Eli Fulcher, Fall 2021

Utilitarian ethics follow a simple rule: a good action is one that maximizes good in the
world. The best action is the one that produces the best outcome. This makes some equations
easy: two lives saved is better than one. But some comparisons aren’t so easy to make. Which
will create more good in the world: cutting down a tree to build a house, or leaving the tree live,
and by extension all the creatures that it supports. In order to judge these two outcomes, we need
a universal language, so we turn to numbers, to quantify each outcome.

In Donald Worster’s paper “The Value of a Varmint,” he explains that the original
American Conservation movement was founded on this value. Teddy Roosevelt and his Chief of
the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, fought to create a system of national forests, not for the sake
of the forest, but so that the resources of the forest could be extracted slowly, for the most
economic benefit.

In a capitalist society, utilitarian ethics make everything into a conversation about money.
It costs $0.82 to industrially process the same amount of water that one oyster filters in a year,
but that oyster could also be sold to a restaurant for $1 in fishing revenue. One sand dune
prevents $X of hurricane damage, but represents $Y of lost real estate value on beaches that
could be developed. I took a public policy class last year where, in groups, we had to come up
with a policy solution to a problem of our choosing. as part of our solution, we had to create a
cost-benefit analysis, proving why our solution was economically viable(as in, it produced
money). My group chose to focus on agricultural runoff into the Chesapeake bay, which creates
ongoing fish kills, vegetation die offs, and a loss of habitat for myriad other species. For our cost
benefit analysis, I found myself looking up numbers on lost tourism revenue, and decreased
property values, as if the only way I could relate to mass death was by filtering it through the
question: how will this affect the economy?

Even in the 2018 ICE report “We Rise Together,” with its focus on justice for Indigenous
communities, the non-native audience has to be assured that yes, you will receive ecosystem
services from this! you will benefit economically! as if it wasn’t enough to pursue justice for its
own sake.

At first glance, utilitarian ethics seem like a no-brainer. Of course we want to create the
most good in the world that we possibly can! The problem for conservation comes when we stop
seeing the world as alive, and start seeing it as a series of numbers

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