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WHAT ROLE FOR ETHICS?

If we take self-interest seriously enough, there may be no room for ethics. If people or nations only pursue their selfinterest, nothing ethics can say will influence the outcome. We should just get on with solving the problem: hire the engineers, fix the relevant laws, negotiate treaties, and so forth.

While this view as has a certain attractiveness, it is too strong. Consider the following contributions that ethics can make. First, when I noted that self-i nterest by itself leads to stringent emissions reductions and can point the way toward wise use of common resources, there was an implicit evaluation. The reason for pointing out these effects of the pursuit of self-interest is that they are desirable. Saying something is desirable requires some sort of moral stance that was not made explicit. The argument that we do not need ethics because self-interest produces desirable results is itself an ethical argument.

Fair enough, and if this is how ethics informs climate policy, I don’t object. On the other hand, it is not clear that we always need serious ethical reflection to know when pursing self-interest is a good idea. To a great extent, if we are behaving in a way that is contrary to our own selfinterest, we do not use, or need, ethics to tell us what to do. We don’t say, “Stop hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. It is unethical.” We say, “Stop hitting yourself with a hammer. You will hurt yourself.” The appeal is purely to self-interest. If this is an ethical claim, it is not an important or interesting one.

Second (and relatedly), the things we think of as being in our own self-interest might be determined to some extent by ethical or moral concerns. We are not born knowing precisely what we want in life. Some of our goals and views about what makes a good life are informed by philosophy. The extent to which philosophy influences perceived self-interest is a difficult empirical question. Other influences, such as base instinct, family, religion, culture, role models, and so forth might matter significantly more. Patriotic music might be more important in determining how people behave than ethics even if ethics provides an element of our understanding of our needs and goals.

The influences on how nations act will be more complex than for people because nations have to aggregate the views of their citizens. In the case of climate change, nations may perceive it in their own interest to be treated fairly and to treat others fairly.

We cannot easily resolve the extent to which ethics and philosophy affect perceived self-interest. The answer may vary widely by culture and, for nations, by the type of government. Nevertheless, I do not believe that any amount of ethical reflection will convince many nations that the various climate policies that are not feasible are in fact in their self-interest. I do not, for example, believe that the United

States will ever view it as in its self-interest to enter into the sort of treaty that Peter Singer suggests because doing so would require it to transfer trillions of dollars to others nations, all so that it can continue doing what it can do without a treaty.

More importantly, relatively narrow notions are sufficient to motivate action on climate change. Not limiting climate change will directly hurt us, our children, and our grandchildren in straightforward ways. Climate change threatens our food supplies, our cities through storms and sea level rise, and, generally, our lives as we have come to know them. While I believe in a broad notion of selfinterest and well-being, we need not engage in debates about exactly what this means to know that we should want to limit climate change.22

Third, I relied on philosophical arguments when I made the claim that feasibility is an appropriate limitation on the types of policies we should consider. The argument that feasibility is a limitation on philosophical claims is itself a philosophical claim.

Finally, in prior work with Eric Posner, I endorsed a cosmopolitan view of distributive justice for purposes of analyzing aspects of climate change.23 The claim is that the world would be a better place if wealth, income, education, opportunity, and other valuable items were more equally distributed (without a significant reduction in the total amount). As a result, people may have obligations in distributive justice to people in other countries. This is a controversial view, subject to significant and wide-ranging debate in the philosophical literature.

An implication of a cosmopolitan view of distributive justice is that the worse off a nation is, the greater the obligation to help. A wealthy nation may only have a modest obligation to help a nation that is just a little bit worse off, but may have a substantial obligation to help a desperately poor country. Climate change threatens to make poor countries even worse off than they are today, in which case wealthy nations would have even stronger obligations to help. Similarly, limiting a poor country’s access to cheap fossil fuels in an attempt to minimize global emissions might make it worse off, again triggering greater obligations to help. As I will discuss in chapter 7, however, these obligations should be met in the most effective way possible. A cosmopolitan view of distributive justice tells us our overall set of goals but not how to meet them. It does not require wearing climate change blinders.

In the end, I think it is important that climate policy engage with philosophy. I am not a philosopher. My expertise is in policy. I work mostly with scientists and economists on policy issues such as the design of a carbon tax, the mix of regulatory instruments such as taxes and cap- and-trade systems, and the effects of fossil fuel infrastructure on fuel switching costs. I was asked to write my part of this book to think about the extent to which the work I do in climate policy needs to engage with philosophy or can gain from such an engagement.

I think most of the problems we need to address to solve the problem of climate change are not particularly philosophical. For example, we need to (it is in our self-interest to) invent technology to produce inexpensive clean energy. We need to be able to make that technology available widely and ensure that it is used instead of fossil fuel. Engineers and scientists will think about the details of the technology. Lawyers and economists will think about what sorts of policies will promote the needed technological changes such as changes to the patent rules or subsidies for new technologies. Political scientists might consider the design of treaties and how they can be enforced. And so forth.

I would not have said that these, the central challenges in addressing climate change, are ethical. Although there may be ethical components, I think we need to do these things to save our own necks. Nevertheless, engaging with philosophers can help us understand when values have implicitly entered the analysis and help us clarify thinking about whether these values are the right ones.

 
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