... And then I looked at the student and said: "There, I told

you more about it than anybody has ever told me about the ceremony, more

than I've ever told my own kids or anyone else." You see, my children

understand the ceremony. They know what to do when it happens. They

understand its sacredness, so that explaining the ceremony isn't an

important part of the Indian learning system. Rather our young are expected

to watch the elders in everything that they do, whether its planting corn

or telling stories or conducting a ceremony of prayer. They learn by

watching. They learn by watching the relationship between their elders and

the earth and the different people in the community (1994, p. 9).

The need to conceptualize rather than relate informs our perception of content as well as process. Its bias shapes our perception of knowledge and the objective we seek through an informed ethical discourse even as we seek to offer a place at the discourse table to those unlike us. Ulrich's "grundlagenkritische" ethic, that is, the characterization of discursive ethics as "critical of the fundaments or fundamental assumptions of economics" thus needs to be intent on being critical toward broader socially and culturally informed notions of reason and rationality as well. Not only the ordering principles of economics and its resulting conceptions of welfare but the ordering principles of other social institutions which have contributed to our understanding of economic welfare, the relatedness between individual and society, and the relatedness between society and environment, need to be made explicit. Discursive ethics understood in this way allows for a broadening of the economically defined understanding of sustainability of a utilitarian ethic. It accepts a notion of sustainability aware of the social and ecological context within which economic activity takes place and aware of the feedback mechanisms between social and ecological systems made explicit in the life world and its changes (Figure 2). Sustainability thus may mean maintaining the existence of the human species or maintaining intergenerational welfare beyond economic productivity and resilience or beyond economically defined "natural capital stocks". Considering diverse life worlds in a discourse process, however, may or may not address the dominance of structural meaning and fundamental notions of ranking which remain unquestioned in light of an unquestioned acceptance of the centrality of reason. Life world contexts and their qualitative changes, therefore, may be variously interpreted as sustainable or unsustainable, desirable or undesirable, ethical or unethical.


Ethic of care--expanding connecting links

The ethic of care has its roots in Gilligan's research on Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Gilligan challenged Kohlberg's research in developmental psychology as absolutizing a male model of moral development since it was based exclusively on observations of boys and men. From her observations of girls and women she concluded that there are distinct differences in the moral development of women (Gilligan, 1982; 1993). This distinction came to be known as the relationally-based ethic of responsibility which is contrasted to the rules or rights-based ethic of justice. Its main contribution was to challenge the exclusivity claims of a universalistic morality of justice operative in Western societies' definition of moral behavior.

Criticism of Gilligan's ethic of responsibility rests in its exclusively gender focus. This criticism is twofold: One, it asserts that the ethic of care is not simply gendered, but describes the operational values of other marginalized groups as well. Studies of African Americans for example found that solutions to ethical dilemmas were both justice and caring based (Cannon, 1988; Cortese, 1990; Nobles, 1976; Stack, 1990). Similar findings are described for West Africans (Jackson, 1982), and Kohlberg himself pointed to the evidence of class differences in his own research (1981-84). The fact that an individuation-based notion of moral development is foreign to Native Americans suggests similar cultural preferences toward a relationally-based ethic rather than a rules-based one. Tinker, a member of the Osages writes:

Certainly the accumulation of power and wealth is not socially rewarded in

the Indian world. Rather one's status is measured on the basis of what

one's contribution is to the community ... There's a total relationship of

interdependence. That relationship of interdependency is foremost, so that

being a chief is a position of responsibility for helping to maintain the

harmony and balance, the interdependence, among those in the community

(1994, p. 9).

The ethic of care cuts across various circles of marginalized groups some described by gender, others by race, ethnicity, religion or culture. Second, an ethic of care primarily associated with gender (and particularly if associated with white, middle-class women) runs the risk of affirming the common split between the private and the public sphere which affirms common gender and class roles of care. Supported by the value concepts of mainline economics which views the creation of a surplus above and beyond a basic subsistence level, care activities are perceived to be less valuable than production activities which add a higher value of marginal product to the market exchange of final goods and services produced. This distinction between market and informal, production and subsistence, visible and invisible, valuable and valueless has led not only to the neglect of unaccounted for contributions of care but ultimately undermines them (Mies, 1986; O'Hara 1997; Waring, 1989). Care is considered weak not strong, subordinate not equal. Care provided in the marketplace suffers from similar value gradations. Human service sector wages are among the lowest and reinforce stereotypical gender and ethnic roles of services. 97.1 percent of child care workers are female, 8.7 percent are African American and 10 percent Hispanic; 94 percent of cleaners and servants are women, 36.5 percent of them African American; 42 percent of cleaning and building services occupations are held by women, 22.9 percent by African Americans and 15.8 percent by Hispanics. The qualitative distinction between prestigious production and inferior care promotes a focus on the production process itself to the detriment of the sustaining functions provided in households, the informal and subsistence sectors, or in nature[13]. This is despite the fact that the sustaining contributions of care form the very basis of human welfare, provide physical wellbeing, emotional support, stress reduction and regeneration. To change assigned valuation biases a new broad-based association of care is needed that can break out of the dilemma posed by the predetermined, universalized standards of a morality of success and accumulation. Fisher and Tronto offer such a definition of the ethic of care. They write:

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species

activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, contain, and repair

our "world" so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world

includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which

we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (1991, p. 40).

Care thus defined, makes the devalued life world of women, minorities and nature visible, and reevaluates it. Invisible sustaining functions characterized by reciprocity, mutuality and relationality are at the center of a care based ethic while the a utility and functionality-based concept of reason becomes simply a part of the whole[14].

Following Tronto's definition the ethic of care is characterized by four dimensions of the care process. To recover vital care functions all four need to be considered:

(1) caring about, that is, recognizing the need for care not as helplessness and the stamp of inferiority but as necessity and fact of life;

(2) taking care of, that is assuming the responsibility for care and establishing a "flexible notion of responsibility"[15] as central moral category instead of assuming an obligation-based notion of responsibility;

(3) care-giving, that is the actual work of care needs to be based on competence and a sense of worth which views a less than competent taking-care-of as morally unacceptable; and

(4) care receiving, that is a notion of care which recognizes the condition of vulnerability and inequality of the care-receiver and views the care receiver's responsiveness as moral precept for the valuation of care (Tronto, 1993).

All four dimensions of the ethic of care challenge assumptions of both the utilitarian and, to a lesser extent, the discursive ethic which have significant implications for a conception of sustainability.

The ethic of care rejects an independent and autonomous concept of the individual actor. Instead it recognizes human dependence on the sustaining and life giving web of relationships offered by human community as well as nature. This dependence is not something to be bemoaned but simply to be accepted as a fact of life. To not notice, not acknowledge, and not care about care-giving is not only careless or callous, but also destructive.

To take care of means to take responsibility. This notion of responsibility, however, challenges commonly assumed role assignments. To take care of is not simply to displace care through monetary income earned in the official economy, but it acknowledges that even as such displacement occurs substantial additional work is required in order to transform a paycheck into satisfying human and ecosystems needs. Taking care of is not indirect or passive, but direct and active care, and thus requires our attention and focus. To be responsible does not mean to act out of personal or even social obligation, but out of a recognition of mutuality and reciprocity. Responsibility therefore becomes part of an acknowledged public process which brings care to the center and does not simply rely on a longstanding or assigned sense of obligation. Instead, caring responsiveness questions rigid role expectations. Responsible contributions of care become flexible and renegotiable. Not rules, but relationality shape the sustaining contributions and connections between humans and between humans and the environment.

As a higher degree of flexibility and equality between care-giving contributions and the non-care contributions is achieved, the status of the sustaining contributions of household-labor, caring market labor and nature is changed. This also changes the expectations placed on care. An ethic of care requires that the competence assumed for high prestige market labor is equally applied to care. To take care of people, the environment or things in a substandard fashion is not enough. To simply use some kind of emission reducing measure is not enough if better alternatives are known; to be content with end of pipe treatment is not enough if the displacement of pollution from one media to another can be avoided by redesigning the production process; to accept standard solutions even though ecological contexts require a variety of context sensitive, diverse alternatives is not enough. Competence in care thus requires that technical knowledge, and relational knowledge, the experience of experts and the competence of local, indigenous, people whose practices have been excluded or devalued by common definitions of reason are considered. Cultural, social, and ecological context move from the margin to the center of ethical considerations and with it accompanying definitions of reason, moral maturity, and value.

Care receiving addresses the most challenging redefinition required by an ethic of care. It demands a fundamental re-valuation of implicit hierarchies. Not only the strong and healthy, not only the productive and active, not only the verbal and vocal, but all have valuable contributions to make which demand our responsiveness. This notion of contributing simply by being part of without participating challenges a use-value based concept of moral reason. Since every part of the ecosystem is important, importance may well be assigned by vulnerability, not by strength, by receiving, not by contributing. Care receiving is out of our control. We can change emission levels, but we cannot change the assimilative quality of environmental media like water or air. We can only support them or destroy them, that is we can influence their responsiveness but not orchestrate them. This is not simply an abstract recognition of intrinsic value, but a rather practical recognition of the need to consider others' responsiveness to our action. The care we give matters, even (or maybe especially) the care we give to the most helpless, and vulnerable part of the whole.

The ethic of care enlarges the conception of what constitutes welfare from a functional (utility) or objective (discourse) oriented one, to a relational one. This focus makes invisible connections of human dependence on the sustaining functions of households, the subsistence sector, and ecosystems visible. In extending perceived systemic connections the ethics of care challenges existing systems of interconnections and hierarchies. The definition of sustainability consistent with care encompasses environmental parameters not just as constraints to human activity, but as functions and processes which are essential to both human and non-human activity. Maintaining the regenerative capacity of the environment therefore includes but is not limited to human usefulness or a human-defined sense of purpose (Figure 3). Seemingly negligible functions and processes take on new significance as they are evaluated from an enlarged circle of connections and complexities.


Concluding remarks

Utilitarianism affirms the basic assumptions of mainline economics. Its notion of an optimizing economic actor is individuation based. Consequently individual interests or preferences form the basis for social outcomes. In addition, utilitarianism assumes that moral actions are essentially based on rational decision making. Rationality therefore constitutes not only an appropriate but an ethical basis for decision making (Hare, 1991). Even if the rational acting homo oeconomicus does not operate as rationally as he might, and differences between ideal and actual behavior are recognized, rational intent may justify irrational outcomes. And finally, objectivity is the basis for ethical decision making. While this is to curtail undue assertions of self-interest which would violate the social interests the assumption of objectivity, even if it takes the form of a "veil of ignorance", affirms distance and separability. Since economics fulfills all three conditions of morality there is only a small step to the innately moral market (Homann and Pries, 1993).

In contrast, both discursive ethic and ethic of care are what Ulrich refers to as grundlagenkritische Wirtschaftsethik, an ethic critical of the basic assumptions of economics. Their criticism, however, is distinctly different. The main point of departure between discursive and utilitarian ethics rests in the recognition of discursive reason (as opposed to instrumental reason). Discursive reason includes the life world, that is the context of human economic and social interaction. Discourse therefore challenges the locus of economic decision making. Neither the indirect decision making in distanced markets, nor that in distanced political institutions meet the requirements of a participatory, ethical discourse. Moral decisions are based on an open public discourse process in a public space. They are formed not in an isolated decision-making process of individual moral actors but in a collective process of diverse actors who make given assumptions about the life world context of individual actors explicit. This can be considered a significant contribution to conceptualizing sustainability. Its drawbacks, however, lie in the decisive question of who comes to the discourse table and how individual contributions are evaluated. Even expanded concepts of reason can become limiting and ultimately manipulative if they affirm established criteria of knowledge, expertise, and rationality.

The ethic of care addresses the root assumptions on which our notion of moral decision making rests. It questions the centrality of reason whether instrumental or discursive, and instead moves linkages and relationships to the center. Care requires an expanded perception of how human ,actors interrelate with each other and with the environment, and how environmental systems interrelate. Ethical relationships of care are defined by attentiveness, flexible relationships which question accepted hierarchies, competence, and dependence. This requires a fundamental rethinking of economic conceptions of value as surplus rather than subsistence, or of human conceptions of reason as universal rather than diverse. However, it does neither imply the exclusion of usefulness nor of reason. Instead it places them in a larger context which recognizes that usefulness and reason are defined by the layers of connectional links and the levels of systems considered in their definition. What may seem reasoned from one temporal or spacial perspective may not be reasoned from one taken longer time frames or larger spacial dimensions into consideration. This fundamental rethinking and questioning of how the perceived importance of relational links changes as expanded levels of connections between economic activity, human activity and environmental activity are considered, may well be essential to an accepted definition of sustainability which is truly sustainable.


[1.] For a more detailed account regarding the tensions between these concepts of sustainability see Goodland et al., 1992.

[2.] For a detailed critique see Gowdy and O'Hara, 1995.

[3.] This and other passages from German reference materials were translated by the author.

[4.] The genderlessness and racelessness of homo oeconomicus define him according to the dominant attributes of the social mainstream and power; he is male, white, and socialized by Western definitions of rationality and moral maturity (see for example Ferber and Nelson, 1993).

[5.] For a Walrasian critique of CV see Dore, 1996. Dore argues that contingent valuation methods can generate an invariant measure of value only when unrealistically restrictive conditions are imposed.

[6.] Safe minimum standards approaches have rejected optimization-based notions of allocation which rely economic valuation concepts (Arrow and Fisher, 1974; Bishop, 1978; D'Arge et al,, 1982). Instead they suggest an orientation on standards based on long-term human (i.e. health) or ecosystem needs.

[7.] The assumption that higher levels of utility are preferred to lower ones is maintained despite the recognition that marginal utility decreases with increasing total utility a fact commonly cited to argue for a higher degree of equality and distributive justice. More of everything for everyone, however, is still preferred to less.

[8.] For Kantians this implies a categorical imperative which states that one is to act only on that maxim whereby one can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

[9.] This distinction is reminiscent of Hare's distinction between level-1 (general rule utilitarianism) and level-2 thinking (specific rule utilitarianism), albeit its claims regarding universality and specificity are essentially opposite to Dryzek's (Hare, 1991).

[10.] For a more extensive discussion of potential and limits of discursive ethics in environmental valuation and policy see O'Hara, 1996.

[11.] A discussion of the institutional conditions for a communicatively rational process would exceed the focus of this paper. For further reading see Dryzek's extensive discussion of discursive rationality as social choice mechanism (1990).

[12.] For a discussion of local knowledge and the importance of redefining knowledge see Hekman, 1992; Peet and Peet, 1994; and Shiva, 1992.

[13.] As part of their caring responsibilities women have in many culture, also been assigned the role caring for the sustaining functions of nature (Salleh, 1990; Shiva, 1992; Thrupp, 1994; and Thrupp et al., 1994).

[14.] This differs dramatically from the inclusion of altruism in a utilitarian concept of the self-interest maximizing individual.

[15.] According to Tronto, flexible responsibility requires that responsibility become a matter of political public debate, rather than being based on implicit assumptions and socio-culturally accepted practices or of what Mellor has called the forced altruism of women (Biesecker, 1996; Mellor, 1992; Tronto, 1993).

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Sabine U. O'Hara Department of Economics Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York, USA
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Date:Jan 1, 1998
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