Ethics among the doomed

Discarded hubcap

There have been a number of arguments here before about how excess can be justified: specifically, how emitting more greenhouse gasses than is sustainable per-capita based on the present human population can be morally justified. A new logical possibility occurred to me today: it is possible that we are already doomed. By that, I mean that pretty much all aspects of life that we consider to be deeply meaningful or important are already destined to be obliterated as a result of past action or inevitable future actions. For instance, the amount of climate change already locked into the climate system as the result of lags and positive feedbacks may be sufficient to make human civilization untenable.

If this is true, it changes the dynamic somewhat. The standard view of climate change is that we are all on a big ship in the middle of the sea, completely isolated from any help, and a serious hull breach has occurred. If most of us work together selflessly, we can plug it and save the ship. There is, however, the logical possibility that the leak is so bad that even the complete commitment of everyone aboard will not stop the rising water, and will not save a single one among us.

If we have crossed that threshold of inevitability, we are released of our obligations to prevent the sinking of the ship. Of course, the extent to which the sinking was preventable or not can only be known after the fact. Either we find ourselves in the position of being saved, on the basis of whatever efforts were made, or we find ourselves in oblivion, in spite of whatever was done to encourage an alternative outcome.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

19 thoughts on “Ethics among the doomed”

  1. Long answer

    1) Human-induced climate change makes much of the polar icecap melt, a lot of permafrost melt, the Amazon burn, and induces release of methane from undersea clathrates

    2) These processes create a much stronger warming effect, which in turn strengthens those processes

    3) Global mean temperatures rise more than five degrees Celsius in the span of decades. Virtually all glaciers vanish and coral reefs die. Ecosystems are severely disrupted. Most forests burn or dry out. Wind and sea currents stop or are severely disrupted. Fresh water availability plummets. Most agriculture fails.

    4) Things keep getting worse until human civilization fails.

    5) A large proportion of all species are rendered extinct.

    6) The planet remains uninhabitable for human-like creatures for hundreds of thousands to millions of years, as the carbon dioxide is slowly absorbed into rocks as they erode.

    Short answer

    Permian-Triassic Extinction Event

  2. The photo reminds me of when the hubcap came of Dave’s car at speed in the Arizona desert north of Pheonix.

    I don’t believe I have ever argued that “emitting more greenhouse gases than is sustainable per-capita based on the present human population can be morally justified”

    My arguments have been rather, it is not a moral issue one way or the other. It’s not morally justified anymore than painting one’s house red rather than blue is, or falling in love, or playing blues rather than jazz. There are things which may contribute to ill on the grand scheme of things which are not moral issues.

  3. My arguments have been rather, it is not a moral issue one way or the other.

    I really don’t think this is credible. We cannot say that our behaviour in relation to something as important as climate change is not a moral issue. We are, after all, talking about behavioural choices that will significantly affect the lives of billions of people. Comparing that with trivialities like what colour one paints ones house is just to wilfully ignore that.

  4. If we have crossed that threshold of inevitability, we are released of our obligations to prevent the sinking of the ship.

    This sort of all or nothing approach to life can only foster despair. It seems that the best of humanity has died in heroic effort, not standing laureated on a pedestal.

    In fact, I think there is nothing that is more noble in the human animal than our continual determination in the face of absolute destruction.

    Just ask grand-pappy Pikaia gracilens.

    Whether we’re on the course to certain doom now, or whether we make it until the sun dies, or until the next natural ice age, the best thing we can do is attempt to make life as good and as peaceful as possible within our means now, and for the young’ns.

  5. I have never stated that there can’t be any moral issues around climate change, I merely have pointed out that the common way of phrasing the moral claims are faulty. There might be some other way of making moral claims, but the standard “It is immoral to drive a Hummer” just doesn’t pan out.

  6. I think the key point is that there is a moral element, rather than an evaluation of rational courses of action. If we approach it from the point of view of consequentialist rationality then there is a huge collective actor problem even presuming that there is a chance we might be saved; on the other hand, a commitment to performing what one considers to be the right action regardless of consequence (think categorical imperative, perhaps) avoids the collective actor problem and means that one keeps trying even if probably doomed. Perhaps one could publish a leaflet explaining a Kantian approach to Climate Change?

  7. If we could ever actually know for sure that we are doomed, any duty to mitigate or adapt would be voided. Of course, it is basically impossible to know that with certainty, especially given technological change.

    Our best estimate of our probability of doom might be a good day to decide where we concentrate our efforts: trying to adapt, trying to mitigate, or learning to geo-engineer.

  8. Sarah,

    I’m worried that you’re account of Kant’s catagorical imperative might have come from a leaflet. If we take Kantian morality seriously – it is very difficult to see what the maxim is that we could obey without producing a contradiction. The moral law is just that – a law, if you want to be free you obey the law. The law is act such that the maxims of your actions could be universal rules of legislation. In other words, they could be the empirical laws that determined everyone’s action. This produces serious problems in climate change ethics:

    For example, you could try to reduce your emissions according to some criterion, but if everyone did that the economy would collapse and you wouldn’t be able to afford to reduce your emissions any longer. Of course, a collapsed economy might help mitigate climate change, but it certainly wouldn’t bode well for any story about the future anyone actually wants to tell.

    Strictly, this isn’t a contradiction (it isn’t a rational contradiction that the economy collapses). However, since it negates the position from which I make my educated decision, it is just as contradictory as “Don’t kill – because if everyone killed there wouldn’t be a you”, or “Don’t steal from banks – because if everyone did there wouldn’t be banks”.

  9. The law is act such that the maxims of your actions could be universal rules of legislation. In other words, they could be the empirical laws that determined everyone’s action. This produces serious problems in climate change ethics

    For the Nth time, I think this is a minor practical problem with little ethical importance. Ultimately, the moral law of sustainable emissions must be obeyed. The precise practicalities of how that is achieved are subject to a bracketed sort of morality for incomplete actions.

    If six surgeons are in an operating theatre with a patient who desperately needs a procedure, it would probably be madness for all six to dive right in and start doing it simultaneously. Sometimes ethics requires a basic acknowledgment that complicated things need to be done in a sensible sequence.

  10. Though, to clarify, I am certainly not a Kantian. Ethical principles are vital insofar as they guide us towards good outcomes. They have no fundamental moral importance or validity of their own.

  11. “I am certainly not a Kantian. ”

    That is most certainly correct!

  12. We hardly need to be reminded that we are living in an age of confusion—a lot of us have traded in our beliefs for bitterness and cynicism or for a heavy package of despair, or even a quivering portion of hysteria. Opinions can be picked up cheap in the market place while such commodities as courage and fortitude and faith are in alarmingly short supply.

  13. Premises of Endgame

    Premise One: Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.

    Premise Two: Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell the resources on which their communities are based until their communities have been destroyed. They also do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources—gold, oil, and so on—can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to destroy traditional communities.

    Premise Three: Our way of living—industrial civilization—is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence.

  14. But this has always been one of Weaver’s strengths. Without ever dumbing the issue down, he keeps it as simple and understandable as he can.

    He agrees the crux of his book comes down to a single alarming sentence on page 28: “People have simply no idea how serious this issue is.”

    It’s so serious, he said, that unless we reach a point where we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, 80 per cent of the world’s species will become extinct, and human civilization as we know it will be destroyed, by the end of this century.

  15. On a cosmological timescale, The Earth’s period of habitability is nearly over

    Published: 10 August 2009 11:41 PM CEST Source

    One of the hottest topics at this year’s XXVIIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil involves the study of the astrophysical conditions favourable for the development and survival of primordial life. New research shows that compared to middle-aged stars like the Sun, newly formed stars spin faster generating strong magnetic fields that result in emission of more intense levels of X-rays, ultraviolet rays and charged particles ― all of which could wreak havoc on budding atmospheres and have a dramatic effect on the development of emerging life forms.

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