Business and the Environment:
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?
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?
The OED defines environment as “That which
environs; the objects or the region surrounding
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
We make a mistake when we treat the environment as if it
were something external to human concerns and activities.
Humans are part of the environment, but there are
important differences between us and other
The differences are both quantitative and
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.
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
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,
Sources of Responsibility
Given the force of these questions, it
is important to consider resources
from which we may be able to secure
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
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
Ex. Economic values conflicting with
How do we resolve these conflicts?
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
Choices and activities engaged in by businesses
clearly impact the environment just like those of
If there are individual responsibilities to the
environment, it seems reasonable to conclude that
there are responsibilities that businesses have as
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
This consideration provides us with
another context for assessing these
The Classical Model and the
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
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
According to the MM Model, some goods/values are
so fundamental they should be exempt from
Such goods are appropriate objects of government
regulation: Clean Air Act.
Beyond concern for the values thus protected,
businesses have no specifiable environmental
Criticisms of the MM Model’s
Are the laws really a reflection of the beliefs
and interests of the citizenry? Who has a
greater capacity to shape legislation: industry
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
Many have argued that businesses should not be put off
by the complexity of the issues raised by talk of
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
Bowie, “Morality, Money and Motor
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
Business has an obligation to avoid
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.
Businesses should not oppose environmental
Business escapes special obligations because it is willing
to respond to consumer preferences.
Consumers often cannot express their preferences in the
The political arena is the only other viable forum in
which consumers express their preferences.
Business lobbying interferes with the expression of these
Since point 4 is inconsistent with point 1, business should
not intervene in the political process.
Business has a special obligation to educate
consumers about environmentally
Business has no problem leading consumer
Business has expertise about environmental
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
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
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 nonU.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
Harm to Others
Preferences typically entail a claim on
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
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
The transportation and electricity
generation sectors should be held
accountable for their GHG emissions
Target goals for reduced emissions in
the transportation and energy sectors
corresponding to past emissions.
Appropriate tax incentives for CO2
Significant penalties for failing to
meet CO2 emissions targets.