Kris de Decker writes what is generally a fantastic blog, and back in 2008 he made a curious argument and gave it a thumb-in-the-eye provocative title: “Why bottled water is good for the environment.” It’s worth reading in full, especially the comments thread, in which supporters and detractors are both represented, each quite sure that the others have completely missed the point.
Recently I reconstructed de Decker’s argument as follows:
- Bottled water is condemned because it is ecologically bad. (premise)
- Coffee, tea, beer, and soda are ecologically worse than bottle water. (premise)
- So we should stop condemning bottled water drinkers, or start condemning drinkers of coffee, tea, beer, and soda. (from 1, 2)
I showed this to a small audience of philosophers, and they pretty much hated it. I agree that there are some problems with the reconstruction—e.g. that it’s invalid, and also that it doesn’t really capture de Decker’s intended conclusion. So here’s another try:
- Other things being equal, when faced with two alternatives we ought to choose the less harmful option. (premise)
- Tap water is less harmful than bottled water. (premise)
- In the choice between tap and bottled water, other things are equal. (premise)
- So, given the choice between water from the tap or from a bottle, we ought to choose the tap. (from 1–3)
- Bottled water is less harmful than beer, tea, coffee, or soda. (premise)
- In the choice between bottled water and beer, tea, coffee, or soda, other things are equal. (premise)
- So, given the choice between bottled water and beer, tea, coffee, or soda, we ought to choose bottled water. (from 1, 5, 6)
- People should be praised for making choices they ought to make, and criticized for making choices they ought not make. (premise)
- So, people who choose tap water over other beverages should be praised. (from 4, 7, 8)
- So, people who choose bottled water over other beverages should be criticized (from 4, 8), but also praised (from 7, 8).
- So, people who choose beer, tea, coffee, or soda should be criticized. (from 4, 7, 8)
This is not the only way to reconstruct the argument, but I think it has some virtues. For one, it clearly separates three ideas—claims 9, 10, and 11—that I take de Decker to endorse, but which weren’t clearly separated in his original post. Also, it makes explicit an idea which was only implicit in that post: claim 6, the idea that when it comes to choosing a specialty beverage like coffee or beer over some kind of water, “other things are equal.”
It’s exactly this idea which came under fire at my recent talk, and which many commenters at de Decker’s original post are picking up on. Other things are not equal, they say, when it comes to choosing beer, tea, etc over water, no matter whether that water is from the tap or a bottle. In particular, each of those specialty beverages differs from water in taste, in psychological effect, or both. So premise 6 is false, and the argument fails.
What I think de Decker’s argument forces us to confront is that whether other things are equal is a normative matter. If “other things are equal,” then those things shouldn’t figure in our decision-making; if not, then they may. Should the differences between water and beer, et al—taste and psychological effect—figure in our decisions about what to drink? de Decker says no, and hence regards tap water as an alternative to beer et al in exactly the same sense that it’s an alternative to bottled water. But his detractors regard these differences as perfectly germane, and indeed as being the crucial differences that make beer acceptable and bottled water verboten.
I’m not sure what to think about this dispute; perhaps typically, I can find something I agree with on both sides. But if forced to choose, I think I’d say de Decker is right, and that my green commitments force me to give up my (dearly beloved) consumption of coffee and beer. However, this raises very deep issues, which I don’t at the moment know how to answer: are we obligated to be as good as possible, or is it ok to be just mostly good? Do minor pleasures (such as a cup of coffee, or a glass of beer) have any moral significance? After all, a life lived without any such pleasures seems empty, minor though they are.