brief aside on ethics and obligation

As a kind of footnote to the last couple posts on bicycling and moral arguments, I wanted to say a little bit about how I think we should think about individual moral obligations.  So here are a couple small points:

1. It doesn’t follow from an act’s insufficiency (relative to some goal) that there is no reason to do it.  Riding a bicycle will not arrest, much less prevent, global warming.  Neither will cutting back on driving, reducing one’s energy consumption, becoming vegetarian, or voting for a “green” political candidate.  Neither will any of these things be sufficient to mitigate peak oil, prevent ocean death, retain topsoil, or any other such problem—an individual’s contribution is just too small.  (“Vanishingly small,” as one of my colleagues put it.)

But it just doesn’t follow that one has no reason to do any of these.  And it might even be the case that not only does a person have reason to do such things, there is an outright obligation to do so.  (Argument is needed to reach that conclusion, but here I’m concerned only with blocking the inference from the insufficiency of an act to there being no reason to do it.)

For a close-to-home example, check out this recent discussion that Barath pointed me to.  Late in the thread, the OP is basically told that, because data on other permaculturists’ practices isn’t a recipe for success—i.e. isn’t sufficient to get one’s own permaculture up and running—we shouldn’t bother collecting it.  Hard for me to believe that someone who wants to promote permaculture would consider such information nearly worthless, but there you have it.

2. Making good individual choices does not exhaust one’s individual obligations.  Suppose that I’m obligated to stop driving, eat a local and seasonal vegetarian diet, drastically cut my home use of electricity and gas, and so on; and suppose I actually do these things.  It wouldn’t follow that I’ve thereby washed my hands clean of environmental harms.  For there might be further obligations that I incur by being a member of an affluent industrial society, obligations which arise from problems at the social level but which place a burden on me, the individual.  Exhibit A: citizenship.  As a U.S. citizen, I have some influence on policy via my elected officials, and plausibly I ought to exercise it.  (Of course, I alone have very little influence, but—as per point #1 above—it doesn’t follow that there’s no reason to exercise it.)


None of the above says anything about what obligations we actually have, and I don’t have arguments for such just yet.  But I hope to have shown a couple common thoughts about individual action—I needn’t bother because it’s not effective, and I’ve done my part because I don’t drive, etc.—to be incorrect.

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Responses to “brief aside on ethics and obligation”

  1. But I hope to have shown a couple common thoughts about individual action—I needn’t bother because it’s not effective, and I’ve done my part because I don’t drive, etc.—to be incorrect.

    Begging your pardon, but have you shown that? If I’ve read you correctly, you’ve only established that if you have some reason to do X, then you have a have a reason to do X. So… what is the actual reason to reduce one’s energy consumption, if not the expectation that doing so will make a positive difference for the climate?

  2. Thanks for the comment. You’re asking about the first of the two thoughts? I do hope I’ve done better than establish “if you’ve got some reason to do X then you’ve got a reason to do X.” (Which strikes me as a tautology, unless you mean something different by ‘some reason’ and ‘a reason’?) What I wanted to claim is that there can be reason to do X, based on its relation R to problem Y, even when doing X is not sufficient to solve or eliminate Y. Or to put it another way, “completely effective” actions are not the only source of reasons, where by ‘completely effective’ I just mean sufficient to solve or eliminate a problem.

    In a way it’s just a negative point, meant to block a certain inference. But the question about the positive point—what is the actual reason to reduce one’s energy consumption?—is apt. I think the answer is going to depend on your background moral theory (which determines what values ‘R’ will take), and which problem you’re interested in (which is your choice of ‘Y’). So e.g. if you’re a consequentialist of some stripe, and you’re interested in climate change, then you’ll think that the small (but real) difference to climate change is the source of the reason. But if you’re a deontologist or virtue ethics type, then the act of conservation will have a certain character—rightness or virtue—resulting from its membership in that class of action, independently of its contribution to the climate. (And you can cook up analogous reasons for other choice of ‘Y’, such as peak oil or industrial food or what have you.)

    I guess I’m trying to be ecumenical as far as moral theories go, and that’s the reason for making the weak negative point, and allowing that you might have many sources of reason to X even when X isn’t completely effective for solving Y.

  3. Sorry, yeah, I was referring to your first point. I guess I agree that it seems tautologous to argue that if there is some other reason to do X (besides in order to solve Y, since doing X won’t solve Y) then there’s some other reason to do X, hence my puzzlement. But perhaps you were merely pointing this out as a prelude to another post on why to do X, and I’m just quibbling.

    It occurs to me, though, that none of the conventional normative moral theories offer very compelling responses to the sorts of collective action problems that lie at the root of our current problem with carbon. As an hypothetical consequentialist, the amount by which I, personally, would decrease aggregate social utility through a lifetime of extravagant carbon emissions cannot be distinguished from zero. As an hypothetical deontologist or virtue ethicist, on the other hand, it’s not totally clear to me how to distinguish the duties I’m supposed to observe (even though they have no effects) from symbolic acts or even superstitious acts. Why, after all, is it better to bike to work in order to save the planet (when I know it won’t) than to pray for divine intervention to save the planet (ditto)? It may seem glib, but I really do worry about the risks of fetishizing symbolic gestures at the expense of promoting policies with non-zero chances of failure.

  4. I also worry about the received moral theories’ ability to help us meet the challenge of big collective action problems like climate change, but I’m not sure they’re hopeless. Here are a couple of stabs, although I can’t promise they’ll be satisfying:

    A consequentialist (let’s say an act utilitarian) isn’t going to discount small effects; she’ll just treat them as giving rise to correspondingly weak reasons. But a weak reason is still *some* reason, even if it can be outweighed by other reasons. On top of that, a consequentialist should also be looking at the social-influence effects of any given act. Choices tend to influence others in one’s social network to choose similarly, and such effects ramify over time. Plus, the effects of climate change on future generations are very bad, so (bracketing Parfitian non-identity worries), the small difference made by a carbon-relevant choice is a small contribution to a very large chunk of utility.

    Still, for some people, consequentialist reasoning will not prescribe personal energy savings. Perhaps Al Gore’s intercontinental air travel is outweighed by his influence on many, many people’s energy practices. Well, maybe not, but you get the idea. (But even in Gore’s case, he’d arguably have been more effective if he’d brought his message to people and made highly visible personal energy-conserving steps.)

    Anyway, deontology: I totally share the concern about distinguishing duties from symbolic, superstitious, or sanctimonious acts. (And in our culture, one of the most common ways to disparage the attempt to make “green” choices is to paint the people who make that attempt as sanctimonious or engaged in purely symbolic (i.e. ineffective) action.) But a deontological theory should have some way of telling the difference. For example, take Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative, which has a pretty clear criterion: if a maxim generates contradiction when universalized, it’s impermissible. Merely symbolic acts aren’t obligatory. You might quibble or disagree with Kant’s theory on many counts, but it does at least distinguish the morally required from the merely symbolic. (Although I can’t help but note that Kant’s theory, since it constructs a perspective of assessment from which everyone performs the act in question, seems to do quite well when we’re considering acts which are individually negligible but collectively harmful.)

    So, what do you think? As it happens, I’m in the middle of reading Mulgan’s Ethics for a Broken World, which is a delightfully strange book of fictional lectures on philosophical ethics from our broken future. I hope to write a review here soon …