Tag Archives: ethics

Acts and Sets of Acts

This passage in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984) deserves calling out, not least because it sets the stage for the arguments against climate change despair I reviewed in a previous post.

In small communities, it is a plausible claim that we cannot have harmed others if there is no one with an obvious complaint, or ground for resenting what we have done.

Until this century, most of mankind lived in small communities. What each did could affect only a few others. But conditions have now changed. Each of us can now, in countless ways, affect countless other people. We can have real though small effects on thousands or millions of people. When these effects are widely dispersed, they may be either trivial, or imperceptible. It now makes a great difference whether we continue to believe that we cannot have greatly harmed or benefited others unless there are people with obvious grounds for resentment or gratitude. While we continue to believe this, even if we care about effects on others, we may fail to solve many serious Prisoner’s Dilemmas. For the sake of small benefits to ourselves, or our families, each of us may deny others much greater total benefits, or impose on others much greater total harms. We may think this permissible because the effects on the others will either be trivial or imperceptible. If this is what we think, what we do will often be much worse for all of us.

If we cared sufficiently about effects on others, and changed our moral view, we would solve such problems. It is not enough to ask, ‘Will my act harm other people?’ Even if the answer is No, my act may still be wrong, because of its effects. The effects that it will have when it is considered on its own may not be its only relevant effects. I should ask, ‘Will my act be one of a set of acts that will together harm other people?’ The answer may be Yes. And the harm to others may be great. If this is so, I may be acting very wrongly…. We must accept this view if our concern for others is to yield solutions to most of the many Prisoner’s Dilemmas that we face: most of the many cases where, if each of us rather than none of us does what will be better for himself — or for his family, or those he loves — this will be worse, and often much worse, for everyone.

A Note on Stone’s “Should Trees Have Standing?”

A report in the New York Times the other day about the Federal District Court case naming the Colorado River as plaintiff led me to Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Justice Douglas drew on Stone’s arguments to formulate his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, and since that time the essay has been widely influential, a classic that helped define a field.

For Stone, a river or a lake, a mountain or a forest, a species or the biosphere can have roughly the same status as other “legal incompetents.” A human guardian or, as we might say nowadays, a protector brings a complaint for a natural entity that has suffered some injury. The case is brought “at the behest of” the river or mountain, without having first to prove injury to the guardian or some third party (e.g., a fishing guide whose business has suffered as the result of stream pollution); and the natural entity itself would be the beneficiary of an award or remedy ordered by the court. So, for instance, a judgment against those who have polluted a stream might direct them to undo the damage done to its waters, mitigate erosion of its banks and depletion of its plant life, restock its fish, and so on. The stream would have a “right” to be made whole again.

Stone recognizes that his proposal “is bound to sound odd or frightening of laughable,” but that, he notes, has been true of any movement to confer rights on rightless “things”:

There will be resistance to giving the thing “rights” until it can be seen and valued for itself; yet it is hard to see it and value it for itself until we can bring ourselves to give it “rights” — which is almost inevitably going to sound inconceivable to a large group of people.

Stone’s thinking can seem way ahead of its time — and ours (even if the writing here is sometimes redolent of Southern California in the early 1970s). This is especially true toward the end of the piece, where Stone moves from making strictly jural arguments for the standing of rivers, trees, and other natural entities to broader observations about the “shift from the view that nature exists for men”:

…the time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se. Consider, for example, the disputes over protecting wilderness areas from development that would make them accessible to greater numbers of people. I myself feel disingenuous rationalizing the environmental protectionist’s position in terms of a utilitarian calculus, even one that takes future generations into account, and plays fast and loose with its definition of “good.” Those who favor development have the stronger argument — they at least hold the protectionist to a standstill — from the point of advancing the greatest good of the greatest number of people. And the same is true regarding arguments to preserve useless species of animals, as in [the case of sea urchins endangered by a nuclear power plant.] One can say that we never know what is going to prove useful at some future time. In order to protect ourselves, therefore, we ought to be conservative now in our treatment of nature. I agree. But when conservationists argue this way to the exclusion of other arguments, or find themselves speaking in terms of “recreational interests” so continuously as to play up to, and reinforce, homocentrist perspectives, there is something sad about the spectacle. One feels that the arguments lack even their proponent’s convictions. I expect they want to say something less egotistic and more emphatic but the prevailing and sanctioned modes of explanation in our society are not quite ready for it. In this vein, there must have been abolitonists who put their case in terms of getting more work out of the Blacks. Holdsworth says of the early English Jew that while he was “regarded as a species of res nullius … [H]e was valuable for his acquisitive capacity; and for that reason the crown took him under its protection.” (Even today, businessmen are put in the position of insisting that their decent but probably profitless acts will “help our company’s reputation and be good for profits.”)

For my part, I would prefer a frank avowal that even making adjustments for esthetic improvements, what I am proposing is going to cost “us,” i.e., reduce our standard of living as measured in terms of our present values.

We may still not be “ready for it,” as Stone puts it; and, he goes on to say, there might be a more “fundamental problem” with asking human beings to put their own immediate self-interest aside and act on ethical principle, or to limit our rights in order to respect the rights of others:

Insofar as the proposal is not just an elaborate legal fiction, but really comes down in the last analysis to a compromise of our interests for theirs, why should we adopt it? “What is in it for ‘us’?”

This is a question I am prepared to answer, but only after permitting myself some observations about how odd the question is. It asks for me to justify my position in the very anthropocentric hedonist terms that I am proposing we modify. One is inclined to respond by a counter: “couldn’t you (as a white) raise the same questions about compromising your preferred rights status with Blacks?”; or “couldn’t you (as a man) raise the same question about compromising your preferred rights status with women?” Such counters, unfortunately, seem no more responsive than the question itself. (They have a nagging ring of “yours too” about them.) What the exchange actually points up is a fundamental problem regarding the nature of philosophical argument. Recall that Socrates, whom we remember as an opponent of hedonistic thought, confutes Thrasymachus by arguing that immorality makes one miserably unhappy! Kant, whose moral philosophy was based upon the categorical imperative (“Woe to him who creeps through the serpent windings of Utilitarianism”) finds himself justifying, e.g., promise keeping and truth telling, on the most prudential-one might almost say, commercial-grounds. This “philosophic irony” (as Professor [S. Morris] Engel calls it) may owe to there being something unique about ethical argument. “Ethics cannot be put into words”, Wittgenstein puts it; such matters “make themselves manifest.” On the other hand, perhaps the truth is that in any argument which aims at persuading a human being to action (on ethical or any other bases), “logic” is only an instrument for illuminating positions, at best, and in the last analysis it is psycho-logical [sic] appeals to the listener’s self-interest that hold sway, however ”principled” the rhetoric may be.

That logic may have its limits and ethical argument its attendant ironies should not deter us. “The strongest case can be made from the perspective of human advantage,” Stone writes; and after reviewing that case, he goes on to suggest that protecting the environment will actually raise our standard of living, if not in terms of our present values, then (this point deserves emphasis) in terms of new and more durable values.

Stone is even prepared to argue that “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems” (and the problems Stone identifies here, in 1972, are still very much with us and more urgent than ever before: melting polar ice caps, dying oceans, serious threats to water). “There are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness [Stone admits that he is uncomfortable with the term] from the point of making us far better humans.” Recognizing the rights of those whose standing once seemed “unthinkable,” to borrow Stone’s phrase, surely has.

A Few Observations on Standing on Quicksand

Three_Ways_of_Standing_on_QuicksandA few thoughts on the drawing I made yesterday morning.

One amoral transactionalist or another in my drawing might try to accumulate sufficient goods — in this case, enough flooring: planks, paving stones, rebar, etc. — to shore up only his patch of quicksand.

As he watched his trading partner and his fellow man sink, he might realize that he has done himself out of the trade that sustained and defined him.

He might also find that he needs the other guy after all, as it’s very hard to lay planks across one area of quicksand without building up another. (The best design would go to the very margins of the whole patch of quicksand, and anchor the floor in terra firma.) He has won only as much land as his transactions to date have secured for him. Once his trading partner sinks, he has made his last acquisition.

Even if their trade observes some rules, it will be short-lived unless they recognize that the patch of quicksand they’re standing on needs shoring up and maintenance. When the pair recognize that they share common ground, and a common future, they have a much better chance of keeping themselves from sinking.

With that recognition, they have already crossed over from amoral transactionalism into some sense of common life or mutual standing. They can start working together, or start coordinating their efforts: they might decide to tax their trade so that they can direct some of the goods toward building a shared foundation.

Do the pair locked in territorial rivalry have any future? One might prevail over the other, raid his stores of goods and make plans to occupy the entire territory. He could even enslave him or coerce him to build a stable platform over the quicksand patch.

It’s a future from which both parties should recoil in horror. At the very least they might understand that, all things being equal and luck being what it is, committing to this course means that one of them will end up dead or suffering under the lash.

And the best the winner of such a contest can hope for is the master’s fate: he will never be truly respected nor have standing as a person (which can only be granted by another person; but he has deprived his rival of that standing). He will have lost even that bitter sense of “we” that he knew in the days of territorial rivalry. Now he can only make the vanquished party hand over his goods, do his bidding, cower in fear or howl in pain.

Preston King on Acceptance

As I was saying:

Tolerance features a predominant objection to an item conjoined with some form of free acceptance of that item….one exhibits some general aversion to the item tolerated plus some kind of ‘acceptance’ of it….

Where one objects to an item without regard to any consequences that might flow from acting against it, it is plain that on the crest of that objection rides a predisposition to act against it. Where one dislikes or disapproves of an item, and yet freely accepts it, it is impossible that the objection can be understood as the reason for accepting it. There must be other considerations that stand outside and tend to cut across the objection, thereby producing the item’s acceptance….

When we speak of an objection what we are basically concerned with is a disposition or assessment. When we speak of acceptance, what we are basically concerned with, by contrast, are those consequential acts that are assumed to flow from the disposition or assessment. Assessment of course involves approval or disapproval. Similarly, consequential acts embrace rejection as well as acceptance. The consequence of approval tends to be acceptance. The consequence of disapproval tends to be rejection. In the tolerating conjuncture we discover elements both of objection (dislike/disapproval) and of acceptance. The consequence involved in tolerance, on balance, is acceptance, and it flows from an interruption of the objection. Thus the tolerant consequence is necessarily equivocal — involving either the surrender of some negative impulse or the indulgence of some limited act of association. When we tolerate an x, we accept it either in the sense that we associate with it or do not interfere with it in some limited sphere, in some limited degree. If we tolerate a doctrine, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not physically attempt to stop others from advocating it (although we would ourselves preach against it). If we tolerate a person, for example, we may do so in the sense that we do not attempt to deprive him of fair trial procedure or of citizenship in our state (although we would not particularly wish to entertain him in our home). The act of acceptance, like the objection which precedes it, comes in varying degrees and applies on varying levels, in different spheres. If one objects to an x, that is a warrant for being dissociated from, or acting against, it. If one objects to a person or doctrine, that is in itself a warrant for having nothing to do with that person or for inhibiting the influence of that doctrine. To tolerate them implies an objection to them; but it also implies some limited form of association or non-interference with them. The act of acceptance, coming in degrees, may range from one to the other. Thus, when we say that we tolerate an x, assuming some form of acceptance of that x (starting for example at the minimal level of mere non-interference), the clarity of the assertion further depends on communicating the degree of our acceptance and the specific sphere or spheres to which it relates….when we display tolerance…we accept, but accept in the sense of some limited degree of association or non-interference with, the object of tolerance.

The act of acceptance in tolerance, since it frequently reduces to a non-act, must be seen most minimally as a remission from intolerance. One may negate one’s intolerance simply by declining to act out one’s disapproval, as also by acting in a manner wholly contrary to that ordinarily implied in or associated with one’s disapproval. The act of acceptance, therefore, has minimal and maximal degrees. Also, an item can be accepted on different levels. One may associate with a person in different degrees within the home, club, church, firm or state. One may tolerate a person when one is prepared to associate with him on some of these levels, but not on others. Suppose we tolerate a Jew, or a Catholic, or an Anglican in the sense that we object to him for religious reasons, while accepting association with him for pecuniary reasons. Our tolerance here may imply ready association on some levels, such as the firm and the state, but dissociation on other levels, such as the home, the club and the church. It may be objected that this is not tolerance but intolerance. The answer, however, is that it is both. One may be tolerant of an item on one level and intolerant on another. That is why it is essential to sort them out. Just as one may tolerate on different levels, so may one tolerate in different degrees on each of these levels. It is always essential to inquire in what area and in what degree a tolerator is tolerant. It makes no sense to speak of a tolerator as being completely tolerant of an item. Where an item is not rejected or discriminated against in any degree, or on any level, it cannot be disliked or disapproved in any degree on any level. Complete remission from intolerance is less a matter of tolerance than of indifference or love. It is for this reason that it is not particularly helpful to speak of a ‘pure’ tolerance…. Complete tolerance has to be regarded as an impossibility. (In saying this the distinction is assumed between tolerance and acceptance.)

-Preston T. King, Toleration, pp. 51-54

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

A good idea, and just in time for proxy season

This is a good idea, and the 2017 proxy season is the time for shareholders to act on it.

As Eliza Newlin Carney points out today in The American Prospect, “a long list of fossil fuels and mining companies support the Cardin-Lugar rule, including BHP Billiton, BP, Kosmos Energy, and Shell, whose executives say it promotes good governance, creates a level playing field, and is in the best interests of American companies.” (Notably, Exxon, under CEO Rex Tillerson, who is now our Secretary of State, lobbied against the rule.)

A shareholder resolution requiring disclosure of payments to foreign governments would simply ask companies to continue doing what they were previously required to do under section 1504 of Dodd-Frank.

Some remarks on “another kind of power”

A new post about the merger of two Upper Peninsula environmental organizations on Keweenaw Now includes this short video excerpt of the talk I gave in Marquette, Michigan a while back about the power and responsibility we have to protect water and wild places from unsustainable development.

You can read the full text of my remarks here.

Another Thought On Gessen’s Shift

In response to a comment on yesterday’s post about Masha Gessen’s “Trump: The Choice We Face,” I remarked that the opposition Gessen sets up in her essay between realist and moral reasoning seems a little too clean and stark. It is also not one we can carry over, intact, into political life.

We should like to be able to choose, always, between right and wrong, and do what is right; but life does not present itself in these terms, and it’s easy to imagine cases in which moral reasoning might prevail and political action would thereby be limited, or impossible; where strict adherence to the moral could usher in its own Robbespierrean terrors; or where we simply failed to take into account the extent to which moral reasoning is already conditioned and determined by the actual, by the real.

Of course we should try to temper realism with moral reasoning, but we should probably not complete Gessen’s shift: we can never operate entirely from one side or the other.

It’s important to recognize the shortcomings of the transactional and still reserve the power to deliberate about what to do and outcomes we would like to see. A balanced view wouldn’t force the choice between realism and morality, but allow for the fact that sometimes people have to get their hands dirty; and when they must, they can and should act while remaining fully aware — at times they will be tragically aware — of the moral difficulties in which they have entangled themselves.

It’s rare in life, and in political life rarer still, that we are able simply to substitute moral reasoning about right and wrong for practical deliberation, just as it’s always cold and inhuman to reduce practical deliberation to a calculation of costs and outcomes without consideration of what we owe to ourselves and others.

Hope of a Livable Human Future – Some Context

Hope keeps open a space for agency between the impossible and the fantastical; without it, the small window in time remaining for us to tackle climate change is already closed.

Catriona McKinnon’s 2014 paper “Climate Change: Against Despair” offers some philosophical framing for the totally unscientific liveable human future survey I conducted a while back. Recognizing “the instrumental value of hope in securing effective agency,” McKinnon argues that personal despair about tackling climate change through personal emissions is not justified, whether we take the position that our efforts will not be efficacious (“whatever I do will make no difference”) or the view that “I am unable to make a difference.”

The first of these positions creates a sorites paradox: if climate change is anthropogenic, then some individual acts must have contributed to it; so saying that whatever I do will make no difference commits me to a contradiction, which I ought to abandon. It’s enough for me to be uncertain what contribution my emissions make to climate change, as “uncertainty provides the context for hope rather than despair.”

To then say, as people often do, that whatever I do will not make anthropogenic climate change any worse than it already is, or that my personal emissions contribute imperceptibly to climate change, is only to rehearse the specious argument that “a large number of acts make a morally relevant difference, but each individual act makes no difference at all.”

This line of argument also suggests a way out of the despairing point of view that I am unable to make a difference. If we concede that personal emissions make some difference, or that it’s false that no personal emissions make any difference, “then if a person were to try to reduce her carbon footprint, and not give up, then she could succeed with respect to making a difference on climate change.”

Again, it may be impossible to tell whether my activity will tend to make a difference, or much of a difference, but the important point is that I would be unjustified in saying I am unable to make any difference. So in this case, “what despair amounts to…is the judgement that I can make no difference because I am unwilling to make a difference.” If I am unwilling to do what I can do about climate change, if I am ready to give up, then I should be prepared to argue — I am not sure how — that I am not obliged to do what I can and that personal despair should in my everyday life override moral considerations.

Another Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I promised myself at the beginning of this long, drawn out election cycle that I was not going to write about the presidential contest. I don’t believe I’m breaking that promise if I quote an article about the presidential race as a quick follow up to my post about Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness.

There, to develop my intuitions about the fundamentally non-transactional character of conversations and other cooperative undertakings, I focused on Nussbaum’s discussion of the shortcomings of transactional forgiveness, and in particular its emphasis on scorekeeping.

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find Martin Wolf writing about the dangers of a “transactional approach to partnerships” — which would reduce all alliances, agreements and institutions to winner-take-all “deals” — in an excellent piece called “How the West Might Soon Be Lost”:

…the ability of the US to shape the world to its liking will rest increasingly on its influence over the global economic and political systems. Indeed, this is not new. It has been a feature of US hegemony since the 1940s. But this is even more important today. The alliances the US creates, the institutions it supports and the prestige it possesses are truly invaluable assets. All such strategic assets would be in grave peril if Mr Trump were to be president.

The biggest contrast between the US and China is that the former has so many powerful allies. Even Vladimir Putin is not a reliable ally for China. America’s allies support the US largely because they trust it. That trust is based on its perceived commitment to predictable, values-based behaviour. Its alliances have not been problem-free, far from it. But they have worked. Mr Trump’s cherished unpredictability and transactional approach to partnerships would damage the alliances irreparably.

A vital feature of the US-led global order has been the role of multilateral institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. In binding itself by the rules of an open economic system, the US has encouraged others to do the same. The result has been extraordinary growth in prosperity: between 1950 and 2015, average global real output per head rose sixfold. Mr Trump does not understand this system. The results of repudiation could be calamitous for all.