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Dr. Wade Robison, Rochester Institute of Technology - Sustainability Ethics


Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Wade Robison of the Rochester Institute of Technology examines the philosophical assumptions at the heart of sustainability ethics.

Wade Robison is the Ezra A. Hale Professor in Applied Ethics in the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology. For the past two decades, Robison has developed research and education programs at RIT that examine the ethical considerations involved in health care, politics and government, technology development and education. In 2010 he co-edited, Sustainability Ethics: 5 Questions for the 5 Questions series from Automatic Press. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.

About Dr. Robison

Dr. Wade Robison - Sustainability Ethics

The idea of sustainability seems clear enough: We should make sure that we leave enough that future generations can meet their needs. But the idea is ethically loaded, and so unclear, in at least two ways.

First, how can we be ethically obligated to those who do not yet exist? We have obligations to our fellow citizens, and we can determine which are compelling and which not. But future generations? Sustainability comes to mean that we are to leave enough for future generations if there are any and if they have a need for what we are now using gas, for example. That formulation makes the idea far less compelling.

In any event, we cannot determine what we ought to do now. Should we require that all corpses be incinerated so that future generations will not find prime real estate taken up with cemeteries?

Among other things, to answer that question, we would need to know what future generations we are to consider, and the core idea of sustainability gives us no answer. Are we to consider the future needs of all sentient creation as utilitarianism tells us? Or only of all rational beings as Kant tells us? Or are we to consider only humans as Aristotle tells us? What we ought to do to build a sustainable world will vary enormously depending upon which of these different ethical landscapes we adopt. We would need an ethical argument to justify adopting one ethical landscape over the others, and we cannot give an ethical justification without appealing to one ethical theory over the others and thus begging the question.

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