Consumption, Environment and Ethics: An Analysis of Moral and Welfare Arguments for Reducing Personal Consumptiom

Paul Knights

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Abstract

This thesis constitutes a sustained engagement with a substantial and pressing practical problem: the problem of providing reasons for consumers in rich countries to reduce their levels of personal consumption in order that the environmental harm caused by rising consumption levels may be mitigated. I orient this thesis around the advancement and defence of two claims: (i) that the welfare argument for reducing personal consumption receives justification from objective theories of welfare, and (ii) that the moral argument for reducing personal consumption receives justification from virtue ethics. The welfare argument for reducing personal consumption is that a significant subset of inhabitants of rich nations could improve their welfare by reducing their consumption of material goods and resources. The moral argument for reducing personal consumption is that rich consumers are under an obligation to reduce their consumption of material goods and resources even though their personal reduction is itself inconsequential to alleviating the harm that the aggregate of such consumption causes. In Chapter 1 I advance and defend an analysis of the concept of consumption, and provide an account of what it is for an individual to reduce their personal consumption. In Chapter 2 I defend a particular class of theories of welfare, namely, objective theories. I propose a pluralist account of the content of welfare – substantive goods such as sociability, knowledge and aesthetic experience – and articulate a procedural account of how that content may be specified. I also advance a practical judgement-based account of how welfare comparisons between different lives can be made. In Chapter 3 I argue that the claim made by environmental and social campaigners that rising levels of consumption have compromised welfare within rich countries in the past 60 years receives justification from the objective theories of welfare defended in the previous chapter. This argument is developed by distinguishing three detailed expressions of the overconsumption claim within the popular and scholarly literature, and arguing that each expression is consistent with and illuminated by practical judgements informed and justified by objective theories of welfare.In chapters 4 and 5 I defend the second of my two central theses: that the moral argument for reducing personal consumption receives justification from virtue ethics. In Chapter 4 I explicate the problem of justifying a moral obligation to refrain from performing actions which are inconsequential in themselves but which aggregate to cause considerable harm, before considering and rejecting two attempts to justify an obligation to refrain from performing such actions made from within consequentialist ethics. In Chapter 5 I propose and defend a virtue ethics-based argument for such a moral obligation. I ground this obligation in the claim that failing to reduce personal consumption constitutes remaining a member of a harming group.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Manchester
Supervisors/Advisors
  • O'Neill, John, Supervisor
  • Scott, Michael, Supervisor
Award date31 Oct 2012
Publisher
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012

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