Mr. Fix It

October 23, 2009

Keith Kloor kindly baits me with this thoughtful post.  How can I resist a reply?

The first step in understanding my position may come through somewhat more formal channels.  I recently published an essay at Science Progress.  That essay is primarily on ocean fertilization, though some of the arguments can be parlayed to geoengineering more generally.

But that’s not all…

The second step in understanding my position may come through acknowledging that if assessed across the landscape of journalists, policy wonks, economists, and ethicists, mine is not the majority view of right and wrong. The majority view, or what I understand the majority view to be, is that the good has priority over the right; which is to say, that we can justify our actions simply by appeal to the consequences of those actions. Certainly, many, many people in the policy community hold this position. It’s very attractive. If I can bring about more good by implementing policy X, then it stands to reason that policy X is justified.

(Sometimes advocates of policy X will take a position akin to this, but limit their stance so that policy X is constrained by publicly-ratified human or international rights law. They may say that policy X is justified, so long as it doesn’t trample the rights of others, or something to that effect. Ultimately, the justificatory appeal is to better or worse consequences, either subject to no or some constraints.)

Saying that mine is not the majority view doesn’t impugn it as a view. There are many ethicists who hold views like mine, though only a few who work directly on climate and environmental ethics. Generally speaking, most ethicists try to take a step back from widely-held positions and ask what would make an act justified. That’s what interests me. It’s not at all clear to me that we can justify acts simply by appeal to the consequences. Sometimes actions that bring about bad consequences are justified; sometimes actions that bring about very good consequences are not justified. So we need to look a little deeper.

That’s step two.

Step three picks up where Keith Kloor does, at the doorstep of things that we’re responsible for. Kloor is right to note, citing William CrononStephen Pyne, and Emily Russell, that we’ve been manipulating nature for a long time.  It seems natural that if we’re going to continue manipulating nature, then we should be manipulating nature in the best way possible.

I don’t have any outlandish objections to manipulating nature. Sometimes it’s justified. Sometime’s it’s not. We need to build houses, plow fields, vaccinate our children, and so on. What I object to is the manipulation of nature for bad purposes; but also and more importantly, I object to the reckless manipulation of nature for no purpose. I think we’re wrong to transform environments without giving collective thought to how we might be transforming them. It’s not that we’re always wrong; it’s just that we can’t say that we’ve justified what we’re doing if we haven’t put any consideration into what we’re doing.

Step four suggests that our actions are justified only by appeal to the full and most appropriate act description. If I drive my car from A to B to do X, I am only and mainly doing that. I am not “geoengineering the planet,” even though I may be contributing to atmospheric carbon concentrations. If I mow down a forest to build a school, I am mowing down a forest to build a school, not simply mowing down a forest, and not simply building a school. If that forest is the sacred home of the fluff-fluff bunny, then I am also destroying the sacred home of the fluff-fluff bunny. In order to assess the morality of what we’re doing, we need to evaluate the action according to the full and most appropriate act description.

Returning to my drive from A to B to do X, it is true that it is an incorrect description of my act to say that I am geoengineering the planet, but it is not true that it is an incorrect description of my act to say that I may be contributing to its climatic instability. I am no more manipulating the climate when I drive than I am manipulating my living room temperature when I breathe. I am just breathing — though I am, and this may be relevant in some contexts — perhaps changing the internal temperature of my room, however so slightly. My action, in other words, is best assessed by appeal to the full suite of appropriate descriptions. (Disregard intention here; that’s another matter entirely.)

So step five extends this discussion to suggest that we should understand our actions in terms of what is justified. In order to assess what is justified, we have to take the full act description and run it past strict validity tests: is it permissible for me to X, given that X will affect Dick, Jane, Timmy, Spot, Sue, and Archibald? Depending on the range and reach of my action X, I will affect more and fewer parties to greater and lesser degree. If I injure Dick, or I violate Jane’s privacy, I will be acting impermissibly. More importantly, injuries to Dick are not necessarily impermissible, as he could well agree that it will be fine to be injured — to get a flu shot say — even though this is maybe bad for him. And further, violations of Jane’s privacy are only violations of Jane if she is in fact violated. Simply having access to Jane’s private life is not enough to count as a violation. If Jane allows me into her private sphere, say by sharing something with me, then I am privy to that private sphere but not violating it.

Geoengineering crosses jurisdictional boundaries in a wide and all-encompassing way. It affects everybody. When we manipulate our environment, we must be prepared to justify our actions to all those who will be affected; and to take responsibility for the outcomes of our actions. If Timmy doesn’t get to grow soybeans because weather systems have shifted due to our injection of SO2 into the troposphere, then Timmy has a damned good reason to point a big fat finger at us and say that he has been wronged by us. Sure, we can say that the universe would’ve been worse had we not injected SO2, but it is not clear that Timmy’s universe would’ve been worse.

This is a far cry from the manipulation of the environment that we often encounter, when we, say, tear down a forest to build a school. In those latter cases, the justification of the manipulation depends on whether all factors have been considered, whether all affected parties could or would agree that the action is permissible. In the geoengineering cases, the complex moral problems of which I speak are tied to tall the Dicks, Janes, Timmys, and Spots.

There is a very slight possibility that this high justificatory threshhold could be met — as when, say, a massive asteroid is hurtling toward the earth and we must do something drastic to prevent its immediate annihilation of our planet — but global warming is not like a giant asteroid. It’s a much more slowly unfolding problem; and we have many more ethically preferable, albeit considerably more costly, solutions at our fingertips.

There’s really quite a bit more to say here.  Keith, if you’re still reading, I’m sure you’ll have objections, but I’m happy to try to address them. As I mentioned, these are complex issues, and they’re not simply addressed in one blogpost.


  1. Ben,

    I just had a flashback to one of my graduate environmental ethics seminars. Honestly, I’m going to have to read this post a few more times, because I’m out of practice. But I think I get where you’re coming from. Rather than offer a reflexive, glib response, let me chew over what you’ve written. I also want to reread Caldeira’s recent interview in Yale Env 360, because I believe some of what he discusses there is quite pertinent to this discussion.

    Back later tonight…

  2. Can you elaborate on the distinction between doing what’s right and doing what’s good? I can’t see how judging geoengineering on the likely consequences for all the Dicks, Janes, Timmys and Spots differs from ‘justify[ing] acts simply by appeal to the consequences’.

    But then philosophy has always made my brain hurt.

  3. […] Update: Ben Hale obliges here. […]

  4. Hey Vinny:

    It’s not so much a distinction between doing what’s right and doing what’s good, as much as it is a distinction between what justifies or qualifies an action as right. In both cases, we’re looking at what justifies the action as right.

    According to one way of thinking, in order to determine what is right, I need to know first what is good, and then I should seek to do what will bring about more of that good. I maybe think that happiness is valuable, for instance, and so claim that I should do what I can to make the world happier. From that point, there are lots of ways of figuring out what the correct appeal should be: should I optimize or maximize happiness? Should I appeal to expected happiness or actual happiness? and so on. In this case, the good has priority over the right.

    According to another way of thinking, in order to know what is good, I must first know what is right. I might say that education is good, for instance, and say so not by appeal to the good things that come of education, but instead by appeal to the rightness of education — say, because it puts people in a position with authority over their lives. It is right to educate others, therefore education is good. In this case, the right has priority over the good.

    In both cases, if I want to know the right thing to do, I appeal either to the good or to the right. This also has important repercussions for the rest of the theory. In theories where the good has priority over the right, it may be permissible for me to break a promise to bring about more good. In theories where the right has priority over the good, it may be more important for me to respect my duty not to torture than to extract potentially fallacious information from a prisoner.

    That’s kind of a simplistic summary of the distinction, and apologies to those who might explain it differently. Here’s a moderately more precise, but exceptionally more difficult, overview from W. D. Ross:


    And here’s a quick quote:

    There are two theories, each in its way simple, that offer a solution of such cases of conscience. One is the view of Kant, that there are certain duties of perfect obligation, such as those of fulfilling promises, of paying debts, of telling the truth, which admit of no exception whatever in favour of duties of imperfect obligation, such as that of relieving distress. The other is the view of, for instance, Professor Moore and Dr. Rashdall, that there is only the duty of producing good, and that all ‘conflicts of duties’ should be resolved by asking ‘by which action will most good be produced?’ But it is more important that our theory fit the facts than that it be simple, and the account we have given above corresponds (it seems to me) better than either of the simpler theories with what we really think, viz. that normally promise-keeping, for example, should come before benevolence, but that when and only when the good to be produced by the benevolent act is very great and the promise comparatively trivial, the act of benevolence becomes our duty.

  5. This may sound a bit trite, but the observation I’m led to make is:

    Seems this easily leads to the (good) end justifies any means.

    I need to ponder this some more…

  6. That’s one concern, among several, held by those who prioritize the right over the good. That camp may say that we have some responsibilities that hold even if a great deal of good may be brought about. Generally speaking, that’s the gist of my concern about geoengineering. I think we have responsibilities that hold even if a great deal of good may be brought about.

  7. Thanks. I think I understand – or at least I do when ‘right over good’ and ‘good over right’ are contrasted in theoretical terms. When the two principles are applied to practical examples, the distinction starts to fade. This is partly because the whole exercise starts to look like a gigantic quibble. Rightness can seem like just another way of describing goodness, and vice versa (as in your education example and W. D. Ross’s recasting of doing good by helping an accident-victim as performing a duty to relieve distress). But that’s just a non-philosopher’s stupefaction and should be ignored. To outsiders, philosophy is built on such quibbles. I should quit quibbling about it or go elsewhere.

    More importantly, the first principle has a get-out clause. Under some circumstances (e.g. your massive asteroid), ‘right over good’ can dump the ‘anti’ in anticonsequentialism and become ‘good over right’. And if even anticonsequentialists always have to keep an eye out for really big consequences that will force them to switch modes then they too are consequentialists – ultimately, they too reckon that good has priority over right. So it seems not so much a guiding principle as a parlour game until things get serious.

    I should say that I found Timmy’s soya beans a useful argument against geoengineering. (Although it would surely be equally useful against mitigation through emissions-reduction.) I just can’t see it as an argument that prioritizes the right over the good.

    Incidentally, it’s very refreshing to read stuff like this that isn’t peppered with the dread word ‘stakeholder’. I much prefer your ‘Dick, Jane, Timmy, Spot, Sue, and Archibald’. Is ‘stakeholder’-abuse a solely British disease or do you deserve credit for eschewing distracting jargon? (And if so, is this because you are doing what’s right or doing what’s … OK, I’ll shut up now.)

  8. Ben,

    I’m late in getting back. Where do the days go…

    I’m afraid I don’t much more edifying to add. But as I referenced the Yale Env Caldeira interview earlier, let me return to two things he said that resonated with me:

    “On the other hand, if these [geoengineering] options do have the potential to reduce risk, then it seems to me that we would like to have the option to reduce that risk should a time come where that would seem necessary. I kind of think of these geoengineering options as seeing, ‘Well, can we invent some kind of seatbelts for our climate system?’ We need to drive the climate system carefully, we need to greatly reduce emissions. But even if we’re driving carefully we still run the risk of getting into an accident. And seatbelts can potentially reduce the damage when we’re in an accident.”

    And this:
    “And the way I look at it is that we’re talking here about people’s lives, and I don’t think we’re going to deploy these systems to save polar bears. I think if they’re going to be deployed, it’s going to be to help people from dying of famines, or something dramatic like that. And I think that these techniques have a potential to save lives and reduce suffering, and we should explore whether that’s true or not.”

    Now there are bloggers who will (and do) seize on other statements he made as proof why geoengineering is more a hail mary pass…and that’s fair enough.

    But the bottom line: Caldeira leaves open the possibility that we may need to throw that hail mary one day…for moral reasons: to save people’s lives.

    So it bothers me when some folks would like to shut down having an honest debate over geoengineering for political or ideological reasons. I’m also not sure that your moral argument tops Caldeira’s.

  9. The problem is that there are many, many activities we could engage in that would save lives. We could conduct medical experiments on prisoners, for instance, and that might save lives. Or, we could displace and relocate indigenous peoples in the Congo in order to conduct a massive agricultural experiment, and that might save lives. Just because we can do these sorts of things, and just because these might bring about a great deal of good by saving lives, doesn’t mean that we should go about doing them.

    I’m not at all suggesting that we shouldn’t save lives; just that we shouldn’t try to drive the climate in order to save lives.

  10. […] Oh, sure, you can go on for quite a while talking about the “environmental costs” of painting all of the mountains white — I’m sure our economist friends would — but that’s not what concerns me. What concerns me is that steering the climate in this way, even though it may bring our climate to stability, opens many, many doors to violate the rights and interests of other people. I say more on that here. […]

  11. […] reasons similar to those that encourage me to say that we ought not to geoengineer the climate, I say similarly that we ought not to recklessly allow climate change. The difference between […]

  12. […] that I’ve tried to articulate in papers and here on this blog. See, for instance this and this. Share this:DiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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