Confucius, Keynes And Christ: The Role And Opportunity For Ethics As A Driver For Climate-Friendly Behavior

Max Wei, via Climate Access

It is often argued that we have an ethical obligation to combat climate change for two related reasons: (1) we must not cause serious harm to future generations, and (2) we have an ethical duty to preserve the natural environment based on notions of stewardship or to preserve and respect animal life.

While these appeals are based on rational arguments and make sense to many people, they are problematic on several levels. First, the appeals are extrinsic or external to our individual selves; second, they refer to people and places distant in time and space, and thirdly, they lack any direct causality. Not to mention that they are tied to global warming and climate change, which some continue to persistently deny.

The problem is that it simply is not in our DNA to act based on the concerns of future generations.

Moreover, the impacts of whatever we do to change our actions in terms of greenhouse gas emissions will be virtually invisible within our own lifetimes, given the global nature of the atmospheric commons and the time-delayed impact of carbon emissions.

In contrast, appeals to traditional ethical systems offer an intrinsic appeal with more immediacy, and can be invoked independently of climate change and global warming arguments.

How might appeal to “virtue-based” ethics spur people to action to reduce their carbon footprint?   To attempt an answer this, let’s step back for a moment.  When we make appeals to people to change their behavior or lifestyle to forestall global warming, we usually ask two things:  change our buying or investment patterns and/or change our daily actions.  For example, do we buy a 48” plasma television, or perhaps a more energy efficient option; do we invest in energy efficiency upgrades for our home or live with higher heating bills; do we take public transit to work or drive?

To expand upon this, one can argue that a small set of key individual decisions make a disproportionate impact on one’s cumulative carbon emissions:  where we live, what type of housing we choose, how many kids we have, even our choice of profession. For example, the size of one’s lifelong carbon “shadow” in transportation may largely be determined by where one decides to live.  Clearly, there is a complex set of factors that determine the outcomes of key life decisions but surely among them are social norms and values, which may be informed by religious or philosophical-ethical beliefs.

The key point here is that traditional systems of virtue ethics are either very much in keeping with low-carbon or lower carbon living and at the least, instill values that do not place materialism or material riches at the front and center of what we value and hold dear.  Put another way, rediscovering teachings from the past can appeal to us as individuals as they can offer prospects to make us better, happier, more fulfilled individuals.  They are not extrinsic appeals to act or to change on behalf of people we’ll never know in a world that we’ll never live in.

One can hardly hope to do justice to great spiritual traditions here but only trace the faintest outlines.  Let us now make a few remarks on the teachings and writings of the three individuals in this blog posting’s title, focused on the following questions:  (1) what has primacy; (2) what is the desired end state for individuals or society; and (3) what is the path to that end state?  But first a question: what has primacy in society today?

Society’s Figure of Merit

A key problem for the climate today is that society’s figure of merit and key metric is output and consumption, and much output is carbon intensive.  As Joseph Stiglitz says, “Metrics matter… if we have the wrong metrics we will strive for the wrong things.”

Problems with the GDP metric (Gross Domestic Product) are numerous and well documented:  no accounting for environmental externalities, carbon impacts, and ecological damages; GDP credits inefficiency and waste (think U.S. health care); no consideration of “natural capital,” etc.

Since society’s indicator of success is GDP and income, deciding to sharply reduce one’s personal consumption is very much swimming upstream. Moreover, the U.S. is highly responsive to this metric and outstanding as measured by it: #1 by a large margin in household consumption, orders of magnitude higher than hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.

Surely the gospel of growth and primacy of profit has been a wonderful thing and has enabled much higher living standards over the past decades.  And surely it or very similar frameworks are the paths forward for the developing world.  Yet the U.S. also leads the developed world by a large margin in income inequality and also in health and social problems including physical and mental health problems, divorce rates, out of wedlock children, drug use, obesity, incarceration rate, etc.   The U.S. has also led the way in perhaps the greatest market failure of all time, global warming and with it, the prospect for catastrophic climate change.


Let us start by addressing why Keynes is included here.  Certainly Keynes is not on par with Christ and Confucius in historical impact.   But in many ways, economics is our new religion – pretty much unquestioned and unchallenged until just a few years ago.  Many would place Keynes with Adam Smith as perhaps the greatest exemplars of economic thought.

J.M. Keynes was a free ranging thinker.  Among his more expansive works is a short essay penned in 1931, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes predicted that by 2030, much higher productivity would enable us to work far less.  There would be plenty instead of scarcity and more leisure instead of more work in a post-profit world.  Capitalism was seen as a necessary evil to a greater end.

As it turns out, Keynes was more or less correct in terms of productivity gains.  For vast numbers of people in the developed world, especially America, the problem is indeed managing plenty instead of managing scarcity — too much stuff, too many calories, too much traffic, and far too many cable TV stations.  But of course working hours have not decreased.   Keynes missed the insatiability aspects of greater wealth and consumption.  Since wealth is the societal marker for success, there is ongoing and ceaseless striving, much like an elevator where everyone is moving upward but no one is gaining on anyone else.


Clearly God has primacy for Christianity as in the other Abrahamic religions, and the desired end state is a place in heaven.  Of course it’s hazardous to selectively quote from the Bible, but the Biblical Jesus was pretty unequivocal about the pathway for his followers.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:23-24

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24

My vision of Jesus and the life he would lead today is quite the opposite of today’s masters of the universe. In fact, Jesus would probably champion low carbon living. Clearly this is not the focus of fundamental Christians today perhaps because it would require such an inconvenient lifestyle.  Today’s fundamentalist Christians seem more focused on belief and faith rather than acting to follow in Christ’s footsteps.


Confucius lived about six centuries before Christ in post-Zhou Dynasty China, a time of great chaos and “moral degradation.”   In this environment, Confucius was most interested in how to reclaim a lost Golden Age in attaining a harmonious society with wise, benevolent rulers.  He held that perfection of man is the ultimate goal in life: to be a “sage” (or essentially a secular saint). Humanity (or Ren) is the key – what is it that makes us human? To this end, reciprocity, kindness, and sincerity are emphasized as well as an early statement of the Golden Rule:  “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  Self-regulation of the individual is at the root of a harmonious society and education is of paramount importance.

On the negative side, Confucianism carries with it the artifacts of its time and emphasizes a strict social hierarchy.  But there is still much to be praised or taken from its teachings. (The same could be said of Aristotle).  These issues have huge modern relevance as China’s current leadership grapples with what philosophy or set of teachings to pursue with Mao’s teachings relegated to the scrap heap just as the ancient sage’s teachings were jettisoned a half-century ago by Mao.

The Challenge for Today

Of course, other great spiritual traditions have much to offer – the mindfulness and meditation of Buddhism, the spiritual maturation process of Hinduism, the teachings of Daoism and others.  Throughout history – and perhaps only up until recently, traditional ethical systems have been an important guide and contributor to behavior and decision-making, for better or worse.

So how might we tap into and/or synthesize the “better” part of these traditions as we take on the immense challenges of climate change? Are there policies that might be pursued that are in harmony with these traditions?  For example, should we consider higher consumption and luxury taxes? Advertising limits for children as in some Scandinavian nations?  Greater emphasis in K-12 education or college-level curriculum on traditional ethical systems?

Themes contained within major philosophical and religious traditions are quite consistent with “low carbon living” and material restraint.  And as we argue here, it’s important to inspire and appeal to people’s intrinsic values rather than make them feel guilty, fearful, or to ask them to be unnaturally altruistic. At the very least, there should be more debate and discussion on these topics, as we face not a Sputnik moment but potentially a civilizational one.

Max Wei is a program manager in the Sustainable Energy Systems Group in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This piece was originally published at Climate Access and was reprinted with permission.


20 Responses to Confucius, Keynes And Christ: The Role And Opportunity For Ethics As A Driver For Climate-Friendly Behavior

  1. Donald Brown says:

    The post raises many important issues about which deeper reflection is important. Although this article is welcomed, it fails to appreciate the ethical issues that are now arising around climate change policy formation issues right now. For instance, it was quite clear in the Qatar negotiations that just concluded that bumping up against real limitations to human activities because the world is running out of time to prevent dangerous climate change raises clear unambiguous justice and fairness issues about which principles of distributive justice are very relevant. This is one of the reasons that you don’t need to base ethical obligations on impacts to future generations. Some ethical issues are right in front of us right now and failure to act harms hundreds of millions of current people in vulnerable nations. As a result ethical duties to not harm others under almost all major ethical systems and ethical norms recognized clearly in international law under principles such as the “polluter-pays” and “no harm” principles requires governments to consider harms they are causing existing generations to people outside their jurisdictions. For this reason, one need not only look to “virtue” ethics for motivating responses to climate change, all major ethical systems would condemn the excuses some governments are using to refuse to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. That is, nations are acting in violation of clear ethical responsibilities even on matters about which it may be difficult to say what perfect justice requires. In a new book, Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Climate Change Ethics this writer makes concrete recommendations on how to get traction for ethics in policy formation. Donald A. Brown, Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University School of Law

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    “not in our DNA to act based on the concerns of future generations”
    “ask them to be unnaturally altruistic”

    I have debunked this stuff before. It doesn’t matter how many times you write it, it is still wrong.

    There have been, and still are, cultures which look after the present and the future. People are capable of selfishness AND altruism depending primarily on whether they are organized by the first design principle (which produces competition) or the second (which produces cooperation. To assume your culture is the one and only possible is arrogant as well as ignorant, ME

  3. mikkel says:

    “Keynes missed the insatiability aspects of greater wealth and consumption.”

    He did not “miss” it, he specifically writes: “Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes –those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they.”

    He then goes on to state optimistically that those needs would be outweighed by the appreciation of the basic needs given “no important wars and no important increases in population.” The caveat is rather important.

    Yet the more pertinent issue is why consumption came to dominate society’s mindset. For that I implore people to watch Adam Curtis’ documentary “The Century of the Self.” The thrust of the argument is that modern marketing and economic thought (as seen in other documentaries by Curtis) are crafted to ensure that status oriented insatiable needs are never met in order to promote consumerism.

    There are of course countless examples of conspicuous consumption before modern marketing, so I bring it up less as a conspiratorial cause of our woes and more as a force that is fighting against change.

    What Keynes is alluding to is analogous to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs being met and then he skips forward to the self actualization state as a natural progression.
    Maslow’s work shows that the physical needs being met are a necessary but not sufficient condition towards higher needs being fulfilled.

    Not only are psychological problems continually transmitted to future generations (Maslow himself struggled with how a self actualized society can arise when a tiny percentage of the population is self actualized) but our economic, political and social foundations are built on the idea of scarcity of basic necessities.

    If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, learn about societies in which reciprocity and giving are the “status symbols” and how they are structured differently at their core than ours, all the way down to concepts of hierarchy.

    Basically the message behind all this beating around the bush is that a lot of the assumptions about human nature are pounded into us by industrial society, making our imaginations brittle, and many of them aren’t true. However, it’ll take a lot more than some legislation to affect change.

  4. Bob M says:

    Donald, I couldn’t agree more with the idea that “nations are acting in violation of clear ethical responsibilities even on matters about which it may be difficult to say what perfect justice requires”.

    Of course the chief culprits are the United States and the American consumer, who use 5x as much as their “fair share” of the world’s energy and have for a century or more. We are largely responsible for climate change. How many Americans support policies like fee-and-dividend which will reduce consumption by penalizing it? How many Americans are willing to initiate a solution to a problem that is of our own making? The national climate dialogue is centered much more around pointing fingers than accepting a responsibility which is rightfully ours.

  5. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Maslow struggled becaue the theory doesn’t work in reality. POW and death camps regularly saw starving, desperate people put others before themselves, people throw themselves under cars to save others and women starve to feed others. There is no hierarchy, ME

  6. Raul M. says:

    Great article pointing to the strength of religions to change and improve behavior.
    But, certainly Christ figures were not based on the acqumilation of physical comfort conviences. By reducing physical comfort conviences one may learn of the need for some levels of comfort. That we take physical comfort conviences as an indicator of moral strength and religious virtue is overly confusing.
    Sort of like trying to figure out if the squirrel burries nuts to only save or is practicing farming. It may be farming by intuition but one could hardly say a squirrel would think to personally benifet from the sprouting of an oak seed.
    So the wild squirrel may be more benificial to the world than the caged squirrel.
    Would it be so strange that the wild man could be more benificel than the culture one as regards the long term health of the world?
    Such questions can be so confusingly sad but true to the point.

  7. mikkel says:

    To be fair, he explicitly said that progression wasn’t linear and that in times of trouble it didn’t regress backwards in the same fashion…meaning that protecting others or standing up for principles at the cost of “lower” needs isn’t against his theory.

    I view the theory more as one of development of consciousness, not universal static psychology. If you want to argue that his observations are societally based and different societies would rank them different, then that’s definitely plausible and research suggests it to be the case.

  8. Paul Klinkman says:

    Community is a big driver for ethical climate-friendly behavior among its members. Religious houses of worship, Girl Scout troops, businesses run by benevolent leaders, all have their community aspects. For example, this Sunday, I know that Roseanne gets first crack at handling the compost pile.

    Yes, Jesus of Nazareth would probably be living lightly on the earth as an ethical practice. He instructed his followers to take only two garments (one standard coat and one undergarment is assumed) and one pair of shoes. His philosophy wasn’t to stand on theological principle — he and his followers gathered grain from plants and ate it on the Sabbath, and they healed people on the Sabbath also.

    Companies that want to do business with their communities of potential customers, of potential workers, of potential investors and of potential suppliers need to have ethical rules, need to be good corporate actors that their communities can trust. Therefore, smart businesses prefer to set up shop in energy-efficient or solar buildings. They go out of their way to put up electric recharge stations in their parking lots, or whatever keeps their business humming. Stupid businesses that don’t actually need any money will support the Heartland Institute.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Mikkel, you can redefine hierarchy, Tweedledee(dum) style, to mean anything you like but Maslow’s ‘theory’ exemplifies the low standards in today’s social ‘science’, ME

  10. DaveE says:

    “For vast numbers of people in the developed world, especially America, the problem is indeed managing plenty instead of managing scarcity”–this may indeed be true, but even for these people I believe that there is considerable insecurity about their future prospects. It can be very difficult accumulate enough savings for a secure retirement. I believe that the real problem currently is that the increase in productivity is in fact not benefiting the ordinary person but is instead adding to the wealth of those who own the means of production. Most factory owners did not invent automated factories, or develop the data processing systems that allow them to dispense with employees that would have been required as recently as 10 or 15 years ago–nevertheless, they reap almost the entire benefit of these productivity improvements. The fact that wages in the middle class have been declining, in spite of productivity increases, means that in fact the middle class must work harder merely to maintain their standard of living. It’s up to government to rebalance this equation. It worked well from the 50’s to the 70’s and it could work again once we start recognizing everyone’s worth, instead of valuing only those who accumulate obscene amounts of wealth at the expense of others.

  11. mikkel says:

    I’d like to know what specifically you object to in his theory, and particularly how you think it leads to bad outcomes/thought processes. I know several systems oriented people that find it helpful.

  12. Raul M. says:

    The logistics of decision making processes-
    Is there a change to the persons diet just prior to the decision?
    Is the diet substantially complete for the persons needs to have necessary intelligence?
    Is the diet routinely sufficient so that the decision isn’t unduly dependent on a one time good meal?

    Questions of the decision making process may indeed include basic logistic perimeters.
    Another way would be to instill right and wrong concepts and not to worry about any real meals.

    If though it were the case that food needs were met and basic concepts of morality were instilled- why the best of the wild and the cultured could be entwined?

  13. Mike Roddy says:

    You’re absolutely correct, Merrelyn. Every time I hear about some human behavior pattern that’s “in our DNA” a flag goes up. Even a cursory study of history shows all kinds of values and behaviors, including caring for future generations.

    The problem is that our own Western culture of accumulation and suppression of love is leading us to the edge of a cliff. Education won’t penetrate that fog, but maybe inspirational people will. We’re still waiting for them to show up, though some have come close.

  14. Mark E says:

    So true.

  15. Mark E says:

    Besides the cultural superiority M.E. called out, the grossest error in this essay is this:

    “Surely the gospel of growth and primacy of profit has been a wonderful thing….”

    One can only believe this via simple denial of all the social and ecological costs of that growth. Metrics matter!

    Global warming is a by product of our belief in that gospel, that growth is inherently wonderful and good. EVERY species that grows beyond carrying capacity suffers a population crash. One does not really understand Christ’s path if one embraces even the most gentle form of nonstop growth, because gentle nonstop growth ultimately results in the same horrors as harsh nonstop growth. It is a finite planet, created with rules bases on limiting factors and carrying capacity.

    Lessons are repeated until learned.

  16. Mark E says:

    please free me from the spam filter

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Summary of long list: contradicted by evidence biological and cultural – no hierarchy. People are purposeful, not mechanisms pushed by needs and drives, homonomy plus autonomy, ignores B=PxE, ignores affect system which can attach, and reattach, to anything, ME

  18. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Ourcomes? Mechanistic systems in a mechanistic culture producing chronically alienated people displaying every known form of maladaptive behaviour despite having their ‘basic needs’ met. e.g. HR ‘experts’ mystified and demoralized by employees who refuse to be motivated (engaged) because all they actually want is to be treated like human beings not machines, ME

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I think waiting for some insprational person is a sign of our degree of maladaption Mike. Too many people have gotten so used to being told what to do that we have as a collective, lost our up and go, ME

  20. Martin Gisser says:

    Ditto. “Not in our genes” is the classic non-virtuous non-selfrespect stupid excuse. We could just give up on the future of Life – because what is coming is not in out genes. Not in any genes.

    The right phrase (and I guess the author’s intention) would be “not in our brains”.

    There have always been brains who could think beyond their alleged genetics. That gives me a little hope.