Utilitarianism and Environmental Conservation

The increasing environmental issues, such as climate change, regular earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides, signify the need for alternative approaches to mitigate the causes or reinforce defenses. Targeting human activities is one of the leading interventions policymakers consider to address the growing cases of environmental degradation. On this note, utilitarianism ethics provides a means to address the exploitation and exploration of the environment, contributing to the ongoing conservation issues. Utilitarianism is an ethical principle popularized by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, holding that the morality of any action depends on the magnitude of its consequences. In this regard, utilitarianism posits that the moral worth of an action is determined by its consequences, specifically the maximization of overall happiness or utility. Hence, acts promoting the most excellent good are morally right, while those encouraging pain or reducing overall happiness are ethically wrong. Applying practical perspectives in environmental conservation remains relevant, considering the threat facing ecosystems and declining biodiversity. In navigating the complexities of environmental ethics and policy, the practical framework emerges as a compelling lens to assess and guide conservation efforts. However, utilitarianism is an object of opposition for promoting destructive practices contributing to environmental problems that serve the most significant number of people. Despite some criticisms, utilitarianism offers one of the most convincing philosophical rationales behind developing and implementing environmental policies and practices.

Philosophical Position

Utilitarianism stands as a compelling philosophical framework for evaluating environmental policies and practices due to its capacity to offer a clear and objective criterion for decision-making. At its core, utilitarianism prioritizes maximizing overall happiness or utility, considering the well-being of all affected parties, including humans, animals, and ecosystems. This comprehensive approach ensures that environmental decisions consider justice, equity, and the greater good. Udoudom (2021) states that the practical framework links morality to human welfare, with nature serving human interests. This perspective leads to an indirect obligation to nature, weighing the interests of diverse stakeholders and evaluating the consequences of alternative courses of action. By considering the impacts of environmental policies on human welfare, animal welfare, and ecosystem health, utilitarianism promotes an inclusive approach to decision-making that seeks to maximize overall well-being. A study in Poland shows how the valuable approach offers practical interventions for managing environmental issues in developed nations. In this study, Wawrzyniak (2019) explores the application of utilitarianism based on a case from Puszcza Notecka (the Notecka Big Forest) in Poland to understand the concept from the context of European economic realities. The decision to stop the project reflected utilitarianism ideals, although it worked against the locals. The analysis shows the social reception of the utilitarian paradigm in contemporary environmental protection policies recognizing the interconnectedness of human societies and natural systems. Utilitarianism, in this sense, emphasizes balancing competing interests and minimizing harm to vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

In addition, the principles of utilitarianism emphasize long-term impact and sustainability in environmental decisions. It tells us to have foresight and prudence in natural resources management and conservation by only focusing on the activities that lead to maximum net benefits in the long term. Several measures to promote ethical business practices that foster environmental conservation are seen in the Indian case. Jain (2020) maintains that the Indian government prohibits greenwashing, which provides consumers with false information about their environmental commitment or the ecological benefits of a product or service. Most ethicists consider greenwashing unethical because it provides consumers with wrong information and thus gives an impression of environmental sustainability, which leads to considerable skepticism on the part of many consumers. This consideration of sustainability resonates with the goal of conservation. It stimulates practices that conserve natural resources, preserve biodiversity, and protect ecological integrity so that future generations will be assured of having the same in the long-term. Weddell (2023) affirms that utilitarianism offers a very flexible and adaptive model of protecting certain species in the long term using economically viable ones. The pragmatic conservation approach considers changed circumstances and new ethical considerations based on a better understanding of environmental problems. This model offers a principled approach to addressing emerging challenges and reconciling competing interests (Di Paola, 2024). Whether evaluating the trade-offs between economic development and environmental protection or assessing the ethical implications of emerging technologies, utilitarianism provides a systematic methodology for weighing the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action.

TheStrongest Objection

The most substantial criticism against the practical approach to conservation lies in the accusation of anthropocentrism. Critics will insistently attack utilitarianism for claiming anthropocentric arguments over environmental ethics. Anthropocentrism refers to perspectives based on the practical theory of ethics, including human well-being and rights (Kahane & Caviola, 2023). It argues that due to the unique intrinsic characteristics of human beings, they have a higher value than the rest of living and non-living species. The emphasis laid on the anthropocentric views of human perspectives shows that humans are the ones who think they are in control of nature and the whole world because their needs and welfare are satisfied at the cost of the embeddedness of natural objects and ecosystems. Prevailing anthropocentrism implies that utilitarianism’s environmental conservation effect can be destructive since it may result in decision-making prioritizing human comfort over natural machine integrity and non-human welfare (Kahane & Caviola, 2023). Most of the time, utilitarianism, in its quest for the highest good for most people, results in a utilitarian calculus where human needs and desires have a disproportionate share of importance. Consequently, it is argued that an anthropocentric view is one through which ethics forgets the entities of nature, and humans cannot pass moral judgment on the activities of non-living beings and animals. Natural objects and ecosystems have value.

Besides, utilitarianism creates inequities in the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, hitting hard at the most defenseless: non-human species and, importantly, marginalized groups. This human-centered focus results in an unfair apportionment of environmental resources and risks, usually benefiting the more powerful and privileged at the expense of the weak and vulnerable communities and ecosystems. Ezedike (2020) reveals that an anthropocentric-utilitarian tradition is inherent in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, where the unfair distribution of resources and returns continues to thrive, mainly because human greed and relativistic business ethics, coupled with poor public enlightenment on the moral responsibility of people to the environment, tend to aggravate the situation. From this viewpoint, the practical focus on maximizing aggregate happiness or utility results in policies and practices prioritizing short-run human gains at the cost of long-run ecological sustainability. It grounds its thinking on economic development and exploitation of natural resources as opposed to environmental conservation and protection, therefore causing the dire exploitation of natural resources and the undoing of ecosystems.

Response to Objection

While the critics raise valid objections against utilitarianism and its utility in environmental ethics, they overlook critical points that strengthen the sustainable application of the doctrine in conservation. The objection against the utilitarianism of conservation as anthropocentric raises significant points that cannot be ignored. However, it evades the nuances of practical principles and does not consider whether utilitarianism can be invoked to handle environmental concerns comprehensively and equitably. First, although utilitarianism places human well-being primarily, it does not necessarily make it pitiful to the intrinsic value of natural objects and ecosystems (Akpan et al., 2020). Instead, it aims at maximizing general happiness or utility for all sentient beings, including humans, animals, and ecosystems. The welfare of all beings must be considered, and utilitarianism recognizes life interconnections, making the ecological integrity of concern to all beings that exist presently and in the future.

Moreover, utilitarianism, viewed through a wider-angle lens, can accommodate the interest of diversified stakeholders, which includes marginalized communities and non-human species. Recent evidence from the research indicates that utilitarianism emphasizes maximizing overall well-being for all individuals. The study of Bufolfsson et al. (2021) concludes that utilitarianism contributes to the analysis of how different countries view climate policies simultaneously and how they can benefit accordingly. This approach, according to Lapostolle and Challéat (2021), is based on inequality in wealth and resources at the global level against the background of the point of departure, which is unequal. The guidelines recommend distinct carbon emission goal reduction based on a country’s capability to sustain its citizens’ health and well-being. Utilitarianism attains such goals by offering a straightforward, transparent method for measuring equity in climate policy to improve international cooperation and agreements. Hence, this study shows that the practical benchmark promotes human development and living standards for the global poor by an equitable reallocation of emissions constraints. Human well-being and the interests of future generations provide a morally sound reason to investigate climate change, complementing analyses focusing on historical responsibility for past emissions. Utilitarianism challenges the disparities created through anthropocentric perspectives.

In addition, the critics overlook the new directions of the practical school of thought, such as enlightened and extended utilitarianism. Enlightened anthropocentrism posits that humans must take nature morally, even though it is a second priority to human needs (Udoudom, 2021). The perspective seems anthropocentric as it is interested in the utility of nature to human beings. Still, enlightened anthropocentrism thinks humans should mind nature, though human needs are prioritized. This perspective further considers that environmental conservation helps human beings’ long-term happiness and welfare. In this respect, humans must protect nature to maintain access to resources such as clean air and water for flourishing. Furthermore, extended anthropocentrism is concerned with the welfare of generations. Udoudom (2021) emphasizes that extended anthropocentrism stresses that environmental protection is vital to the welfare of future generations. This is in line with utilitarianism’s central principle of intergenerational equity. Such perspectives recognize the importance of consideration for the welfare of future generations in environmental decision-making. In both perspectives, ethical behaviors will be encouraged to benefit the present and future human populations by upholding long-term sustainability over short-term benefits.


Increasing problems, like global warming, earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides, raise the need for alternative solutions. Utilitarianism ethics can solve the problems by focusing on human activities that are among the most dominant causes of environmental degradation. It can offer a compelling philosophical approach to evaluating environmental policies and practices because it provides a clear and objective choice criterion. This comprehensive approach ensures that environmental decisions reflect justice, equity, and the greater good. This model provides a principled way of meeting emerging challenges and accommodating competing interests. Therefore, utilitarianism emphasizes the maximization of general well-being and offers a compelling rationale for adopting this philosophy as a guiding philosophical framework in environmental conservation.


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Budolfson, M. B., Anthoff, D., Dennig, F., Errickson, F., Kuruc, K., Spears, D., & Dubash, N. K. (2021). Utilitarian benchmarks for emissions and pledges promote equity, climate and development. Nature Climate Change, 11(10), 827-833. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01130-6

Di Paola, M. (2024). Virtue, environmental ethics, nonhuman values, and anthropocentrism. Philosophies, 9(1), 15. https://doi.org/10.3390/philosophies9010015

Ezedike, E. U. (2020). Anthropocentric-utilitarian tradition and the quest for environmental justice in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Britain International of Humanities and Social Sciences (BIoHS) Journal2(1), 247-255.

Jain, H. (2020). Mandatory corporate social responsibility: A utilitarian and deontological perspective. Open Journal of Business and Management8(5), 2278-2284.

Kahane, G., & Caviola, L. (2023). Are the folk utilitarian about animals? Philosophical Studies180(4), 1081-1103.

Lapostolle, D., & Challéat, S. (2021). Making darkness a place-based resource: How the fight against light pollution reconfigures rural areas in France. Annals of the American Association of Geographers111(1), 196-215.

Udoudom, M. (2021). The value of nature: Utilitarian perspective. GNOSI: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Human Theory and Praxis4(1 (May)), 31-46.

Wawrzyniak, J. R. (2019). The utilitarian stigma of environmental protection. Conatus – Journal of Philosophy3(1), 89–110. https://doi.org/10.12681/conatus.18368

Weddell, B. J. (2023). Maintaining populations of featured species: A utilitarian approach to conservation. In Conservation in the Context of a Changing World: Concepts, Strategies, and Evidence (pp. 13–114). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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