Philosophy 223 Business and the Environment: Climate Change Environmental Responsibilities?

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Philosophy 223

  • Business and the Environment:
  • Climate Change

Environmental Responsibilities?

  • The attempt to specify the nature and force of business’ responsibilities to the environment faces a significant conceptual stumbling block: the lack of a consensus about the nature of environmental responsibilities in general.
  • If we can’t agree what the nature of an individual’s responsibilities to the environment are, how can we say anything about business’s?

Important Questions

  • If we are going to achieve consensus on the nature of environmental responsibilities we need to agree on answers to some basic questions.
    • What counts as “the environment”?
    • What are the possible sources of responsibility to the environment?
    • What is the force of such responsibility?

What Counts?

  • The OED defines environment as “That which environs; the objects or the region surrounding anything.”
  • Though this definition lacks the specificity necessary to help us, it does highlight an important fact: the environment is not something separate from human life and activity. We are part of the environment.
    • We make a mistake when we treat the environment as if it were something external to human concerns and activities.

What Counts?

  • Humans are part of the environment, but there are important differences between us and other environmental “agents.”
  • The differences are both quantitative and qualitative.
    • Quantitatively, we need to acknowledge the scope and consequences of our unique capacity to shape the world around us to satisfy our desires and interests.
    • Qualitatively, we need to recognize that we don’t just act, we have the capacity to reflectively assess our acts, and choose from amongst possibilities.

What Counts?

  • When we consider the choices we’ve made and those that confront us now, a range of issues that count as “environmental” become evident.
    • Conservation of resources
    • Preservation
    • Pollution
    • Use of agricultural adjuncts (pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified crops and livestock)
    • Moral status of non-human life; biodiversity
    • Systemic impact of human life (global warning, sprawl, population growth)

Sources of Responsibility

  • Given the force of these questions, it is important to consider resources from which we may be able to secure responses.
  • There is a broad range of possible values from which a responsibility to the environment may emerge.

Sources of Responsibility

  • The values in question include:
    • Prudence: it’s our environment; if we mess it up, we don’t have another.
    • Justice: It’s not just ours, it’s everyone's. If we make choices that limit other’s access to we act unjustly. This can be true of present others or future others.
    • Aesthetics: natural beauty is a great source of pleasure to humans and thus deserves to be preserved.
    • Religion: humans as stewards.
    • Economics: growth requires an extensive range of environmental goods; degradation limits growth.

A Conflict of Values?

  • Clearly, not all of these values call us to responsibility in the same way.
  • Indeed, in many instances values may conflict.
    • Ex. Economic values conflicting with Aesthetic values.
  • How do we resolve these conflicts?

Another Complication

  • The situation is rendered even more complex when we note that these values don’t exhaust the possibilities.
  • After all, the list we considered all seem animated by human capacities and concerns, ignoring the question of the moral status of non-human nature.
  • A non-anthropocentric ethics is going to produce a much different list of values that would have to be considered.

Business and the Environment

  • Where does business fit into this complicated picture?
  • Choices and activities engaged in by businesses clearly impact the environment just like those of individuals.
  • If there are individual responsibilities to the environment, it seems reasonable to conclude that there are responsibilities that businesses have as well.

The Intersection of Theories

  • A fruitful way to flesh out the account of business’ responsibility to the environment is to consider how the various theories of Corporate Social Responsibility we’ve examined would assess these areas of significance.
  • This consideration provides us with another context for assessing these theories.

The Classical Model and the Environment

  • According the the classical model, a business’ responsibility is to maximize profit within the law.
    • Optimal Pollution: level of pollution tolerable to relevant parties, as specified by market mechanisms.
    • Resource Use: Cornucopism (a combination of market forces and human ingenuity means that in practice there is no limit to any particular type of resource).
    • Preservation: natural areas have no intrinsic value; relative value best determined by market.
    • Biological Diversity: non-human life has no intrinsic value; relative value best determined by market.

Criticisms of the Classical Model’s Analysis

  • Criticisms of this account frequently point to the sort of market failures we’ve analyzed this semester: externalities, absence of markets, and conflicts between individual and social interests.
  • A more fundamental criticism questions the appropriateness of employing economic categories to assess environmental responsibilities.
    • Such responsibilities ultimately rest on beliefs and values; economics can only address desires and preferences.

The Moral Minimum Model and the Environment

  • According to the MM Model, some goods/values are so fundamental they should be exempt from economic determination.
  • Such goods are appropriate objects of government regulation: Clean Air Act.
  • Beyond concern for the values thus protected, businesses have no specifiable environmental responsibilities.

Criticisms of the MM Model’s Analysis

  • Are the laws really a reflection of the beliefs and interests of the citizenry? Who has a greater capacity to shape legislation: industry or citizens?
  • Are consumer beliefs immune to influence by business? Why do businesses (and politicians) spend ~$200 billion a year on advertising?
  • Is the law sufficient to guide managerial discretion?

Environmental Pragmatism

  • Many have argued that businesses should not be put off by the complexity of the issues raised by talk of environmental responsibility.
  • The principle of environmental pragmatism suggests that while there is continuing disagreement about the source and force of such responsibility, there is general consensus amongst business people concerning the content of their responsibilities.
  • Theorists typically highlight four areas of particular significance: Pollution, Resource Use, Preservation, and Biological Diversity.

Bowie, “Morality, Money and Motor Cars”

  • Bowie plays devil’s advocate and defends a Friedman like view of corporate obligations to protect the environment whereby companies have no special obligations to protect the environment above what is required by law.
  • He notes two important qualifications: businesses should not lobby against the wishes of the people and should help educate consumers about the environment.

Does business have an obligation to protect the environment?

  • Bowie starts his discussion by considering what sort of responsibilities someone like Friedman would say businesses do have.
    • Business has an obligation to obey the law.
    • Business has an obligation to avoid negligent behavior.

An Argument

  • Bowie then considers the implications of the following claim: No one has a right to harm another person unless there is a compelling, overriding moral reason to do so.
    • Consider the example of automobiles:
          • ~50,000 persons will die in wrecks this year in the U.S..
          • ~250,000 persons will be injured.
          • Automobiles can be made much safer so as to significantly reduce the possibility of harm.
          • Doing so would be very costly.
          • Consumers are unwilling to pay for ultra safe cars.
  • Given the harm that would come from increasing safety and the unwillingness of the consumers to pay the price, businesses have no obligation to make cars safer.
  • The corollary argument is that businesses have no obligation to protect the environment above the requirements of law.

Whose Job is it?

  • Citizens determine environmental laws.
  • Consumers typically reject green products as too expensive or too much trouble to use.
  • Businesses cannot be expected to oppose such consumer preferences.
    • Therefore, businesses have no special obligations to protect the natural environment above the law.

First Qualification

  • Businesses should not oppose environmental legislation.
      • Business escapes special obligations because it is willing to respond to consumer preferences.
      • Consumers often cannot express their preferences in the market.
      • The political arena is the only other viable forum in which consumers express their preferences.
      • Business lobbying interferes with the expression of these preferences.
      • Since point 4 is inconsistent with point 1, business should not intervene in the political process.

Second Qualification

  • Business has a special obligation to educate consumers about environmentally responsible choices.
    • Business has no problem leading consumer preferences.
    • Business has expertise about environmental matters.
    • Business would benefit from doing so if appropriate legislation were the result.

Arnold and Bustos, “Business, Ethics, and Global Climate Change”

  • This essay provides factual background regarding global climate change. It then uses the case of global climate change as a basis for arguing against Bowie’s position.
  • Five main lines of argument are developed and the authors’ argue for specific obligations in the transportation and electricity center regarding carbon emissions abatement. Public policy recommendations are also made.

No To Bowie

  • Arnold and Bustos consider and reject Bowie’s position.
  • They argue for the view that businesses have moral obligations above and beyond the law regarding global climate change.
  • They develop five main arguments, grouped below into three different general areas of concern.

The Interests of Consumers

  • Many nations in which MNCs conduct business lack democratic institutions, so those citizens have little recourse. (The preferences of U.S. citizens impact non-U.S. citizens, yet the preferences regarding harm to non-U.S. citizens remain unaccounted for.)
  • It is unreasonable to think consumers have an accurate understanding of the causes of global warming.
  • Consumer preferences are not always satisfied by businesses (e.g., hybrid mini-vans, use of renewable energy).

Harm to Others

  • Preferences typically entail a claim on resources.
  • Preference satisfaction of U.S. consumers makes use of a per-capita disproportionate level of atmospheric resources, so the harm caused to non-U.S. citizens will be disproportionate to their use of atmospheric resources.
  • Harm to future generations is not considered.


  • It is unfair to require others to pay for the costs of benefits one has secured for oneself without their un-coerced consent.
  • The transportation and electricity generation sectors should be held accountable for their GHG emissions to date.


  • Target goals for reduced emissions in the transportation and energy sectors corresponding to past emissions.
  • Appropriate tax incentives for CO2 emissions reductions.
  • Significant penalties for failing to meet CO2 emissions targets.

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