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Pak-Hang Wong on “Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering”

In the final Uehiro Seminar of Trinity Term, Pak-Hang Wong offered a novel approach to the ethics of geoengineering. He argues that if we view geoengineering as a large socio-technical system (LTS), which he asserts we should, then traditional approaches to the ethics of geoengineering that focus on intentions and outcomes are inadequate.

Using a standard definition of geoengineering, “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change,” and the understanding of geoengineering as an LTS, Wong suggests two key problems with existing attempts to address the ethics of geoengineering. Current approaches focus on the ethics of intentions and outcomes in geoengineering. For example, two common questions asked in the field at present are, 1) whether R&D and implementation of geoengineering are morally permissible; and, 2) if they are morally permissible, how should costs, risks, and benefits be shared?

Yet because LTSs 1) are big, layered, and complex such that individual intentions will often be irrelevant, and 2) are subject to a high degree of uncertainty such that arguments based on consequences will be inappropriate, Wong argues that we need a new ethical approach to geoengineering. He suggests virtue ethics, as its focus on questions like ‘how should we live?’ rather than ‘what is the right action?’ or ‘what is the best consequence,’ allows the development of an applicable ethical framework in spite of geoengineering’s high degree of uncertainty and complexity as an LTS.

Furthermore, he argues that this virtue ethics approach ought to be post-humanist in nature: we ought to take the large socio-technical system of geoengineering, rather than individuals, as the unit of ethical reflection. Drawing heavily on Latour and extended mind theory, he suggests that because we can understand some technologies as having agency, we may also conceive of them as virtue-bearers. Thus the ethical questions become, as an LTS, ‘what would a virtuous geoengineering system look like?’ and ‘what should we consider as “technological virtues”?’

A lively discussion followed Wong’s excellent presentation. Audience members focused in on two main critiques of Wong’s approach. First, because consequentialism has ways of dealing with uncertainty, it is not clear that we need to turn to virtue ethics simply due to the uncertainty present in geoengineering. Second, it may be unnecessary to view the system as an agent and the unit of ethical reflection in the virtue-theoretic approach; a virtuous system, on this argument, is no more or less than a system that was virtuously designed by humans. However, it was noted that certain virtues, like transparency, might indeed only apply to systems and not individuals.

You can listen to an audio recording of Wong’s talk here:


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  1. ‏@JohnMassaria 17 Mar
    The Most Important Topic For 2013 29Mins Film By John Massaria
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  2. ‏@JohnMassaria 17 Mar
    The Most Important Topic For 2013 29Mins Film By John Massaria

    Retweeted by chemTrailActivist

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