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Sci Eng Ethics. 2017 Aug;23(4):969-987. doi: 10.1007/s11948-016-9850-6. Epub 2016 Nov 24.

Realism and Impartiality: Making Sustainability Effective in Decision-Making.

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Department of Business Administration, Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, C/Immaculada, 22, 08017, Barcelona, Spain.
School of Architecture, Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, C/Immaculada, 22, 08017, Barcelona, Spain.


There is both individual and collective widespread concern in society about the impact of human activity and the effects of our decisions on the physical and social environment. This concern is included within the idea of sustainability. The meaning of the concept is still ambiguous and its practical effectiveness disputed. Like many other authors, this article uses as a starting point the definition proposed by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Our common future, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987), considering it to be a proposal for changing the assessment of the effects of decisions, from at least two perspectives: (1) what effects we should consider and (2) how we should assess them. Based on this double perspective, sustainability is explored as a method for decision-making which both expands the assessment of the consequences, and also provides an objective criterion for such assessment. It will be argued that the idea of sustainability, seen from this perspective, brings to decision-making two qualities which had been partially lost: realism and impartiality. In turn, the criteria for realism and impartiality in decision-making can be used to identify the limitations of some partial approaches to sustainability, which suffer from insufficient realism (emotional altruism), insufficient impartiality (tactical altruism) or both phenomena at once (egoism). The article concludes by demonstrating how realism and impartiality provide the basis for a new form of sustainable decision-making (ethical sustainability), which is dependent on the development of two moral virtues, prudence and benevolence, and which brings practical effectiveness and ethical sense to the concept of sustainability.


Ethical decision-making; Ethical virtues; Impartiality; Prudence; Realism; Sustainability

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