On utilitarianism and climate change
Climate change is back – with a vengeance. We’ve been distracted by financial crisis, the Arab spring, and Fukushima. Now, the International Energy Agency has revealed that the financial crisis did not, as was expected, lead to any significant drop in carbon levels. While media interests continue to befuddle by presenting denialism as if it were an actual scientific position, we’re looking increasingly unlikely to keep the global temperature rise down to 2C. A catastrophic rise of 4C is looking increasingly likely by the end of the century. (There’s descriptions here of what the impact of these temperature rises will look like).
This week I’m going to Canberra with the good folks of ARRCC to speak with the politicians. We want to present to them that climate change is not just an economic or technological problem. It is, at heart, a moral problem.
I believe that all the world’s religions embody values that can, and should, provide for the protection of the environment. It is such a clear cut issue that it can serve as a test case for a system of ethics: if an ethical system does not justify saving the environment, it cannot be correct.
A few weeks ago I ran some posts arguing that Buddhist ethics were, at base, a utilitarian ethics. That means that what is ‘right’ is closely linked with happiness or suffering. The great advantage of such an ethic is that it is empirical: it is based on the actual experience of pleasure, not on an assumption of some abstract quality of ‘the good’.
The most famous secular utilitarian of our age is of course Peter Singer. He’s an Australian ethical philosopher who founded the worldwide animal liberation movement – I had the pleasure to meet him at one of our meetings for Animal Lib many years ago.
A recent article in the Guardian intrigued me, since it suggests that the ethics of climate change have challenged Peter Singer to question whether his utilitarian philosophy was adequate to address the subject of global warming, and to reconsider the possibility of some kind of ethical absolute – a position that in western philosophy is usually associated with Christianity. I wondered why Singer would make such a concession, and figured that there must be some pretty hard arguments. If that’s the case, perhaps Buddhist ethics might run into problems as well – so best to check it out.
I wanted to consider whether the things that Singer considers a problem for his form of ‘preference utilitarianism‘ would also be a problem for Buddhist ethics. Note that I’m not going to consider whether they are a genuine problem for Singer’s own ethics. The article says there are two main problems.
the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change.
If there are more people, then there are more people who can be happy, make good kamma, and so on; but there are also more people who will be unhappy and make bad kamma. In particular, as population grows and pressure for scarce resources increases it becomes harder to maintain a reasonable level of happiness. I would also suspect that, on a large scale, less happiness would in turn lead to more unskillful acts: prisons are full of people who were plenty unhappy even before they got locked away. So there is no particular reason to think that a bigger population, beyond a certain level, is intrinsically good, and hence no reason to think that limiting population to control climate change is inherently ethically problematic. Furthermore, a limited population, one must assume, is more likely to be sustainable over the long term, and thus allow for a greater total number of people, even if the number at any one time is less.
This is, of course just to focus on the basic principle and leaving aside the dubious question of whether we can really equate, say, carbon emissions with population growth. Carbon emissions are, rather, closely associated with economic growth, and studies repeatedly show that, beyond satisfying reasonable needs, economic growth does not lead to happiness. So this argument lacks traction.
climate change requires that we consider the preferences not only of existing human beings, but of those yet to come. And we can have no confidence about that, when it comes to generations far into the future. Perhaps they won’t much care about Earth because the consumptive delights of life on other planets will be even greater. Perhaps they won’t much care because a virtual life, with its brilliant fantasies, will seem far more preferable than a real one.
This argument falls flat, too. Utilitarianism, whether of Buddhist or other forms, is essentially empirical – it infers from what we know. And what we know is that human life exists in interrelationship with all other forms of life on this planet, and it always has done. We can imagine a possible world where we all live as brains-in-jars enjoying our matrix-reality, but this has no empirical basis. Serious ethical choices shouldn’t be made on these kinds of fantasies. (This question relates to Hume’s Problem of Induction, but I won’t get into that here.)
So I think these arguments fail, and are surprisingly weak, in fact. The author of the article, who is a Christian, relishes Singer’s slight weakening of his position, however, as he sees the alternative thusly:
Only faith in a good God finally secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.
A rash assessment indeed, this ‘only’! How about this as a Buddhist rephrasing: “reasoned faith in a coherent moral order (kamma) secures the conviction that living morally coincides with living well.” If this is acceptable then the ‘only’ needs to go.
The article is a mixed bag: while I cannot agree with the author’s claim that ‘Only a doctrine of creation can affirm that we are fundamentally linked to the natural order manifest on Earth,’ I think we can all concur that ‘Our island home matters because the lives of human beings go well only when her natural systems go well too.’
But even this falls short; it still privileges humanity over other species, and sets human life as somehow separate from ‘natural systems’. In truth, we are part of nature, nothing more, nothing less. Our special position is not that we are a separate moral order, but that we are conscious, so we can reflect on and operate on the world in ways that other aspects of nature cannot. And with moral awareness comes moral responsibility.