Sustainable development and the ethical issue of human morality; an overview

I.U. Hussaini1,S.I. Muhammad2, A.H. Chiroma3, C.N. Onunze4 and S.K. Ibrahim5
1.  Department of Architecture, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi – Nigeria; email:
2.  Department of Architecture, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi – Nigeria; email:
3.  Department of Architecture, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi – Nigeria; email:
4.  Department of Architecture, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi – Nigeria; email:
5.  Department of Architecture, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi – Nigeria; email:



Theories and discussions have expounded on the three dimensions of Sustainable Development; – social, economic and environmental. Although, the social dimension tends to address the issues of public health and safety, the quality of life, the impact of development on the local community, etc.; little or no very significant explanation has institutionally been rendered on ethical issues relating to sustainability. However, sustainability and ethical principles are intertwined because sustainability concepts cannot be applied without strong ethical principles. This study is therefore directed at exploring the gap with the objective of determining the possible influence of ethical values to attaining sustainable development. As such, attempt is being made at reviewing the concept of Sustainable Development on the basis of human morality. Thus, a return towards ethicality as the main drive and as background to expounding on the various dimensions of sustainability is proffered.

Keywords: Sustainable Development, Ethical Issue, Human Morality, Dimensions, Overview



Today, there is an increasing focus on the environment and other global societal issues leading to the quest for Sustainable Development in almost all aspects of our lives. This is because the desired quality of life is no longer limited to a better economic standard of living but intrinsically linked to ecological and social sustainability. The emerging concept of sustainable development portends a great potential for human well-being in which the development aspect is concerned with human evolution and activities on both the social and economic levels, while the sustainability aspect addresses the stress that such a development places on the environment [1].

In the words of Jennings [2] a sustainable society lives within the carrying capacity of its natural and social systems. This society embodies a system of rules and incentives that promote replenishing and limit depletion and pollution. Consequently, the ultimate goal of sustainability is to meet the basic needs of all and extend to everyone the opportunity to fulfil their aspirations for a better life, while moderating and renewing the use of finite resources [3]. Thus, the effort to improve environmental quality, the relevant decisions and the moral precepts that lead to a sustainable world should be directed at the transformation of production – in the industry, agriculture, energy and transportation [4].

The concept of sustainable development according to Leff [5] emerges from a common purpose of re-valuating nature as an ethical principle and as general condition for global sustainability of population and production. As such, analyses of ethical theories have proven ethical reasoning to promote social inclusion, public participation, protection and enhancement of the environment and stable economic growth with clear and fair distribution of wealth and levels of consumption [1]. Commitment to sustainable development agendas should therefore be a rational choice based on ethical reasoning, with the understanding that ethical behaviour is closely connected to the welfare of society as a whole, because rational behaviour is much more than rational self-interest, where rationality requires us to consider the interests of others as well as ourselves [6].

This paper therefore attempts to discuss the concept of sustainable development on the basis of human morality arising from established ethical system. On this note Perry Minnis in Huggins [7] recounts;

“You cannot be considered an ethical company if you do not follow sustainability principles. Nor can you apply sustainability concepts if you do not have a strong foundation of ethical principles. The two are intrinsically intertwined ….”

In the same vein, Albert Einstein also relates that;

“The most important human endeavour is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life”



In simple terms, sustainability as a system delivers services without exhausting resources; i.e. uses all resources efficiently both in environmental and economic sense [8]. Ehrenfeld [9] presents that “sustainability is an existential problem, not an environmental or social one and accordingly we cannot and will not begin to take care of the world until we become whole ourselves.” This understanding bothers on human morality. Ehrenfeld [9] further defines sustainability as “the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on earth forever.” This gives a more fundamental meaning than the Brundtland definition which entails meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [10].

Many have elaborated on the principles of morality as the fundamental gateway to achieving sustainability. Gomis et al. [11] contend that sustainability is a moral way of acting, and ideally habitual, in which the person or group intends to avoid deleterious effects on the environmental, social, and economic domains, and which is consistent with a harmonious relationship with those domains that is conducive to a flourishing life. Giving the challenges facing the earth today, a much more meaningful instrument is required to address the limits of the earth’s resilience and our failure to curb consumption. This has to be a new ethical system based on ecological carrying capacity of the earth [12].

Today, we are faced with the daunting problems of greenhouse effect, the destruction of ozone layer, the presence of toxic and nuclear wastes; with such negative effects as the growing disappearance of wilderness areas, a steady loss of biodiversity and even the actual extinction of some species. These problems call for a definite ethical-driven solution approach with an environmental dimension. On this basis, environmental ethics (among other sustainability ethics) becomes very important because the explosive growth of scientific knowledge, followed shortly by a parallel growth in technical ingenuity, has created an explosive growth in moral problems- some unprecedented in human history. In our time …with knowledge come power, and with both knowledge and power, we have lost our innocence. Science and technology and the law, as advance as they are, have not provided the necessary solutions to the worldwide quagmire into which humankind has slipped [13].

Generally, the need for ethical application arises as a concern with actions and practices directed to improving the wellbeing of people [14]. Thus, environmental ethics is concerned with the morality (right and wrong) of human actions as they affect the environment or natural world we live in. The effort is focused on addressing global environmental problems which we are currently familiar with due to the massive increase in global human population; and the associated urbanization, industrialization, and technological advancement. This causes increased pollution of the air, water and soil; and has also added the depletion of these and other important natural resources.

In the light of the moral advocacy, Peter Espeut writes;

“Mankind must respect the integrity of the living system which is the planet Earth; in a real sense the earth has rights. The rights of humans should not supersede Earth rights, but rather be aligned and in balance with them to ensure the survival, diversity, sustainability and harmony of the planet. The pursuit of profit and the right of man to procreate does not supersede the right of Earth to remain in biodiversity and free of danger from pollution.” [15].

 Decisively, the advocated moral practice refers to social norms and values that guide both individuals and their interaction with their fellow human beings and communities, and with their environment. These moral factors are usually interwoven with religious practices and social power structures [16].



“There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul” ….and “Development must include not just material growth but also spiritual growth, since the human person is a “unity of body and soul” (Caritas in Veritate 76) [17].

According to Shih [18], all Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) attach a unique and continuing moral and spiritual significance to the individual persons. This is because man and some other creations of God have an appropriate value and attain a corresponding ethical status. As such, the concern to leave a liveable, viable planet to future generations is one of the crucial points of the principle of equity [19].

The global environment is an agglomeration of multiple facets of existence: politics, economics, education, trade, industry, agriculture, science and technology, etc. But it has been observed that the continuous and growing human activity on the planet Earth is having a great and detrimental impact on the global environment. There is a decline in the biodiversity as a consequence. Thus, the ethical dimension of current environmental problems is centred on the manner of responding to the challenges that humanity has to face. And imbibing religious (environmental) ethics is a cardinal weapon to attaining this objective.

“Development is impossible without upright men and women, without financiers and politicians whose consciences are finely attuned to the requirements of the common good” (Caritas in veritate 44 & 71) [17].

Accordingly, Islam postulates thus;

“Do not harm others (living and non-living) and others should not harm you” (Ahmad).

“The world is green and beautiful and Allah has appointed you His stewards over it” (Muslim).

Hence, the obligation of Shari’ah in Islam according to Imam AlGhazali is to provide the well-being of all mankind which lies in safeguarding their faith, their human self, their intellect, their progeny and their wealth (environment inclusive)” [19].

Consequently, human beings are assigned responsibility for the care, use, and enjoyment of animal creatures, but they are not granted licence for their mechanistic manipulation, transgenic innovation, or ruthless violation, leading to ‘Play God Syndrome’ [18]. On this ground, it is argued that scientists within the framework of synthetic biology should not ‘play God.’ This is because they (scientists) might not be able to control their creation [20].

However, the frantic effort to ‘Play God the Creator’ profound in the practice of modern science (synthetic biology/biotechnology) which eulogizes the manipulation of creation (changing nature of creation) is a satanic machination. The Qur’an attests to this fact as follows;

“Allah cursed him (Satan). And he (Satan) said, ‘I will take an appointed portion of your slaves. Verily, I will mislead them, and surely, I will arouse in them false desires; and certainly, I will order them to slit the ears of cattle and indeed, I will order them to change the nature created by Allah.’ Whoever takes Satan as a protector or helper instead of Allah has surely suffered a manifest loss. Satan makes promises to them and arouses in them false desires but Satan’s promises are nothing but deceptions” (Qur’an, 4: 119-120).

According to Granoff [21] all human beings of any kind and every race ….are of immeasurable value, possess inherent inviolable dignity, and are sacred; and should not be in any way or form an object of abuse.

Interestingly, General Omar Bradley in Granoff [21] also relates thus;

“We live in an age of nuclear giants and ethical infants, in a world that has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. We have solved the mystery of the atom and forgotten the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about dying than we know about living.”

Finally, there is a clear duty to act to save live and the environment of today and those of the future on the ethical basis of religion that connotes God-consciousness, Personal conscience and Self-accountability.



“We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children”- Native American saying [14].

Ethics and the practice of ethics for a sustainable world is the crux of the discussion; and understanding it is the objective of this study.

Concisely, ethics may be defined as a system of moral principles which describes appropriate conduct for an individual or group; or as the study of moral standards and how they affect behaviour. These principles are fundamental to wise practises because rules alone don’t necessarily change people. There is need for people to acquire sustainable habits so that they can be personally accountable and responsible even when the leader or circumstance changes [15]. This is the actual basis for consideration of ethics in sustainability practice; and is viewed from two aspects. The first concerns the ability to discern what is right from wrong, good from evil, and propriety from impropriety. The second involves the commitment to do what is right, good and proper. On this premise, ethics entails action, and not just a topic to contemplate or debate [22].

A more recent task of ethics is to resist the fashionable tendencies of globalization, marketization and technologization that erode biodiversity and valuable aspects of cultural identity- and may even have effects that threaten human rights. Although, these tendencies are often presented as value-neutral, they carry with them hidden assumptions that are potential sources of inequity and abuse [16].

In an attempt to underscore the need for ethicality in sustainable development, two ‘Schools of Thought’ have emerged as anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic schools of thought respectively.

  1. Anthropomorphic school of thought (otherwise known as shallow ecology) believes that our responsibility to the environment is only an indirect one and is based on our responsibilities to other people. This school is human-centred. This understanding focuses on how the condition of the environment affects people, both in the present and in future generations. In other words, we have a duty to make sure that Earth stays in good enough shape so that human is supported.
  2. A non-anthropomorphic school of thought (referred to as deep ecology) sees that all forms of life have an intrinsic (essential or basic) right to exist in the natural environment. This point of view gives what is called ‘Moral Standing’ to animals and plants; and argues that they like humans are to be considered “morally significant persons.” It relates that humans have a direct responsibility toward maintaining the environment for all forms of life [23].

Nonetheless, the practice of ethicality should incorporate a moral dimension that sets out a code of behavioural principles. These should be prepared by organizations (often non-governmental) when there is no law or adequate national or international laws existing to guide people in making particular decisions. This should articulate a set of values based on notions of achieving the highest possible good [15].

In preparing the codes of ethics, the following factors should be taken into account;

  • Clarity: avoid ambiguity in statements,
  • Effectiveness: existence of code should be well known,
  •  Enforcement: put mechanism in place to encourage persons to follow the code.
  • Re-enforcing action by the State:   State may wish to pass certain laws that support main concerns of the code.
  • Legal implications:
  • Dissemination and education: this is vital in ensuring the efficacy of the code [15].
  1. Practice of Ethicality
    1. Recognise interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognise even distant effects.
    2. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement, including community, dwelling, industry and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
    3. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems, and their rights to co-exist.
    4. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creation of products, processes or standards.
    5. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full lifecycle of product and processes to approach natural systems, in which there is no waste.
    6. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
    7. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever, and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not an inconvenience to be evaded and controlled.
    8. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long-term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and to establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.
    9. Recognition of the existence of God Almighty. Promote the recognition of God as the Sole Creator of the Universe and all that is within it, with a specific purpose. Understand the symbiotic co-existence of nature as a divine clue to sustainability.
    10. Accept the role of ‘master’ of the environment, and as ‘vicegerent’ of God. Man is a vicegerent of God on earth charged with the responsibility of the total upkeep of the environment. He must not fail in the discharge of his duty to ensure sustainability.
    11. Always subdue the self from the danger of ‘Play God Syndrome.’ Always guard against ‘Play God’ tendency which may arise due to arrogance in demonstrating an exclusive knowledge or discovery. This tendency is liable to derailing the course of sustainability.

One of the prime challenges of sustainable development is how the moral precepts can be reduced to practice. However, it is understood that people are concerned with their values according to ethical and/or moral standards and, are said to be principle driven. These inherent values give a general idea of the behaviours of people. But the remarkable question is how would the principles of sustainability with set out values (life-style priorities) be developed and efficiently practiced?

The ‘Hanover Principles’ [24] has proffered that we should insist on the right of humanity, and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable conditions by adopting the following precepts;

In addition to the above-stated Hanover Principle, this paper prescribes the following precepts;



The quest for a sustainable world in which man and other life in the environment would co-exist in a flourishing manner now and in the future has prompted the need to determine the effects of morality and ethics on sustainable development. However, theoretical reviews and analyses have revealed that ethical values are the basis of decision-making and action in accordance with ideal accepted in a given moral system. Such values are promoted through ethical principles which would assist to transform the behaviour of the people in the society. In fact, undertaking ethical analysis helps to identify human and non-human interests, and the value of ecosystem as a whole. Therefore, addressing the well-being of the ecosystem in itself and the basic human interests, and the long-term social benefits thereof becomes a crucial assignment. This would eventually lead to accomplishing the objective of sustainability in meeting the basic human needs of welfare, freedom and justice for the present and also for future generations through the application of the overall sustainability ethics. This paper therefore recommends further studies on specific dimensions of sustainability ethics like bioethics, care ethics, environmental ethics, climate change ethics, administration ethics, development ethics, ethics of science and technology, etc. for better understanding, participation and implementation of sustainability endeavours.



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