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What Environmental Ethics Is (Not)

October 4, 2009

Or Saving Private Henderson, Pt. II:

I want to return to some points I made earlier about Joe Romm’s attack on environmental ethicist David Henderson.  You can read those earlier comments first.

The reason I want to elaborate on these points is because it matters that our profession not be misunderstood.  Almost no one in environmental ethics is out to “shout from the mountaintop” any sort of thing, even if he or she wholeheartedly believes in a very strong version of environmental progress.  This is definitely not what a “true” environmental ethicist would do.  It’s what a true activist would do… and that’s a problem for activism, whatever the political stripe.

The impartiality of my field is exceptionally important because, as it happens, people tend not to like indoctrination.  I don’t care much for indoctrination either, which is why I don’t do it.  Ideally, no ethicist is in place to indoctrinate students (or, more broadly, readers) into particular ethical worldviews.  Pedagogically, we’re in place to introduce a range of arguments to our students, even though, and in some cases particularly if, we may disagree with those arguments.  We’re in place to do this charitably and to introduce the arguments in as strong a light as we possibly can.  We’re in place to show the weaknesses and the strengths of the arguments.  Academically, and in our scholarly research, we’re in place to advance arguments, as well as to beat the tar out of bad arguments and expose them as bad arguments.

Obviously, lots of other professions do this too, including scientists and journalists, each in their own way, each with their own methodology.  It’s just that philosophers tend to focus primarily on the arguments and not so much on the substance of the arguments.

Unfortunately, if environmental ethics is misunderstood as being in the business of indoctrination, this can be used as a political bludgeon against anything I or my colleagues say.  So again, we don’t do it.

By contrast, I’m a professional philosopher.  I am employed, by a university, to think and write about environmental values and responsibilities.  Most people who do environmental ethics are professional philosophers, though some non-philosophers may claim to be environmental ethicists.  That’s their prerogative, of course, as any jackass can hang a shingle outside his office calling himself anything he wants, including “Class-A Jackass,” so long as his moniker isn’t followed by the deceptive suggestion that he is also certified as a physician, a lawyer, a CPA, or some other such designated specialty.  (All bets are off, of course, if you are a batshit-crazy dentist-lawyer, in which case you can say whatever the hell you want and CNN will invite you on as a regular guest.)

No.  Not us.  We environmental ethicists are a considerably more humble bunch.  We have no certification organization in environmental ethics, so we’ll let anyone join our little party.  We’ll just trounce your ass when you belly up to our bar.

Now why would that be?

Because, as I said in my earlier post, we traffic in arguments.  They are our stock and trade.  We like them.  They make us happy.  We revel in eviscerating each other.  And then we drink.

In fact, it’s only partly true that we don’t have a certification mechanism.  Philosophers actually do have a moderately imponderable certification hurdle to jump.  It comes in a form commonly known as the “Ph.D.,” which is also sometimes called a “Doctor of Philosophy.”  In our case this certification is particularly strange, because we are Doctors of Philosophy in Philosophy, which may sound somewhat like the Department of Redundancy Department.  What we do is dissect and weigh reasons.  Not only this, but we focus on the reasons that people give for dissecting and weighing reasons, so it sorta makes sense that we’d have a freakishly layered specialization.  Here, check out my colleagues.  Aren’t they freakish?  I’m even friends with one colleague who regularly uses the word ‘Zif’ instead of ‘If.’ (Yes, he’s crazy.)

So these are at least two reasons why Romm is wrong to single out Henderson as having written the worst environmental ethics paper of all time: (1) a good environmental ethics paper isn’t distinguished by its adherence to the political status quo, but by its ability to flesh out an argument, however harebrained the conclusion; and (2) a good environmental ethicist is not in the business of “shouting from the mountaintops,” but instead in the business of taking what is being shouted from the mountaintops and picking it apart so that it can be better defended, refined, or discarded.

Which is why Romm was correct — and yes, Romm was correct on a few matters — to point out that Henderson was effectively analyzing a strawman; and in this case, a strawman with significant political implications.  There is no ban on incandescents.  Henderson makes it seem like there is.  He probably should have been more careful.

But on to my third point, and this is the main reason I’m coming to Henderson’s defense as aggressively as I am:

From what I’ve been able to gather, Henderson is a recent Ph.D. in philosophy.  I don’t know him.  I’ve just seen his CV.  Outward appearances suggest that he has a promising career ahead of him.  Problem is, he’s not yet landed one of the prized tenure-track academic jobs that also count as shingle-worthy environmental ethics certification.  He’s still “on the market,” looking for something that will help him do what he loves, which is to parse arguments.  Unfortunately for him, the philosophy job market is incredibly brutal.  Rough estimates suggest that for every five or so applicants, almost all of whom have doctorates, there is one available job.  In some cases, there are up to 600 applications for one opening. Search Committees look for any reason at all, even the tiniest, most inconsequential reason, to discard an application.  You can read more about market woes here and here.

For Romm to excoriate Henderson as having written “the worst essay by an environmental ethicist,” and then to post a larger-than-life picture of Henderson right beside this title, is irresponsible in the extreme.  If a search committee were to google his name and see this as a headline, they may well dump his file in the trash without giving it a second look.  Not only is that not fair to Henderson, but it is also probably not what Romm would himself want if he knew about some of the other things that Henderson has been doing.  From appearances, he appears to be heavily involved in the fight against coal.

So let me again commend Henderson.  I am enthusiastic that he has taken the initiative write in a major international newspaper.  I can only hope that more environmental ethicists do the same.  As I mentioned earlier, I disagree with Henderson, but I’m happy to take that up with him at the next American Philosophy Association meeting this December, where he will undoubtedly be suffering the indignities of the academic job market.

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13 comments

  1. [...] » What Exactly Do You Do? October 3, 2009 UPDATE: I’ve written a follow-up post.  Better to read the below first for [...]


  2. I think you finally got to the meat of your argument when you explained that Henderson is a young PhD in a fragile market. I sympathize; my son just got his PhD in theoretical mathematics!

    Regardless of that, Henderson put himself out there as an authority. Should Romm, or anyone else, treat him more gently because he doesn’t have tenure? I think not. His column was read by far more people than will ever read Romm’s blog. A mild response would have been even less noticed.

    All the talk about, “beat(ing) the tar out of bad arguments” and “we’ll just trounce your ass when you belly up to our bar” is just smoke.

    Henderson bellied up to the activist bar with a bad argument and Romm trounced his ass. Why is this wrong when it is exactly what you describe as the stock in trade of your profession?

    As for the “excoriate(ing) Henderson as having written “the worst essay by an environmental ethicist,”” this is simply a rhetorical device much like Olbermann’s worst person in the world segment. No one actually believes that Olbermann thinks these people are worse than mass murderers or Kim Jung Il. The same applies to Romm.

    I doubt this will be more than a minor speed bump in Henderson’s career. He had the moxie to get published in the Washington Post … something that most of us have not done even when we’ve tried. He’ll be fine.

    By the way, I’m a retired Mathematician/Geophyicist with a fragile ego so be gentle if I’m full of crap.


  3. David Freeman is the worst mathematician/geophysicist in the known hypothetical universe!

    How’s that?

    Maybe you’re right. He did wander into the fray. He did take a position. But I suspect that his position could be more charitably interpreted. I suspect that the right way to read his essay is as suggesting that we should focus on the big polluters, that all this light bulb talk could easily bite us in the ass. Romm is right to point out not only that Henderson is attacking a strawman, but also that this is primarily an empirical question. There’s good empirical evidence to suggest that it may not bite us in the ass.

    More importantly though, I really do want to defend what ethicists do. Every time I enter a classroom, I have to reassure my students that I’m not there to teach them how to behave, but rather to teach them how to ask and analyze questions about how to behave. That’s not Romm’s primary concern, obviously, but it’s very important to me that people in my profession not be made out to be Ethics Czars, or whatever will raise the ire of anti-University crowd.


  4. Oh, and as for “bellying up to the bar,” what I mean is that if you come to our conferences, we’ll generally dissect your arguments. It’s probably not much different than the kind of criticism you’d get on a math paper. Philosophy and math have that in common, it’s just that philosophy has much fuzzier edges. When we trounce another person, which is basically how all talks go — a philosopher presents her position the best she can, and then everyone else attacks — we do so in a way that focuses on the argument and not on the person. You do the same in math. We generally try to keep a distance from the person making the argument; and to make our attacks against a person as strong as possible, we try to offer up the most charitable interpretation of the speaker’s position as possible. I think the opposite trend works in politics. The standard is to take an uncharitable interpretation of another’s view… and that’s terribly frustrating for many academics.


  5. His argument was not even sophomoric. As I pointed out there is a good analogy with low flush toilets or efficient refrigerators to guide one.

    With Henderson you could not get to the ethics of the argument, and agreed there is one, because he drowned in the shallow fact filled end of the pool. One expects better, more layered understanding of situations from ethicists. Stuff like he printed you get from Glenn Beck.


  6. Will this sad story open Ben Hale’s eyes on the reality of AGW fundamentalism?

    Stay tuned for more episodes!


  7. Hey, I never said that politics and blindness weren’t involved in the whole terrible affair. I’m perfectly aware of the very, very dumb things that are said by people sometimes right at the heart of the AGW establishment. Nothing about this discussion is easy, and people sometimes speak out of turn, or say things that are false to gain political points. That’s true for all of us; and unfortunately, it can be very true of scientists, who are often naive to the value-laden presuppositions that guide their work.

    But I think we all bear at least some sort of burden to try and overcome our prejudices and biases so that we can have intelligent — and maybe even fun — discussions about these pretty heavy topics.


    • Actually your blog is good to overcome one of my prejudices (you firmly believe in AGW and yet you have not implemented whimsical censorship rules…this surely is a first in the blogging world, Pielke Jr aside?).

      On the other hand there is always in the back of my mind the thought that you (and Pielke Jr) are AGW skeptics, just haven’t realized it yet…


  8. In my view all energy efficiency regulations are wrong:
    Not because energy and emission problems should not be dealt with, but preecisely because of it.

    It may sound good to “only allow efficient products”.
    Unfortunately, inefficient products may be popular for many other reasons, relating to
    performance, appearance, construction, as well as cost, and sometimes the overall savings
    http://www.ceolas.net/#cc2x onwards

    Put it this way with the light bulbs:

    Americans (like Europeans) choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 8 to 9 times out of 10 (light industry data 2008).
    Banning what people want gives the supposed savings – no point in banning an impopular product = no “savings”!

    If new LED lights – or more efficient incandescents etc – are good,
    people will buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).
    If they are not good, people will not buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).
    The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio tubes were banned… they were bought less anyway.

    The need to save energy?
    Advice is good and welcome, but bans are another matter…
    ordinary citizens -not politicians – pay for energy, its production, and how they wish to use it.
    There is no energy shortage – on the contrary, more and more renewable sources are being developed –
    and if there was an energy shortage of the finite oil-coal-gas fuels,
    then
    1 renewable energy becomes more attractive price-wise
    2 the fuel price rise would lead to more demand for efficient products – no need to legislate for it.
    Any government worried about say oil use can simply tax it
    (and imported oil is not used in electricity generation).

    Supposed savings don’t hold up anyway,
    for many reasons:
    http://www.ceolas.net/#li13x onwards
    = comparative brightness, lifespans, power factors, lifecycles, heat factor etc with referenced research

    About electricity bills:
    If electricity use does fall, the power companies have to put up prices to cover their overheads, maintenance costs, wage bills etc (using less fuel doesn’t compensate much in overall costs).
    As with other consumption, those who use less tend to pay more per unit used (and heavy users get discounts).

    Emissions?
    Does a light bulb or other electrical product give out any CO2 gas?
    Power stations might not either:
    Why should emission-free households be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use?
    Low emission households already dominate some regions, and will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology and/or energy substitution.

    Direct ways to deal with emissions (for all else they contain too, whatever about CO2),
    with a focus on transport and electricity:

    http://www.ceolas.net/#cc10x

    The Taxation alternative

    Taxation is just another unjustified way of targeting light bulbs – but might be a compromise solution:

    A ban on light bulbs is extraordinary, in being on a product safe to use.
    We are not talking about banning lead paint here.
    This is simply a ban to supposedly reduce electricity consumption.

    For those who favor bans, or who want to act quickly in targeting electricity consumption as well as production and distribution,
    taxation to reduce any such consumption would therefore make more sense, governments can use the income to reduce emissions (home insulation schemes, renewable projects etc) more than any remaining product use causes such problems.

    A few dollars tax that reduces the current sales (USA like the EU 2 billion sales per annum, UK 250-300 million pa)
    raises future billions, and would retain consumer choice.
    It could also be revenue neutral, lowering any sales tax on efficient products.
    When sufficent low emission electricity delivery is in place, the ban can be lifted

    http://www.ceolas.net/LightBulbTax.html

    But the real deal is simply to supply energy as needed with whatever emisssion criteria is needed,
    and let consumers use and pay for what they want, in their own homes.


  9. In my view all energy efficiency regulations are wrong:
    Not because energy and emission problems should not be dealt with, but preecisely because of it.

    It may sound good to “only allow efficient products”.
    Unfortunately, inefficient products may be popular for many other reasons, relating to
    performance, appearance, construction, as well as cost, and sometimes the overall savings
    http://www.ceolas.net/#cc2x onwards

    Put it this way with the light bulbs:

    Americans (like Europeans) choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 8 to 9 times out of 10 (light industry data 2008).
    Banning what people want gives the supposed savings – no point in banning an impopular product = no “savings”!

    If new LED lights – or more efficient incandescents etc – are good,
    people will buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).
    If they are not good, people will not buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).
    The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio tubes were banned… they were bought less anyway.

    The need to save energy?
    Advice is good and welcome, but bans are another matter…
    ordinary citizens -not politicians – pay for energy, its production, and how they wish to use it.
    There is no energy shortage – on the contrary, more and more renewable sources are being developed –
    and if there was an energy shortage of the finite oil-coal-gas fuels,
    then
    1 renewable energy becomes more attractive price-wise
    2 the fuel price rise would lead to more demand for efficient products – no need to legislate for it.
    Any government worried about say oil use can simply tax it
    (and imported oil is not used in electricity generation).

    Supposed savings don’t hold up anyway,
    for many reasons:
    ceolas.net/#li13x onwards
    = comparative brightness, lifespans, power factors, lifecycles, heat factor etc with referenced research

    About electricity bills:
    If electricity use does fall, the power companies have to put up prices to cover their overheads, maintenance costs, wage bills etc (using less fuel doesn’t compensate much in overall costs).
    As with other consumption, those who use less tend to pay more per unit used (and heavy users get discounts).

    Emissions?
    Does a light bulb or other electrical product give out any CO2 gas?
    Power stations might not either:
    Why should emission-free households be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use?
    Low emission households already dominate some regions, and will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology and/or energy substitution.

    Direct ways to deal with emissions (for all else they contain too, whatever about CO2),
    with a focus on transport and electricity:
    ceolas.net/#cc10x

    The Taxation alternative

    Taxation is just another unjustified way of targeting light bulbs – but might be a compromise solution:

    A ban on light bulbs is extraordinary, in being on a product safe to use.
    We are not talking about banning lead paint here.
    This is simply a ban to supposedly reduce electricity consumption.

    For those who favor bans, or who want to act quickly in targeting electricity consumption as well as production and distribution,
    taxation to reduce any such consumption would therefore make more sense, governments can use the income to reduce emissions (home insulation schemes, renewable projects etc) more than any remaining product use causes such problems.

    A few dollars tax that reduces the current sales (USA like the EU 2 billion sales per annum, UK 250-300 million pa)
    raises future billions, and would retain consumer choice.
    It could also be revenue neutral, lowering any sales tax on efficient products.
    When sufficent low emission electricity delivery is in place, the ban can be lifted
    ceolas.net/LightBulbTax.html

    But the real deal is simply to supply energy as needed with whatever emisssion criteria is needed,
    and let consumers use and pay for what they want, in their own homes.


  10. RE
    “Romm was correct on a few matters — to point out that Henderson was effectively analyzing a strawman; and in this case, a strawman with significant political implications. There is no ban on incandescents. Henderson makes it seem like there is”

    This, in my view, is no straw man argument…

    Efficiency based regulation is the same as a
    ban on products not meeting given efficiency standards.

    While, indeed, that may mean that efficient incandescents can survive,
    Henderson remains essentially right in his arguments.

    Why?

    Because, time and time again,
    the mistake is made in supposing that nothing else apart from efficiency changes in making a product more efficent….

    A halogen light bulb is an example of a more efficient incandescent.
    Yet even direct replacement type halogens differ in appearance, construction, light spectrum output as well as in cost, with the further differences of other transformer requring halogens.
    More about efficent incandescent development

    http://ceolas.net/#li15eix

    In more overall terms, this of course also comes back to what I said above.
    It may sound good to only allow efficient products…..
    but unfortunately,
    many desirable product features, e.g. performance efficiency, appearance, construction
    as well as lower purchase cost and indeed overall savings can be tied up with product versions that use more energy.

    See examples given for buildings, dishwashers,TV sets, computers etc:
    http://www.ceolas.net/#cc2x onwards

    So, in summary,
    inefficient and efficient versions of products are essentially different products,
    and while David Henderson may not have expressed himself accurately there,
    his arguments were not, as I see it, wrong because of it.


  11. [...] has not imposed any censorship, whimsical or otherwise (by the way: let’s welcome Ben to the Joe Romm (dis-)Appreciation Society! – with Romm now openly toying with Fascist character-assassination [...]


  12. [...] has not imposed any censorship, whimsical or otherwise (by the way: let’s welcome Ben to the Joe Romm (dis-)Appreciation Society! – with Romm now openly toying with Fascist character-assassination [...]



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