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.