4 arguments for deliberate descent, part 3: moral

This is part 3 in a series of posts on a taxonomy of arguments for deliberate descent.  Parts 1 and 2 are here and here.


Moral arguments. A moral argument for deliberate descent is premised on claims about how we ought to treat each other. Such claims can take many forms, but here I want to focus on two: claims about individual moral obligation, and claims about just societies or states.

Suppose you think that nobody ought to take more than their fair share of resources. That’s a claim about the moral obligations of individuals, and it’s what I think is implicit behind the common recitation of the fact that the United States as a whole uses 20% of the world’s energy but has only 5% of the world’s population. Writers who bring this to our attention aren’t simply pointing out an idle fact, like “Sure is hot today.” The fact is relevant to the moral evaluation of Americans’ behavior, and it’s broached in order to implicate that Americans are morally remiss for their extravagant energy use.

Or suppose you think that people ought to act so as to minimize the harms that result from their actions. That’s another moral claim, and it plausibly entails that everyone ought to minimize their contribution to global warming, and thus their consumption of fossil fuel energy. Or perhaps it entails that everyone ought to get to work on alternative energy technology, or creating better energy policy, or better city plans, or sustainable agriculture, or, well, any number of things.

This is one problem with arguments that appeal to individual moral obligations: it’s often unclear exactly what follows from any given moral claim. Claims like “don’t use more than your share of resources” or “act so as to cause minimal harm” are quite abstract, and in order to yield any useful prescriptions for action, they need a bunch of auxiliary premises concerning, for example, what constitutes a fair share, which harms are worse than others, whether economic support for a harmful institution is itself a kind of harm, which harmful actions are nonetheless necessary for other reasons, and on and on. It’s easy to get bogged down in reasoning through these things, and the dependence on such auxiliary premises means that any given moral claim can be recruited to very different conclusions.

For example, take again the claim that nobody ought to use more than their fair share of resources. And suppose that I’m Al Gore, with all the connections and support that attend a former senator and vice-president. Given that support, I have the opportunity to fly around the globe giving talks and meeting with policymakers, using up copious energy in the process. What does the moral claim about resource use tell me to do? Everything seems to depend on what we take a fair share to be, and this notion is itself normative, and far from clear. Does a fair share take into account, for example, the uses to which I’m putting the resources? Is it a fair share of what can right now be extracted and exploited, or is it a share of the planet’s carrying capacity? Does it account for future generations, or just present people?

Getting clear on the implications of any given moral claim will require sorting such things out, and though I don’t think that should keep us from trying our best when we think about what to do, it does make moral arguments brittle tools for persuading an audience. Of course, the initial moral claims themselves are often highly contested, and that’s a similar weakness, rhetorically speaking. But I’ll return to that in a moment, since it’s shared with the other kind of argument I want to cover.

That other kind of moral argument is kind premised on claims about what a just society or state looks like. Such claims aren’t about what you or I ought to be doing, at least not directly. Instead, they’re about the right way to organize the various goods, opportunities, and costs that a group of people share.

For example, many people are egalitarians of some kind, and think that people’s outcomes or qualities of life ought to be pretty much the same. According to that idea, industrial capitalism, which tends to foster inequality of wealth and opportunity, is an unjust social order. But unjust arrangements can obtain both synchronically and diachronically, and industrial society’s massive drawdown of planetary resources—not just fossil fuels, but such fundamental resources as fertile soil and unpolluted freshwater—also constitutes a massive inequality across generations. We citizens of industrial nations are reaping a benefit at the expense of future humans, a social arrangement that, to an egalitarian, is diachronically unjust.

Of course many people aren’t egalitarians (especially perhaps in the U.S.). But if you are an egalitarian, then deliberate descent might look attractive insofar as it would yield a more just state of affairs. And in fact this is an argument that shows up in many places; for example it’s cited on the Transition website as reason #2 why people are drawn to the movement.

Moral arguments for deliberate descent are more likely to be based on claims about just societies than on claims about individual obligations, because deliberate descent is itself an idea about how to organize a society. Claims about individual obligations might underlie arguments for consuming less, or traveling by bicycle rather than car, or avoiding certain products, but these are just changes to individuals’ lifestyles, and they don’t add up to a social program of deliberate descent. On the other hand, arguments from claims about individual moral obligation can lead to conclusions that are easier to act on; making changes in one’s purchasing or transportation habits is not always simple, but it’s easier to do such things than it is to act on the prescription “Initiate deliberate descent.”

Moral arguments, like aesthetic arguments, are based on normative claims, and as such have distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Moral claims are contested, and—if the students I’ve taught in intro ethics classes are any indication—many people have a knee-jerk skepticism about morality in general. Even among audiences who aren’t moral skeptics, it can be very difficult to secure agreement on moral claims. And even where there *is* agreement about moral claims, a small set of plausible such claims can lead to difficulty, even contradiction. Take for example these four:

1. Western economies need economic stimulus, not austerity measures
2. Growth is unsustainable
3. Growth is morally urgent in many parts of the world
4. Alleviating poverty in wealthy nations is morally urgent

… which I’ve abbreviated from Chris Bertram’s discussion here. There is no obvious way to reconcile competing moral claims, and this can make argument on their basis a difficult matter.

On the other hand, because they are normative, moral claims have a force independent of any prudential reasoning. I can’t quote escapefromwisconsin enough:

We do not need peak oil to promote local economies, walkable communities, civic engagement, cooperative businesses, low-carbon energy, regenerative agriculture, or composting. These ideas are valid for their own sake.

If there’s moral reason to promote the kind of society we’d have post-descent—if we ought to do so for moral reasons—then it doesn’t matter how serious the threats of peak oil or global warming are, or even whether they’re threats at all. We ought to initiate deliberate descent anyway, for moral reasons.  And this, I think, is the best thing about moral arguments.

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Responses to “4 arguments for deliberate descent, part 3: moral”

  1. Dying to hear what that fourth argument for deliberate descent is…

  2. Hi Irv – It’s still in the pipeline, I promise! I’ve been pretty focused lately on finishing my degree, so the blog writing has languished. But I’ve got the fourth argument coming, and then a follow-up about some tentative lessons for how to communicate descent effectively. Thanks for reading!