Apathy How to do ethics and be ethical philosophical ethics

Whilst normative ethics helps in revealing the interplay of value judgements, more specific questions on what to do can draw on traditions of moral philosophy. Philosophical ethics is about searching for answers to questions about:

i) doing what's good (or harmful), and ii) doing what's right (or wrong) The first question invites consideration of the consequence of a decision and appropriate ways of measuring the consequences. The second invites consideration to the intention behind any decision and any particular obligations behind such intention. Table 1 provides some ideas about the kinds of benefit/harm and rights/wrongs that might be looked at in association with each of the four main issues arising from the Narmada Dam Project. (It should be noted that, as with any philosophical abstraction, the categorisation into 'good' or 'right' is a slightly artificial one and there is not always a clear distinction between them.)

The responses to each question - what's good and what's right - in relation to any issue can be contested. For example, on the issue of agricultural practice some might suggest that a more appropriate 'good' from an anthropocentric perspective would be to improve intensity of production. Further contestation may arise in privileging one type of question over another. Should a focus on 'rights' and obligations be advanced in spite of the effects of action, or vice versa? An obligation to respect nature may for example be inappropriate in circumstances where the effect is to further human impoverishment. Similarly, a focus on maximising human welfare may infringe on the rights of other life-forms to flourish. Reference to value judgements and associated perspectives (Box 2) can help make sense of these conflicts.

Environmental ethics also addresses character attributes around 'being' ethical or environmentally responsible. This invokes a third tradition in philosophical ethics drawing upon Western (e.g. Ancient Greek) and Eastern (e.g. Buddhism and Taoism) philosophy:

table 1 Philosophical ethics: what to do?

Issues around Narmada Dam Project

Doingwhat's good (not harmful) Measures of success

Doingwhat's right (not wrong) Intentions and obligations

Water access and quality

Urban and rural economic development

Agricultural practice and technological development

Ecological impacts

Improve quality of water and access to clean water (avoid disease and drought)

Improve quality of life for citizens (avoid poverty and use of only economic indices)

Improve range of productive capacities for farming (avoid loss of ecologically sustainable fanning skills)

Improve quality of the natural environment (avoid ecological deterioration)

Provide universal access to clean water (not reinforcing or developing skewed access)

Provide opportunity for all humans to flourish (not constraining humans from flourishing)

Provide expertise to support appropriate practice (not contriving a simplistic solution)

Provide protection against ecological destruction (not ignoring wider obligations to nature)

table 2 Philosophical ethics: how to be?

d a a r u t lu c d n a table 2 Philosophical ethics: how to be?

Issues around Narmada Dam Project



Water access and quality



Urban and rural economic development



Agricultural practice and technology progress



Ecological impacts



iii) being virtuous (or non-virtuous) Table 2 summarises some virtues and non-virtuous ('vice') character attributes that might be associated with each of the Narmada issues.

Identifying human character attributes can help to ground instinctive feelings about responsibilities and make more relevant discussion about consequences of 'good' action and the obligations implied by 'right' action. As well as mediating discussion between Western and Eastern traditions, it also helps with appreciating the many helpful ideas of human-nature relationships amongst existing indigenous tribal communities.

The risk of philosophical ethics though is in confining it to academic discourse - a sure way of generating cynicism! So another task is to keep ethics alive and integral to all deliberations around planning and politics.

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