Ethics in Sustainability

The Importance of Teaching Ethics of Sustainability

Kelly Biedenweg, Martha C. Monroe, and Annie Oxarart in International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education


Although the college has a course on environmental ethics, the greater question perhaps is whether environmental ethics is important in the discourse or the practical application of sustainability. Studying within a Liberal Arts College, it is perhaps normal that ethical discourse generally permeates our education. Biedenwag, Monroe, and Oxarart argue that a foundation in ethics provide a structure to understand the moral basis for decision making processes for students when they embark on professional careers, especially in fields pertaining to sustainability. They formulated a sustainability ethics course targeted specifically at students from the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); fields where emphasis is not placed on the ethical or social considerations of sustainability. However, they argue that ethical considerations in these fields are important for these fields are the ones that contribute fresh ideas that further society’s development.

The course was arranged into three sections. The first tackled the challenges to sustainability and the role of technology in meeting these challenges. The second section emphasized how ethical issues related to sustainability issues. Lastly, the course covered specific ethical principles, namely, social justice concepts of equitable distribution, the precautionary principle, and the golden and platinum rules. These principles were paired with practical tools that include systems thinking, multi-stakeholder processes, full-cost analyses, and polluter pays policies. During the course evaluation, students were especially taken in by the multi-stakeholder process role-play for determining policies. Additionally, they remarked on the greater understanding of diverse ethical principles normally passed over, or left out of discussions pertaining to technology and decision-making. Critically for the students, they felt that the ability to visualize and understand how to clearly, and practically implement ethical principles within their professional fields was necessary. The writers conclude that research within the field of sustainability should consider at what stage of a student’s education, and in what fields, would a course in sustainability ethics be most effective.

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