In a previous post, I offered a justification for the inclusion of ethics in any discussion of climate policy and politics. In this post, I attempt to tease out in greater detail why we as individuals, as well as collectives, have climate-related duties. The first thing to recognise is that I doubt any philosopher would claim that ethics always trumps politics or economics or any other framing of an issue. Climate change is an exceptionally complex problem which will require the efforts and engagement of many disciplines, perspectives and voices in an ongoing discursive exchange for all of the foreseeable future.
The important contribution philosophy makes is to clarify our conceptual frameworks, challenge assumptions and perhaps expose epistemological biases. In addition philosophy can offer a variety of theoretical perspectives on the problem from which we can select the most relevant, useful ideas or, if you prefer, those that offer the greatest emancipatory potential. Ours is rich tradition (albeit dominated by men but see this), fiercely and radically democratic in that it accepts reasonable (and often unreasonable) disagreement as one of the greatest sources of collective creativity and endeavour.
In the case of ethics, moral philosophy draws our attention to the underlying principles that we use to defend our actions and choices. It’s this last contribution that I’m particularly interested in, and in the context of climate policy, ethics speaks particularly to aspects of public policy that are generally addressed by public good or welfare economics. For all the dismissal of ethics, it’s moral concepts that we look to when we want to explain why one solution is better than another. And even if efficiency and effectiveness are the metrics of choice, these are arguably ethical principles too, in that they express a value or an ordered ranking of choice. Decisions are made every day on the grounds that they are ‘good’ whether in terms of serving the national interest, promoting welfare or alleviating injustice. Don’t tell me such decisions aren’t morally relevant!
Here’s a famous argument for a public, global ethic from Peter Singer’s classic article, Famine Affluence and Morality (Philosophy & Public Affairs Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring, 1972), pp. 229-243). In it he argues persuasively that if it is within our power to bring about a good without sacrificing too much of our own welfare, then we have a duty to do so, as he puts it:
[I]f it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it…. [This principle] requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good.
Singer argues that donating money towards famine relief is a clear moral duty in the case of the Bengal famine, which at the time threatened the lives of 9 million people. He contends that this principle takes no account of proximity or distance, and that it makes no moral difference whether the person is close by or far away, or whether I am the only person who can act to save someone, or one of millions. The argument he makes is straightforward enough, if hugely demanding, until one starts to put specific commitments into the story. Accepting that I have this duty to prevent harm, how much am I morally obliged to contribute to avoid the suffering of another (possibly distant) person? How much of a sacrifice should this be for me to meet my obligation? Assuming I have knowledge about the marginal cost of relief, but no knowledge of what others are prepared to do, immediately I am cast into a Prisoner’s Dilemma, where my duty clashes with my self-interest. Acting on these duties others can free-ride on my efforts and in effect, I am, in Bill Nordhaus’ words, ‘a chump’.
For Singer, one implication of this demanding moral obligation (above) is that the traditional distinction between duty and charity in the case of affluent individuals at least, is ‘upset’. That is certainly true. But the real issue at stake is the question of definition and measurement of ‘comparable moral importance’ and the problem of setting a minimum moral standard: how much (money, sacrifice, mitigation) is required for me to actually meet my obligation? And does it matter how, in practice, I go about fulfilling it? These are all hugely complex issues which have exercised moral philosophers for decades. My point in mentioning them here is that the description of the problem by Singer is as relevant to climate change as it is to global poverty. If we accept that we have duties to prevent harm, we have to figure out how much of a contribution is required to avoid harm; what kind of actions we ought to take to reduce our consumption. And if this kind of moralising puts you off, there is another aspect to individual action highlighted by Michael Sandel that we need to take these actions (without offsetting or leaving it to markets) in the context of pulling together in the context of civic responsibility.
I do not think the moral demand to avoid harm can be effectively exhausted by individual action. It doesn’t even make sense because the impact of our efforts would likely be negligible and the whole point of acting is to create the conditions in which harm can be avoided and restitution made. In further posts I will look at political or public morality that kicks in where collective action is required to overcome a tragedy of the commons. But the point remains, where we can act to avoid harm, we ought to act. It is feasible for most adults in the country I live in to reduce their personal emissions. We can of course wait until some central authority makes us, or for prices to rise high enough. And all of that is of course necessary. But morally speaking, we do have duties to act regardless. Uncomfortable, inconvenient truth maybe, but if we acted on it, it might actually make a difference.