Research School for Socio-Economic and
Natural Sciences of the Environment
Research School for Socio-Economic and
Natural Sciences of the Environment
Agenda

Copernicus Sustainability Lecture prof. Bert de Vries: Ethics and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): a critical reflection

Date: 02 November 2017
Time: 15:30 - 17:00
Location: Ruppert D, Leuvenlaan 21, 3584 CE Utrecht

In this lecture, Bert de Vries will first give a critical account of two features of the SDGs. First, there is no proper account of the (sub)national governance structures and regimes that are necessary to direct economic growth in the direction of the SDGs. This is particularly relevant in view of the common pool and public good character of many of the services to be delivered (health, education, environmental). Secondly, the planetary constraints as already explored in the 1972 report Limits to Growth are included in a deficient way. The trade-offs between the development goals on the one hand and the ecological sustainability goals on the other remain unexplored, whereas technology is considered the means by which such trade-offs can be resolved.

Against this background, the SDGs have to be judged as a typical product of Modernity. They are formulated within a Modernity bubble – or prison – that is characterized by a mixture of Enlightenment optimism about science and technology and belief in the universality of human rights.

In the second part of the lecture, Bert de Vries will reflect on the ethical context of the SDGs. They often function as a new morality in the humanist tradition, almost as a new religious ideal. He will evaluate this aspect in the broader context of worldviews as introduced by Van Egmond and De Vries (Futures 43(2011)853). Until a few centuries ago, most societies were submerged in mixtures of traditional moral systems. In Europe, classical Greek and medieval Judeo-Christian ethics was dominant, other religion-inspired ethical philosophies developed in Asia and the Midle East. During the last few centuries of the Industrial Era, initiated with Renaissance and Enlightenment, rationalism, liberalism and utilitarianism became the dominant ethical frameworks of Modernity.

How can the SDGs be reconciled with any one of these frameworks? Modernity undergoes the eroding forces of 20st century science and capitalism- and technology-driven globalization – the world did arrive in Postmodernism. Are there signs of an ethics of Postmodernity, and, if so, what does this mean for the realism and feasibility of the SDGs?