Siirry sisältöön
Ethics of Sustainability

In our multi-faceted world making sustainable choices requires also taking ethical questions into consideration.


Crister Nyberg

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Jani Siirilä

yliopettaja, vaikuttava ammatillinen pedagogiikka
principal lecturer, engaging vocational pedagogy
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 17.03.2022

Actions enhancing sustainable development are often considered as straight forward choices that all of us can make. This is partly right. The decisions we make have essential impact on our planet and every individuals’ actions matter. The bad news is the nature of the questions concerning a sustainable lifestyle.

Tackling wicked problems with systems thinking

Because of the complexity of achieving sustainability it has been argued that sustainability represents a wicked problem (Murphy, 2012). A wicked problem involves a large number of factors and variables. Aspects and phenomena are not detached from one another. By using systems thinking, we are able to analyse structures and ways of thinking that generate and maintain problems.

Let´s look at an example. Global market economy enables aspects and assets that we perceive as cornerstones of Western well-being. However, it also creates challenges that are extremely difficult to solve, such as climate change, inequality, diminishing the state of the environment, or global economic inequality. That is one ‘wicked problem’ for sure.

The nature of wicked problems and the special challenges of sustainability shows us, that understanding and enhancing sustainable development requires some specific skills. We claim that an especially useful skill in enhancing sustainability is the combination of systemic thinking and an ability to recognise conflicting interests i.e. ethical dilemmas.

Teaching the ability to recognise ethical dilemmas

UN Sustainable Development 2030 goals include themes like no hunger, gender equality, reduced inequalities, climate action, decent work and sustainable economic growth. In practice, decisions we make may have implications on several goals and the level of impact varies. In addition, it is not possible to know all the consequences of an actions.

What we need is the ability to recognize possible conflicting interests and thus, make more and more sustainable decisions. This applies to decision making on all levels, from personal to global.

Ethics is a discipline concerned with concepts of good and bad and what is morally right and wrong. Ethical systems are systems of moral principles giving guidelines for actions. Our personal beliefs may rely on some ethical system like religion but in the context of sustainable development we are interested in the skills to make decisions that follow our ethical systems.

A central claim to argue for systems thinking skills and an ethical point of view is that the questions of sustainability are especially challenging straight forward explanations of cause and effect.

In everyday pedagogy the basic tools for training such skills are practices where students systematically consider the effects they make concerning everyday life choices. More extensively students may reflect on all 30 UN goals more closely, take unfamiliar views on the problems, solve how participation of stakeholders may be increased and reflect on how this thinking unfolded and progressed during the course or process.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see the connections to larger systems but when that happens it may be especially interesting to investigate where the linkages and interactions to other subsystems are concealed.

The KESTO projects’ network researches and develops ethical sustainability expertise in cooperation with working life partners and university students and teachers.
The aim of the network is to strengthen the ethical sustainability expertise in long-term cooperation. Research and development aims are to advance pedagogical- and responsible business solutions and ethically sustainable operations. The effects of the project are, analyzed by systemic thinking from a multi-perspective view.

References and further reading:

  • Murphy, R. 2012. Sustainability: a wicked problem. Sociologica, Vol. 2, pp. 1-23.
  • UNESCO. 2017. Education for sustainability development goals: Learning objectives. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations: Paris, France, 201.