Conference article

Irreversible Social Change

A.J.K. Pols
Section of Philosophy & Ethics, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

H.A. Romijn
Section of Technology, Innovation & Society, School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

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Published in: Proceedings from the 50th Societas Ethica Annual Conference 2013. Climate Change; Sustainability; and an Ethics of an Open Future. August 22-25; 2013; Soesterberg; The Netherlands

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 98:7, p. 65-85

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Published: 2014-08-21

ISBN: 978-91-7519-289-5

ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


In this paper we evaluate how irreversible social change should be evaluated from an ethical perspective. First; we analyse the notion of irreversibility in general terms. We define a general notion of what makes a change irreversible; drawing on discussions in ecology and economics. This notion is relational in the sense; that it claims that a change can only be irreversible for a certain party. Second; we examine ways to evaluate irreversible changes; drawing on discussions from both ethics; particularly the Capability Approach; and economics; particularly Cost-Benefit Analysis and the Safe Minimum Standard. Insights from the field of development studies are also woven into the discussion. Third; we investigate why (adverse) social changes tend to be systematically undervalued in decision making by private actors and policy makers; and argue for applying the Safe Minimum Standard as a decision rule for dealing with irreversible social changes. Finally; we show how our framework can be applied by evaluating the land acquisition process of biofuel producers in Tanzania.


Irreversibility; socio-economic systems; Safe Minimum Standard; Habermas; biofuels


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