You must do the heaviest / So many shall do none

2008-01-24

in Politics, Science, The environment

Conch shell and plants

When it comes to reducing personal environmental impact in any sphere (pollution, climate change, resource depletion, etc), there comes a point where each individual says: “That is too great a sacrifice.” Some people would refuse to give up incandescent bulbs; some, eating meat; some, driving their cars; some, flying in jets. The question arises of what to do when there is a fundamental conflict between an ethical requirement and a person’s will. In the modern world, this applies perhaps most harshly to air travel.

We know that very substantial emissions are associated with flying. We also know that substantial emissions will definitely cause human suffering and death in the future. One flight emits significantly more than a single person can sustainably emit in a year. Every year emissions are above sustainable levels, the concentration of greenhouse gases rises; each year in which that happens, the mean energy absorbed by the planet increases. At some point in the future, it is inevitable that this process would cause massive harm to human beings and non-human living things. It is also plausible that positive feedbacks could create abrupt or runaway climate change, either of which could cause human extinction or the end of humanity as a species with civilization. In the face of that, it is difficult to say that flying isn’t morally wrong.

At the same time, it is impossible for most people to say it is. Partly, this is because of a failure of imagination. They cannot imagine a world where people don’t fly. Mostly, though, it is reflective of the powerful kind of denial that lets people continue to live as they do, even when convincing evidence of the wrongness of their behaviour is revealed. Rationalizations are myriad: (a) Why should I stop when others will just continue? (b) There has to be a balance between acting ethically and getting what I want. Neither of these has any ethical strength in the face of a known and significant wrong. At the same time, it is implausible that people will abandon their self-deception or that external forces will constrain their behaviour effectively. If that is true, our future really isn’t in our hands. We are slaves to fate, in terms of what technological innovation might bring and in terms of how sensitive the climate really is to greenhouse gasses.

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 22, 2008 at 2:22 pm

Why We Will Never Address Global Warming

“I know that people aren’t willing to pay the price, even though they “want” something to be done about Global Warming. If it means higher prices or inconvenience, the Western World will wring hands and wish for something to be done, but that’s as far as it is going to go. Yes, I consider Global Warming to be a problem. But we simply aren’t going to address it, hence I can’t continue to be seriously worried about the impact it’s going to have. I can only try to react and position myself to prepare for what I think the consequences may be.”

Milan January 22, 2008 at 3:29 pm

This also raises the question of what is considered successful adaptation

Currently, we have something like 1/4 of the planet living in abject poverty and misery, and something like 1/4 living higher on the hog than human beings ever have historically.

Does successful adaptation require that we not allow these ratios to get any worse? Or is it measured by the level of affluence that the elite enjoy? Is adaptation successful if we manage to retain a high-tech infrastructure? What about democracy?

Many of the moderate GW scenarios involve things that will put a great deal of stress on civilization and culture, and force us to spend alot of time and energy running faster just to stay in place (e.g. building seawalls to protect our cities).

There’s an enormous range of possible human conditions. I have no doubt that some human beings will survive even the worst GW nightmare scenario. I have little doubt that, under merely moderate scenarios, we can at least retain high tech transportation, health care and communication for, say, 1% (or even 5%) of the global population.

The most important question, I think, when discussing adaptation vs. prevention is, “what kind of world do you want to live in?”

. January 24, 2008 at 12:30 pm

However you slice it, it starts to look like the Eocene and Cretaceous are tugging at our sleeve, whispering to us “There are things going on with climate you don’t begin to understand. Proceed with caution.”

. January 24, 2008 at 4:13 pm

Google’s guru of giving
Jan 17th 2008

At last, Larry Brilliant has set Google’s philanthropy strategy. Now for the hard part

“WHAT does a moral person do, given all the problems and suffering in the world? How do you focus?” Larry Brilliant illustrates how difficult this is by recalling a friend’s struggle to decide how best to allocate a few rupees among the beggars waiting to die in the Hindu sacred city of Benares, in India. Such a place could hardly be more different from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California—with its population of geeky 20-somethings, free food, volleyball courts and fake dinosaur—where Dr Brilliant and his 40-strong team have at last agreed a strategy for Google.org, the internet giant’s philanthropic arm, which Dr Brilliant leads.

tlaing January 24, 2008 at 5:54 pm

You say “failure of imagination”, but perhaps this is because your imagination is too powerful.

It is precisely those who make individual sacrifices thinking it will make a difference who reinforce the belief that we can do it “without the state”. It’s rediculous.

Whenever people act against their own economic interests, they look like the kind of actors who can’t be swayed by economic incentives. Economic incentives are the only forces universal enough that they could be used to change mass action enough to mitigate climate change. So every “ecomentalist” is destroying the very principle which could be used by those in power to produce a solution.

Nothing is more dangerous than a good will. A good will tries to avoid doing violence, and in so doing, commits the greatest atrocities. It says “don’t go to war” and causes the Rawanden genocide. It says “don’t fly” and prevents emissions a subject of emotion rather than reason, we don’t pollute because its a sin not because its too expensive. The point is – the existing order of things is unsustainable, so you need to try to find the transformational aspects in the existing order of things that could be pushed for it to fall into a new order. We all know what it would look like, exactly like this order except with everyone’s interests in mind.

Litty January 24, 2008 at 8:11 pm

“Jah Work”

You must do the heaviest
so many shall do none
you have got to stand firm
so many shall run
some they rest their head at night
some get no sleep at all
if you listen close to what you see
you will hear the call

A bit ironic, given your energetic atheism, no?

Kerrie January 24, 2008 at 7:46 pm

I agree with Tristan’s point regarding individual goodwill and economic incentives (although I regret reading that last paragraph, it kind of ruined the good argument going on there-this is partly due to my intolerance of casual references to the Rwandan genocide as a form of cheap argumentation). For societies to make a substantial change in their relationship to the earth, some things will have to be done collectively. On one hand, individuals should drive less and choose transit more often, but on the other hand, municipalities have to stop suburban growth, provide viable transit alternatives and create incentives for people to actually *want* to behave this way. It is not enough for ten, or twenty, or even fifty percent of a society to make responsible choices-some aspects of our lives need to come from the top.

God, I hate how I sound. Normally, I’m a staunch individualist who is grassroots-oriented, not a collectivist, top-down type. But after living in the “city” with the shittiest urban design since industrial-revolution Nottingham, I have seen how world, federal, provincial and municipal policy-in addition to our consumer culture-has shaped every aspect of the Calgarian lifestyle. And how much better life could be if governments had just put zoning legislation on certain types of houses and neighbourhoods and roads. This goes far beyond individual decision-making, albeit individuals are the ones that should influence government to create environmentally responsible policies.

tristan January 24, 2008 at 7:58 pm

I think most delusions in your ethics is the confusion of morality and ethics. Morality concerns the sphere of personal decision making. Ethics concerns the question: what kinds of standards for personal action should we set in custom and law, to give a context in which people will make moral choices which benefit all?

The same distinction exists in economics: how ought economic actors act is a separate question from, how ought we set up regulations and incentives. Of course one bleeds into the other in morality/ethics, because one of the things you can do as an individual decision is make ethical claims.

I don’t mean, however, to say that morality is relative. When I claim that abortion is right, I don’t mean that its just right for me, I mean its right for everyone. However, saying abortion is right is a different sort of claim than saying customs and laws should grant people the unfettered choice to have abortions. Certainly you could argue that one implies the other, but the point is to recognize that they are two different sorts of claims.

In matters of climate change, it is easier to distinguish. It might be right for people to reduce their individual carbon footprint no matter what the state does to some level. When you make this claim you mean everyone who fails to do this is failing to be a proper human being, failing to be the kind of being that can make proper moral choices. It’s very unclear that people who pollute a lot are somehow failing to be human beings.

However, ethics does not always proceed only from moral imperatives. Often moral imperatives are extremely contextual, in fact I’d argue that it’s rare that there are moral imperatives that apply everywhere and for everyone – this is why natural law theory is so dead. In Ethics, however, we can make decisions that are for the most part amoral, although they might have some moral informatives, which lead to conclusions that have bearing on the contexts in which people make actions.

For example, we could choose to pass a law that people can only pollute so much. We acknowledge that it’s unclear whether people who break the law are inhuman, but we live in a state and we grant the state the implicit right to try to make laws that set things up so its better for everyone, so if we break the law we pay the fine. If we’re anarchists, like republicans, then we think the state has no right to make any laws above and beyond the minimal ones it needs to preserve order. But if we’re not, we acknoledge that we’ve broken the law and we pay the fine. We arn’t judged as inhuman by the state or by our fellow citizens because unlike other crimes, like murder, it’s unclear whether its a moral issue. Inasmuch as it is a moral issue, and becomes a custom, then we would be condemned universally for breaking this law, but its unclear whether that would happen.

The reason why its so unclear why it can be a moral issue is because it concerns duties we have to people we havn’t met. I recently argued that those persons who worked in US banks and approved loans that they full well knew had their risks undervalued should be tried with treason for putting their particular interests above the universal interests of the state. However, no one really believes this anymore, no one believes that your a traitor just because you don’t restrain your particular interest when you see it come into conflict with the universal. No one believes in universal interest anymore, they believe in contingent agreement (Deleuze – capitalism is the system of universal betrayal).

So, if morality is a matter of duties only to people we have relations with, it doesn’t seem to follow that we would have moral duties concerning global warming. It might be in the objective universal interest for global warming to be mitigated, and in that case the state has the right to curtail the freedom of its citizens in order to achieve that mitigation, but this does not make it any more a moral issue than imposing tariffs because you need to develop the industrial sector of your own economy. Is it immoral to smuggle to avoid the tarifs? Maybe, but it’s definitely illegal. If law made things moral or immoral, we would think completely arbitrary laws like the ones banning drugs made drug users immoral.

Milan January 24, 2008 at 8:14 pm

Morality concerns the sphere of personal decision making. Ethics concerns the question: what kinds of standards for personal action should we set in custom and law, to give a context in which people will make moral choices which benefit all?

People for whom these two are not the same are hypocrites. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Tristan Laing January 25, 2008 at 12:19 am

Milan,

that is not an argument. Saying ethics is the same as morality is akin to saying the sphere of communal decision making is the same as the sphere of personal decision making.

That’s called the collapse of the public-private sphere distinction.

That’s called fascism.

Tristan Laing January 25, 2008 at 12:25 am

For example, multiculturalism becomes completely impossible if you collapse one into the other. Tolerance is based on the ethics/morality distinction. Tolerance says, yes individuals are free to make choices about what kind of lives they want to live, but within a framework which guarantees that different groups should be able to make different choices about the basic structures that make up their lives, such as language, religion, etc..

Moral questions don’t even look like ethical questions. A moral question is like, “Should I get an abortion”. An ethical question is like, “Should we allow abortions”. Moral decisions are about what I should do. Ethical decisions are about how should we set up society so people can make choices and decide what they ought to do.

Rawls talks about this when he says he’s setting up a liberalism such that people “can act according to the categorical imperative”. He’s admitting that he is not doing a moral theory, but an ethical one, so that people can act morally.

Milan January 25, 2008 at 9:26 am

Saying ethics is the same as morality is akin to saying the sphere of communal decision making is the same as the sphere of personal decision making.

That’s called the collapse of the public-private sphere distinction.

That’s called fascism.

I suppose the better way to formulate what I meant is to say: “People who demand sacrifices of others and are unwilling to make them themselves are hypocrites.” This is why many people find the “Al Gore has a big house / flies all the time” argument convincing.

Anon January 25, 2008 at 9:30 am

The whole thing is a prisoner’s dilemma problem, at one level.

It’s like being aboard a sinking ship that can be fixed only through mass cooperation. Some people aboard deny that it’s sinking. Others deny that anything can be done about it. Others simply don’t see the sinking as being a good enough reason to take any special actions.

If you are on that ship and know how it can be stopped from sinking (at least in general terms), what ought you to do?

Milan January 25, 2008 at 10:42 am

Whenever people act against their own economic interests, they look like the kind of actors who can’t be swayed by economic incentives. Economic incentives are the only forces universal enough that they could be used to change mass action enough to mitigate climate change. So every “ecomentalist” is destroying the very principle which could be used by those in power to produce a solution.

It seems entirely possible that knowledgeable individuals can become aware of a serious harm before governments have the chance to act upon it. Most notions of ethics would also obligate those who have made that realization to take some personal mitigating action in response.

Nothing is more dangerous than a good will. A good will tries to avoid doing violence, and in so doing, commits the greatest atrocities. It says “don’t go to war” and causes the Rawanden genocide. It says “don’t fly” and prevents emissions a subject of emotion rather than reason, we don’t pollute because its a sin not because its too expensive. The point is – the existing order of things is unsustainable, so you need to try to find the transformational aspects in the existing order of things that could be pushed for it to fall into a new order. We all know what it would look like, exactly like this order except with everyone’s interests in mind.

The Rwandan genocide was caused by the conditions in Rwanda, not by the unwillingness of the international community to intervene. That said, it could have been curtailed substantially in effect if a prompt and effective military intervention had been arranged.

In general, this paragraph sounds like a recipe for inaction. We may “all know” what such a world would look like, but we also need to appreciate the strength of entrenched interests. It’s entirely possible that it will not be possible to shift the character of the world for a long time. I don’t see how that gives us unlimited license to pollute in the interim.

It is not enough for ten, or twenty, or even fifty percent of a society to make responsible choices-some aspects of our lives need to come from the top.

I agree. And I agree that this issue is a difficult one – as reflected in the initial post. Still, I don’t think aware individuals have a defence against the claim that they have an acute personal obligation to cut emissions significantly.

As a general point, I don’t think it makes sense to say “I am not going to act until government arrives to force everybody’s hand.” We know that this may be a very slow process, and we know that it may never happen at all. Furthermore, there are plenty of immoral things that the government still permits people to do. In the end, I think we need to make internal moral judgments of what actions we need to take to satisfy the moral claims of others and live a good life. Then, we need to implement those actions with awareness of the actions being taken by others, but without offering their inaction a veto over our consciences.

Kerrie January 25, 2008 at 1:14 pm

“Still, I don’t think aware individuals have a defence against the claim that they have an acute personal obligation to cut emissions significantly.”

Agreed. I hope my point didn’t come across as defending the inactions of individuals, including myself and my own inactions. It is just very, very frustrating to watch a town or a country you love and think “things could be so much better than this”.

. February 13, 2008 at 4:25 pm

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us!

. September 11, 2008 at 11:03 am

What are our personal obligations toward the environment?

By Tyler Cowen on Philosophy

From the hum of the city, while pondering fossil fuel consumption, Megan McArdle writes:

I understand that people’s desires for large houses in leafy suburbs are every bit as valid as my ardent desire to live near the peaceful hum of traffic. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a policy that effects everyone equally, and the painful job of being an adult is doing things we don’t like because they’re the morally right thing to do.

From my mid-sized house in a leafy suburb, I will assume that a) environmental concerns are real, b) we will fall short of fixing those problems through public policy (Megan uses the word policy but mostly her post is about personal obligation), and c) we do in fact have personal obligations to limit consumption. The question remains how much fun we can have.

Peter May 2, 2009 at 12:52 am

Tristan,

Just wow.

“If we’re anarchists, like republicans, then we think the state has no right to make any laws above and beyond the minimal ones it needs to preserve order.”

What the hell are you talking about? That isn’t what anarchists believe. I vaguely remember something about denying the existence of authority, which challenges the very notion of a state. Oh wait, now I remember, that is what the term has come to mean in political philosophy!

“That’s called the collapse of the public-private sphere distinction.”

Welcome to the 20th century. The personal is the political. For an avid reader of Deleuze you seem to be a little slow on the uptake of micro-politics.

“That’s called fascism.”

That is called the “social”. Bash Arendt less; read more of The Human Condition. Did you know Arendt beat Heidegger in an arm wrestle, a footrace and ethical behaviour?

“Rawls…”

For Rawls, justice is a property of institutions.

“this is why natural law theory is so dead”
I’m telling Matt. WWJD? – What would John Finnis do?

. October 26, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Okay, then the next category the next genera of dragons is “comparisons with others.”

Yes, other people. For all of us, the people around us, our significant others, either that we admire at a distance, virtually on TV, or the people who are right in our lives, have probably more influence on us than we would like to admit. We want to think we’re kind of independent, especially in the States – an individualistic society as opposed to a collective society – but even in the individualist society, and especially in the collectivist societies, what other people around us think or say or do is particularly important, both in terms of, “I feel like I need to dress like, act like, think like these people,” or in terms of comparison of equities—so “If she’s not going to do it, if they’re not going to do it, if that country’s not going to do it, then why should we do it?” is the equity part.

So, broadly speaking, as much as we may not want to admit it, the other people around us are very important, and if they—it can work both ways, as I think I’ve said before—it can work negatively, if they’re all telling us we don’t need to, can’t, or the other people ought to do something about it instead of us, and it can work positively, if we can create networks of families and organizations and cultures that are on board with the idea that we need to mitigate much more than we are now, then other people can be a positive as well.

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