Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns: Second Movement

Written by Doug McConnell

Most ethicists would agree that the climate emergency is one of the most serious ethical problems society has ever faced, yet the focus of most of our work is elsewhere. In his piece, “Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns”, Charles Foster suggests that business as usual for ethicists – “fine ethical tuning” and making “subtle distinctions” – amounts to shuffling the deck chairs when we know the ship is heading for an iceberg. Here I argue that, frustratingly, most ethicists qua ethicists have a limited role in responding to the climate emergency. However, this doesn’t mean we should despair but, rather, that we should also contribute to addressing the climate emergency outside the ivory tower qua citizens.

COP26 was billed as the last chance to keep global heating well below 2C and prevent climate catastrophe. It is ‘code red for humanity’ but despite the extreme urgency of the problem, CO26 was a failure. The US Democrats pushed for ambitious targets but appear unable to pass the necessary legislation at home, China isn’t prepared to decarbonise fast enough, and several significant polluters, such as Australia and Russia, are barely offering lip service. What can ethicists do to help?

The main difficulty for ethicists is that much of the ethics is already settled. We know that climate change will cause a huge amount of harm, and that justice requires the historical beneficiaries of burning fossil fuels to do more to help the world reduce emissions and adapt to changing conditions.

The problems we need to solve are not ethical but political, technological, and psychological. How, for example, should we redress the imbalance of power between democratically elected bodies and corporations, overcome conflicts of interest between nation states without war, develop more efficient solar panels, and effect large-scale behavioral change?

There remains some role for academic ethicists particularly those already specialized in the relevant areas. There is still ethical fine tuning to be done to work out exactly how each nation should contribute towards achieving climate justice. To take just one example, see Dr Megan Blomfield’s book Global Justice, Natural Resources, and Climate Change (OUP 2019)

But, practically, we are so far from achieving justice that the fine tuning is barely relevant. What is the point of working out exactly how big each person’s slice of cake should be when some aren’t prepared to share the cake at all? That isn’t to say this ethical fine tuning is a waste of time. Hopefully in the future we will overcome some of the political, technological, and psychological barrier to achieving climate justice and, at that point, it will be helpful to have the ethical fine tuning to hand. Foster’s concern remains, however; our most pressing problem is not to get the ethical fine tuning right, but to get to a position where fine tuning will be relevant.

It’s even less clear what ethicists not specialized in climate justice should contribute. They might switch their focus from, say, organ transplant ethics or reproductive ethics to focus on the climate crisis, or look for intersections between their prior work and the climate crisis. But there are already many ethicists that specialise in environmental ethics, so I doubt that more ethical fine tuners will make much of a difference.

The other job of many academic ethicists is to teach and this can be a powerful way to influence the world. Again, however, most people going to university these days already have a reasonably good idea of the magnitude of the climate crisis, so there might not be much to gain by labouring the point that the climate crisis is a crisis. Moreover, in academic ethics we tend to see it as our responsibility to teach the skills we use – ethical fine tuning, critical thinking, careful argumentation. Assuming these skills are valuable, we shouldn’t give up on teaching them. We also have to stay true to our course descriptions, and not every course can be about environmental ethics. Perhaps universities should make a course on environmental ethics compulsory for all degrees the way that medical schools make medical ethics compulsory. However a better approach might be for education from primary school to be reorganized around ecology since that would enable us all to better understand how interconnected with and reliant on the environment we really are.

Perhaps the real problem here isn’t that ethicists aren’t attending to the climate emergency but that academia in general is disconnected from the political decisions that make a real difference in the world. This is a problem even for ethicists specialized in climate justice.

Ethicists present arguments to further democratic decision-making but, generally, the arguments are left to speak for themselves and it is up to others to lobby for political change in light of them. Politicians are often unaware of the ethical arguments and, in any case, they often feel more limited by ‘political realities’ than the demands of reason. While there is some scope for motivated ethicists to influence policy through submissions to government, it tends to take a lot of time and effort and is rarely influential. One strategy here would be to lobby for better communication between the academy and politicians assuming this could be done without anti-democratically prioritizing academic’s views.

Given that academic ethics is about ‘ethical fine tuning’ and that the academy remains disconnected from the government, the potential for ethicists to respond to the climate emergency within the limits of their job description is somewhat limited. The typical ethicist can probably do just as much, if not more, to address the climate emergency in their role as a citizen. That’s to say, ethicists could join relevant protests, lobby their employer and pension fund to divest from fossil fuels, cut down on flying and meat eating, vote for politicians/parties that support strong climate action, and support activist organizations by volunteering their analytical and communicative skills to support environmental activist groups. Fortunately these responses to the climate emergency are not mutually exclusive, ethicists can engage qua citizen and qua ethicist.


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8 Responses to Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns: Second Movement

  • Bryan Frances says:

    I don’t specialize in ethics at all (I do M&E only), but it seems to this amateur that none of the options listed in the final paragraph will make even the tiniest difference at all. It would be akin to trying to keep the ground dry in a rainstorm by using one umbrella.

    If one wants to make an impact that isn’t infinitesimal, then one needs to influence someone *who has real power*, such as a governor or senator or celebrity (with the popularity of someone such as Taylor Swift) or CEO of an enormous corporation. Even then, the odds that you’ll make even the slightest difference are very low. But the other options listed– “join relevant protests, lobby their employer and pension fund to divest from fossil fuels, cut down on flying and meat eating, vote for politicians/parties that support strong climate action, and support activist organizations by volunteering their analytical and communicative skills to support environmental activist groups”–have zero chance at all to make any impact.

    Again, I’m just an amateur here! But it seems to me that if you wanted to make a difference in the US for instance, then you would have to do something like get someone to change Senator McConnell’s mind. Otherwise, you’re not going to make a difference at all, other than feeling as though you did “something”. Apologies if I’m missing something obvious here!

    • Doug McConnell says:

      As Owen mentions below, the idea here is that people work together and when theyre all holding their umbrellas they do make a difference. Such coordinated action has worked well to affect change in other contexts.

      I didn’t intend the list at the end to be exhaustive, if one had a means of influencing Senators McConnell or Manchin then, absolutely, pull that lever!

      • Bryan Frances says:

        Yes, it has worked in other contexts. But good luck making an *effective* coordination take place. And to a large extent, a lot of coordination has already happened, but with virtually no significant effect, as the global production of CO2 is not falling anywhere near fast enough.

        • Doug McConnell says:

          Well, I agree things look very bad but I’m not sure that’s sufficient reason to give up given what is at stake.

          There is also some evidence that there are social tipping points so that not much changes until a threshold of people commit to a change and then suddenly the majority come on board. I don’t know quite how that will happen in response to the climate/biodiversity emergency or whether it can happen fast enough but its a straw to clutch at!

          • Bryan Frances says:

            I never said one should give up. I said something quite different:

            First, I’m saying that if one wants a prayer of making a difference, then the options listed in the original post are a waste of one’s time. Second, I’m suggesting that if one wants to do something that makes a difference, then one should find a way to influence someone who can reliably influence someone with real power. If I had a brother in law who was buddies with Elon Musk, for instance, then my best shot at making a difference would be to get my brother to introduce me to Musk so I could bend his ear like no one has done before.

            Of course, this would probably fail too. (And I have no idea about using Musk as an example.)

            Your remark about “social tipping points” sounds reasonable to me! But, again, one’s best bet at making a difference in reaching that tipping point isn’t the actions in the OP. It’s something like convincing, directly or close enough, someone with real power. Then they can be that tipping point, so to speak.

            Again, I assume people know a lot more about this stuff than me!

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    So, I would agree that any given ethicist can only expect individually their work to make a marginal contribution to policy or behavior on any practical topic, climate change included. This is so even if they weren’t ‘fine-tuning’, but offering big theories of justice that have very wide-ranging and revisionary implications for practice. (indeed, arguably fine-tuners are more likely to influence policy, to the extent that more moderate suggestions are more amenable to entrenched policymakers)

    But (there’s always a ‘but’) that observation about the limited reach of philosophy and ethics doesn’t really refute Charles Foster’s suggestion to redirect more philosophical resources and attention to climate change. Generally, we can have strong reason to make individually limited efforts that, in coordination or combination with others, make a substantial difference. And small groups (like ethicists) can similarly have reasons to coordinate, even if their efforts as a group are not sufficient to fully resolve an issue. Voting, polluting, charitable giving, etc. – many of these relate to big, intractable problems that any individual or small group cannot solve on their own, but still have good reason to contribute towards solutions.

    We would have good reason to reject Charles’ argument if ethicists’ influence on climate policy isn’t merely ‘limited’, but actually futile, as Bryan proposes – if it has no effect at all, even in coordination with other efforts. This is possible, but I’m not convinced by the evidence adduced. Sure, there are some countries that seem completely resistant to input from academics. But there are other countries that are potentially more responsive; and, moreover, non-governmental efforts that can have substantial impact as well. Ethicists aren’t dictating policy to such entities (nor should they!), but their work contributes to a wider discourse that does have influence in certain quarters. And with climate change, it’s at least to some degree a scalar problem, where greater acceleration of temperature rises translates into greater and earlier human suffering. So even partial impact is meaningful (as contrasted with, e.g., all-or-nothing voting problems).

    Another suggestion made in the original post is that given there’s already much existing work in climate ethics, more attention to the topic won’t make much of a difference. I suppose we could expect a degree of diminishing returns from marginal contributions to any discipline, but I don’t see any particular reason to think there’s nothing left to contribute to this topic. While I don’t work in climate ethics, the areas of practical ethics I know better have many of the basic considerations of ethics may seem ‘obvious’. (Don’t exploit research participants! Get consent! Ensure benefits outweigh risks!) Yet when we scrutinize things more carefully, there are innumerable complexities and ethical tradeoffs that require careful analysis.

    • Doug McConnell says:

      Thanks Owen. Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic about the potential for ethicists qua ethicists to influence responses to climate change. I certainly agree with your final paragraph that there is likely still much good work to be done in environmental ethics and the need for it will probably increase as the slow car crash unfolds throwing up novel ethical problems. However my hunch is that, if there is an area where we should intensify our efforts qua ethicists, it is about trying to influence policy rather than generating new arguments/theories. It seems to be political inertia that is killing us, not intellectual inertia. But perhaps that’s the wrong way to look at it and the political and the intellectual aren’t so separate – perhaps the right arguments put the right way could unlock the necessary ‘political will’. George Monbiot argues for something along these lines in his most recent book (Out of the Wreckage) – we need an alternative *narrative* to consumer capitalism, something that people can identify with and use to guide their actions. If this is right then maybe ethicists should direct more attention towards creating and promoting ethically desirable top-level narratives and worry about the fine tuning later…

  • Kian Mintz-Woo says:

    It’s even less clear what ethicists not specialized in climate justice should contribute. They might switch their focus from, say, organ transplant ethics or reproductive ethics to focus on the climate crisis, or look for intersections between their prior work and the climate crisis. But there are already many ethicists that specialise in environmental ethics, so I doubt that more ethical fine tuners will make much of a difference.

    While it is not clear, there have been some excellent suggestions. Since this blog does not allow links, I’ll just post a DOI [ 10.1111/josp.12396 ] and you can find the excellent and practically helpful piece called “Philosophy’s other climate problem” from Brownstein and Levy (2021), which explains several different areas of philosophy and how they can incorporate or help with climate questions. Furthermore, on the blog of the American Philosophical Association, Nora Mills Boyd suggests several more practical to bring climate into other philosophy courses in a post entitled “Three Ways to Bring Climate into Your Teaching”. Hope these sources help inspire some blog readers!

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