Environmental Ethics

Don’t write evil algorithms

Google is said to have dropped the famous “Don’t be evil” slogan. Actually, it is the holding company Alphabet that merely wants employees to “do the right thing”. Regardless of what one thinks about the actual behaviour and ethics of Google, it seems that it got one thing right early on: a recognition that it was moving in a morally charged space.

Google is in many ways an algorithm company: it was founded on PageRank, a clever algorithm for finding relevant web pages, scaled up thanks to MapReduce algorithms, use algorithms for choosing adverts, driving cars and selecting nuances of blue. These algorithms have large real world effects, and the way they function and are used matters morally.

Can we make and use algorithms more ethically?

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Guest Post: What (if anything) makes extinction bad?

Catia Faria, Pompeu Fabra University

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 Throughout history, countless species have come into existence only to later become extinct. Whether extinction is caused by natural processes or human agency, environmental scientists and the general public seem to agree that extinction is a bad thing and that, therefore, conservation efforts should be made to counteract, and perhaps revert, the losses. Resources are often devoted to the reintroduction of endangered species into ecosystems in which they have long been absent. In other cases, states implement measures to protect autochthonous species (that is, species which are native to a certain natural environment, as opposed to introduced as a result of human activity) which are threatened by the presence of a foreign species by eradicating the members of the latter. There are entire organisations dedicated simply to the aim of preventing the extinction of species whose continued existence is at risk.  However, these practices rely on rather controversial assumptions.

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Vagueness and Making a Difference

Do you make the world a worse place by purchasing factory-farmed chicken, or by paying for a seat on a transatlantic flight?  Do you have moral reason to, and should you, refrain from doing these things?  It is very unlikely that any individual act of either of these two sorts would in fact bring about a worse outcome, even if many such acts together would.  In the case of factory-farming, the chance that your small purchase would be the one to signal that demand for chicken has increased, in turn leading farmers to increase the number of chickens raised for the next round, is very small.  Nonetheless, there is some chance that your purchase would trigger this negative effect, and since the negative effect is very large, the expected disutility of your act is significant, arguably sufficient to condemn it.  This is true of any such purchasing act, as long as the purchaser is ignorant (as is almost always the case) of where she stands in relation to the ‘triggering’ purchase.

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Guest Post: Caring for Our Home

Darlei Dall’Agnol
Professor of Ethics, Federal University of Santa Catarina.

Many nations are already preparing for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December. One of the main goals of the Conference is to reach an agreement on climate change, especially on greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Following Rio-92 and after more than 20 years of negotiations, the Conference has a unique opportunity to enact the first legally binding document for all the nations of the world. This is certainly a significant step in caring more for our little planet, which is after all our home. As citizens and philosophers concerned with environmental issues, we should support and try to help bring about such an agreement. However, there are also signs that some countries are evading their responsibilities. Earlier this month, in her first visit to the United States since Wikileaks revealed in 2013 the US’ spying , the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced that Brazil’s goal is to bring illegal deforestation down to zero over the next few years. Moreover, the country will work towards reforestation of 12 million hectares. According to some North-American newspapers, this announcement was below what was expected by the White House, which had hoped for higher targets in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. This is one of the President Obama’s priorities for his legacy. He is trying to influence China, India, Brazil and other developing countries to get a satisfactory outcome at the climate Conference later this year. Is this a sign of what is going to happen at the Conference? Will the US just press other developing countries to cut down gas emissions? What about the US’ own environmental responsibilities?

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Guest Post: Why isn’t the world going vegan?

Written by Catia Faria

Universitat Pompeu Fabra

Last month, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, one of the world’s most influential organizations in its field, published an updated version of a paper concluding that animal-free diets are absolutely healthy (Cullum-Dugan & Pawlak 2015). The article presents the official position of the Academy on this topic, according to which, when well designed, vegetarian and vegan diets provide adequate nutrition for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.

 It would be reasonable to expect that such conclusion had a significant impact on people’s dietary choices. If adopting a vegan diet imposed great costs on the health of human beings, then doing it might not be what we are required to do. Yet the health argument has been, again, debunked. So, why aren’t people going massively vegan? Continue reading

The Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: How Should Vegans Live, by Xavier Cohen.

This essay, by Oxford undergraduate student Xavier Cohen, is one of the two finalists in the undergraduate category of the inaugural Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics. Xavier will be presenting this paper, along with three other finalists, on the 12th March at the final.

How should vegans live? By Xavier Cohen

Ethical vegans make a concerted lifestyle choice based on ethical – rather than, say, dietary – concerns. But what are the ethical concerns that lead them to practise veganism? In this essay, I focus exclusively on that significant portion of vegans who believe consuming foods that contain animal products to be wrong because they care about harm to animals, perhaps insofar as they have rights, perhaps because they are sentient beings who can suffer, or perhaps because of a combination thereof.[1] Throughout the essay, I take this conviction as a given, that is, I do not evaluate it, but instead investigate what lifestyle is in fact consistent with caring about harm to animals, which I will begin by calling consistent veganism. I argue that the lifestyle that consistently follows from this underlying conviction behind many people’s veganism is in fact distinct from a vegan lifestyle. Continue reading

Bentham and butterflies

Rampisham Down, in West Dorset, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. But it soon won’t be. In a decision of dazzling stupidity, the local planning committee has said that it can be covered with over 100,000 solar panels. It accepted that renewable energy was a Good Thing and, in effect, that the loss of biodiversity occasioned by the panels was a price worth paying for the sun-farmers’ contribution to the battle against climate change.

Environmentalists, normally on the side of alternative energy, have been loud in their denunciation of the decision. A good example is Miles King in the Guardian: He observes: ‘….stopping biodiversity loss is as important as stopping global warming.’

Well, no it’s not. The crassness of the decision at Rampisham doesn’t alter the stark fact that  if global warming isn’t stopped, we won’t have any biodiversity of any kind to preserve. The planners were crass because there are plenty of other, better places to put the panels. But their view of the big picture is correct. Continue reading

Earth: Priceless

Christmas is the season when prices, costs and value are on everybody’s mind. At least when trying to estimate how much a present is worth to a friend or family member (and the value of our own happiness at their happiness): is it really worth the price in the store? Lee Billings recounts a fascinating discussion with the astronomer Greg Laughlin and natural capital expert Taylor Ricketts about How Much Money Would an Earth-Like Exoplanet Really Be Worth to Us? A closely related question is of course: what is Earth worth?

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Prometheus and the Drive to Mastery

Writers who express caution about the over-enthusiastic embrace of new technologies, such as Michael Sandel, who worries about human enhancement and genetic engineering, and Clive Hamilton, who worries about geoengineering, sometimes warn us about the ‘Promethean attitude’, or ‘the Promethean urge’. According to Sandel, human enhancement and genetic engineering ‘… represent a kind of hyperagency – a Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature, to serve our purposes and satisfy our desires. The problem is not the drift to mechanism but the drive to mastery. And what the drive to mastery misses and many even destroy is an appreciation of the gifted character of human powers and achievements’ (‘The Case against Perfection’, in J. Savulescu and N. Bostrom (eds.) Human Enhancement, OUP 2012, p. 78). Hamilton worries about geoengineers who desire ‘total domination of the planet’. He describes this desire as a ‘Promethean urge named after the Greek titan who gave to humans the tools of technological mastery’ (Earthmasters, Yale 2013, p. 18). Continue reading

Cooperating with the future

This is a guest post by Oliver P. Hauser & David G. Rand.

“It often strikes me that the complex problems we face in the world – problems of corruption, environment, politics, and so on – almost always indicate a failure of moral ethics and inner values. … The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit on the global environment was, sadly, an example of how, when parties fail to look beyond their own narrow self-interest, cooperation becomes impossible.”

— The Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion

Do we have a moral responsibility to sustain the planet for future generations? The Dalai Lama, in the quotation above, gives an almost unequivocal ‘yes’. But a cursory understanding of economics shows us that it’s not just about morality – or at least, that morality doesn’t always have the final word. We, today’s decision-makers, are simply better off economically if we harvest all resources today without thinking about the future. To state the economic, ‘rational’ argument in bald terms: why leave something for the future if we won’t benefit from it?

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