Ethics and sustainability
Institutional Communication Service
19 April 2022
In this new feature dedicated to sustainability, we want to address the relationship between ethics and sustainability, determining the importance of this synergy and possible future scenarios. We delve into this theme with Peter Seele, professor at the USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society.
Professor Seele, what is the relationship between ethics and sustainability?
Ethics generally poses questions concerning "living the good life". Unlike morals, ethics is an academic discipline of practical philosophy which, based on reason and grounded in theory, remains neutral and does not preach. Sustainability, on the other hand, is a more specific concept. Ultimately, it also approaches the issue of "living the good life," but it focuses on how we treat the planet and its resources, especially for future generations. In addition to this similarity, there are also distinctions between the two concepts. For example, if sustainability were to clash with concepts such as freedom or democracy.
What are the future challenges in this field?
There are two main challenges: first, there is the question of rigorous implementation beyond lip service and opportunistic greenwashing. In this sense, the study on taxonomies, indicators and metrics is essential. Accompanying this is the issue of legalisation and implementation. Second, there is the more philosophical question of whether sustainability becomes unethical when it affects fundamental values of an open society, such as freedom. One wonders, for example, whether the freedom to consume according to individual taste is more important than a serious commitment to sustainability. That the two go together is a sweet utopia, a "pretty picture," but it is unlikely to achieve true de facto sustainability.
What role does technology play in sustainability?
From an ethical point of view, technology is neutral. The issue is, rather, who uses it and for what. It is the same with sustainability. Many of the problems of an unsustainable world are due to technological advances. Combustion engines and coal-fired power plants, everyday petroleum-based materials, and more have created a world that has been shaped by humans and is not sustainable. On the other hand, new control, data collection, or monitoring technologies can help make a measurable difference, rather than telling sustainability stories in colourful brochures and newsletters. Whether such a technocratic regime is ethical is another question.
- Sustainability and technology: even freedom: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11625-016-0381-5
- Sustainability or freedom: www.halem-verlag.de/streitlust-und-streitkunst/
- Sustainability and ethics: www.nzz.ch/meinung/klimanotstand-kann-nachhaltigkeit-unethisch-werden-ld.1520436?reduced=true
- Greenwashing: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/bse.1912
- Greenwashing and machinewashing: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-022-05054-9
- Technologies for sustainability: https://www.nature.com/articles/549458c