Thursday 14 November 2013

Moral philosophy about global warming

What contribution can moral philosophers make to public reasoning about global warming?

I make two recommendations, concerning style and substance. First, moral philosophers should be oriented to investigating rather than moralising. Our contributions to public reasoning about global warming must do more than select and promulgate an existing moral account in the usual style of normative ethics. Our work should engage with the moral complexity of the issue rather than exhort the public to follow some simplified view. Second, moral philosophers should make particular efforts to engage collaboratively rather than adversarially with social scientists working in this area. The natural sciences alone are an insufficient basis for analysing the causes of global warming and its meaning for us. Economics in particular can be seen as a branch of applied moral philosophy, and is rich in concepts and techniques highly relevant to the moral understanding of global warming.

First, a caveat. The public reasoning I'm concerned with is about determining what we should do about human caused global warming, not the factual issue of whether it is happening. I know that lots of people still disagree about the facts of the matter, and that this is a significant obstacle to political action. But moral philosophers have no particular ability or authority to lecture people about factual truths - we are not climate scientists, after all, so what do we know.  All I can say is that facts are important for rational deliberation and, although what we should value and do are certainly for us to decide for ourselves, factual claims are best looked up. [More on this.] Anyway, let's get started with what moral philosophers can contribute.

Philosopher citizens

I suggest that moral philosophers engaging with global warming should focus on investigating and elucidating the values in play and their relationships, rather than moralising; with helping the global public formulate and think through the difficult moral questions for themselves rather than giving authoritative answers. This follows both from the pragmatic orientation of the global warming debate, and the intellectual complexity of the issue. 

By 'pragmatic orientation' I mean a concern with actually addressing the problems and causes of global warming, rather than, say, coming up with an ideal theory of humanity's proper relationship to the rest of the natural world. However worthy that intellectual project, it won't help us with the problems we face. Rather we must work entirely within 'non-ideal' justice conditions - taking people and institutions as they are, rather than as they should be. That also requires being prepared to think through and argue about difficult trade-offs between morally valuable things, like fairness and aggregate outcomes. That does not require giving ourselves up to Machiavelli's "effectual truth". But it does require an engagement with the present and the contingent, with realism and realisticness, that some philosophers may find discomforting. This attitude will be familiar to those used to working on applied ethics, such as bioethicists who interact with other disciplines (biomedical researchers and doctors), and state and civic institutions, and often contribute directly to public debate about a contentious issue.

Yet many moral philosophers entering the field of global warming do not have such a practical background. They should watch out for two unhelpful tendencies of normative moral philosophising that block engagement with politics: utopianism and moralisation.

An example of utopianism is proposing a world government to control and ration greenhouse gas emissions. Even if such a regime would indeed be the most effective and just institutional arrangement for mitigating global warming, and however wonderful it might be to have a just world government for other reasons, proposing it to solve the problem of climate change is foolish. It makes solving an urgent practical problem contingent on first completing a utopian project. History shows that imperfect solutions are nonetheless worth pursuing. At the start of nuclear age, some philosophers argued that a world government was now necessary to save the world from nuclear annihilation. Even if they were right that a world government would have stopped the threat, they were wrong that this was the only way to do so.

The moralisation of politics refers to the displacement of fractious, noisy, unreliable politics - democratic or otherwise - by philosophical reasoning about the correct moral theory. Only reason can  identify moral truth, so philosophers should only be concerned with the rational search for moral truth, not political success. But refusing to engage with politics means losing one's chance at the practical legitimacy that only political processes can provide. It is not an option if one cares about getting things done in the real world, rather than just being right.

The global warming debate is irredeemably political. What is needed is that important moral issues and their nuances be brought into the global public debate, i.e. they need to be politicised. The fairness of the process by which good consequences are brought about should be part of the politics of global warming, for example, as should the distribution of the costs and benefits of different adaptation and mitigation policy proposals.

We moral philosophers can contribute to this public reasoning exercise by doing what we're good at - identifying and analysing relevant moral concerns - and then sharing our ideas and our reasoning with the general public. But we must accept that how those concerns are translated into political debate and decisions is not up to us. Instead we should see our task as one of public philosophy, in which moral philosophers have the status of philosopher citizens rather than philosopher kings.


One reason moral philosophers should hold off on our moralising is that we don't yet have a very good grasp of the moral complexity of global warming. Even if presenting complete moral theories were helpful for public reasoning, we couldn't do it. For example we don't have good accounts of global or inter-generational justice, which are central to thinking about what should be done by whom and how. We seem to be stuck in a social contract rut that can't cope with those scales.

We have even less clear ideas - ideas with adequate intellectual standing even amongst ourselves - of the moral value of things like non-human animals, species survival, the biosphere in general, etc. At least, we don't have clear enough ideas of these to be able to use them pragmatically, in terms for example of saying something helpful about how human interests and non-human animal interests might be weighed against each other in thinking about policies of mitigation or adaptation.

Consider electricity generation reform, generally identified as both significant and urgent for mitigating global warming. What can moral philosophers presently contribute to the public (generally national) debates about the greenish options of nuclear power, natural gas, windfarms/solar/damns? Not much that I've seen. The advantages of gas as a clean fuel are the easiest to measure - it simply emits half the CO2 of coal (and less other pollutants). But nuclear power produces poisons that will be around for tens of thousands of years; while the 'renewables' consume vast quantities of land, and at any significant scale would cover most of many countries. How are such divergent costs and benefits to be brought together within a process of collective practical reasoning? So far only the economists seem to have tried.

At least for the present, our efforts should be directed at improving our own moral understanding rather than lecturing the world, and our achievements will be piecemeal. We should not be embarrassed by our inability to give a simple answer to a problem whose central characteristics we are yet to properly understand. This is not only a matter of professional integrity, but a field of moral philosophy in its own right (as virtue epistemology). We should be temperate and not exaggerate what we can know. We should be humble and speak from knowledge rather than whatever status accrues to professors of moral philosophy. And so on.

Yet that humility does not mean silence. Although we may not yet have very clear positive understandings of the central challenges posed by global warming, there are plenty of arguments and ideas we can quite definitely identify as moral mistakes. One of the most important contributions we can and should make to the public debate about global warming is to raise objections to the flawed simplifications that tend to arise in the politics of complex issues (as we do or should do about other topics, like prison, human rights, global development, immigration).

Critical perspective

The sprawling intellectual complexity of global warming demands the co-ordinated engagement of multiple disciplines concerned with ecology, meteorology, statistics, computer modelling, agriculture, politics, economics, international relations (and many more). On the one hand, moral philosophers should respect the division of labour between these epistemic communities and avoid attempting to displace their relevant expertise with our mere opinions. On the other hand, our own professional expertise (together with that of philosophers of science) can make a special contribution with regard to the treatment and understanding of the many ethical values and relationships this technical analysis involves or presumes, from the treatment of uncertainty to the idea of the environment as merely a system.

At the general level, what the moral philosopher can contribute here is critical perspective.  Let me give one example of how important that task can be. The public debate has a clear tendency to become dominated by a logistical discussion about the numbers, a perspective associated with the natural scientific view of things. Hence the ubiquity of the ‘Malthusian’ picture that portrays humanity as trapped between two axioms - a fixed physical constraint and an incorrigible desire to exceed that constraint (i.e. the vice of material consumption/sex) - and is characterised by a narrow empirical and ethical vision that produces an almost paralysing pessimism. Moral philosophers are well placed to resist this picture by arguing for the relevance of a broad and rich 'humanistic' spectrum of values to the politics of global warming.

Indeed, our last Malthusian crisis was a mere 50 or so years ago: the 'population crisis' of the 1950s to 1970s. Moral philosophers seeking to contribute to the global warming debate should be informed by the mistakes that were committed there, which seem to me particularly due to a narrowness of moral vision and a disinterest in social science. Of course the fearsome predictions of an uncontrolled population explosion and ecological and civilisational collapse by the likes of Paul Ehrlich never came to pass. The reasons were not only improvements in agricultural technology (temporarily relaxing the axiomatic subsistence constraint on population growth), but also changes to the axiom that humans have an incorrigible urge to procreate. The latter came from unexpected but in principle predictable causes, including the empowerment of women and prosperity itself.

In contrast the population control policies recommended by international and national institutions at the time do not seem to have been particularly significant in bringing the reduction of fertility about. Yet those policies came at a significant moral cost that went uncounted in the context of an apocalyptic struggle. The continuing abuses of China’s famous 1 child policy are well-known. In India, Indira Ghandi’s coercive sterilisation programmes left a legacy of lingering distrust of public health institutions and government in general. The now widespread practice of aborting female foetuses can also be partly attributed to the population control movement, which promoted it on the basis that it would reduce population growth if families that only really wanted to have boys could have less children.

The population crisis debate was narrowly focused on logistics at the expense of the human side of things. As a direct result, it produced public policies that were not only largely ineffective but also awful. It seems to me that a central task of moral philosophy in the climate change debate is to prevent such Malthusian excesses from happening again, by refusing to allow the debate to collapse into a matter of scientistic logistics.

Economic reasoning

I next turn to analysing what moral philosophers should be investigating. Moral philosophers are already investigating a wide range of relevant topics and I do not argue against that diversity. Rather I want to make a positive case for one particular area of investigation that seems to me particularly fruitful: economic reasoning.

Public reasoning about climate change is dominated by the natural scientific and economic discourses. Of course moral philosophers can engage with both discourses in the critical way I outlined above. (Philosophers of science, especially methodologists, are also important.) Just as the complexity of the climate change challenge makes it inappropriate to directly apply off-the-shelf moral theories, so the adequacy of economic analysis may be compromised by the straightforward application of standard techniques such as cost-benefit analysis or game theory. Such techniques may simplify too much or simplify in the wrong way, and philosophers are well placed to identify and press objections to their use, and to collaborate with economists in making them more fit for purpose, even if that means making their conclusions less precise.

But given its underlying character as a moral science, it seems to me that the economic discourse is also a promising place for moral philosophers to seek to make a positive contribution. My thinking here is particularly inspired by the reflections of Amartya Sen and John Broome (see references below). These economists turned moral philosophers have brought out the underlying character of (much of) economics as a branch of applied moral philosophy [as I have discussed previously].

Sen characterises mainstream contemporary economics as having a highly developed logistical/engineering aspect but an underdeveloped value analysis aspect. Sen criticises economists for this lacuna, and for trying to generate values from logistical analysis, e.g., deriving social valuations from market prices, like deriving the present value of the well-being of future human beings from interest rates. Such criticism of economic methodology, such as of how cost-benefit analysis is employed by environmental economists, is extensive in moral philosophy and quite rightly so (see e.g. Elizabeth Anderson).

Yet Sen also argues that economists’ logistical expertise can be relevant to moral philosophical analysis, whether in demystifying social level interaction effects (that explain paradoxes of famines amid plenty or economic depressions amid individual thrift), or in complementing the identification of intrinsic values (like justice or freedom) with analysis of how to realise them more fully in the real world. Thus, Sen suggests that mainstream moral philosophy and economics have overlapping interests and complementary specialisations which may support a mutually enlightening collaboration, at least on some issues.

Broome notes the ethical character of the fundamental concern of economics with understanding, managing and fulfilling the heterogeneous and often conflicting values, interests, and capacities of large numbers of individuals operating within the constraints of limited resources in a particular community. That system-level attention to the key aspects of heterogeneity, conflict, and scarcity within a community should be a central concern of moral philosophy, but it is generally left only to political philosophers.

Since the climate change debate is also particularly concerned with heterogeneity, conflict, and scarcity in a closed system, economic reasoning would seem an obvious resource for moral philosophers to draw on. In its long history of addressing and demystifying complex issues of this type (though not of this scope), economics has developed a wealth of concepts and techniques, from opportunity cost to public goods to externalities to counterfactual modelling to social choice theory that seem highly relevant to the moral philosophy debate.

Let me say something briefly about why I find the possibilities of these economic concepts so interesting as thinking tools for moral philosophers. 

Opportunity cost understands the cost of something as the value of the best alternative option that you have to give up to do it. That supports practical reasoning about actions and trade-offs under constraints. I have also seen it used quite cleverly to provide a systematic justification for the standard intuition that benefits and costs to future generations should be 'discounted' relative to the present (paper).

Interpreting climate stability as a public good reverses the polarity of the usual debate by conceptualising the problem of global warming in terms of the undersupply of a valuable thing - a stable and survivable climate - rather than its destruction. This reframing pushes moral analysis in certain directions. For example, rather than a backward looking focus on moral responsibility - 'who broke the climate?' - a public goods analysis is forward looking and pragmatic - 'how can we bring it about that we get more of this good thing?'

In particular, because public goods provision by governments is an old and well-established trope of politics, one doesn't need to argue from scratch about it (there is no need to re-invent the wheel). Most polities have long experience in debating the morality of public goods provision, especially the trade-off between effectiveness and fairness (which I have suggested moral philosophers struggle with about climate change). Even the laissez-faire economist Adam Smith argued that the funding of public goods (like roads) should come from those who can most afford it (i.e. the rich) even though the benefits would accrue to everyone. A stable survivable climate is in everyone's interests, so even if not everyone pays their 'fair' share of its costs the ones who do pay will still be net beneficiaries. So it seems to me that public goods analysis may not only help moral philosophers in our thinking about global warming, but is also a good political entry point for our contributions. For example, it provides resources for rebutting president Bush's 2001 rejection of the Kyoto protocol “because it exempts 80 percent of the world, including major population centers such as China and India, from compliance, and would cause serious harm to the U.S. economy”.

Externalities are effects on 3rd parties that aren't captured in transaction prices. The archetype of a negative externality is pollution: people/companies choose production methods that are efficient with respect to what is priced, but inefficient with respect to what isn't priced. They will therefore dump toxic chemicals into the air and sea if that is the cheapest method of disposal, even though that causes enormous damage to human health and the environment. The concept of externalities allows an alternative conceptualisation of collective action failure and justification for its remediation by state action than the rather impoverished prisoner's dilemma game theory form that is strangely popular among moral philosophers who engage with global warming, perhaps because it fits so neatly with the social contract model. (Moral philosophers have taken some concepts from economics - like the prisoner's dilemma - but they often seem to employ them as arguments rather than as thinking tools.)

Externalities analysis sees the emission of greenhouse gases as a pollution problem driven by the 'underpricing' by markets of the full social costs of certain activities. It generally recommends correcting these prices through targeted taxes (i.e. carbon taxes) rather than by exhorting or coercing people and companies to behave more 'morally'. One can see here the contrast between the politicisation and moralisation approaches I mentioned earlier. Exhorting and coercing people to reduce their carbon emissions follows from seeing the problem and solution of climate change in moral terms. In contrast, politicising the excessive harms caused by certain kinds of behaviour can lead to a technical (pricing) solution imposed by political authority that doesn't require making contentious judgements of the moral worth of the various activities that emit carbon. In terms of practical legitimacy, carbon taxes require much less agreement about morality: only that people should pay for the damage caused by their behaviour, not that they should be particular kinds of moral agents motivated by, say, a Kantian maxim against emitting carbon. It is not impossible for such moral exhortation, backed with a bit of government coercion, to succeed in changing behaviour at a large scale - consider the popularity of anti-littering and pro-recycling moral maxims in supposedly consumerist N. America. But such exhortation can come at the price of occluding both the issue of effectiveness, as in the case of recycling, and the scope of politics to impose more policy solutions that do the job more efficiently than the sum of lots of individual, morally motivated actions (such as simply imposing taxes on non-biodegradable packaging).

Economists use modelling to see what would happen to the matters we are concerned about under various counterfactual but plausible conditions. It is thus a great aid to practical reasoning. It allows us to demystify complex interactions and identify the causal mechanisms that matter most in determining outcomes and thus should be particular targets for intervention. It also allows us to test the robustness and effectiveness of different policy strategies that sound good in a verbal argument. For example, how robust are different policy regimes - such as different mixes of mitigation and adaptation policies - under different warming scenarios? What price should carbon be set at? Which industries need direct regulation rather than better pricing? What would be the social costs of a carbon tax (i.e. its impact on the poor) and how could that be ameliorated? And so on. Under this aspect it helps to clarify the actions that should follow from our moral reasoning.

But formal modelling also allows us to think through particular ethical principles and their combination as principles of action. For example, how would a fairness principle of allowing developing countries freedom to emit carbon until they reach Western levels of wealth play out? Under this aspect it resembles Rawls' method of 'narrow reflective equilibrium' in which we seek coherence in our moral intuitions, principles, and beliefs by trying to work through their ramifications. This can lead to the unexpected realisation (or 'discovery') that certain principles should be rejected or amended. That can be very helpful in public reasoning to the extent that it narrows the degree of disagreement about which moral principles matter and thus makes the aggregation of individual judgements into social choices easier. This blends into the methods of social choice theory.

Social choice theory, at least as interpreted by Amartya Sen, envisages individuals as arbitrators coming to normative judgements about social arrangements/policies rather than as rational but self-interested negotiators. As a result, it doesn't have the same problems of social contract theory (which dominates political philosophy) in considering the interests of international and future people. It is also more open about what kind of arguments can count (i.e. beyond rational interests), and more compatible with non-ideal circumstances. For example it is good at generating consensus about what should certainly be prevented (climate disaster) without requiring complete agreement about the fairest and best policies to achieve that.

Economic reasoning is not economics as usual

I think Sen and Broome provide some reasons for moral philosophers to look positively on economic reasoning, particularly with respect to climate change. Yet in practice the relationship between the two disciplines more often seems adversarial than collaborative. The climate economist William Nordhaus for example accused Nicholas Stern of making unscientific ethical presumptions in his 2006 Review on the Economics of Climate Change for the British government. The environmental ethicist Mark Sagoff criticises The Poverty of Economic Reasoning about Climate Change; while Stephen Gardiner warns in his Perfect Moral Storm that “a focus on climate economics is likely to facilitate moral corruption”. And so on.

This mutual distrust (and perhaps even disgust) is a phenomenon that deserves to be investigated in its own right. Apart from straightforward inter-disciplinary competition, it may also relate to the very different cultures of these two disciplines: because economists and philosophers think (and talk) quite differently about the same topics they often have difficulty seeing the relevance for their own projects of what the other is about. Yet the urgency of climate change, and the importance of developing adequate theoretical resources for understanding its novel challenges, makes that mutual disavowal untenable.

Let me emphasise that the economic reasoning I'm suggesting moral philosophers engage with is not economics as usual - certainly not ‘the economic approach to everything’ made famous by Gary Becker. It need not be based on orthodox economics’ welfarist approach to social evaluation, nor focus narrowly on market mechanisms. The work of some environmental economists, especially their use of cost-benefit analysis, has created the unfortunate impression among many moral philosophers that economic analysis is the opposite of ethical analysis. Yet I think this shows not that economics corrupts everything it touches, but, if anything, that economic analysis is too important to be left to economists alone.

What might more positive 'collaborative' engagement produce? Let me end by outlining one suggestive example from the inter-disciplinary work of Amartya Sen. In The Idea of Justice (pp 248-52), Sen derives a novel concept of “sustainable freedom” by combining features of three different strains of analysis (taken from the Brundtland Report, Robert Solow's An Almost Practical Step toward Sustainability (pdf), and his own Capability Approach).

From Gro Brundtland the egalitarian focus of her conception of "sustainable development" as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

From Robert Solow, the economist, a more ambitious and cleverly recursive conception of the relationship between generations which drops the fetishisation of resources: "The duty imposed by sustainability is to bequeath to posterity not any particular thing but rather to endow them with whatever it takes to achieve a standard of living at least as good as our own and to look after their next generation similarly”.

And, from his own Capability Approach, Sen brings in the idea of human development as concerned with enhancing individual flourishing rather than meeting basic needs or maintaining current living standards, and an idea of human agency that accommodates our valuing of things - like the preservation of the spotted owl - beyond our self-interests and material needs. The result is a definition of sustainable freedom in terms of
the preservation, and when possible expansion, of the substantive freedoms and capabilities of people today without compromising the capability of future generations to have similar - or more - freedom. 
I don't want to say that Sen’s suggestion is the final word on the matter. What I want to draw attention to are its expansive and deeply humanistic (and resolutely non-Malthusian) understanding of agency and values and its combination of intergenerational with contemporary justice. More specifically, his incorporation of an economist’s suggestion for an iterative treatment - in which each generation is responsible for preserving the substantive freedom of the next - may be the right kind of simplification, the kind that helps us to better conceptualise issues of inter-generational justice that moral philosophers working on global warming are trying to grapple with.


I have argued in this essay that the phenomenon of global warming requires moral philosophers to take up a pragmatic orientation directed at improving global public reasoning and thence political decision-making about it. Its intellectual complexity presents challenges for its moral understanding that we should take on. Yet moral philosophers should admit that we do not yet even understand clearly the questions we should be asking, let alone the correct answers. That should make us humble, but not silent, for while we may not have a clear idea of the right way to conceptualise the moral issues involved, there are many ethical mistakes in the public debate that we can and should point out.

I have also argued that moral philosophers and economists working on global warming would benefit from a closer and more collaborative engagement. On the one hand, economists are bad at the valuational issues that moral philosophers are rather good at. On the other hand, economists are very good at the logistical issues that moral philosophers, even including professed utilitarians, are rather bad at. More specifically, economists have developed a number of conceptual tools and techniques for thinking through key aspects of complex problems resembling global warming. Moral philosophers may find these helpful in refining our thinking, particularly given our relative weakness at social level analysis, revealed in our failure to make much progress with our limited toolkit (dominated by social-contract theory, deontology, and the prisoner's dilemma).

Robert Solow ended the lecture I cited earlier by noting that:
In a complex world, populated by people with diverse interests and tastes, and enmeshed in uncertainty about the future (not to mention the past), there is a lot to be gained by transforming questions of yes-or-no into questions of more-or-less. Yes-or-no lends itself to stalemate and confrontation; more-or-less lends itself to trade-offs. The trick is to understand more of what and less of what.
Economists are the masters of more or less calculations. Moral philosophers are in a position to help with the tricky part - "more of what and less of what"?

Broome, John. 1999. Ethics Out of Economics. Cambridge University Press.
Sen, Amartya. 1988. On Ethics and Economics. Wiley-Blackwell.