Clive Hamilton

Philosophical Shock Tactics

Not long ago Peter Singer sent a shock wave around his home country when on national television he provided an ethical justification for bestiality. This year three analytical philosophers were taken aback at the ridicule they attracted for proposing that humans be biologically engineered to reduce their carbon footprints as a response to global warming.
And in April two philosophers were surprised by the abuse and threats they received after writing a  journal article arguing that infanticide, or ‘after-birth abortion’, is permissible.
What is mystifying about all this is not the public reaction to these arguments, which was predictable, but the philosophers’ dismay that they should attract hostility. Why, it is worth asking, are many academic philosophers so insensitive to the offense certain kinds of positions cause? Why do so many philosophers today seem to have tin ears?
I think the answer lies in the predisposition of large parts of the profession towards a certain kind of hyper-rationality that devalues and suppresses emotional intuitions that would both flag problems in their arguments and warn them of the likely reactions.
In lectures and seminars, philosophy students learn that while emotional intuitions and non-rational sensibilities may be a useful starting point, moral reactions must be rationally justifiable to have validity; otherwise they are merely ‘emotional’ (with all of the connotations that go with that accusation).
Ethical arguments that incorporate anything other than logical propositions based on accepted facts are much harder to make and defend, so students learn quickly in essays and tutorials to steer clear of them and stick to ‘analytics’.
The process reaches an intense level among graduate students who have proven themselves in the established mode of argument, so that other kinds of philosophical thinking have been winnowed out. (A similar process occurs in economics departments).
At least, this tends to be the case in universities dominated by the analytical tradition (most universities in Anglophone countries), where philosophy has attempted to gain greater respectability by moving away from the humanities and towards the more positivist fields of study (much like economics).
In this way the exercise of rationality tends to detach reason-giving from some things that matter, but are hard to articulate. The result is what might be called a kind of learned autism.
The types of interventions I mentioned at the start (in favour of bestiality, bioengineering and infanticide) are sometimes defended as the free expression of views in a liberal society. Well, yes; although one has to ask what the point is when the arguments are inflammatory and likely to alienate the public.
This is not to say arguments that attract hostility should not be made. I receive plenty of angry abuse from climate deniers for my writings on climate change; but if a coherent case could be made that social utility could be maximized by ‘deniercide’ it would be foolish to put it forward, and not just because of the reaction it would spark. A coherent argument would be a wrong argument.
The tin ear to public reaction is the same one that is deaf to the deeper aspects of being human that are at the centre of other philosophical traditions. I recently attended a seminar on Wittgenstein and Heidegger at which it was asked whether Wittgenstein (a hero of the analytical tradition) was right in thinking that Heidegger’s arguments were ‘nonsense’.
In posing this question, the enormous richness and depth of Heidegger’s thought would be judged according to the stringent precepts of logic, to see whether his arguments could be declared non-sense.
Simply by posing the question the work of the twentieth century’s most influential philosopher is eviscerated. If you go to Heidegger’s work with a view to running the analytical ruler over it, then don’t bother. It is all nonsense. But those who approach it in that way risk marginalizing themselves from the broad sweep of human concerns.

European versus US attitudes to geoengineering

Casual observation suggests that among scientists researching geoengineering technologies there is a marked difference in attitude between Americans and continental Europeans.

The United Sates is the home of the idea of the technofix, so American researchers tend to have more faith in the possibilities for technological intervention to control the global climate. There is a stronger sense in the US that human capacities are realized through the continual extension of our control of the environment.

So our technological power should be celebrated and geoengineering is seen by these early movers as the next human challenge, a kind of ‘manifest destiny’ applied to the Earth as a whole.

The idea of spreading civilization, centered on technological superiority, actually reached a historical zenith in Victorian Britain and with nineteenth century European colonial expansion more generally.

But the self-assurance that lay behind it was severely dented by the savagery of the world wars. The First World War in particular had an enormous impact on philosophy. As that savagery was committed mostly on European soil its impact there was more enduring; it meant that faith in technological mastery projects was hard to defend.

Yet faith in that power was maintained in the United States after the Second World War; indeed, it was enhanced by the role the US played in the war, including its last act in the Asian theatre. It was a faith at the root of the rise of the US as a superpower, and was linked closely to the development of military dominance.

In contrast to American ‘Prometheanism’, European geoengineering researchers tend to adopt a more cautious and sceptical approach to grand technological interventions, and have more modest ambitions, which may see them inclined to back carbon dioxide removal methods like biochar and reforestation rather that sulphate aerosol spraying to regulate the amount of sunlight reaching the planet.

There is a political reading of this difference too.  The technofix approach is inclined to see climate engineering as a cheap and effective means of avoiding the need for the economic and social changes that would be required if emissions were to be cut sharply (in accord with the conclusions of climate science). In this way, the established order is defended so that expansion can continue uninterrupted. 

This is why, in these early days of the climate engineering debate, we see some conservatives opposed to emission cutting gravitating towards geoengineering and talking up its benefits. We can expect oil and coal companies to take an interest soon.

Europeans, to the extent that I can generalize, are more inclined to draw attention to the risks and dangers of manipulating the climate. And they are more worried about the likelihood of ‘moral hazard’, the way the prospect of climate engineering may reduce the political incentives to mitigate. Although they do believe we need to research geoengineering technologies thoroughly, they see it as a ‘necessary evil’.

So instead of seeing climate engineering as a means of protecting the prevailing economic and political structures, the Europeans have concluded that it may be necessary to deploy geoengineering technologies in order to protect deeper values now threatened by the consequences of endless expansion, that is, viable societies, vulnerable communities, ecological values and life itself. For them, climate engineering is a stop gap measure to be deployed only until we come to our senses.

There are some big claims here, so I am interested in how others see it.

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