Here’s an ethical quandary for you. In the morning you get up, head out to work, swing by your local coffee shop for an espresso, and continue on your way. The espresso ends up being more than three dollars with tax, and you hand the barrista four and tell them to keep the change. Four dollars for a cup of coffee. How indulgent. On the radio you hear an ad for an international aid organization that you could sponsor a child for a dollar a day. Or an entire family, for what you spent on your morning caffeine fix.
If you have the power to save lives, and don’t, is that a type of guilt by omission? There are several possible philosophical responses to this question, and one psychological one. The psychological one is that out of sight means out of mind. To avoid emotional burn-out, our mind automatically dampens our response to bad news, sometimes so effectively that we never think about the people suffering in other parts of the world.
This is a passive sin: a failure to do good. But we also make decisions on a daily basis that actively make the world a worse place. Electing the wrong representatives, making ill-informed consumer choices, and choosing to engage in unsustainable behaviors, like driving a gas-guzzling SOV (single-occupant vehicle) to work.
This last option is perhaps the most significant of all. If our contributions to climate change have the potential to unleash near-apocalypse on communities and ecosystems halfway across the world, failure to prevent it may literally render all our other efforts to make the world a better place moot. Those of us in the West have somehow wound up in a situation where, analogously, we can press a button and kill a random person somewhere else in the world.
Call it our convenience button. It’s a bit chilly to walk to the store? Hit the convenience button. You really prefer Washington state apples to the local variety? Convenience button. The most convenient part of the convenience button is not having to see the people you’re screwing over when you press it.
Sounds like an intro to philosophy thought experiment, doesn’t it? Well, actually, professional philosophers are now taking notice . At Penn State’s Rock Ethics Institute, philosophers of ethics have begun an ongoing discussion about the ethics of climate change. In this 16-minute video, Professor Donald Brown explains the practical reasons why climate change needs to be considered as an ethical problem, and not merely an economic or legal problem.
Quoting from a different post, one of the fundamental aspects of this problem is as follows:
[T]hose most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries or rich people in developed and developing countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people around the world. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who have done little to cause the immense threat to them.
A failure to curb our emissions is thus morally equivalent to something like reckless driving or driving while intoxicated. Interestingly, you don’t have to know how much damage will be done to conclude that choosing to engage in unsafe driving is wrong; the possibility is enough. In other words, polluting nations (and its citizens) are ethically at fault even if we don’t know exactly what results to expect from climate change, thus rendering the deniers’ (false) claims of “the science isn’t in yet,” moot.
The legal challenge is that there is no international system to hold rich nations accountable. Instead we have to decide to curb our own emissions because not doing so is like actively bombing these other countries. It doesn’t matter if a new energy infrastructure is expensive, we don’t have the right to take other people’s lives in our hands for the sake of greed or convenience.
Once upon a time, when the world was a little younger, it was often easier to achieve economic growth by conquering and pillaging neighboring countries, instead of governing better in times of peace. No one stopped to consider whether it was okay to invade a country and murder its people just because you happened to want their resources. Similarly, today America’s oil men argue that alternative energy is too expensive, as if that were the end of it. They, too, leave the lives threatened by climate change out of the calculation.
I think the ethicists of Penn State are on the right track in aiming to make the “reckless endangerment” of climate change a part of the national energy conversation. A few centuries from now (or much sooner), people will wonder at the barbarism of today’s greediest nations, pillaging and plundering the environment with a wanton disregard for human life.