First Minister's Environmental Council: first report, key priorities and future work programme

This is the first report by the First Minister’s Environmental Council. It notes Scotland’s ambitions and response to the twin crises, international examples of environmental action, and sets out the directions of the future work programme for the Council.

Annex 2

Ethical foundations

Before deciding how to achieve objectives for the environment it is useful to consider the different ethical frameworks within which decisions tend to be made. Understanding these can help to illuminate different personal perspectives and reconcile differences of approach and ambition.

Divergent branches of ethics

Ethical frameworks normally break down in to two divergent branches of thinking. One very influential branch tends to assume that the morality of actions depends on their consequences. This branch of ethics is often known as consequentialism and it embraces various types of utilitarian methods of assessing the future costs and benefits of various actions. It is a branch of ethics which is very common in governments today because it is central to the practical economics applied by governments to assess the relative consequences of different policy options.

An alternative branch of ethics focuses more on the morality of the actions themselves rather than their consequences, and it comes from a framing attributable to Immanuel Kant. In the context of the environment, as rational agents, people would value the environment for itself and not necessarily in terms of what it can do for them. Often, people who take this perspective see the environment in holistic terms and emphasise its aesthetic or intrinsic value over instrumental value. When translated into a policy context these kinds of ethics emerge as rights- and justice-based arguments.

In practice, individuals often hover somewhere in a middle ground between these divergent views, depending on circumstances and depending on their own interests. However, it probably helps to know which side of the divide one sits on and, importantly, when others are arguing from the other perspective.

Strengths and weaknesses

Both of these approaches have strengths and weaknesses when applied to the environment but neither is necessarily better than the other.

Consequentialism has supported the development of a panoply of practical methods like the conceptualisation of Nature in terms of natural capital or ecosystem services, both terms which render the environment in the instrumentalist language of economics. They unambiguously set the environment up to provision for mankind. These seek to view the environment as an asset, aspects of which can be convertible into currencies which allow the assets to be traded for the benefits of people within markets created by people. These theories and practices may be an extreme version of environmental utilitarianism but they are used very commonly in the present day and they make environmental conservation tractable within the paradigm of the normative economics applied within public policy.

However, there should be a significant question about whether this kind of framework actually works, given the evidence of continuing declines in biodiversity and rising consumption and waste emissions. Consequentialist systems of environmental policy development need a level of prescience about valuing the future which we struggle to achieve. Uncertainties in future valuations are downplayed. It is also harder to convince people to pay a cost for something where the benefits might accrue a long time in the future, which is common where environmental problems are involved. This results in prioritisation of the immediate needs of people over the future needs of the environment even when there are clearly understood benefits from the latter.

Rights-based arguments on the other hand create a simpler kind of decision framework. Instead of aligning with complex and sometimes dubious economic assessments, rights-based ethics align with the processes of legal argument and precedence. They set moral limits and these limits can be established within regulation and argued within courts of justice and parliaments. For example, air quality in Europe has been improved by continuously ramping up the regulation of emissions standards. Even if a consequentialist might argue that this has been done to deal with negative outcomes like acid rain, the central rationale has probably been more closely associated with the principle that minimising emissions is the right thing to do. Apart from anything else, everybody has a right to breathe clean air. Much protected area legislation exists because it has been deemed that protection is the right thing to do, not because of some sort of complex consequentialist argument involving a calculated benefit.

Nevertheless, rights-based approaches also have limits, especially when it comes to the rights of inanimate, non-sentient objects such as mountains or lakes. Rights are ultimately a human-centric valuation and, if rights are based on the possession of interests by the rights-holder, as is commonly argued, then it becomes hard to assign interests to the environment without resorting also to other ethical frameworks around divine beings such as God or Mother Earth, many of which are hard to operationalise within a policy and legal context (and many would argue should not be). Arguably, it is also possible that rights carry obligations and it becomes difficult to see how obligations can be held by inanimate objects or even other live organisms which cannot be held accountable unless specific people act as proxies and take on these obligations.


Experience to date has shown that the application of rights-based ethical frameworks to the environment often fail for the same reason as consequentialist ethical frameworks fail. Environmental rights are ultimately framed by human laws and values and when these perceived values change, as they inevitably will as the future unfolds, any apparently innate rights assigned – either culturally or legally - to the environment become competitive with the broader rights of people, and experience shows that it is the rights of people which prevail. This is the same practical outcome as is generally experienced within consequentialist ethics, that the immediate interests of people will dominate future interests of either people or the environment.

Such failure does not mean that these ethical framings are wrong. Instead it means that there are weaknesses in their application. No amount of ethical framing can get away from the limits which the environment imposes on human development. But understanding that there are no specific magic bullets on either side of the practical ethical divide has the potential to create a more unified approach to meeting the challenge of developing more effective ways of managing the interface between people and the environment.

Ian L Boyd



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