Comparative Disadvantage

November 11, 2009

Why bother arguing against climate geoengineering when international law and the theory of comparative advantage suggest that experimentation will just occur anyway? Looks like China’s now claiming to have sponsored its second major snowfall. So folks, here’s my entirely non-ethical argument for geoengineering: if we don’t do it, somebody else will.

There’s just no arguing with the market.


  1. This might be a little off topic – but I don’t quite understand the difference between an ethical argument and a non-ethical argument.

    I never studied philosophy, and I am an engineer, so I find myself a little adrift when we start talking about ethics or morals. It is not that I consider myself unethical or immoral – it is just that I don’t know how to apply these principals in practice to real world fact patterns.

    For example, if geoengineering turned out to be the only way to stop global warming, and it could be demonstrated that it would save millions of lives – would that then be an ethical argument for geoengineering? That seems moral and ethical to me.

    What if geoengineering were to be shown to work – but it would save 10,000,000 lives in the Northern Hemisphere and cause 5,000,000 lives to be lost in the Southern Hemisphere – would that be an ethical argument for geoengineering – or an unethical argument? If the needs of the many outweight the needs of the few – I guess you have to go with the net – so in this example more lives are saved then lost so it is ethical?

    Is it ever ethical to do something which puts the needs of the few above the needs of the many?

    I think so. For example, if 10 robbers threaten to kill me and my family (four people total) and in self-defense I kill all 10 robbers, that is a net lose of life – but self-defense seems ethical to me.

    I know that environmental ethics is your area – but I just don’t get how to apply it to simple fact patterns.

    Maybe a primer for readers who don’t know how this stuff applies in the real world?

  2. Well, loosely speaking, ethical arguments might make appeals to something of value, or might make a claim about what ought to be. Another kind of argument, say a descriptive argument (like the kind I assume that you make in engineering), might appeal to how something works or what is happening.

    The following might work as a primer. I haven’t read it through completely, but it seems to be pretty accessible.


  3. Thank you.

    I will read it.

  4. Actually, I think Rick has you on this one, Ben. If I may suggest a way of filling out your argument:

    1. If we don’t implement GE, someone else will implement GE.
    2. If we do implement GE, someone will implement GE (viz., us).
    3. Therefore, someone will implement GE, regardless of what we do.
    4. If GE is going to be implemented regardless of what we do, then it is permissible for us to implement GE.
    5. If it is permissible for us to implement GE, and someone will implement GE regardless of what we do, then it would be prudent for us to implement it in a way that is least harmful to us.
    6. We generally ought to do what is prudent, given that it is permissible.
    7. Therefore, we ought to implement GE.

    (4) is pretty clearly an ethical premise, making the ‘ought’ in (7) an ethically-laden ought.

    (4) is questionable, though, so maybe that’s not what you intend. How exactly do you get from (1) to (7)?

    Also, causing snowfall and cooling the globe are substantially different activities, with significantly different geopolitical consequences. Just because China is willing to do one doesn’t mean that they’d be willing to do the other.

  5. I think Ben’s tongue was firmly in cheek, David.

  6. Indeed, my cheek is aching.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: