Monday, June 7, 2010

Morality And Global Warming

Lots of people talk about how global warming is not just an environmental issue, but also a political, economic, and moral one. FLG always has trouble with the moral argument. It's not that he doesn't believe there is a moral aspect, but rather often the people who invoke the moral argument aspect use logic that is fundamentally and irrevocably flawed.

FLG will setup a stylized and exaggerated example to illustrate the point:
Human beings are moral agents, by which FLG means that they articulate moral principles and apply them to actions and things. Thus, things possess various moral value or weight. By contrast, nothing in Nature is a moral agent. No animal, mineral, or vegetable assigns moral value to things. Nor is the Earth a moral agent.

Many smart environmentalists argue that population is the core problem in the battle for a greener planet. Human beings extract and exploit the Earth's resources, and so it's a kind of zero sum game between Man and Nature. More Man means less Nature. Ergo, let's eliminate Man.

But as explained above humans are the only moral agents. The Earth contains no moral value not ascribed to it by humans. Yet, we have some environmentalist espousing an ideology that places more more value on the Earth than on humans. This ideology places more moral weight with a thing than on other moral agents, which seems fundamentally flawed to FLG. Sure, it's a stylized and exaggerated example. Nobody's calling for humanity to wipe itself out to save the planet.

But then there's this take in today's NYTimes :
So why don’t we make ourselves the Last Generation on Earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!

Of course, it would be impossible to get agreement on universal sterilization, but just imagine that we could. Then is there anything wrong with this scenario? Even if we take a less pessimistic view of human existence than Benatar, we could still defend it, because it makes us better off — for one thing, we can get rid of all that guilt about what we are doing to future generations — and it doesn’t make anyone worse off, because there won’t be anyone else to be worse off.

Is a world with people in it better than one without? Put aside what we do to other species — that’s a different issue. Let’s assume that the choice is between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all. And assume, too — here we have to get fictitious, as philosophers often do — that if we choose to bring about the world with no sentient beings at all, everyone will agree to do that. No one’s rights will be violated — at least, not the rights of any existing people. Can non-existent people have a right to come into existence?

Now, the author is focusing on human suffering, and also importantly guilt . He thinks there is too much suffering and that there's a moral case to be made that we should consider self-extinction to elminate suffering. And also let's not forget the eliminating guilt part. This is a completely idiotic argument, even as thought experiment in FLG's opinion. We're making a moral decision to create an amoral universe. Moreover, at a more basic level, this is a form of species suicide, which should be considered about as sane as Jonestown. Luckily, the author isn't insane:
I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now.

Anyway, FLG has issue with ascribing higher moral value to objects than to other moral agents, i.e. human beings. As he wrote above, he thinks it's fundamentally flawed. So, he can at least commend the author for making the case of what's best for other moral agents. The idea that non-existence is better than flawed existence is nuts, but at least it's not moral idiocy.

Coincidentally, FLG heard the author of Green Like God on NPR yesterday, and he argued that scripture contains an argument for environmentalism. This is interesting to FLG because it means that a moral agent, in this case the highest moral agent, God, ascribed moral value to the Earth. FLG hasn't read the book, but the key passages are probably right at the beginning in Genesis:
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.


Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

In particular, FLG's guess is that the author of that book focuses on the word replenish as his foundation for Christian environmentalism. In any case, neither these passages nor anything FLG can remember in the bible ascribes higher moral value to Nature than Man.

Just to be explicitly clear, FLG isn't arguing that there isn't a moral case to being good stewards of the Earth. He thinks there is one, but it's a Burkean conservatism case. We owe it to future generations to allow them to have the same or better lives than we do/did. To a large extent FLG thinks that means leaving the Earth in the same or better state than we found it. But the idea that we need to depopulate the Earth or severely restrict population growth to save the planet rests upon very shaky moral reasoning.


George Pal said...

These philosophical meanderings (Singer’s and Benatar’s) are so wrong, on every level, that it would have been better had they (the meanderings) never existed at all.

There isn’t a lever or place to stand sufficient to budge Benatar’s philosophical speculations out of the noxious pit they occupy.

And Singer cannot be argued with – he’s in some parallel alternate anti-universe:

Peter Singer:
"Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in a chance combination of gasses; it then evolved through random mutation and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen to any overall purpose."

Peter Singer: "Life as a whole has no meaning.”
Peter Singer: Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University.
Me: “What The Fuck!??”

I vaguely remember something Pascal (if I’m remembering correctly) said about existence, something to the effect that were his existence limited to nothing more than the brief time he could manage on a small ledge overhanging a chasm he would prefer it to no existence at all. Benatar and Singer are a dour pathetic pair, two desperados, failed in their quest for personal purpose in a purposeless purposelessness, presuming the same for the rest of humanity.

George Pal said...

And another thing. I hate the fuckin' World Wide Web.

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