Sustainable development

Image: Min An


A concept that is not yet a priority for society, due to man's search and inclinations for other things, such as maximum profit and the “exosomatic wonders” of postmodern society


Lately, the issue of sustainable development has received great attention in the press, with the recent publication of international reports and their conclusions on the planet's climate problems. Often, warnings from these studies are published by the media, without taking due consideration of certain issues that are at the heart of the problem.

In the 1970s, concern with sustainable development began to become latent through the publication, by the Club of Rome,[I] of the work Limits to growth, which defined five points that inhibit economic growth: population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production and contamination. From then on, discussions and debates about sustainable development grew, with its concept being generalized from the Brundtland report (1987) and reaching its peak at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, in Rio de Janeiro. , in 1992, where Agenda 21 was defined – a set of assumptions that nations should adopt with a view to sustainability.

In the Brundtland report, sustainable development is defined as development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). From this concept, the discussion has evolved, almost always revolving around the search for a supposed balance between the economic, social and environmental dimensions.

Whether at the level of nations (Gladwin et al., 1995; Banerjee, 2003; Greaker, 2003; Anton et al., 2004; Spangenberger, 2004), whether at the level of business management (Buysse; Verbeke, 2003; Russo, 2003; Bansal, 2005; Sharma; Henriques, 2005; Barin-Cruz et al., 2006), at the ontological-religious level (Francisco, 2023), or even through the impact on structural changes in economic activities (Guarini; Oreiro, 2024), sustainable development entered the agenda of concerns of public and private managers.

From this perspective, considering individual ethics, based on the Kantian categorical imperative, the behavior of each individual should be based on the following maxim: “act in such a way that the maxim of your actions can become a universal law, or even, act so that the reason that led you to act like this can be converted into universal law.” Would it be plausible, then, to consider sustainable development based on the Kantian categorical imperative? If so, what would be its implications?


Ethics can be defined as the discipline that deals with human action and its rules, principles or ideals, in order to determine the best way to act individually or socially in the relationship between men, that is, ethics implies a relationship with the other being.

The object of study of research involving ethics focuses on human acts, that is, voluntary and conscious human acts that affect other individuals, other social groups and other people.

Ethical issues, despite being more studied by philosophers, cannot be usurped by philosophy, according to Mendonça (2003), as they involve transdisciplinary concepts such as freedom, justice, sociability, sustainability, value, need, etc., shared with different knowledge areas.

For Immanuel Kant (2003), ethics consists of not taking people as a means or as an end. Kantian ethics is autonomous and formal, in that it formulates a duty for men independent of their social and economic conditions, since they are free, active, producing and creative beings.

Kant's ideas are a logical result of his belief in the fundamental freedom of the individual, as stated in his Critique of Practical Reason (2004). This freedom cannot be confused with anarchism, but should be understood more as the freedom of self-government – ​​the freedom to consciously obey universal laws as revealed by reason.

The Kantian categorical imperative can be formulated as follows: act in such a way that the maxim of your actions can become a universal law, or even act in such a way that the reason that led you to act like that can be converted into a universal law. Thus, it demands from all individuals the fulfillment of moral duty and provides, for this, the criterion of universal law, or rather, of the maxims according to which the respective actions are practiced (HAMM, 2003).

In order to try to better exemplify the categorical imperative, Kant (2003) presents four examples: suicide, lying, hiding talents and concern for others.

Kant (2003) first tries to explain the universal law and the categorical imperative with the relationship between a person who finds himself in extreme difficulties and thinks about committing suicide. From there, the first Kantian question arises, that is, whether it is possible to transform suicide into a universal law. Obviously not, he says, since, no matter how great the difficulties, death can never be the solution to problems.

The second point that Kant (2003) discusses, to outline the categorical imperative, is lying, that is, a person finds himself in great difficulties, tries to borrow money and says that he will pay off the debt on a certain date. She knows she won't be able to honor her commitment, but if she doesn't ask, she won't get the money she needs. Hence the second question arises: whether it is possible to make lying a universal law, that is, whether all men must lie to achieve their goals.

The third point to support the categorical imperative used by Kant (2003) is the hiding of talents. If a person has certain abilities and does not strive to improve them, this cannot become a universal law, because, according to Kant, this behavior does not encourage people to improve their potential and face challenges.

Finally, the last point that Kant (2003) makes clear is illustrated in the case of a person who sees a similar person in need and could help alleviate their pain and does absolutely nothing. In this sense, Kant (2003) questions whether the lack of solidarity could become a universal law. No, because without any solidarity, the human species could not survive.

From the explanation of the categorical imperative, the question arises of how to determine whether the personal maxim should be elevated to the status of universal law, introducing the concept of good will in this context. For Kant (2003), a good will is free, autonomous, and actions are neither determined nor causal. In this way, they are prerequisites for man's action and for defining whether what he is practicing could be a universal law; However, many times, man's choices and actions result in him not having good will. According to Pascal (2005), in man, the will is often not good, due to inclinations and sensitivity towards certain things, acts and people.

Based on these Kantian concepts, a relationship can be made mixing elements of epistemology about sustainable development with Kantian philosophical assumptions. Men know that sustainable development is a fundamental prerequisite for future generations to live in a livable society, or rather, on a planet that is sustainable from an economic, social, political and cultural point of view, but why doesn't society Are you concerned with sustainable development and don't you make this a universal law, along the lines of the Kantian categorical imperative?

We are beginning to notice the involvement of more sectors of society, who are calling for the search for solutions that take sustainable development into account. Universities, NGOs, private and public organizations, some governments and the media. This movement that has been advancing in recent years has awakened the consciousness of more and more individuals.

In this sense, progress still needs to be made. Man's attitudes are often not entirely autonomous, since he often seeks maximum profit, has opportunistic attitudes, leaning towards ideologies, vissitudes, relativism, the “fashions of the moment” and, in this way, his attitude of making the search for sustainable development a universal law ends up taking a backseat. However, this option could compromise the future of the next generations, who may have to live in inhospitable and unhealthy environments, as a consequence of the attitudes of men without social, political and economic commitment to their fellow human beings and the planet on which they live.

The foundations of Kantian ethics remain current, since, with the good will of men, the search for sustainable development could be considered a universal law. However, as Kant (2003) warned, man often, due to his attitudes, inclinations and preferences, does not have good will. In a way, today, this is what still happens with sustainable development. It is a concept that is not yet a priority for society, due to man's search and inclinations for other things, such as maximum profit and the “exosomatic wonders” of postmodern society.

*Daniel Arruda Colonel is a professor at the Department of Economics and International Relations at the Federal University of Santa Maria (UFSM).

*José Maria Alves da Silva He is a retired professor at the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV).


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[I] The Club of Rome emerged in 1968, formed by scientists of different nationalities, with the aim of discussing the problems that afflicted humanity, as well as, based on concrete policies, aiming to solve these problems.

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