Are ethical arguments for climate action weaker than self-interest-based arguments?

Guest blogger Donald A. Brown is Associate Professor for Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law at Penn State University.  This cross-post is from his ClimateEthics blog.

I. Introduction

Many commentators to ClimateEthics argue that since people are self-interested beings, it is more important to make arguments in support of climate change based upon self-interest rather than ethical arguments. Some go so far to assert that people don’t care about ethics and therefore only self-interest-based arguments should be used to convince people to enact domestic climate change legislation. In other words, they argue:”get real” only self-interest arguments matter.

This view has dominated much discussion of climate change policy in the United States. No U.S. politician known to ClimateEthics has been expressly making the ethical arguments that need to be made in response to objections to proposed climate change policies. As ClimateEthics has previously reported, this is not the case in at least a few other parts of the world. See, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate.

Almost all arguments in the United States in support of climate change policies have been different self-interest based arguments such as climate change policies will protect the United States against adverse climate caused damages in the United States, create good green jobs, or are necessary to prevent national security risks to the United States that might be created if millions of people become refugees fleeing diminished water supplies or droughts that are adversely affecting food supplies. There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. In particular, there has been no coverage of the specific ethical arguments for climate change legislation in the mainstream media except with a very few infrequent exceptions.

More specifically, when opponents of climate change policies make self-interest based arguments against the adoption of policies such as cost to the United States, there are no follow-up questions asked by the press about whether those who argue against climate change policies on grounds of cost to the United States are denying that the United States has duties or responsibilities to those outside the United States to prevent harm to them
Now ClimateEthics agrees, of course, that if the consensus view of climate change science is correct, enlightened self-interest would support strong climate change policies. As an example, most economists now support action on climate change because they believe the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of taking action. In fact, there are many reasons why enlightened self-interest would support action on climate change. Yet what we explore here is not whether enlightened-self interest supports climate change policies, of course it does, but whether self-interest arguments are actually stronger than ethical arguments. Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences. This, as we shall see, is particularly true of arguments made against climate change policies. And so ethical arguments may be no stronger then self-interest based arguments for some things, but they are actually indispensable for understanding what is wrong with certain arguments made against adopting climate change policies.

In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. We have written about this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Have We Been Asking the Wrong Questions About Climate Change Science?

We would like now to explain in greater detail why taking the ethical reasons for support of climate change policies off the table in the debate about climate change is tantamount to a soccer team unilaterally taking the goalie out of the net. In other words, a case can be made that the ethical arguments are actually much stronger than self-interest based arguments at least in some very important ways. Therefore the failure to make the ethical arguments for climate change policies should be a concern because such failure has practical consequences.
We begin, however, with the claim that the ethical arguments are very important for non-practical reason, that is they should guide policy strictly for ethical reasons and therefore their use doesn’t depend exclusively on practical consequences. That is, governments and individuals should follow ethical principles because they are the best articulation of what is right or wrong. In other words, ethics should be considered because of duties and obligations to others, not only because of practical consequences. In fact, history if full of big changes made eventually in public policy because some people argued that existing practices were morally wrong. Civil and human rights regimes, woman’s’ rights, even rules against smoking in public have come into being because some people argued that the status quo was wrong. We therefore don’t agree that people don’t respond to ethical arguments although we agree it may take time to get a response.

Although, not all people will necessarily respond to ethical arguments, qua ethics, some will and that may be what is necessary to create cultural changes that eventually lead to public policy changes.

Yet, here we will argue that the failure to make ethical arguments has practical consequences.

II. The Strength of Ethical Arguments In Support of Climate Change Policies.

We have explained many times in ClimateEthics why climate change not only creates issues of self-interest but also duties, responsibilities to others. In summary fashion, this is so because: (a) climate change is a problem caused by some people that most harshly harms others, (b) the harms to others are likely to be catastrophic under business-as-usual, (c) because of the global scope of the problem and the inability of victims of climate change to petition their own governments to protect them, only with successful appeals to the ethics of foreigners can the victims of climate change hope to get protective action, and, (d) obligations to future generations are part of the prescriptive calculus. Given that climate change raises not only self-interest questions but matters about which there are duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others ethical arguments are stronger than self-interest arguments in the following ways:

(a) Scientific Arguments Against Climate Change Policies.

Once one sees the ethical obligations to others one easily sees the duty to think about scientific uncertainty of climate change impacts through the lens of the victims. This is particularly important because it is those who will most harshly be harmed by climate change impacts that have the most to loose if the mainstream climate change view turns out to be correct. In fact, the victims of climate change have the strongest interest in seriously considering the possibility of potential but unproven catastrophic harms actually happening and have the most to loose by waiting until all uncertainties are resolved. On the other hand, in countries like the United States where many people believe that they can protect themselves from the harshest impacts of climate change by air-conditioning and paying higher food prices, the harshest impacts are less threatening. Only an appeal to duties to others appropriately frames the scientific uncertainty arguments. In fact procedural fairness would require that those who want to take a bet that the harsh impacts that could happen wont happen consult with the victims of climate change before placing this bet in the face of uncertainty. The decision to do nothing in the face of uncertainty could have consequences and those consequences will most harshly be experienced by those most vulnerable, that is the poorest people in parts of the world most vulnerable to harsh climate change impacts.

(b) Economic and Cost Arguments

Particularly in response to cost arguments made in opposition to climate change policies ethical arguments have an important resonance and for some arguments are the only way of showing deficiencies with cost-based arguments in opposition to climate change policies. Examples of this are the following:

(1) Once one sees ethical duties to others it is easier to understand what is wrong with many cost arguments made against climate change policies. For instance, during the debate about the Kyoto Protocol, the United States governess only considered two cost-benefit analyses that looked only at costs and benefits to the United States alone. In other words, the United States acted as if only costs and benefits to the United States counted. The obvious injustice of this position was widely seen by the most vulnerable countries around the world because they saw climate change as a justice issue. Yet in the United States, since the problem of climate change was being framed almost exclusively as a matter of self-interest, almost no one commented on what was deeply ethically problematic with how the United States was looking only at costs and benefits to itself alone.

(2) When one sees that those causing climate change have duties to those who will be harmed, one can easily see that those causing climate change can not ethically rely on total costs and benefits in a disaggregated way, an assumption of most-cost benefit analyses based arguments made in opposition to climate change policies. This is so because distributive justice demands that harms and benefits must be disaggregated in the case of climate change because the costs of taking action will be most pronounced on those taking corrective action while the harms avoided will be experienced by others. In other words, only an appeal to distributive justice can lead to an understanding of what is wrong with many common uses of cost-benefit analyses. In fact, only an appeal to justice can demonstrate what is wrong with most justifications for the use of cost-benefit or cost alone arguments that usually seek to maximize efficiency but ignore distributive justice issues.

(3) Only an ethical appeal to duties of future generations can correct the usual approach followed in cost-benefit analyses to discount the value of benefits that are experienced in future in such away that the future benefits are virtually worthless in the present. Fort this reason, only an appeal to duties to future generations can demonstrate problems with disenfranchising future generations’ interests in discounting methods commonly followed in cost-benefit analysis based arguments made in opposition to climate change policies.

(4) Once one sees that those causing climate change have duties, responsibilities, and obligations to others, one can easily say that the benefits of taking action and the value placed upon them must consider not only likely harms avoided by climate policies but potential worst case impacts. Many cost arguments do not consider potential worst case harms, yet justice would require consideration of all plausible harms be considered in calculating the value of harms avoided by climate change policies.

(5) Because climate change impacts can interfere with the basic human rights of the victims of climate change, only an appeal to the ethical duty to avoid human rights violations can effectively deal with some of the arguments against climate change action based upon cost. It is well established in international law that increased cost to those who are responsible for human rights violations may not be used as a justification for continuing human rights violations.

(6) Only an appeal to ethics and justice can correct the tendency of many cost arguments to reduce the value of everything harmed to their market value and in this way make, , for instance, the value of sacred cows simply the price per pound that the cows will sell for. Cost arguments against climate change policies often determine the value of climate change harms avoided on the basis of market values alone, that is on the basis of “willingness-to-pay” alone. For instance, some cost-benefit analyses relied upon by some opponents of climate change action have assumed that the value of lives lost by foreigners to be the earning power in the remaining lives of the people who will be killed thus making the value of the lives of poor people less valuable that people in rich countries. Only an appeal to ethics can demonstrate why this may be unjust.

(c) The Need for a Fair Global Solution

No national climate change strategy makes any sense unless it is implicitly a position on what are safe levels of global concentrations of greenhouse gases. Yet in developing a national greenhouse gas strategy, most countries act as if they can set national targets for greenhouse gas reduction based upon national interest alone. This is exactly what has happened in the United States. The recent Markey-Waxmen legislation and proposed Kerry-Lieberman legislation debates were written as if the United States could set targets with insufficient regard to the amount of reductions that were needed globally to protect the most vulnerable from climate change. (There is a growing scientific consensus that the world needs to reduce currrent global emissions by 25 to 40% by 2020 to have any confidence that the world will limit additional warming to 2 degrees C, a level that is widely viewed as dangerous particularly to the most vulnerable around the world, yet the bills pending in the US Congress fall far short of these goals.) Yet, ethics would have all nations reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. But only appeal to ethics can determine what is fair and safe in light of duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. If the reduction targets of national policy are based upon self-interest and ignore international obligations, then national policies are likely to be too weak to prevent harm to the most vulnerable.

This realty has additional practical implications. Because the world needs a global solution to climate change, and many nations will not agree to a global solution that is viewed to be fair, there is not likely to be a global solution to climate change unless most of the world sees it as just. For practical reasons, therefore, to get the United States citizens to agree to a just solution, the United States must encourage a public discussion of what justice requires of the United States. Because the world is waiting for the United States to step up to its ethical obligations, a global solution to climate change most likely practically depends on countries supporting just solutions and much is practically turning on what the United States does in this regard.

(c) Unilateral Action of Nations On Climate Change.

Many arguments against climate change are premised upon the fact that some countries have not acted. Yet justice would require all nations immediately reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do. We at ClimateEthics have explained this in some detail before. See, for example, Nations Must Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions To Their Fair Share of Safe Global Emissions Without Regard To What Other Nations Do

To assume that nations have no duty to reduce their harmful activities until all others act leads to the absurd conclusion that no country needs to act until all others act. This may be correct as a matter of self interest but is deeply flawed as a matter of justice. No court would allow a polluting company to defend itself on the basis they should be allowed to continue to emit polluting substances in excess of their fair share of emissions that are causing harm because other polluters are exceeding their fair share.

(d) Responsibility for Damages

Many principles of international law make polluting nations responsible for damages caused by harm they cause others in proportion to their contribution to the problem. For instance, in international law the “no-harm” and “polluter-pays” principles have been agreed to by the the United States in a variety of soft-law documents and in the case of the “no harm” principle in binding law under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty ratified by the United States under the George Bush the First in 1993,. Now there are open questions about whether courts will deemed to have the jurisdiction to enforce these principles. Yet, these principles have normative force even if they don’t have legal force. And if the United States is forced to contribute to damages from climate change either because a court takes jurisdiction and orders it to pay damages (there are several lawsuits pending) or to get what it wants in international negotiations, the United States might have to agree to pay a fair share of damages where proportionality is determined in conformance with theories of distributive and retributive justice which would like lead to a search for a formula about what is the U.S. “fair” share of causal responsibility. The only way a nation can avoid the potential implications of these normative rules is for nations to make sure their emissions are below their “fair” share of safe global emissions.

If the Untied States is worried about economic impacts of climate change it should be worried particularly about the implications of ethical rules that would allocate responsibility for damages. This is a matter of retributive justice, not self-interest. Now if a court gets jurisdiction over this issue, it is also clearly in the U.S. self interest to reduce its emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions, yet their is no escaping even in this case about thinking about fairness. Also because poor countries are now making justice claims about this as a condition for reducing their emissions, the US understanding of what retributive justice would require of it should has practical significance. In other words, when thinking about the question of climate damages, there is no escaping questions of justice. This may or may not turn out to be a practically important development, but it very well may be.


Because the ethical arguments discussed above are the strongest arguments for climate change policy, it is both a practical mistake as well as an ethical failure to not frame climate change policy options through an ethical lens.

By: Donald A. Brown, Associate Professor, Environmental Ethics, Science, and Law

74 Responses to Are ethical arguments for climate action weaker than self-interest-based arguments?

  1. JeandeBegles says:

    Ethics is not a phony criteria with no value, instead of economy or self interest.
    As clearly showed in this article, ethics is the necessary basement of fairness if we want to reach a global agreement.
    “Polluter pays” is a simple and fair principle on which everyone could agree. The interesting point is that based on this principle, a “simple” carbon tax at 32$ per CO2 ton (roughly equivalent to 8 cents per litre of oil), if agreed on a world wide basis for every fossil fuel (coal, gas, oil) would gather roughly $1000 billions (1 trillion) in a year according to the CO2 figures of the International energy Agency (year 2007).
    With this simple principle, “the polluter pays” according to his CO2 consumption, and everyone is entitled to receive the same share (this is Redistribution), this same share would be yearly around $140.
    Using the IEA figures per country (and per average citizen); we can see the power of this carbon tax for our yearly expenses:
    US citizen pays 600$ (and receives 140$).
    western European pays 300$ (and receives 140$).
    Chinese people pays 100$ (and receives 140$).
    Indian people pays 40$ (and receives 140$).
    Senegalese people pays 12$ (and receives 140$).
    I don’t understand why such clear and simple principle (in line with Hansen’s proposal) is not on the table of the climate negociations.
    I can understand that for developped country government such as US and European countries, this proposal is a political danger. But here is the ethical objection. Where are you there for?
    Mister Obama, we supported you for your human values and examples, not for the business as usual policy and the special interests.

  2. fj2 says:

    Accurate understanding the climate change problem will require sharpened insights.

    “Looks Can Deceive: Why Perception and Reality Don’t Alway Match UP”

    “When you are facing a tricky task, your view of the world may not be as accurate as you think,” Christof Koch, Scientific American Mind, Aug 9, 2010

  3. homunq says:

    There’s another point, related to the psychology of denial. Climate denial, in my opinion, rests on three pillars: pessimism, tribalism, and lack of imagination. By ceding the ethical argument, US politicians are sending a signal of low status: why else would they surrender a rhetorical battle without fighting it? This subliminally encourages and rewards the tribalist hippy-punching of the deniers.

    Related to your point 4: it’s well-taken, but there are also purely economic reasons to argue that long-term decisions, especially ones which have even a sliver of existential risk involved, should be analyzed with a negative discount rate. Basically, the discount rate is a way of calculating opportunity cost: is it better to spend money today, or invest it and spend more tomorrow? Yet any true analysis is built to cover a spread of possible future interest rates, not just a single number. No matter where the center of that spread is, there is some tail with negative real interest rates. That is, there is some possibility that for whatever reason, there won’t be enough money in the world tomorrow to fix the damage we could easily have fixed today. Since the weighted average of discounted-to-nothing and negatively-discounted-to-huge depends only on the “huge” part, not on the “nothing” part, even a stone-hearted economist should see that, when your time horizon is long and/or you see existential risks, the proper discount rate is actually NEGATIVE. This is true even if the “not enough money in the world to fix the damage” scenario is low-probability; it’s only much, much more true in the case of climate change, where many would argue that such a scenario is by far the most likely one.

    And once the poor lost economists finally stumble their way along this argument to its logical conclusion, they will find those of us with a moral compass have been waiting for them for some time. Which is another reason for making the ethical argument: morals are a practical way to cut through the flim-flam; when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, the fools who give up their ethical sense of direction will guide us all to a fate nobody deserves.

  4. _Flin_ says:

    Who cares about ethics? Well, certainly the 30.000 people who had a heatstroke in Japan this year. And the relatives of the 136 dead.

  5. fj2 says:

    In his significant efforts to eliminate world poverty Columbia University Earth Institute Director Jeff Sachs has described three or four qualities of argument helpful in reaching consensus which I believe to be:


    (can’t remember fourth)

  6. Ben Lieberman says:

    Thanks for the fantastic post.
    To what extent would ethical appeals be more effective as positive appeals or as negative shaming? My hunch, unsupported by any data, is that the positive appeals might be more effective, but does that mean that there is no role for a shaming approach at the same time?

  7. homunq says:

    @6 Ben Lieberman:

    Deniers are basically pathetic trolls. They get off on annoying non-deniers. Then they pat each other on the back and tell each other that they put us in our place. So “negative shaming” is pretty ineffective against them.

    In general, more important than the “positive or negative” question is the question of the status you project. Since “we have the power, and thus the responsibility, to immeasurably help the world” is higher-status than “If this were a court of law, we’d have to pay damages”, generally speaking, positive messages are better. But I’m sure there are also cases when a negative message is high-status, and should be used.

  8. Chris Winter says:

    This is a good article. But I take issue with one statement in its Introduction.

    There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others.

    To name one prominent figure, Bill McKibben makes this sort of argument. I am fairly sure that Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristoff have also done so.

    Or, could it be that, instead of “politically visible,” the author meant “politically viable”?

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    Side note

    Beginning with his A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume strove to create a total naturalistic “science of man” that examined the psychological basis of human nature. In stark opposition to the rationalists that preceded him, most notably Descartes, he concluded that belief rather than reason governed human behavior, saying famously: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” A prominent figure in the skeptical philosophical tradition and a strong empiricist, he argued against the existence of innate ideas, concluding instead that humans only have knowledge of things they directly experience. Thus he divides perceptions between strong and lively “impressions” or direct sensations and fainter “ideas,” which are copied from impressions. He developed the position that mental behavior is governed by “custom”; our use of induction, for example, is justified only by our idea of the “constant conjunction” of causes and effects. Without direct impressions of a metaphysical “self,” he concluded that humans have no actual conception of the self, only of a bundle of sensations associated with the self. Hume advocated a compatibilist theory of free will that proved extremely influential on subsequent moral philosophy. He was also a sentimentalist who held that ethics is based on feelings rather than abstract moral principles

  10. A point to add to the above might include that the American Civil Rights movement was argued on ethical — specifically, neo-Kantian — grounds, without any reference to “self-interest.” Indeed, Martin Luther King never makes any appeal to a “calculative” ethics, either of the “self-interest” form or the broader “greater happiness” type found in utilitarianism. This is quite significant, since Mill makes an explicit argument for the legitimacy of civil disobedience in his little tract, Utilitarianism. Yet King predicates all of his arguments on the Kantian notion of the moral law.

    So clearly ethical argument that willingly confronts evil is an effective tool.

  11. Prokaryotes says:

    “On the other hand, in countries like the United States where many people believe that they can protect themselves from the harshest impacts of climate change by air-conditioning and paying higher food prices, the harshest impacts are less threatening.”

    Looking at the news this seems so, but actually the impacts are a threat. Because of tipping points – positive feedbacks which have the power to destroy the United States.
    One thing should be to perform a better message about the actual “threat-level”. There is actually an asteroid heading for impact with the USA and it’s accelerating.

  12. mike roddy says:

    All of the arguments for reducing emissions are intelligent, fair, and moral. The arguments to the contrary are based on fear, greed, and ignorance.

    As we’ve learned, though (see the Senate), this doesn’t mean that the right side will win.

  13. Michael Tucker says:

    I had a feeling that if anyone in congress had ever said that climate change legislation was a moral issue it would be Nancy Pelosi. Sure enough just google it, it is there for all to see. This author is really talking about President Obama’s message on climate change and I feel he is reacting mostly to the new strategy of appealing to national security that he and the administration have bought into. I agree that we must emphasize the overarching moral issue. We know we are not going to do anything for ourselves. We know that no real change in greenhouse gas concentrations and ocean pH levels will occur in our lifetimes, at the rate we are going, but we still know that we MUST DO SOMETHING NOW!

  14. Gord says:

    Good article.

    It is my impression in reading economics / finance articles and books, that the topic of ethics is treated as soft and squishy, not hard-nosed and realistic. Ethics are not ‘business like’. The arguments are, many times, based upon a false binary option: do the shareholders want the corp to make money or to be ethical? Ethics are distinguished from ‘obeying the law’. A corp officer has a duty to shareholders to obey the law but in my reading I don’t get the impression that ‘obeying the law’ is understood to be an ethical activity. It is seen as pragmatic.

    The corporation can be seen in a biological paradigm. Each corp is a cell fighting with other cells for market share and profits. True Ethical considerations can only inhibit the corp’s ability to grow and be successful.

    The corporation governance paradigm has been a part of western governance philosophy for some time according to my reading of history. It is no wonder that arguments based upon self interest are predominant when talking about Climate Change. We are all ‘shareholders’ in our nation. We want the ‘board of director’ politicians to do the right thing to maximize our ‘investments’.

    This bias, I believe, is huge given how close the USA’s governing class has been to its corporate class. At times the overlap has been substantial.

    I hate to say this, but my reading of the situation is that these ethical arguments (that are superior arguments in my view) will not gain much traction among those who have the power to make the kinds of changes required to win the War on CO2.

  15. Nell Reece says:

    Not even self interests works when it comes to consuming common resources.
    “The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. This dilemma was first described in an influential article titled “The Tragedy of the Commons,” written by Garrett Hardin and first published in the journal Science in 1968.[1]”

    I believe the collapse of the Atlantic Cod populations is one example (but I may be wrong)

  16. Raul M. says:

    Local paper in Gainesville Fl. had an article
    saying how the average temp. of the area was
    highest in I think 106 days. I think that was
    that the avg. temp for those 106 receint days
    broke the record as highest temps.
    Even though global average temps may be up only
    a small amount and headed to only 1C* by the
    end of the century.
    Newer knowledge seems to indicate that the temps.
    have gone higher than predicted.
    Predictions must be very difficult to get it right.
    The comedy show used to just have the pillow fight
    over such things, but it may be that it is starting
    to matter to those in power.
    What to do , what to do to help keep those powerful
    people comfortable. Humm what to do. What will they
    ever be able to do.

  17. Jeff Huggins says:

    A Few Thoughts

    Thanks for the great piece, Donald.

    Here are a few thoughts that reflect what you are saying, put it another way (in some cases), and perhaps add a thing or two . . .

    First, put simply, we need to appeal to the ethical/moral argument — and indeed allow those valid arguments to actually influence our actions — in order to actually address the climate change and energy problems adequately. In other words, the appeals to “personal practical self-interest”, if we take that phrase literally, simply can’t get you all the way there. Appealing solely to “personal practical self-interest”, and ignoring or diminishing the very real ethical/moral case, would be like embarking on a 500 mile journey with only two gallons of gasoline in your tank (even knowing that there are no gas stations along the way). Again: The personal self-interest arguments can’t get you all the way there. One NEEDS the very real ethical/moral elements to get there. (This can be seen in a number of ways. I won’t go into them here.)

    Second, for this and for other reasons, I agree that it’s a terrible and indeed self-defeating strategy to focus only on the self-interest arguments and neglect the larger ethical/moral arguments. When we do that, we shoot ourselves in the feet — and if we do it too much, such that we can’t draw on the ethical/moral points later, then we effectively shoot ourselves in the feet for good — in other words, I guess you could say that we’ve blown our legs off and prevented our future ability to walk.

    Third, partly because of the terminology and partly for other reasons, too much of the talk about ethics and morality makes it seem, or feel, like those things are nothing more than ideas . . . nothing more than thinking. Sometimes, via the way these matters are discussed, we actually subconsciously fuel the (incorrect) view of some people that ethics/morality are not “real” things. I think that more people should understand the very real life-science understanding of human social-moral dynamics and related sociality, including their origins and roles and so forth. (To be clear, I’m not committing the naturalistic fallacy or accepting “is” for “ought”. Instead, I’m merely talking about the “far from refined” and sometimes downright hurtful aspects of our natural human social-moral dynamics, which ultimately provide the realization that other peoples simply won’t “put up with” us if we continue actions that they believe are flooding their coastlines and causing them disastrous droughts.) A great book to read — a classic, although a bit out of date now — is Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation”. I’m sure you folks (Donald, etc.) have probably read it, but I think more and more people should understand the very real nature of human social-moral dynamics. The view that ethics and morality are somehow not “real”, and that they are just mere phantoms of thought, or imagined inventions, is very incorrect. And it’s debilitating. But, via our terminologies (and certainly via the way that “philosophy” is sometimes thought of these days), we sometimes contribute to that misunderstanding.

    Fourth, most of the “practical self-interest” arguments aren’t even really that — i.e., they actually draw on the same social or “other” aspect of ethics/morality that the ethical-moral arguments consider, but they do so more narrowly. In other words, the personal practical self-interest arguments don’t appeal to each single individual, as single individual, excluding ALL others. They claim to appeal to individual self-interest, if you want to use that phrase, but they REALLY appeal not just to “Tom” caring about himself (to use a hypothetical example) but also to Tom’s care for his wife and kids and whoever else he naturally includes in his circle of concern. In other words, these “self-interest” arguments — at least most of them — DO draw from some of the realities of human sociality. They just draw the circle too narrowly. They put the lines in different places between one’s “in group” and other people in the world, including across generations (i.e., having to do with future generations). The reason I say this is this: Those arguments can’t really claim to think of ethics/morality as mere phantoms. They can’t claim to purely place self-interest as the only consideration. Instead, they just put the lines in different places — who is “in” and who is not considered in their circle of concern. And that line-drawing is a much harder argument to explain and support. Put another way, they don’t neglect human sociality and the need for responsibility entirely, in favor of the “individual”. Although that sort of argument would still be very flawed, at least it would be a pure argument, in some ways. Instead, however, the appeals to “self-interest” really include others, but defined according to a narrow circle: “I want to do only things that maximize outcomes for me, my wife, my three kids, and my dog and cat, and perhaps my best friend, but damn the rest.”

    The reality of social-moral arguments — and the very real nature of human social-moral considerations — can be seen throughout history. Consider the revolutionary war (the war for American independence), the civil war, the civil rights movement, what Gandhi did in India, and so forth and so on.

    Fifth, and finally, there is another reality that the current climate and energy organizations should realize, in keeping with the social-moral arguments and in keeping with reality. This is very important: Valid social-moral arguments are very real, and they do reflect very real human needs and feelings and ideas, and they do ultimately influence (often, at least) actual behaviors, but these social-moral considerations ultimately influence societal change only when they are brought to life in the form of actions.

    In other words … It was not merely through the use of pure reason, and e-mail messages, and phone calls, that the ideals and ideas in the Declaration of Independence brought about the actual independence. Also, slavery wasn’t abolished until growing numbers of people insisted that it should be abolished, and in that case a war was unfortunately necessary: The fact that all people are created equal had been recognized and written down, in principle, LONG before that time. When it comes to “Big” changes in society, most of them don’t happen without the assistance of major actions. My point here is this (although I’m not putting it very eloquently): Social-moral feelings and ideas, and arguments, ultimately have their influence on the world when they are brought to life IN ACTION, i.e., in the real social-moral behaviors of people in large groups.

    So, to put this another way: The question is not, “Are these (ethical) considerations ‘real’ or not?” Instead, the question is more like this: “When will more and more people, who do realize that these considerations are real and important, bring these considerations more visibly to public attention, via large public lectures, civil actions, marches, boycotts, and so forth?” In other words, when will more Rosa Parkses, Tom Paines, Martin Luther King Jrs, Gandhis, Abraham Lincolns, Susan B. Anthonys, and so forth start to show that they consider these considerations to be both real and important?

    This is, I think, an uncomfortable truth, or at least an uncomfortable reality. The social-moral considerations are very real, and necessary, but they only have their main influence when they are brought to life and reflected in action. Indeed, the more we simply talk about them as being real, without them being reflected in broader appeals and actions, the more that many people will think of them as “unreal” and as mere words and theories. So, two things are vital, I would say: First, we DO need to make, and appeal to, the ethical-moral arguments. AND, we DO need to complement those arguments with corresponding actions. Both of those ingredients are necessary. One will not do without the other. And the absence of both of them will continue to be debilitating.

    A scientific understanding of human dynamics, and of major societal changes, supports this. Any honest look at history supports this.

    Thanks for the great post, Donald. I hope this subject gets more and more treatment — and action — as time progresses.



  18. Nell Reece says:

    “A major UN report in the impacts of biodiversity loss that will be launched in October is expected to say that the economic case for global action to stop the destruction of the natural world is even more powerful than the argument for tackling climate change. It will say that saving biodiversity is remarkably cost-effective and the benefits from saving “natural goods and services”, such as pollination, medicines, fertile soils, clean air and water, are between 10 and 100 times the cost of saving the habitats and species that provide them.”

  19. Claudia F. says:

    I am sorry but I just skimmed the article and the comments – I have got very little time (I am a climate activist and a single mom with two small children). I believe that there are large segments in the US who would respond to a ethical and moral argument. I co-run a small grassroots group, and that’s been indeed the argument that keeps us going in the face of evidence that people do not care in the least as much as they should. We need to advance both, self-interested and arguments based in moral terms. But I think that the communities who would respond to a moral and ethical argument have not been tapped sufficiently. Another reason to emphasize moral arguments is utilitarian in nature: humanitarian crisis as a result of severe weather events require the presence of ethical and moral values and commitments to motivate people to help out and come to the assistance of those affected.

    Parents for Climate Protection (in need of updating)

  20. Claudia F. says:

    P.S. I would have liked to edit the comment I left just a bit. Oh, well…

  21. Sable says:

    The view that ethical action is separate from self interest is a delusion.

  22. Edward says:

    10 Michael Tucker: How soon were you planning to die? In only 27 years agriculture will collapse, collapsing civilization. Add 27 to your age. In a typical collapse of civilization, one person in ten thousand survives. Are you feeling lucky? See:
    comment # 253

  23. Jeff Huggins says:

    (And Another Thing:) Avoiding a Mistake That We Complain About Ourselves!

    Compare these two arguments:

    * The goal of responsibly addressing the climate and energy problems can be accomplished solely, or largely, on the basis of appeals to each person’s practical self-interest.

    * If everyone follows their own practical self-interest in a free marketplace, unencumbered by thoughts about society as a whole, the magical free market will ultimately result in good and responsible outcomes. The invisible hand will make it so. Out of individual self-interest will arise the healthy public good.

    Do you see the parallel between these views? Do you see the problem? Although the first statement doesn’t put the matter in economic terms, and it doesn’t mention marketplaces, it is nevertheless based on the same delusion that the second statement is based on.

    You can’t eliminate personal social responsibility, and the need for a healthy degree of conscience and regard for societal well being, from the felt responsibilities of individuals and still expect good societal outcomes. A focus solely on appeals to “practical individual self-interest” cannot achieve a responsible resolution to the climate and energy problems any more than “practical individual self-interest” by itself can provide markets with the stuff needed for them, magically, to bring about societal well being.

    Let’s not make the same mistake we complain about, in a different form!



  24. Edward says:

    “cost-benefit analyses to discount the value” How do you discount an infinite cost? Would the extinction of Homo Sap have an economic impact? Would the collapse of civilization have an economic impact?
    Economics is powerless to deal with such situations. Economics is irrelevant.

  25. Donald Brown says:

    I particularly agree with the the comments of Jeff Higgins in response to our my post. I would like to add one clarification to my article that I now see I should have made. Yes, there are people such as many religious leaders and Bill McKibben claiming that climate change must be understood as a moral issue, in fact more every day.

    However, as a veteran climate change debate watcher, I see no evidence that the significance of climate change as being a moral issue is penetrating the public debate when complex arguments are made such as those about scientific uncertainty, or cost arguments, and others that I mention in the post. I also have seen no US politician make the obvious moral arguments that I have seen in other parts of the world. For example, when the Scottish Parliament was debating the toughest climate change bill in the world, a bill that they passed about two months after I witnessed what I am going to describe that calls fora 42% reduction by 2020, although I had been asked to address the Parliament about the ethical significance of climate change, before I spoke I was awed by a Scottish Parliamentarian who shouted at his colleagues: We must pass this bill even though it will cost us some money, because we have duties and obligations to the people in Africa and the Small Island Developing States. I have subsequently learned that at least four other Parliamentarians made the same argument.(We talk about this in article referenced in the post) Although it is important for them to do so, it is not enough for religious leaders to encourage the world to climate change as a moral issue, unless the significance of climate change as a moral issues is worked out in response to many climate change issues. Thats precisely what we try and do at

    We will know that the ethics angle is understood when we see both phoneticians and the US press asking the obvious ethical questions that arise once it is understood as an ethical argument.

  26. command & control advantage says:

    The ethical arguments are much stronger in that future Homeland Security is not assured. Hope the Chamber of Commerce $$ is worth it for your grandkids, GOP.

  27. Edward says:

    Justice and fairness: Have nothing to do with it, as Russia and Pakistan just found out. Mother Nature doesn’t care. She just makes species extinct. Humanity is no exception. Either we are smart enough to avoid exterminating ourselves by means of Global Warming or we are not. If there is another possibility it is that climate change is about to drive human evolution by killing billions of people. That has happened before.

  28. Global warming climate destabilization will be unfolding according to rigorous scientific principles – and no economic, political, religious or ethical discussions can change how that science will work. And worse, it matters little whether we fully understand it. Maybe, we can only understand ourselves – which may be our essential ethical discussion.

    Humans have disrupted the survival capacity of our spaceship earth. And now we seem to be slow to learn this and slow to accept responsibility and not really unified in mounting a reaction. There may be some ethical individuals – but as a species we are failing to permit our survival.

    By refusing to act we are condeming our species to an end. It may be that we lack the required hive mentality to make a unified effort. In that case, it is not an ethical problem, it is our species, it is our DNA that is at fault. We are a pretty dumb species if we are refusing to learn how to survive.

  29. Abe says:

    While the ethical argument is an important one, there are a number of other issues with even easier arguments to make, like the death squads trained at the School of the Americas/WHINSEC, that are ignored because arguing that inaction is unethical does not always provoke action, even when there’s a clear line.

  30. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Nell at 15 –

    Garett Hardin was a biologist who happened to stray way off his field of expertise and wrote the infamous tract has that served the privatization meme so well for over forty years.

    Writing as a Commoner (grazing sheep on about 1.5 square miles of my ‘heft’ of the Cambrian Mountains of Wales) I have to say that the tract was sheer self-indulgent fantasy with a twist of a vicious pleasure in promoting coercion. It has been debunked so many hundreds of times that critiquing it is a standard part of many University courses – at least in Europe – In the US it seems to retain some credence, presumably due to the greater focus on ‘property rights’.

    For the record, a Commons is by definition a resource that has an operating management code to ensure its maintanance by its many users. Resources without such a code operating, are termed ‘open access’ resources. Sadly the tradition of the European Commons doesn’t seem to have been transplanted to America with the colonists, and the many examples among the native peoples have been almost entirely destroyed.

    Hardin was an idiot of the first water, and has much to answer for.

    Given that we now need to establish a code of sustainable usage for the unfenceable atmosphere, the proper technical description of that code would be “the Treaty of the Atmospheric Commons.”



  31. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Nell –

    PS –

    The proper title of Hardin’s rant was “The Slander of the Commoners.”



  32. Prokaryotes says:

    The human axiom rules. Denialist and sceptics can’t win this topic, because it breaks with axiomic powers. Natural disaster from climate change will break the power structure – society – the civilization. The cost of inaction are to high – threaten the survival of the species – the business of everybody. This happend many times before to the biggest empires – why does it have to be like this in the year 2010?

    Basic Axioms about Power
    But it isn’t always possible for dominators to provide the conditions that make everyday life and occasional circuses possible. Natural disasters, wars, economic breakdowns, and much more often disrupt everyday life, which puts the power structure at risk.

  33. Leif says:

    For a long portion of human history ethical understanding has been the function of the church. Unfortunately the Church has abdicated their responsibility in favor of their own self interest. (Pedophile priests being a recent example, but history has many others.) Once these concessions are made it is all down hill. One would think that the current evidence of Climatic Disruption and associated humanitarian and species destruction would put the religions of the world in the forefront of mitigation efforts. But no. For the most part the Church continues to focus on their own self interest. This makes it difficult for the large segment of society dependent on their moral teachings from the Church to take Climatic Disruption seriously. When their moral compass is pointing in other directions or the red herring of the day. It is incumbent for the leaders of their flocks to address the destruction of natural systems or God’s Creation, as you prefer, with required intensity. These church leaders have broad intellectual training and many the intellectual capacity to understand the science. What they lack is the ability to put humanity above their own self interests.

  34. Ken says:

    Thanks for this piece. I agree wholeheartedly that ethical arguments are essential for connecting with the public and can have real resonance in an activist, grass-roots movement. That’s why it comes as no surprise that it is people like Bill McKibben who have led the fight on that front.

    As far as politics goes, however, the situation is a little different. Whilst trying my best to suppress my cynicism, one has to admit that ethics plays an ever-decreasing role in politics, whether it comes to the individual behaviour of politicians or the policies they advocate. So I harbour considerable doubts that arguments on ethical grounds carry much weight in the political arena. From my homeland comes the example of former PM Kevin Rudd backing down from passing legislation on what he called “the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenge of our generation”. (

    (As a side note, for those who are interested, this situation bears striking similarities with the US – a newly-elected leader from the political left, with a strong discourse on climate change, faced with an unmovable obstacle – the Senate.)

    Finally, I’d like to mention the ethical argument made repeatedly by representatives of small-island developing states in international negotiations, which the piece touches on at a couple of moments but doesn’t explicitly address. SIDS are among the most vulnerable countries when faced with the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels threatens their very existence. For them, climate change is a matter of survival. Thus, they advance an ethical argument in favour of retaining a 1.5 degree cap on a rise in global temperatures (and limiting emissions to 350 ppm CO2eq) as a fundamental criterion of global action. Indeed, not reducing emissions – or not to a sufficient degree – would be at worst an act of willful negligence. Seen the other way around, continuing to emit greenhouse gases, knowing that it is highly likely to directly lead to the disappearance of countries and the deaths of many peoples, is tantamount to murder on a very large scale.

  35. 21. Sable says:

    The view that ethical action is separate from self interest is a delusion.

    At the same time, it should also be noted that the view that ethical action is reducible to self interest is a fraud. It is this irreducibility that is at issue here, and why Dr. Brown’s argument is an important one.

  36. William T says:

    richard pauli – 28
    Appealing to the survival of future generations is an ethical argument – how much do you care about those people? As explained in the OP, the costs of action fall on us, but the harshest costs of inaction fall on those future generations, who have no say in what we decide to do.

    The high discount rate used by apologists for inaction such as Lomborg is effectively an ethics-based choice that the costs of future generations be devalued relative to our present costs. More “ethical” in the sense outlined here is a small discount rate such as used by Stern, which acknowledges that resulting harsh costs for our descendents should be viewed as an indictment on our present-day bad decisions.

  37. Chris Winter says:

    Edward (#27): Ethical behavior and self-interest converge if you believe that humans are a species worthy of survival; that they have the necessary hearts and smarts — the smarts to figure out what is the right thing to do and the hearts to carry it through.

    It’s true that we might find a comet headed our way. There wouldn’t be a lot we could do about that, not for the next several decades at any rate. But if you talk about managing affairs on this planet, I believe that they do. A useful touchstone is Robert Heinlein’s This I Believe:

    I don’t always feel that way; I have my cynical moments. Right now we seem to be caught in what might be called a “short attention span aberration” when a lot of people in positions of power are focusing on the next election or the next quarter’s bottom line to the exclusion of all else. This tends to foster cynicism.

    But I think that there are enough humans who understand the importance of the long view around to make the crucial difference if they speak up, as they do here. It’s basically a matter of reaching a wider audience.

    (On a related note, the Internet will be a vital part of that outreach — unless we lose network neutrality.)

  38. sailrick says:

    When I hear people(usually conservatives) complain about the economic costs of mitigating climate change, my first reaction (though usually not spoken) is that man has been exploiting, raping and despoiling the natural ecosystems unhindered, and without thought of the consequences.
    Until relatively recently, we didn’t even have the sense to recycle what we use. Everything was just thrown away. This is all particularly true in modern times. Now the bill has come due. Why should we think that there is no cost associated with righting the wrongs of the past?
    The planet doesn’t owe us, we owe it. I don’t suppose that will sell very well, given that people are too self interested to think about other people, never mind other species, but its how I feel.

    Another issue is that people, who we might call anti environmental, can’t seem to grasp the simple idea that we are part of a larger system, which we are inter-dependent with. As goes the environment, so goes man. This should be one of the first things taught in school.

    Ethically, they should care about other species. And barring that, they sould see that its in their own self interest, or at least that of their offspring.

  39. Prokaryotes says:

    “Another issue is that people, who we might call anti environmental, can’t seem to grasp the simple idea that we are part of a larger system, which we are inter-dependent with.”

    These people have become a threat to the survival of the species.

  40. Prokaryotes says:

    Not to embrace clean energy is futile.

  41. Jeff Huggins says:

    Ethics, William George, HP, The New York Times, Global Climate Change, ExxonMobil, and a Concrete Matter

    A Real Case Question: Should ExxonMobil’s Board Fire Rex Tillerson — and Also Fire Itself!?

    (Thanks for the kind comment, Donald.)

    OK, here’s an interesting one …

    The New York Times (Ashlee Vance) included a comment from, and paragraph regarding, Harvard Business School’s William George in her article about HP’s recent issues titled “For H.P., Spectacle of a Chief Goes On”. (See Business Day, in The New York Times.)

    For those of you not following H.P. recently, its Chief (until recently), Mark Hurd, has had some problems having to do with a sexual harassment accusation, some inaccurate expense reports, and whatever-who-knows-what.

    The article in The New York Times today, about the situation, concludes with the following paragraph:

    William W. George, a professor of management practices at the Harvard Business School, said H.P. had made the right decision and that Mr. Hurd needed to move on. “I think once it’s settled, you need to walk away,” Mr. George said. “If he comes to grips with this, he is going to come back and have great leadership roles.”

    So, William George has indicated that HP’s Board was right to fire Hurd over the situation (loss of trust, Jodie Fisher, a few expense reports, etc.).

    But William George is a member of the Board of ExxonMobil, that little old company that is the most profitable company in the U.S. and is perhaps doing more than any other company in the world to muck up the global climate!

    Yes, Professor George, a Prof. at Harvard and an author of books such as “True North”, about “authentic leadership” and values and so forth, thinks that HP’s Board was right to fire Hurd, over a girl and expense reports and the same-old-stuff, and yet he apparently doesn’t think that the ExxonMobil Board should fire Rex Tillerson, or themselves, over mucking up the global climate, confusing and misleading the public, influencing policy, and so forth. ExxonMobil’s products, when used, generate well over a Trillion Pounds of CO2 per year, into the atmosphere.

    To be clear: Inaccurate expense reports and dinner with a lady: BAD! Misleading the public and knowingly messing up the global climate for generations to come: ALL IN A DAY’s PROFITABLE WORK.

    Really, for once, The New York Times ought to call William George and ask him about a genuinely pertinent matter that he’s involved in and that has immense consequences. Don’t ask Professor George about the HP Board and about Mark Hurd, his expense reports, and his lady-friend. Instead, ask Professor George things like the following:

    * Professor, in your understanding (as a professor at Harvard B-School, an expert on business ethics, an author of books with titles like “True North”, and so forth), can you tell us, concretely, what you see as the responsibilities of corporate board members to society at large, if any? You are a Board member of the nation’s most profitable company, so can you tell us what your own responsibilities are, as you see them?

    * Do you agree with the 97 percent of scientists who say that global warming is real, is caused mainly by human activities (such as GHG emissions), and is likely to cause substantial problems?

    * What do you think about ExxonMobil’s approach, stances, past actions, and present actions in relation to the well being of humankind, considering the climate problem?

    * Do you think that the responsibilities of board members, as presently written and interpreted, are sufficient to result in societal well being and sustainability? Do you think that the responsibilities of board members should be changed? How so? Why?

    * All in all, what are YOU doing, Professor George, regarding the climate change problem?

    In my view (although I’m not saying this to excuse expense report dishonesty or whatever else Hurd may have done), the global climate is more important than HP’s problems. And, William George should be asked questions about ExxonMobil, not about HP stuff.

    Can The New York Times ask the right people the most relevant questions? Can they press for answers? Can they distinguish between super-important and less-important issues?

    I also pose these questions, directly, to Professor George here. Professor George, what can you tell us about your view on the relationship between business ethics, ethics more broadly and authentically, the climate change issue, ExxonMobil, and your own role on ExxonMobil’s board?

    Sigh, sincerely,

    Jeff Huggins
    HBS, Class of 1986, Baker Scholar

  42. Jeff Huggins says:

    Bringing To Life the Relevance of Real Ethics and Social-Moral Dynamics to the Climate Change Mess, For Purposes of Positive Societal Change

    Sorry about that lengthy title.

    In my view, several things will be very helpful — and probably necessary — if people concerned about climate change and the related ethical issues want to bring the power of ethical considerations to bear on the matter, as we should do.

    They are (in no particular order):

    * We should state the ethical/moral arguments clearly, often, and loudly.

    * Although we should try to state them clearly and simply — and the more we do so, the better — we should also not get hung up on trying to find the perfect words to the point of hesitation.

    * MANY MORE PEOPLE should be speaking out about these arguments. If only a dozen ethicists, moral philosophers, and others are conveying the strong argument in clear ethical/moral terms, the lack of others speaking out defeats the entire enterprise. People (the public, the media, and so forth) naturally wonder, if only 1 percent of all ethicists, spiritual leaders, moral philosophers, other philosophers, “wise women and men”, and so forth are speaking out in ethical/moral terms, then those ethical/moral arguments must truly be “not all that important”, or “highly controversial and not broadly accepted”, or “only held by theoretical folks”, or whatever. So, the efforts of the one percent or two percent of folks who DO speak out in those terms are somewhat nullified, in reality, if more and more people in the fields that are supposed to have views on such matters do not also join in to form a larger chorus of voices. In this sense, and for this reason, choosing to be silent, or indifferent, or “too busy” to take a stand on this IS making a choice — that is, one of indifference. We know what Dante and others have said about that, and rightly so. Unfortunately, it will do little good if only a limited number of outspoken folks, like Donald and etc., are left alone to be the voices raising these ethical/moral arguments. Other people need to join them, soon. Any ethicist, moral philosopher, philosopher, theologian, spiritual leader, voice of reason, and etc. SHOULD examine themselves on this matter and speak out, smartly and loudly and repeatedly. The general public can’t excite its nascent sense that ethics/morality are at stake by being expected to go and read ethics papers, the Critique of Pure Reason (Kant), Intricate Ethics (Kamm), The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, and so forth. Instead, the general public will pay more attention to the ethical aspects of the matter, and reawaken its conscience, and get serious, much better if (and perhaps only if) ethical and humane voices of all kinds start speaking out MUCH MORE LOUDLY than they are currently doing. Put another way, it is the responsibility of people who claim to understand ethics/morality TO SPEAK UP on the matter, loudly. Socrates chose to drink poison rather than to stay silent. Socrates (via Plato) indicates that any philosophers who are fortunate enough to have seen some light, at or near the entrance to the Cave, must nevertheless go back into the Cave to try to help others, even if those philosophers might sound like idiots at first. Bertrand Russell was active on key issues. Marx (as philosopher) said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

    This is a key point, I think, because it means that professional ethicists, moral philosophers, philosophers, spiritual leaders, and so forth must, and should, spend much more energy and time convincing each other to “step up to the plate” and speak out — an activity that probably does not come comfortably for many of them. Nevertheless, that is a responsibility and necessity, I believe. Of course, if an ethicist or moral philosopher or spiritual leader does not believe climate change is a problem, or does not think that it poses moral issues, then (although I’d disagree) so be it. But, for those who do understand that climate change is a problem, and also see the immense moral dimensions of the matter, those folks DO have a responsibility to speak out. And if they don’t, they undermine the efforts of those who do.

    * The above points must be accompanied by commensurate actions. People are social beings and get many of their cues from how others are behaving. Even if more and more people are saying, and writing, that this is the “moral issue of our time”, and so forth, if they are doing so on paper and on TV, while the streets are silent and the status quo continues and the only worries the public sees, expressed on the street, are about employment or immigration and etc., then the words will seem like mere words. Mere words, without commensurate actions, are naturally seen as mere words — and when they have to do with ethical matters, they are too easily categorized into the “theoretical” and set aside. If words and writings are not “brought to life” via commensurate actions, they die as mere theoretical words.

    So, what does this mean? I think it means that there are three necessary responsibilities for those of us who see the real ethical/moral dimensions of all this. They include: Speaking out a lot, as well as possible. Getting others — in our own professions and disciplines — on board and active, as uncomfortable as that might be. And participating in (and often leading) responsible actions and events that are commensurate with the stakes involved and with the ethical need to help move society to a more ethical and sustainable pathway.

    That’s the reality of the matter, I think. Philosophers have been writing for over two thousand years, but ideals (sometimes theirs, and sometimes those of other thinkers and doers) are only brought to life by actions. I’d be interested to talk to you (Donald), or others, to see how more and more of us can help bring the ethical/moral discussion into the dialogue and into actual action.

    Be Well,


  43. CW says:

    “Ending slavery in the US will ruin the economy”. If I’ve been well informed, many people at one point in history supported this now clearly absurd claim.

    It’s absurd in at least two respects: 1) Slavery is so obviously ethically wrong that it needed to end regardless; and, 2) The economy so obviously adjusted and did just fine with time after it stopped that the concern was laughable.

    But that’s easy to say from our perspective looking back at history.

    How do we convince people looking forward that wrecking the planet is just as obviously wrong ethically and that the economy will just as obviously be fine with time if we act to reduce emissions?

  44. Edward says:

    37 Chris Winter: “[A] comet headed our way” we could blow out of the sky with one of our smallest nuclear bombs. I assumed Haley’s comet when I did the calculation.

    Robert Heinlein can believe in his neighbors all he wants. That won’t make his neighbors smart enough to understand science and ignore Rush Limbaugh.

    Yes it is a “matter of reaching a wider audience.”

  45. paulm says:

    If you havent come across Mark Morford – Notes & Errata give it a go….

    Thank God global warming is a hoax

    I mean, right? You know? Because gosh Jesus in angry apocalyptic heaven, wouldn’t it be just terrible if it were all true?

    Read more:

  46. adelady says:

    I notice some references to the ethics of ending slavery, but I’ve not seen anything about feminism. More pertinent because there are plenty of us alive today who lived and worked through 1975 and beyond. One important thing that is similar is the relationship to lifestyle and personal choice.

    One counter-productive thing that the movement did from time to time, though it was more often a media beat-up, was to tell married women that their choice was wrong. The message was received much more smoothly when marriage was described in terms of how women would or wouldn’t choose *from now on*.

    Telling people that they are now and have always been foolish, misguided or evil turns them right off. Saying that everyone can do better from now on is the way to go. The public policy issue is making the better choice an easier choice.

    Ethics & economics. Remember there’s a reasonable body of research showing that trained economists (beyond 1st year undergraduate) are much less inclined to cooperative behaviour. (Prisoner’s dilemma etc) And this flows through to a lot of economics writing and, as a consequence, to advice and public policy stances. By and large, economists consistently underestimate the willingness of people to be generous to strangers. The public policy issue is to make kindness and generosity *explicitly* socially normal and not to accept or reinforce arguments that such behaviour is foolish or self-defeating.

  47. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Richard at 28 –

    “By refusing to act we are condeming our species to an end. It may be that we lack the required hive mentality to make a unified effort. In that case, it is not an ethical problem, it is our species, it is our DNA that is at fault. We are a pretty dumb species if we are refusing to learn how to survive.”

    It seems you are conflating an American cultural phenomenon with human nature –

    Consider: – while the US refuses to legislate for a 3.67% cut off 1990 by 2020, the UK, France & Germany are encouraging the EU to raise its target from 20% to 30%, which will entail the UK target rising to 42%.

    “We” are not refusing to act – it is America, led by Obama, that is refusing to dump the reckless nationalism of the policy of a ‘brinkmanship of inaction’ with China.



  48. JeandeBegles says:

    Sory to insist, but I don’t understand why my comment (no1) doesn’t interest any one of your comment. The proposed carbon tax is a pratical example of application of an ethical approach. It is also using the self interest motivation of the price signal.
    OK politically, it seems impossible. But for reducing our CO2 emissions, we can negociate with individuals, companies and countries, we cannot negociate with the laws of physics.

  49. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Jeande –

    Speaking only for myself, I refrained from commenting on your proposal since its seemed devoid of any appreciation of nations moral, and legal, responsibility for emissions to date – which are the direct cause of the massive death and destruction now ongoing, and will be for the next several decades.

    Similarly, it seemed devoid of any interest in establishing an ethical framework for the allocation of national emission rights in the coming decades, preferring the uber-capitalist notion that “financial might is political right” to emit pollution.

    Since these are fundamental flaws in the practical negotiability of your proposal, I felt I had better things to do than spend time on it.

    That said, I’d urge you to keep on exploring the possibilities –



  50. adelady says:

    Sorry, Lewis I tend to disagree.

    I really liked Jean’s proposal, though I wanted to think about it more.

    The highest using citizens in advanced economies will have the biggest incentive to reduce consumption. That alone would encourage moves to efficiency and other reduction strategies – like better house design and expanding public transport. Remembering always that the estimates for wastage of power give us 20-25% to play with. A big incentive for business users to reduce consumption or improve their own operating efficiency.

    And as the effects of climate disruption intensify and worsen at the same time as resources are reducing, the carbon price should increase accordingly. Governments will be wanting to see faster and deeper cuts to try and control their expenditures on adaptation expenditures as well as conserve fossil fuel reserves for their most valuable uses.

    First thoughts only. But I feel the idea has merit in its own right as well as being a spur to thoughts about better proposals.

  51. JeandeBegles says:

    Lewis and Adelady: thank you for your comments.
    Lewis, I can agree with your first objection. This proposal doesn’t cope with our historical responsibility. But you cannot dismiss the idea on this ground, because today everyone pollutes for free, and with this proposal, AT LEAST, the rich will pay accordingly to their current pollution and the poor will be financilly rewarded for their low CO2 consumption.
    What is huge in this proposal is that the “simple” principle “polluter pays” and everyone being entitled to the same share (redistribution, that is the ethical part of it), and with a modest level of carbon tax (8 cents of $ per litre of gasoline) we can use a fantastic financial power (1 trillion $, according to the IEA official figures).

  52. Prokaryotes says:

    Sweden has become a major economy since they introduced the carbon tax.

  53. Donald Brown says:

    Once again, I agree completely with Jeff on this issue. *In fact I am qoing to quote Jeff on the next post on ClimateEthics.

    That is, those who see the ethical dimensions of climate change have a duty to speak up strongly. With knowledge comes responsibility.

    Now, one important reservation needs to be made, however, at this point. We believe that identifying the ethical issues entailed by climate change arguments will lead to three possibilities. One, there will be an overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories about what should be done. For example, no nation or individual may deny that that they have obligations to others to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emission. It appears to us that all ethical systems and views require this. Yet nations are acting as if only thier national self-interest count. When it comes, however, to what is “fair” there is a reasonable debate on what justice requires. And so once you focus on “fairness” there may be a conflict, as there sometimes is among ethical theories, on what “fairness” requires. This is the second possibility, namely that there is a conflict about what perfect justice requires. The third possibility is actually, however, the most important aspect of why people have a duty to speak out and become engaged.That is even in cases where it is difficult to determine what perfect justice requires, there are proposals and positions that all known justice positions would condemn as being deeply ethically problematic. There are numerous examples of this and the world particularly needs people to be engaged on these issues. For example, when determining what level of atmsopheric concentrations should be viewed as “safe” given uncertainty about how much warming will be caused by different levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, different ethical theories might lead to different conclusions about such issues as must we all have a footprint tantamount to net zero.lts. Yet, almost all current positions by governments can be condemned on ethical grounds despite difficulty in determining what justice requires. We know for sure, that all developed countries are far above their fair share of safe global emissions, that huge emissions reductions of them are required as an ethical duty.

  54. Larry Gilman says:

    Mr. Brown,

    In brief, I agree. I think it worth observing, in addition, that the aversion to specifically ethical arguments in American centrist political discourse is not restricted to climate change. For example, the only arguments against any ongoing war effort or proposed invasion (e.g., of Iraq) that are generally considered “responsible” or worthy of serious consideration by the mainstream punditocracy are those that appeal to US collective self-interest. Helping the sick, school lunches for poor kids, environmental protection, etc. — such issues are addressed primarily in prudential terms. So the avoidance (or nervous afterthoughting) of ethical rhetoric in climate-change issues is part of a larger pattern. We will get deeper into the way the pattern works out in the climate debate if we can get at the origins and functions of the larger pattern. Why, in short, is amoral, prudential argument thought “stronger” or more “realistic” than moral appeals, against all the evidence of political history?



  55. Donald Brown says:

    Yes, Larry I agree that the lack of ethical framing is part of a larger historical pattern in the United States, unfortunately in the case of climate change this has world-historic significance. It is interesting to speculate why the obvious ethical dimensions of issues facing the United States often go completely unnoticed.
    Associate Professor Brown

  56. Jeff Huggins says:

    Regarding Comment 53 (Donald) and Comment 54 (Larry Gilman)

    Donald, thanks for your comment. And yes, I agree with your points. Thanks again, and I’ll look forward to visiting ClimateEthics.

    Regarding Larry Gilman’s Comment 54, he brings up a great point, or rather question.

    Why are most arguments that are considered “serious” by most politicians, mainstream pundits, and the media the purely economic or self-focused prudential ones, so to speak? Why are most appeals to solid ethical/moral arguments either not covered, or seen as “nice but not real”, or basically dismissed to a side discussion?

    THESE are key questions.

    I’d like to offer a few thoughts on these, not intended to address those questions entirely but intended to point out some self-defeating dynamics that contribute to this problem.

    Here’s my point: Even as people who spend lifetimes studying ethics and morality understand them to be very real and vitally important things (at least in the cases of most of those people), many of those same people, in their (our) disciplines and professions, often don’t act as though we do.

    Here, I’m not talking about whether some moral philosophers are occasionally immoral, or whether some ethicists are sometimes unethical. People are not perfect, of course, in any profession. Instead, I’m talking about whether these professions act as though their subject-matter is REAL, and REALLY MATTERS, in other ways.

    For example, although there are many different understandings of ethics, many different philosophies and moral philosophies, most of the main ones converge, at least directionally, and “overlap” (as Donald put it) when it comes to some very central issues humankind faces today. But, even in those cases of substantial overlap and agreement, and even on issues of vital importance, the disciplines (and their practitioners) do not speak out or speak clearly. They write and publish papers as if the subjects are real and vitally important, but they do not usually get ACTIVE and COOPERATE with each other to proclaim that reality and demonstrate their convictions by taking clear stands on vital issues. There are some exceptions, but not many, and far too few to demonstrate to the public that the folks believe what they write.

    Also, as with climate science (although to a much greater degree), the disagreements among moral philosophers, ethicists, and philosophers more broadly are interpreted by the public to mean that those topics must not be “real” or, at least, that they are beyond the human ability to understand well.

    What I’m saying is this: Because of the way that some of these fields are practiced, and because of the actions or inactions of many people in those fields, and because of what the public sees and doesn’t see, the impression given (to the public) is quite often that morality and ethics are pretty much whatever you want them to be, if they are “real” at all.

    You see, far too few ethicists and moral philosophers are speaking out about the morality of sustainability itself, i.e., the compelling moral case for sustainability — for ongoing human survival in a sustainable sense, including healthy conditions for that sustainability. Here, I’m not talking about the understandable disagreements when it comes to things like determining fairness as it relates to GHG emissions. Instead, I’m talking about agreement about our basic moral responsibility to the ongoing and decent survival (and the conditions of that survival) of humankind along with the biodiversity necessary to that survival. Few people (in the disciplines) even speak out about THAT, and those that do as individuals are often only covered in their journals.

    In that context, consider this: Einstein figured out relativity, to a degree. Scientists and engineers can put humankind on the moon and make airplanes fly. But too many ethicists and moral philosophers do not seem to speak out about basic sustainability, in clear and compelling ethical terms (and related terms of reason). Why is this? It’s NOT because the basic well-reasoned moral case for sustainability is somehow “harder” or “more elusive” than the principles of relativity, the mechanisms of evolution, the scientific and engineering principles involved in flying people to the moon, and so forth. Some ethical issues are no doubt more difficult to tackle than many scientific problems, and some are not subject to definitive answers, and at the same time some scientific problems are much more difficult than some central moral questions. But, a clear moral case (or cases) for sustainability? Compared to the principles of relativity?

    Here’s my point: It’s not always, or even often, because of the subject matter of ethics/morality, relative to that of science, that scientists and engineers often show more “progress” in their fields than moral philosophers and ethicists do. Strong moral cases (and some are much more valid than others) for sustainability are far easier to construct and understand, in my view, than whatever the difficulty was involved when Newton made his breakthroughs, and Darwin his, and Einstein his, and so forth. But, for various reasons, moral philosophers and ethicists do not (usually) care much, apparently, about clearly communicating matters on which they largely agree, nor do most of them get involved in making sure that public action respects ethical/moral principles that are largely agreed, by most experts. Indeed, the public probably has no idea about the matters upon which most moral philosophers and ethicists would agree.

    So, if respected ethicists, respected moral philosophers, key spiritual leaders, and others having to do with matters of ethics/morality do not voice and demonstrate their “agreement” or “agreement to agree” on the most basic vital matters, then what would we expect the public (and pundits, and the media) to think?

    To put matters more clearly, the intense individualism, the intense focus on nuanced theoretical papers, the reluctance to cooperate in large groups in order to discover agreements and pronounce them, and the general hesitation to “be active” publicly, on the part of many (not all) members of the disciplines of moral philosophy and related areas, all combine to contribute to the public feeling that the subjects themselves (morality, ethics) are not really real, in some sense, or that they are just too impossible for humans to understand, or else that those disciplines, as groups of professionals, are irrelevant and need not have any attention paid to them.

    Put another way, in many more ways than one, the disciplines that take the matters of morality/ethics most seriously, “in theory” anyhow, are partly responsible — to no small degree — for contributing to the growing impression that morality/ethics are not to be taken all that seriously, when it comes to public matters, after all. Perhaps that’s the best way I can state the matter.

    This does not make the solution impossible. It just means that solving the matter will probably call for some of those activities, and ways of doing things, that many moral philosophers and ethicists find it most difficult to do.

    (That said, that’s no different from the problems that exist in other professions. Each profession likes to do that which it finds natural and comfortable to do, and profitable to do, and each is horrified by the thought of any responsibility that would call for it to do something differently.)



  57. James Newberry says:

    Based on this discussion, one could make the case that massive global governmental fiscal and economic subsidies, for example the one-half trillion dollars of direct subsidies recently identified by the International Energy Agency for “fuels” (mined hydrocarbon materials), are immoral. Yet, these have increased during the past decade.

    Perhaps we should discuss the ethics of governmental corruption, such as that due to plutocracy and corporatism.

    Also, my understanding of recent years of economic research is that the great clean energy transition is not at a cost to society but at benefit, in many ways. It is at cost only to the investor class who have speculated on trillions of dollars of fossil mining who are at risk and liability. This raises the question of attempting controlled bankruptcy of a massive sector of the economy. Call it the largest economic restructuring in history. Base it on ethics and survival.

  58. homunq says:

    But Al Gore has a really big house!

    (I’m not serious, of course. But I do seriously want to know how people think you can avoid getting side-tracked with this kind of response. Accusations of hypocrisy are one of the prime tools which is used to keep US political discussion amoral.)

  59. Per #58.

    One way of dealing with it is to respond to the claim head on.

    First, the Al Gore house claim is the Tu Quoque of the argumentum ad hominem: Gore’s personal choices are not relevant to the truth of his arguments.

    Second, it is a specious analogy is not just another house: It is an office complex with additional short-term/overnight residences as well as a 24/7 Secret Service installation.

  60. Donald Brown says:

    One of the reasons why ethical issues are not more at the center of public policy in cases where they should is because certain discourses dominate public policy because of power reasons. These discourses are also technical and appear to be value-neutral. They include scientific and economic discourses.

    Max Weber at the beginning of the 20th Century predicted that humans would get worse over time in seeing the obvious ethical dimensions of public policy questions. He predicted this for two reasons. One society was getting more complex and therefore technical discourses and experts would arise that would pretend they have the key through their expertise to diagnose and make recommendations on policy. Secondly only those with money could afford to hire the experts. He actually predicted over time we would get worse at ethical identification because experts would move in and claim that they had special value-neutral analytical techniques. I think we see this all the time.

  61. rick says:

    As a climate-justice activist and strategist since 1991,
    I’m not hearing anything new here.

    The points made by Donald Brown and Commentors here, were all made —
    forcefully in various public fora — in the early 1990s.
    And that was back when the USA still had a relatively intact
    Social Climate. And when we at least pretended to obey the rules
    of logic in our public discourse.

    For example, some of us helped raise the alarm
    (thanks to Martin Khor of then Third World Network, now Global South)
    that the IPCC’s first-ever Economic analysis of climate change impacts
    was goint to “measure” the value of a human life by equating it with
    lifetime earnings power. So the lives of those most vulnerable
    became economically worthless.

    And Atiq Rahman, (still) head of Bangladeshi Inst. of Advanced Studies,
    tried to make the climate justice argument via a Speech ACT, saying,
    “We will come marching over your doorsteps with our wet feet!”
    (Then India built it’s 2000-mile fence around Bangladesh to
    prevent climate refugees from crossing their border.)

    I think what almost every Commentor here is missing,
    is that Ethics Talk is just Hot Air to most Americans.
    (Americans hold Congress in very low esteem,
    and I bet the Congressional Ethics Committees
    have even lower ratings.)

    As an ethicist, I value honesty, so let me be blunt:
    The problem is not that Ethics is somehow “less Real”
    than Economics. The problem is that in America, Ethics is a Joke!

    If climate skeptics/deniers can write-off Hard-Science experts
    like Jim Hansen as Wrong, then Soft-Science ethicists can be dismissed
    as “Not Even Wrong” — instead, they’re pointy-headed intellectuals
    politely discussing how many Kantians “should” dance on the head of a pin.

    Noise from academic ethicists is probably worse than useless.
    Why? Because they make ideal targets when Shooting the Messenger.

    Americans do not respect Ethicists —
    Ethicists have no Moral Authority!
    Because almost no professional ethicists have *earned* it!

    If you want Climate Ethics to be taken seriously,
    you need Strong, Tough Spokespeople — like
    Arnold Schwarzenegger, … and the U.S. Military.

    General Anthony Zinni — former Chair in Ethics at the
    Virginia Military Institute — is one of the best
    Climate Ethics spokespeople. (Too bad his positions
    with BAE Systems have muted him.)

    Hence the National Security card you hear being played.

    And BTW, the life of a climate refugee still has zero
    “emotional cash value” — however, the life of an American soldier
    who dies preserving our National Security against climate turmoil
    and climate refugees has immense value.

    And it’s *that* life we should be highlighting, if we want Americans
    to become emotionally involved in Climate Ethics.

    I attempt to cover this angle at:

    Here’s a relevant excerpt:

    National Security experts call climate change a “Threat Multiplier
    for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world.”
    General Charles Wald warns that,
    “America’s current energy posture constitutes a serious and
    urgent threat to our national security.” He warns that,
    “Climate change will lead to an increase in conflicts, and
    an increase in conflict intensity, all across the globe.”
    Climate change will, “make all our existing National
    Security threats much greater.”

    General Anthony Zinni was Commander of U.S. CENTCOM — all
    our Mideast troops. He also was the Chair in Ethics at the
    Virginia Military Institute. General Zinni recognizes that
    dealing with our greenhouse emissions involves tradeoffs
    between different values.

    General Zinni wrote: “We will pay for this one way or
    another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
    today … Or we will pay the price later in military terms.
    And that will involve human lives.
    There will be a human toll.”

    Those who serve in our Military Infrastructure remind us
    that “Freedom isn’t free!” Many of them have paid the
    ultimate price to protect the globalized Infrastructure,
    which supports American civilians’ unthinking and indulgent
    “Freedom to consume Products”. The Hidden Costs of Energy
    are subsidized by human lives. Our Freedom entails taking
    Responsibility for the Risks we impose on other people. As
    energy consumers, we must take responsibility, not only for
    changing some consumer habits and some consumer products,
    but also for doing our part — as citizens — to change our
    Energy Infrastructure and Policies.

    General Gordon Sullivan, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff,
    said, “Climate instability will lead to instability in
    geopolitics and impact American military operations around
    the world. People are saying they want to be perfectly
    convinced about climate science projections. But speaking as
    a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait
    until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going
    to happen on the battlefield.”

    Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn, former Deputy Chief of Naval
    Operations, emphasized the responsibility of every American
    to support new Policies to upgrade our Energy Infrastructure:
    “There are individual steps every American can take.
    Using less energy, being more efficient with energy,
    supporting new policies to help our country take a
    new energy path — these are the steps that can help us
    avoid or shorten wars in the future. These are steps that
    can save lives. They will cost money, yes. But if we don’t
    spend that money now, we’ll still pay, and much more.
    We’ll just pay in American lives.”

    Freedom isn’t free. One way or another, somebody pays for our freedom.

  62. JeandeBegles says:

    About al Gore: it is a valid objection to ask about Al Gore way of living. We cannot be perfect, but we must walk our talk to get more convincing.
    About 60, I don’t agree because contrary to your statement today the scientific discourse is not followed (the IPCC asks for massive CO2 cuts and nothing is on project). The main problem is to change our way of living, and collectively. We prefer to keep our confort and wait and see. It is the recipe for disaster.

  63. Raul M. says:

    I prefer the way of incrementally improving and
    changing my lifestyle so that having to do with
    out is not the only option.
    Someone who stays inside all the time, so to speak,
    may not see all the options before making their
    overpowering decision.
    I don’t think Al Gore’s role is to be the perfect
    example for any segment of society. But as an
    observer he has come out and said very clearly,
    look out.
    And yes, many have come out and pointed to the
    dangers we face. Those in the frenzied comfort
    of modern society though, just may not want to
    and they may come out with varied statement as
    to why not.
    Still the rush of floods, drought, and danger
    may approach.

  64. adelady says:

    Jeff and Donald

    I think that you both have a point – related to economics as the dominant political argument. The arguments in all Western political arenas about matters like education must be expressed in terms of their economic rather than their intrinsic value. Health often gets the same treatment, although it’s more often in the same camp as pensions and public housing. Something that we’re obliged to do but it’s a bit of a shame that we can’t find a way to not do it – so we do the least possible in the most piecemeal way possible. The USA’s approach to the healthcare and other needs of its veterans is an outstanding example of this.

    The moral philosophers have, by and large, fallen for this hook, line and sinker. Ethics and morality are most often seen as individual conscience issues rather than as social obligations in their own right. The ethical view that we ought to pay taxes for certain things or that governments should expand their activities for the betterment of the society (the world?) is most often seen as an individual political choice to favour one party to govern rather than as an overriding principle for all governments.

    I think the man who has the best handle on this stuff would be John Ralston Saul. The Unconscious Civilisation and Voltaire’s Bastards are brilliant expositions of the way political discourse is dominated, subverted if you like, by corporatism and corporatism’s own definition of efficiency. That efficiency leads away from entrepreneurship and into investments in “safe” areas, like public utilities and subsidised enterprise, rather than ‘pure’ business activity unrelated to government activity or support.

    Weber suffers from the focus on individualism, in my view. But the idea of people claiming to advise on “value-neutral” grounds are the economists. And the “rich people”, read powerful people, are just corporations and governments.

  65. Donald Brown says:

    There are a few interesting comments here from Alelady and Rick among others. I obviously agree that ethical arguments are not being taken seriously for reasons articulated in the comments but I would argue that ethical discourse is indispensable to thinking about the nature of adequate climate change responses, for reasons covered in my post, and I also don’t believe that ethical arguments will not generate a response on at least a subset of Americans if they are made strongly. I also think that ethical arguments are indispensable to a clear understanding with what is wrong with some arguments made against climate change policies. In other words if you don’t make the ethical arguments, you cant do effective, strong, critical analysis of the dominant discourses In my post I mention an experience with the Scottish Parliament which gave me great hope about all of this. Once you see a politician actually making the moral argument forcefully, as I did in Scotland, you are struck by how obviously right and non-controversial such arguments are if they are made. What we need is to find a few nationally visible politicians that will make the moral arguments not in the abstract but in response to specific arguments made against climate change policies. Donald A. Brown, Penn State

  66. homunq says:

    Donald@65: That’s a really good point. Self-interest arguments may be good at motivating people; but ethical arguments are better at cutting through evil bullshit counterarguments. In a debate, self-interest is the sword and morals are the armor, and, since you’re fighting a pack of midgets, the armor is more important.

  67. Jeff Huggins says:


    This whole thread is very interesting, with lots of great comments. I’m going to “save” it — or is it called bookmarking or something?

    But it’s so hard to continue these great conversations on-line, with comments and comments and more comments. Wouldn’t it be great if people could get together and actually talk about these things, face to face? One of the advantages of the internet is that it connects people far and wide, but far and wide people then find it hard to actually get together, in person, to discuss things in depth and actually get to — or at least near — the “bottom” of a topic.

    I wonder if the “only barely started” and “almost always left incomplete” nature of most discussions on the internet is itself part of the “lack of good implementation” problem? For example, if we were all in one place, I’d be happy to meet up for a two-day session, over some great coffee and all that, and then go out and actually try to bring to life some of the ideas, if any. But, of course, it doesn’t make sense to spend the same two days trying to explore these things on the internet, via writing alone. Something is lost when face to face interaction, gestures, joint brainstorming, and so forth are not present. Perhaps the internet is both a benefit and a hindrance, in that sense. It’s hard to bring anything to fruition.

    But back to the main topic. Many of the comments and thoughts above are great. But the “how” is a big question . . . the same question that is somewhat frustrated by the internet itself.

    The real reality of the ethical considerations is brought to life in real actions by real people, and not enough real people are doing real actions that demonstrate the seriousness and reality of the ethical considerations. “Don’t tell me, show me!” “Don’t explain to me, do it!”

    I’m reminded of a scene in one of my absolutely favorite movies, My Fair Lady. At one point in the movie, Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) is with a young man. The young man is just talking and talking and talking, showering her with love-words. But, she tells him that she doesn’t want to HEAR that he loves her; she wants to be SHOWN (kissed).

    The public today is smothered with words of all sorts. People saying things and meaning other things. People saying things and not backing them with action. People saying things mainly to be featured guests on TV programs and have their five minutes of fame. People saying things just to show they “follow” the party line. Words, words, words. (I’m guilty of it too!)

    In philosophy, too, there is another problem that underscores the need for action. If we talk today about sustainability, for example (and we should do that, more and more of course), and yet Plato (via the voice of Socrates) put a great three or four page discussion of sustainability in The Republic, over two thousand years ago. So, there is the “what’s new” issue. Plato and Socrates discussed sustainability, via a little example, and apparently nobody listened. Why should they listen now? Of course, action needs to bring words to life.

    The more that I think about it, the more that I realize that the main (and perhaps only) way for ethicists and moral philosophers and spiritual leaders to demonstrate that the ethical/moral issues, arguments, and stakes are REAL, and IMPORTANT, is for them to lead and partake in the very sorts of actions that are least comfortable to most ethicists, moral philosophers, and (in many cases) spiritual leaders. Nature or God never promised that the way would be easy! Don’t just talk; do! Don’t just read poems; kiss! Don’t just act individually; cooperate and increase your numbers!

    (To be clear, I’m not saying these things to critique Donald in any way. As far as I can tell, he is doing far more than most. Bravo! Here, I’m just trying to crystallize my own thoughts on what it will probably take in order for all of us to bring the ethical/moral arguments to life in a way that they are seen for what they are: real.)

    A great example is Bertrand Russell and how he got involved with the campaign for nuclear disarmament, if my limited understanding of all that is correct. Indeed, if you haven’t read it, read the Russell-Einstein Manifesto and Russell’s speech when he announced it. As time permits, hopefully later today, I’ll also post a link to a great interview of Russell discussing some of these related issues, and his views on activism.

    But again, wouldn’t it be great if we were all in one place. The wide existences, spread all across the globe, of people in these discussions always seems to frustrate any attempt to actually “get anywhere” and bring some good things to fruition.

    Anyhow, that’s it for now. I’ll try to pose the Bertrand Russell link a bit later.

    Be Well (and thanks, Donald, for your efforts and leadership on all this),

    (FYI, I’m Huggins, not Higgins. No problem. It’s a common mistake.)


  68. homunq says:

    Quit, professor Huggins! Quit, Professor Huggins! Hear our plea
    Or payday we will quit, Professor Huggins!
    Meat not net, Moral not Practical, Pounding pounding in our brain…

  69. Jeff Huggins says:

    homunq (Comment 68), freedom means that you are free not to read my comments. And others are free to read them if they like. I see no reason for critical comments that don’t actually add to the discussion.

    Be Well,


  70. Jeff Huggins says:

    Of Course . . .

    Of course, I’m sorry, something about those lines rings a great bell, and (if I’m not mistaken) they’re from My Fair Lady. I enjoy the point. In any case, whatever. Be Well, Jeff

  71. homunq says:

    no offense, the song just came to my brain. Posting it was ill-considered in retrospect.


  72. Jeff Huggins says:

    Watch This (Bertrand Russell)

    At the link below, on youtube, there’s a great BBC interview of Bertrand Russell in 1959, at the wise old age of 87. Several parts are highly relevant to the present discussion, and the rest are quite interesting as well. The video is about ten minutes long, but well worth watching. This video is part three of three parts of the whole interview, so the beginning will be a bit out of context, but it all becomes understandable after just a few seconds. The other parts of the full BBC interview can also be found on youtube, but this segment is the most relevant to the present discussion, if my memory is right.

    Be Well,


  73. Prokaryotes says:

    The part at 8:15 about science and facts is remarkable. And nothing changed since 1959!