Utilitarianism Essay Research Paper UtilitarianismThe concept of

Utilitarianism Essay, Research Paper


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 not be as stringent a duty to improve conditions for future

generations as utilitarianism claims, but there must be some such duty that


Personally, there has to be a middle between utilitarianism for future

generations and Brian Barry’s egalitarian view. I feel that our so-called duty

is only to make the conditions of future generations reasonably good. If people

follow utilitarianism, then we will say that we have a duty to give future

generations a reasonable quality of life through demanding sacrifices of

ourselves. And if people followed Barry’s egalitarian view, then future

generations may be stuck in the same rut as past generations. That is why a

middle-road must be used. By taking these two ideas, then we can see that each

generation should pass on to its successors a range of opportunities that allows

for a reasonable quality of life. However, it should not be seen as a duty. If

it is seen as a duty, then most humans may be turned off by the prospect of

taking care of their environment for future generations. If it is seen by

humans that our environment is a precious jewel, then we will more than likely

want to share it with our future generations.

Works Cited

[1] Brian Berry, “Intergenerational Justice in Energy Policy.” In D. MacLean

and P. G. Brown, eds., Energy and the Future Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield,

1983 pp.274.


1. Barry, Brian. “Intergenerational Justice in Energy Policy,” in D. MacLean

and P. G. Brown, eds., Energy and the Future Totowa, NJ: Rowan and Littlefield,


2. Danielson, Peter. “Personal Responsibility,” in H. Coward and T. Hurka,

eds., Ethics and Climate Change: The Greenhouse Effect Waterloo: Wilfred

Laurier UP, 1993.

3. Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. London: Macmillan, 1907.

4. World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1987.



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