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Critically Assess a Utilitarian Response to Environmental Ethics

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Critically assess a utilitarian response to environmental ethics.

Utilitarianism is teleological, concerned with the end or purpose of actions. It is also consequentialist, judging actions right or wrong according to their outcome. Many scientists, politicians and philosophers have expressed concern that the world is facing an environmental catastrophe. If this is to be believed, an ethical theory that focuses on the results of our actions seems most appropriate. Utilitarianism is able to take into account the risks to the environment of global warming, ozone depletion, pollution, deforestation etc.

Traditional utilitarianism would have done that using Bentham’s Hedonic Calculus. Bentham would have asked how likely it was that certain results would occur. He would have weighed up the benefits of any proposed action, such as the building of a new motorway, against the adverse affects, focussing on the pleasure and pain that resulted, and nothing else. This sort of calculation is practical and flexible, allowing for a different answer in every different set of circumstances. For example, building a road in Rwanda might lead to increased trade, a way of transporting important materials, medicines etc – in other words, a lifeline. The destruction of wildlife in such an underdeveloped country might be negligible, and the pollution minimal. However, a similar road in the UK might run through residential areas. The pollution from the thousands of cars might have a significant impact in a more densely populated area. The benefits might simply be convenience and a reduction of travel time. It is unlikely to be of huge benefit, as there are already enough roads in the UK. There are many problems with such a utilitarian calculation, however. It is impossible to predict the damage or benefit that any action would bring. As well as being uncalculable due…...

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