Social Principles of Sustainability

We humans are social beings and we need social relationships within families, friendships, and communities to meet our mental and emotional needs. We need to care and be cared for, to love, and be loved. However, most sustainability initiatives, in both private and public sectors, focus on the economic and ecological dimensions of sustainability. Only cursory attention or lip service is paid to social equity and justice. We are also moral and ethical beings and need a sense of rightness and goodness in our relationships. Economic well-being is important, but psychological research confirms that beyond some basic level of income, human happiness depends far more on social relationships and a sense of purpose than additional income or wealth. The ethical, social, and economic values essential for sustainability are the essential values of human happiness.


Positive social relationships are also critical to the sustainability of societies. A society that fails to ensure social equity and justice is not sustainable, no matter how ecologically sound or economically viable it might otherwise be. People who are hungry and cold will seek food, clothing, and shelter, wherever and however they can find it, with little regard for ecological or societal consequences. People who are denied an opportunity to develop their capabilities will be too preoccupied with survival to be concerned with the well-being of society or the future of humanity. The negative ecological and social consequences of persistent poverty and hunger have been documented throughout human history, wherever and whenever people have been denied social equity and justice. Regardless, the pursuit of individual economic well-being among those with plenty is routinely given priority over any sense of social responsibility for those who are poor and hungry.


Social principles are different from social values. Different cultures have different social values that are unique to their societies. However, social principles are basic characteristics of simply being human–-laws of human nature. Social values of different cultures that do not conflict with social principles add diversity and sustainability to the larger community of humanity. Values that conflict with principles diminish the sustainability of societies. We can never be certain that we have correctly identified and defined the principles of human nature essential for sustainability. Regardless, the future of humanity may well depend on getting the principles right—as well as the purpose and priorities right.


During the early 1990s, the Institute for Global Ethics conducted surveys, individual interviews, and focus groups related to the social values of people in various parts of the world with different cultures, religions, incomes, education levels, ages, and other socioeconomic characteristics. This work is referenced in a book titled, Moral Courage. As would be expected, the researchers found a wide range of social values that were considered to be important among the different groups. However, five core values related to social relationships were shared among virtually all of the individuals and groups included in the study. I suggest, these five core values actually represent principles or laws on human nature that exist in all societies.


These five core values were honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect. Core values such as freedom and independence relate to individuals rather than relationships. Can anyone possibly sustain, or even want to sustain, personal relationships with others who are dishonest, unfair, irresponsible, uncaring, and disrespectful? These five values can be reduced to two core principles: trust and kindness. Trusting relationships must be based on honesty, fairness, and responsibility. We must be trustworthy and willing to trust if we are to sustain personal relationships. Caring relationships must be empathetic compassionate, and respectful. We are fallible human beings and sometimes need mercy rather than justice. Relationships can only survive if there is a mutual commitment to be trustworthy and kind, even when reciprocity is more a hope than certainty. Thus, a third principle needed to sustain relationships is commitment. This is not an exhaustive list of social principles but is sufficient for this discussion.


Equally important for sustainability, ethical values evolve out of social values. Ethical values differ from social values in that social values are personal and reciprocal while ethical values are universal and altruistic. Over time, however, we learn that what’s right for people we know personally is also right for those whom we don’t know and will never know—for everyone, present and future. We learn we should treat others the way we would like to be treated if we were them, even when we know we will receive nothing from them in return. We are not slaves to the ethical values we may have been taught, but we are guided by the ethical values we have learned.


In sustainable societies, these same core principles—trust, kindness, and commitment—must characterize economic relationships. Economic transactions are impersonal, but buyers must still be able to trust that sellers will be honest, fair, and responsible in their business relationships. Sellers likewise must be able to trust buyers to pay agreed-upon prices and honor their long-term contracts. Sustainable economic relationships also depend on commitments to the principle of kindness. Inevitably, there will be times of conflict between maximizing short-run economic interests and sustaining long-term economic relationships. While some sustainable economic relationships do exist; trust, kindness, and commitment are not common characteristics of today’s economic organizations or economies.


Finally, the principles of trust, kindness, and commitment must also characterize relationships between humans and other living beings and non-living elements that make up the whole of nature. We humans are a part of nature, with attendant rewards and responsibilities associated with our relationships with nature. We must trust that the resources of nature will be capable of meeting our basic human needs if we are responsible, respectful, and compassionate in our relationships with nature. Sustainability ultimately requires a commitment to care for nature as we would have nature care for us—our happiness and the future of humanity depends on it.


John Ikerd