Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

Ecological Goals and Liberal Ideals: Harmony or Conflict?

2006 (28) Issue 2
Guest-Editor: Thomas Schramme


Liberty, equality, justice and solidarity are traditional political ideals of modern Western democracies. Different traditions and parties have supported different models in order to harmonise them. In contrast to the prevalence and long history of these values, ecological goals and needs have moved onto the political agenda fairly recently. Hence it should not come as a surprise that there is no consensus about the compatibility of ecological ambitions with common Western political ideals. Right after the first ecological crises of the 1970s environmentalism was quickly integrated into the then dominant political programmes and transformed into short-term management, i.e. ’liberal ecology' (on the market-liberal side) or (in Germany) ’ecological-social market' economy (on the Christian and social-democrat side). Even grass-roots movements and green parties imported their ecological goals through the classical programmes supporting welfare and security, freedom and consumerism — but hereby failed to confer environmental values any self-sufficiency.

In more philosophical terms, the instrumental value of nature as a resource for the attainment of human needs and aspirations has by now gained widespread acknowledgement. Although this viewpoint does not seem to be in conflict with common liberal assumptions like anthropocentrism, it nevertheless builds the basis for discussions which are still fairly new to the traditional liberal theories of justice, democracy, or neutrality. It has become obvious that the exploitation of natural resources poses threats to the health and well-being of people by effects like pollution and global warming and might be based on an unfair appropriation of limited environmental resources. Therefore, recent theories of justice have begun to scrutinise the global distribution of environmental benefits and burdens.

More contentious, especially in terms of a liberal viewpoint, are other recent theories that focus on consumption and basically plead for confining the use of natural resources. This might ask for too much, since it seems to rely on a specific perfectionist ideal of the good life. To insist on moderation may be regarded as endorsing a comprehensive doctrine on how to lead a life. However, it seems evident that the human race will not survive for long if economies keep on growing at the current level. Whether we see it as anti-liberal or not, we might only survive if we force people to give up some of their consumer freedom for the sake of future generations.

Even more controversial from a liberal point of view is the idea of granting non-human nature intrinsic value. This might not only seem to imply metaphysical, possibly religious, assumptions about the moral worth of organisms which are to be avoided for reasons of neutrality, but also to result in awkward consequences like granting organisms, who are themselves incapable of acting morally, moral status. The familiar idea of founding morality on reciprocity should not be given up, many liberals insist. Also, equality as a liberal value might be threatened by transferring intrinsic value to non-human organisms; after all, it seems unlikely that we would demand equality of protection for, say, humans, animals and trees. For many liberals it is not acceptable to endorse an account of graded moral status.

All three areas of discussion just introduced, global environmental justice, intergenerational justice and ecological justice, are treated in this issue. In addition, the relationship of the respective themes and the compatibility of its concerns to liberalism are also discussed in several of the papers. How far, if at all, can liberalism (and a liberal economy) ensure the conservation of increasingly scarce environmental goods? Is it adequate for ecological politics to be guided by the traditional interpretations of liberty and justice, or should we amend these values to environmental necessities? Are ecological goals to be adjusted to traditional Western political ideals or must these political ideals be reformulated to fit the green point of view? It will become obvious that there is no straightforward answer to the question whether a strong ecological point of view is in conflict with liberal theory or not. Neither strand is unitary, but inherently contested; hence the most important question becomes: what may be the best interpretation of liberal ideals judged from the perspective of ecological goals?

Marcel Wissenburg evaluates the debate on the compatibility of liberalism and ecologism from a meta-perspective. The main problem, according to him, is how to raise the question of compatibility in the first place: political theories are not firm collections of propositions but evolve. Hence, there are only liberalisms in the plural — both theoretically and in reality — as well as ecologisms not ecologism. In addition, there are several different meanings of incompatibility. The agenda for future debates on compatibility ought therefore to shift considerably.

Thomas Schramme addresses sufficiency by taking a negative route. He criticizes John Rawls's well-known theory of justice for a specific underlying premise: everyone wants to have as many natural resources as possible, since they are all-purpose goods which are useful for the pursuit of any rational life-plan. The maximising assumption is supposedly supported by a very plausible account of rationality. Schramme attacks the maximising assumption by referring to an alternative model of rationality: satisficing is a rational strategy that only goes for what is good enough, not for the possible maximum. He also attempts to show why even under conditions of scarcity maximising is not always the only rational strategy. Scarcity needs to be understood as a relational concept. It then turns out that the purposes for which resources are necessary can be challenged; scarcity can thus be confined.

John O'Neill is specifically concerned with two aspects that have recently gained attention in environmental political theory: firstly, the compatibility of limited economic growth with the perpetuation of a customary level of well-being in Western states. Their reconciliation is established by a hedonistic or Epicurean theory of well-being: if we do not need as many resources as possible to lead happy lives because well-being is a matter of subjective mental states that are disconnected from material affluence, then reduced consumption does not seem to be too demanding after all. The second aspect O'Neill discusses is the notion of environmental citizenship, which is, in terms of historical references, related to an Aristotelian, republican account of active citizens who are concerned with the needs of following generations. O'Neill's main aim is to reconcile these two seemingly hostile — especially as regards their theoretical pedigree — green concerns.

Simon Hailwood defines his non-instrumental view on nature in terms of the respect for nature's otherness. It is not a direct demand of political reasonableness, but this kind of respect is nevertheless in congruence with liberalism. Moreover, there is an affinity between liberalism and respecting nature because they both support the virtue of toleration and moral integrity. Nevertheless, individuals are not inconsistent if they subscribe to a purely instrumental view on nature; it is ’only' an arbitrary view.

Brian Baxter directly replies to Hailwood's paper. To him, the fact that non-sentient beings can have welfare interests makes a difference to what liberals can possibly claim in a coherent fashion. He regards two of Hailwood's assertions as objectionable: firstly, that instrumental liberalism, i.e. disrespecting nature, is not incoherent, and secondly, that respecting nature's otherness commits one to the moral considerability of even abiotic nature, i.e. the whole of non-human nature.

Derek Bell is confident in combining a Rawlsian framework with ecological goals. In his paper, he challenges the assertion that liberalism and ecologism are incompatible. Bell shows that although Rawls suggests that our relationship to animals is not part of the constitutional essentials, these matters can be decided by citizens in democratic procedures. However, it is not acceptable from the liberal point of view to constitutionally protect non-human individuals or include them in the legislature by obligatory indirect representation. Still, as long as ecologists do not insist on democratic representation of non-human nature, the ideals of political liberalism and ecological goals may well be compatible.

Lukas Meyer and Dominic Roser focus on a particular topic in global environmental justice: How should benefits resulting from emissions of greenhouse gases be distributed? And should past emissions play a role in determining the just allocation of tradable emission rights? Meyer's and Roser's argument is concerned with the current better situation of developed countries, hence with matters of distributive justice. Developing countries should get more emission rights because they are worse off, not because developed countries owe them compensation. Developing countries also suffer more from emissions and should therefore be granted a right to larger shares.

John Barry and Peter Doran tackle the concept of ’ecological modernisation', which has become popular in recent theoretical as well as political debates. They use it as a starting-point for an attempt to build a better model of a realistic, non-utopian, green political economy that can, nevertheless, underpin a radical view of sustainable development. They are also concerned with the level of consumption in Western societies, though they do not endorse anti-consumerism or asceticism. Ecological modernisation, as it is discussed and put into practice today, e.g. by the New Labour government in the UK, aims at a reconciliation of ecology with economic growth, which itself is not challenged. Barry and Doran doubt whether this focus on efficiency is enough to solve the ecological problems we face today. To them, economic security is the main determinant of well-being, and it is also beneficial for maintaining democratic structures. Hence, sufficiency should be the notion we are concerned with in future debates to complement the existing discourse on efficiency.

Some of the papers stem from a conference at the University of Mannheim, held in October 2005, which was organised by Anton Leist and Thomas Schramme. Both would like to thank the Philosophical Faculty at Mannheim University and the Ethics-Centre at Zurich University for financial support in organising the symposium.

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Table of Contents

Title: Ecological Neutrality and Liberal Survivalism
Author: Marcel Wissenburg
Page: 125-145

How (not) to Discuss the Compatibility of Liberalism and Ecologism

Abstract: Perhaps the most animated debate in green political thought the sub-discipline of political theory devoted to the relations between humanity, politics and environment addresses the question of the compatibility of ecologism and liberal democracy, more particularly the liberal aspects of the latter. The present article affirms and further elaborates earlier suggestions that existing approaches to this matter are either flawed or, when defensible, prone to produce trivial conclusions. Incompatibility of the two theories is always to be expected, in one form or another. It is argued that a characterization of political theories as families growing and changing over time, a notion partly derived from Wittgenstein’s family concept, allows us to understand ecologism and liberalism as evolving theories, and to anticipate the development of both which may lead to far more surprising conclusions.

Title: Is Rawlsian Justice Bad for the Environment?
Author: Thomas Schramme
Page: 146-157

There is enough in the world for everybody’s
need, but not enough for anybody’s greed.
Mahatma Ghandi

Abstract: In this paper I show that Rawls’s contract apparatus in A Theory of Justice depends on a particular presumption that is in conflict with the goal of conserving environmental resources. He presumes that parties in the original position want as many resources as possible. I challenge Rawls’s approach by introducing a rational alternative to maximising. The strategy of satisficing merely goes for what is good enough. However, it seems that under conditions of scarcity Rawls’s maximising strategy is the only rational alternative. I therefore scrutinise the common account of scarcity. I distinguish between absolute and relative scarcity in order to show that scarcity is influenced by our decisions. If we would not accept the claim to as much as possible without further legitimisation, like Rawls does, then scarcity might not be as severe a problem. Finally, I reject Rawls’s proposed solution for dealing with problems of sustainability, namely his idea of the just savings principle. I conclude that Rawlsian Justice as Fairness is bad for the environment.

Title: Citizenship, Well-Being and Sustainability: Epicurus or Aristotle?
Author: John O'Neill
Page: 158-172

Abstract: The paper addresses two questions central to recent environmental political thought: Can a reduction in consumption be rendered compatible with a maintenance or improvement of well-being? What are the conditions for a sense of citizenship that crosses different generations? The two questions have elicited two conflicting responses. The first has been answered in broadly Epicurean terms: in recent environmental thought appeal has been made to recent hedonic research which appears to show that improvements in sub jective well-being can be decoupled from increased material consumption. The second has usually been answered in broadly Aristotelian terms: republicans have suggested that a public world and pro jects that are shared over generations are a condition of human well-being. These Epicurean and Aristotelian responses appear to look in opposite directions. They start from different accounts of well-being and appear to look in different places for human flourishing. This paper suggests that the broadly Aristotelian response is in fact owed to both problems. It shows that recent empirical researchinthehedonictraditioncanberenderedconsistentwith that Aristotelian response.

Title: Political Reasonableness and Nature’s Otherness
Author: Simon Hailwood
Page: 173-189

Abstract: This paper restates my argument that certain forms of liberalism can and should accept a non-instrumental perspective on the natural world. This perspective is unpacked in terms of ’respect for nature’s otherness’. Liberalism is represented by Rawlsian political liberalism. I claim there are important congruencies between respect for nature’s otherness and the ’reasonableness’ involved in political liberalism, such that the latter should incorporate the former. Following a suggestion of B. Baxter I reconsider these congruencies with particular emphasis on the roles of toleration and integrity. I also explain further why I think it arbitrary, rather than logically inconsistent, of the political liberal to exclude respect for nature’s otherness from her conception of the political. Finally I argue that insofar as liberalism embraces ecological justice on the basis of the considerability of non-human interests, it cannot consistently exclude respect for nature’s otherness.

Title: Political Liberalism, the Non-Human Biotic and the Abiotic: A Response to Simon Hailwood
Author: Brian Baxter
Page: 190-205

Abstract: S. Hailwood argues that if political liberals, in the Rawlsian sense, refuse to grant non-human nature anything other than instrumental value, then they may properly be characterised as human chauvinists, but not as inconsistent political liberals. He also argues that political liberals who do grant non-instrumental value to the non-human are thereby committed to a form of moral valuation of the abiotic. However, an analysis of what is involved in regarding non-human biota as possessing instrumental value reveals that humans must recognise the existence of interests, needs and desires of those non-human organisms which they wish to treat instrumentally. Given this, political liberalism in its most persuasive form, as articulated by Barry, implies that political liberals are not permitted to decide arbitrarily that non-human biota have only instrumental value. But the crucial role of interests in this argument precludes the attribution of any form of moral value to the abiotic.

Title: Political Liberalism and Ecological Justice
Author: Derek Bell
Page: 206-222

My own view is that the compatibility question depends entirely on one’s terms of reference: environmentalism and liberalism are compatible, but ecologism and liberalism are not. (Dobson 2000, 165)

Abstract: Liberalism and ecologism are widely regarded as incompatible. Liberalism and (anthropocentric) environmentalism might be compatible but liberalism and (non-anthropocentric) ecologism are not. A liberal state cannot promote policies for ecological or ecocentric reasons. An individual cannot be both a liberal and a committed advocate of ecologism. This paper challenges these claims. It is argued that Rawls’s ’political liberalism’ is compatible with ecologism and, in particular, the idea of ’ecological justice’. A Rawlsian state can promote ecological justice. A committed political liberal can also be a committed advocate of ecological justice. The argument is developed through a close textual examination of Rawls’s brief discussion of our duties to ’animals and the rest of nature’. Rawls leaves far more scope for liberal ecologism than his critics have suggested. The proposed version of liberal ecologism is defended against charges of substantive and procedural bias toward humans and against nonhuman nature. Liberal ecologism may not be enough for some ecologists especially ’ecological constitutionalists’ seeking constitutional protection for nonhuman nature but it is a serious and defensible political and moral theory.

Title: Distributive Justice and Climate Change. The Allocation of Emission Rights
Author: Lukas Meyer / Dominic Roser
Page: 223-249

Abstract: The emission of greenhouse gases causes climate change. Therefore, many support a global cap on emissions. How then should the emissions allowed under this cap be distributed? We first show that above average past emissions cannot be used to justify a right to above average current emissions. We then sketch three basic principles of distributive justice (egalitarianism, prioritarianism, and sufficientarianism) and argue, first, that prioritarian standards are the most plausible and, second, that they speak in favour of giving people of developing countries higher emission rights than people of industrialised countries. In order to support this point it has to be shown, inter alia, in what ways the higher past emissions of industrialised countries are relevant for today’s distribution of emission rights.

Title: Refining Green Political Economy: From Ecological Modernisation to Economic Security and Sufficiency
Author: John Barry / Peter Doran
Page: 250-275

Abstract: Perhaps the most problematic dimension of the ’triple bottom line’ understanding of sustainable development has been the ’economic’ dimension. Much of the thinking about the appropriate ’political economy’ to underpin or frame sustainable development has been either utopian (as in some ’green’ political views) or an attempt to make peace with ’business as usual’ approaches. This article suggests that ’ecological modernisation’ is the dominant conceptualisation of ’sustainable development’ within the UK, and illustrates this by looking at some key ’sustainable development’ policy documents from the UK Government. We take the view that the discourse of ’ecological modernisation’ has provided discursive terrain for both pragmatic policy makers and a range of views on sustainable development, from weak to strong. In particular, the article suggests that the discourse of ’economic security’ and ’sufficiency’ can be used as a way of articulating a radical, robust and principled understanding of sustainable development, which offers a normatively compelling and policy-relevant path to outlining a ’green political economy’ to underpin sustainable development.