RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he really missed girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Closet deontology, or how climate change turns utilitarians into Kantians

(Despite my knowledge of the jargon, I don't philosophize for a living, so be patient, and if possible, kind. I'm not, by the way, claiming these are novel observations. In fact, I have no idea if they are, but I expect they're not.)

There are two great classes of ethical systems in contemporary philosophy; deontology and utilitarianism. (One could argue there's a third system, based on what seems to be a universal and innate human ethical sense, but I'd argue simply adopting that would be falling into the naturalistic fallacy.) Anyway, broadly speaking, deontology is 'duty ethics'; actions are right or wrong depending whether they accord with doing one's duty. Deontology is often religious; obeying the Ten Commandments is a duty for Christians and Jews. One can argue even fairly strict and seemingly arbitrary deontological rules, such as keeping kosher, once had a rational basis. Avoiding pork and segregating milk from meat probably made a lot of sense in the 1000 BCE middle east. But as several orthodox Jews have explained to me, one obeys God's laws because they are God's laws, not because they make sense.

The idea that one should obey revelation-based rules obviously was not popular during the Enlightenment, and 18th century thought took two tracks. One was Kant's, which sought to found deontological ethics on reason, and led to the categorical imperatives, the most famous of which is 'Act as though the maxim of your actions could be a general law', or as my mother (knowing nothing of Kant) put it "What would happen if everyone did that?" There are all sorts of criticisms of Kant, and attempt to build on or modify his ideas; my own experience is that raw Kantianism leads to a set of rules that are incredibly strict.

The other great thread is utilitarianism, which essentially says one should act to maximize the overall happiness, or good, or something, of the universe. There are of course all sorts of problems with this too. Is happinees necessarily a good thing? After all, a well-supplied drug addict is happy. How can you define good in utilitarianism in a non-circular way? How do we know if animals are happy, and is their happiness to be given equal weight to ours? If we knew killing a baby Hitler would spare 50 million people, should we kill baby Hitlers? But my own view is we can solve most of these problems sufficiently. The one insurmountable problem, in my view, is the impossibility of the utilitarian calculus. It is simply impossible to forecast the long term results of any action, even to some acceptable degree of probability.

It is probably fair to say most deontologists are on the right, and most utilitarians on the left. The reasons for that are pretty obvious, so I won't belabor them. Because of what I view as the fatal flaw of utilitarianism, I am sort of a half-hearted Kantian, partly by upbringing, partly because I see little practical alternative, being an atheist.

That's all background; here's the point of this post. Climate change is a case study in why the flaws of utilitarianism cause its adherents to become deontologists. Climate change is happening, because we are collectively pumping large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. I happen to think the short term consequences of this will be overall benign, but it's hard to say that about the long-term consequences; it will take an awful lot of carbon-dioxide-bestowed goodness to offset drowning the coastal regions of the earth. So what, ethically, should one do?

Oh, oh, I know, says the utilitarian. Institute policies to push us away from fossil fuel use. Stop the atmospheric CO2 increase! Problem is, we can't actually do that. We can reduce our own production of CO2, at some considerable cost to ourselves (a utilitarian evil). But there is no indication enough of the world will do the same. China will say it will, but it won't. India simply refuses. If we lower our consumption of fossil fuels, that will simply increase the supply, lower the price, and incentivize consumption elsewhere. It's depressing but entirely reasonable to predict humans will continue to consume fossil fuels, regardless of long term consequences, until the last readily available fossil fuels are used up. At that point, we are seriously screwed. Another problem with utilitarianism; sometimes you can't do anything to increase the good of the universe.

How does the utilitarian answer that? He/she says we should do it anyway, to show 'leadership'. Maybe if we do the right thing, others will follow. it will at least give us the moral standing to pressure them to follow. I think that's deluded. India has all sorts of good moral arguments why it should continue to grow, and self-interest will cause it to pick its own, over ours

So, in the end, utilitarians are forced to argue that we should limit CO2 production, because it would be good if everyone did it. Kant stirs in his grave and murmurs "By golly, that sounds familiar!" (Auf Deutsch, natürlich). Welcome to the categorical imperatives, boys and girls, and get out your reading glasses. The Critique of Practical Reason is heavy going, but you'll get through it; if everyone did, the world would be a better place.

1 comment:

  1. "I'm not, by the way, claiming these are novel observations. In fact, I have no idea if they are, but I expect they're not."
    Please allow me to erase any doubt.