Mr. Fix ItOctober 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 Cronon, Stephen 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.