reconstructing “Why bottled water is good for the environment”

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:

  1. Bottled water is condemned because it is ecologically bad.  (premise)
  2. Coffee, tea, beer, and soda are ecologically worse than bottle water.  (premise)
  3. 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:

  1. Other things being equal, when faced with two alternatives we ought to choose the less harmful option.  (premise)
  2. Tap water is less harmful than bottled water.  (premise)
  3. In the choice between tap and bottled water, other things are equal.  (premise)
  4. So, given the choice between water from the tap or from a bottle, we ought to choose the tap.  (from 1–3)
  5. Bottled water is less harmful than beer, tea, coffee, or soda.  (premise)
  6. In the choice between bottled water and beer, tea, coffee, or soda, other things are equal.  (premise)
  7. So, given the choice between bottled water and beer, tea, coffee, or soda, we ought to choose bottled water.  (from 1, 5, 6)
  8. People should be praised for making choices they ought to make, and criticized for making choices they ought not make.  (premise)
  9. So, people who choose tap water over other beverages should be praised.  (from 4, 7, 8)
  10. So, people who choose bottled water over other beverages should be criticized (from 4, 8), but also praised (from 7, 8).
  11. 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.

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Responses to “reconstructing “Why bottled water is good for the environment””

  1. I think those who reject 6 are right to do so. Perhaps there are some cases where you are really making a choice between bottled water and beer, tea, coffee, or soda where other things are equal, but I think this is not the general case. One typically chooses water for different reasons & under different conditions than one choses soda/coffee/tea, and likewise beer/wine/whiskey. It seems like the right questions have to be “is it permissible to drink beer” or “is it better to drink or abstain from beer,” etc.

    It may not surprise you to hear that I think that these minor pleasures have a huge amount of moral significance, if we’re taking them in the aggregate rather than each individual case, for pretty much the reasons you state in your last sentence. I think your critique of “minimalism” is relevant here.

    I’m inclined to think abstemiousness is a very poor solution to the environmental (and related) problems that you’re pointing out, in the current context. To use the language of game theory in vague and unrigorous fashion, it is as if you’re adopting the strategy of always generous when everyone else is doing always defect; you lose out and little-to-nothing is gained. (This is what policy is for.)

  2. Hey Matt – Thanks for the comments. You’re right that I’m not surprised to hear about your stance on minor pleasures. And I agree with you that they’re somehow important in aggregate, and also that abstemiousness is a poor solution, given the very minor effect that my personal consumption habits have on global resource depletion, climate change, etc. But there seems to be a lottery-style paradox lurking in both places: taken individually, each time I abstain from beer doesn’t make my life go badly, nor is each beer that I do consume bad for the planet. But in the aggregate, a life where I consume no beer and only water is worse for me and better for the planet. So how am I to reason about this? Do I take each choice as it comes, or treat it as representative of its class?

    Policy can of course be more effective than any lifestyle choice I make, and given limited time and resources I’d perhaps do better to agitate for policy reform, or even become a policymaker myself. (The thought’s crossed my mind.) But even if I do so, there are still personal choices to make, and it’s not obvious that my reasoning about such choices should be affected by whether I’ve contributed to good policy. Suppose I become personally responsible for passing a cap-and-trade policy that reduces U.S. emissions by 10% a year. Do I earn so much moral credit for this that I can let my personal choices slide? At the moment, my intuition here is no: I ought to continue to avoid harm and waste where I can. And if this is true under the supposition, it’s a fortiori true in the real world, where I make no policy nor agitate for any.

    Which is why the whole thing raises, to my mind, the issue of whether we really ought to strive to be as good as possible. Or: is there such a thing as the supererogatory? I’ve had a hunch, in fact, that I’m being brought back to the dispute between consequentialism (nothing supererogatory, only required; each act evaluated on its own terms) and deontology (some things supererogatory; acts representative of their class (e.g. falling under a maxim))—a dispute I’ve never felt settled about.

  3. Something bothers me about the whole framing of this argument; I’ll try to get at it by looking at an extreme case.

    I recently came across a website: http://www.vhemt.org/ (The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement), advocating that all humans should voluntarily cease to breed (it’s an interesting read). Let’s take it a step further, and advocate immediate universal voluntary suicide.

    Certainly, given our current lifestyles and ecological footprints, this act would be far less harmful to the planet than our current course (and would make much more difference than abstaining from “colored drinks”). So, now we have another choice; what are the moral arguments against taking it? It seems to me that these arguments must involve something like the potential for planetary good that humans possess, and may come to fulfill; more strongly, that the continued evolution of consciousness is important in some way to Gaia, and cutting it short would be abdicating our duty.

    So, given that we should continue to exist, and strive to become a positive influence on the planet, it may be that “minor pleasures”, moderately indulged in, may be an essential part of our makeup, so that abjuring all of them would actually degrade our lives and thus damage our evolutionary potential.

    Reading this, I’m still not sure whether it contributes anything, but I guess the main point is that good and harm in this case should probably be judged in a wide context, rather than a sort of game-theoretical abstraction.

  4. Hi Don – I’ve come across the movement’s website, too, and also once on Venice Beach I met the guy behind “Save the Planet, Kill Yourself”. I’ve also seen this line of thinking thrown at environmentalists (often smugly) as a reductio of the very idea that we ought to take steps toward living lighter on the planet.

    There are a couple reasons I think environmentalism doesn’t have this suicidal consequence. One is that there is a perfectly good anthropocentric basis for caring about the environment—it’s where we live!—and insofar as one’s environmentalism stems from it, one takes human life to be valuable. A second reason is what you point out: only by staying alive are we able to make any positive contributions.

    I’m a little shy of the idea that the environment has non-anthropocentric value. Not that I think humans are the only valuable thing, but it seems to me that there’s an ecumenical advantage in sticking to an anthropocentric position—even the most conservative mindset should be able to take on an anthropocentric environmentalism. By contrast, if your position depends on talking about what’s good for Gaia, you’re going to reach a much narrower segment of the public.

  5. Adam – I see what you mean. I think you’re right, it comes down to the question about whether there are limits to how much good you are required to strive for, whether there is a line representing what is required from what is supererogatory. I think that question is a little orthogonal from consequentialism/deontology, though, and is really more of a metaethical question. For example, I think the Susan Wolf “Moral Saints” argument is independent of such considerations (or, if anything, is consequentialist).

    It would also follow from the claim that there are reasons (values) independent of moral ones (prudential, aesthetic, etc.) plus the claim that moral reasons do not always trump other reasons. I think each of these is extremely plausible.

  6. As a tactic, I’d agree that you’ll get better traction focusing on the anthropocentric viewpoint. I think that my “wide context” point applies here too, though: it seems to be gradually sinking in to people’s consciousness that the wisest anthropocentricity is to “take care of Gaia”. (Evangelist Christians are calling it “creation care”.)

    “The environment” has been around a lot longer than humans have, and will be around for a long time to come — but if we change it to be hostile to our survival, we may not be around for much longer. It’s definitely to our interest to learn to work with Gaia, rather than against her. For that reason, I think anthropocentric value is a part of “non-anthropocentric value”.

  7. The beverages have one or more of calories, anti-oxidants, stimulants which have different roles to play in survival and well-being [or non well-being]. Not taking calories from beverages probably means those calories are coming from some food, and then it boils down to that comparison. One would need to separate the hydrating component of beverages to compare with water. One would also need to know the quantity of these beverages consumed to understand whether they are hurtful [e.g too much beer damages liver] and how one should trade off longer but unhappier life over shorter but happier life and things like that. So it is difficult to separate and there would be no universal agreement on this. The real issue about such debates is that reductive science cannot really answer these questions satisfactorily. Because we are wholistic beings living in a wholistic complex ecosystem, only our inner compass of morality based on our understanding of the world as we experience it can guide us in making the choices we make and this will be different for different individuals because we are not all the same. If logic is the only basis of making a decision, then no decisions can be made because every choice will appear to be equal to the others, some non logical aspects [emotion/morality] are required to make decisions [otherwise they are random choices]. Moral position cannot be explained/justified with logic.
    What is problematic is the title “why bottled water is good for the environment”. The more appropriate title should have been “when bottled water may be a better choice for the good of the environment” to convey that in some situations, the choice of bottled water may be better over something else, which allows for the possibility that the choice of bottled water is worse over something else as well.