Economists have generally framed the question of welfare in terms of wealth creation and distribution. More recently this conception of welfare has been challenged by concerns for the unsustainability of expanding material wealth. Sustainability thus requires the expansions of welfare considerations to include the limits posed by the biophysical world within which all economic activity takes place. This paper pursues the question how the concept of ethics generally accepted and operative in mainline economics influences our understanding of sustainability. The question pursued is whether this concept of ethics can lead to sustainability or whether other ethical concepts are necessary to achieve a more compatible relationship between economic activity and sustainability? To pursue this question three ethical concepts are discussed: utilitarian ethic, discursive ethic, and the ethic of care. In each case the question is raised whether the ethical concept under consideration contributes to or undermines sustainability. The conclusion reached in this paper is that a utilitarian ethic leads to a perception of the links between economic activity and environmental context which is not likely to yield sustainable outcomes beyond an economically defined notion of sustainability. Discursive ethic and ethic of care have important contributions to make to redefining concept and implementation of broader sustainability goals.
International Journal of Social Economics – Emerald Publishing
Published: Feb 1, 1998
Keywords: Economics; Ethics; Sustainable development; Wealth; Welfare
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