When it comes to pollution, people respond with a cry of NIMBY and let loose the dogs of influence. While there is some debate about its impact, this shows that everyone gets what is obviously true: pollution is unsightly, unpleasant, and unhealthy. Air pollution alone is deadly, killing millions of us each year. As such, pollution is costly. It is also obviously true that our civilization generates vast quantities of pollution, and we must decide where this pollution goes.
As one would expect, the cost of pollution is regularly shifted onto those with less influence. The wealthy and politically influential use this power to ensure that sources of pollution are in places where the poor and uninfluential live. To illustrate, we do not see incinerators and coal power plants constructed near the residences of Nancy Pelosi, Ted Cruz, Bill Gates, or Oprah.
In the United States (and elsewhere), as one would expect, race is also a factor: pollution is concentrated along racial lines, even accounting for disparities of income. To illustrate, highways tend to run through minority neighborhoods and industrial plants tend to be located near minority residences. While some might rush to point out that white Americans are subject to horrific levels of pollution, this is hardly the devasting riposte that one might think it is. After all, pollution is distributed disproportionally to wealth and there are many poor white people in America. Also, pointing out that white people are also heavily exposed to pollution only shows how widespread the problem of pollution is. As with most harms in America, pollution hurts the poor, the children, and minorities the most.
In some cases, the shifting of cost is a conscious decision: people know exactly what they are doing. In other cases, one could argue it happens with less direct intention. To illustrate, if a company proposed to build a refinery in a wealthy white neighborhood, the residents would use their influence to block this. The company would keep trying to find a location and would, of course, end up somewhere where the inhabitants lacked the power to prevent it from being built in their backyard. This would generally be a poorer area and is likely also to be predominantly inhabited by minorities. It can be argued that the wealthy white folks have no desire to inflict the pollution on the poor people, it just happens because of the disparity in power. After all, that chemical plant must go somewhere, just not in their backyard. While the folks who make the decisions probably care little about ethical theory, it can and should be applied to this decision making—be it direct or indirect.
One obvious approach to such large-scale moral decision making is to use a form of utilitarianism: the pollution should be located where it does the least harm to those who matter morally. Deciding who (and what) matters and how much they matter involves sorting out the scope of morality. There is also the problem of sorting out the calculation of value: what is the measure of the good and the evil? There are many ways to address the matters of scope and value, which can lead to considerable moral debate. Interestingly, a solid argument can be made for the common practice of dumping the most pollution on those with the least power.
As John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” Utilitarianism provides an easy way to do just that by adjusting the scope of morality. As noted above, determining the scope of morality is a matter of determining who has moral worth to what degree. One extreme example is ethical egoism. On this consequentialist view each person limits the scope of morality to themselves. Ayn Rand is a good example of an ethical egoist. On her view, each individual should be selfish and act in their best interest. People should always do what maximizes their self-interest. In terms of the scope of morality, the ethical egoist sees themself as the only one with moral value. The opposing view is altruism. This is the view that at least some other people count morally. An ethical egoist can easily provide a moral justification for shifting the cost of pollution onto others: only they count, so the right thing to do is to ensure that someone else is the one exposed to the pollution. Obviously enough, this view entails that everyone will be selfishly striving to push the pollution onto someone else and they are all morally right to do so. The matter would, from a practical standpoint, be settled by strength: the strong will do as they wish, the weaker will suffer as they must. This strikes some as being fundamentally unethical or even the absence of ethics. But one can expand the scope of morality while still pushing the pollution onto others.
One obvious approach is to argue that the people in the upper classes have more moral worth than those in the lower classes. How the scope is set can vary greatly. One might, for example, claim that only the elites have any moral worth at all. One could be more “generous” and grant all the classes moral status, but have the moral status correspond to the class status. On this sort of view, the poor would have some moral worth, but they would matter far less morally than the elites. This seems to be a commonly held view: only the most heartless would claim that the poor have no value, but our civilizations clearly treat the lower classes as having far less moral worth. They are generally less honest about this these days; but it is evident upon even a cursory examination of countries like the United States and China.
One can also bring race in as a factor is setting the scope of morality. The United States provides a clear example of this: while many racists would accept that people outside of their group have some moral worth, a racist regards their group as having greater moral worth than others. This allows an easy “justification” of shifting the harms of pollution onto minorities: for the racist, these people have less worth and thus it makes moral sense to have them suffer the harms. There are utilitarians, such as J.S. Mill, who have a broad scope of morality, taking all humans and even much of “sentient creation” to count morally.
For those who consider all people to have moral worth, then shifting pollution onto the poor and onto minorities becomes more morally difficult. One could still make a case for doing so, but it would be much more difficult that simply adjusting the scope of morality to devalue the poor and minorities.