Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Peter Singer on Climate Change

April 7th, 2002 · No Comments

Peter Singer on Climate Change and Social Justice

Friday afternoon, I drove into Manhattan, met up with Amy, and headed down to NYU’s Kimball Hall to hear celebrity utilitarian Peter Singer hold forth on the connection between “Ethics and Globalization.” Those of you who know me will discern that this is, on face, a recipe for an apoplectic rant on my part.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself in occasional agreement with, and only occasional revulsion at, the good professor. In the first half of the talk, which dealt with climate change, he endeavored to show that on any of the most plausible ethical theories, the U.S. was obligated to significantly reduce its share of greenhouse-gas emissions. He invoked Robert Nozick‘s distinction between “time-slice” and “historical” principles of justice, and proceeded to elaborate how each would deal with the emissions problem. Now, as a brief aside, it no longer seems to be a point of contention whether global warming is a real phenomenon, but only how bad it will be and what is to be done about it. If you look, for example, at policy papers from the Cato Institute on the subject, you notice a gradual shift from a “what warming?” tone to examinations of the particular costs and benefits of proposed remedies. Even Bjorn Lomborg’s hot book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which has enraged the professional Cassandras, doesn’t claim warming isn’t a problem. It merely claims that it won’t be a catastrophe, and that the cost of cutting emissions enough to make a difference is higher than the cost of adapting to the changes.

As Lomborg and Singer both note, however, the costs of adaptation will fall hardest on the least developed nations, which are among those which have done the least to cause the problem. (Since, unlike Singer, I favor the “historical” approach, that matters to me.) That’s not just because they have less access to technology, but because a few degrees of global temperature increase may actually benefit northern states, but will be much worse for (say) the mostly agricultural ecnomies of sub-Saharan African nations. This would seem to require, even on strictly libertarian principles, some form of compensatory assistance from the developed countries. Singer, however, structured the problem as one of allocating a scarce natural resource: atmospheric emissions capacity. That seems somewhat awkward, especially when we consider that there’s no single number (in tons of emissions, or whatever) which is the atmospheric capacity, unless, I suppose, we mean the saturation point, or the point at which all human life is extinguished. Rather, there’s a range of emissions levels, and a corresponding range of environmental impacts. So a “dividing the shares” approach doesn’t seem particularly helpful. I asked during the Q&A period what Singer thought of a regime of “emission with compensation” as opposed to “caps,” but he took it as a question about a system of emissions trading, which he seemed to think would indeed be superior to some sort of static caps. I agree, of course, but I had wanted to place the emphasis on the tying of emission rights (or “vouchers”) to compensatory payments to the peoples least able to adapt to the effects of pollution. This has all the advantages of a “quota” style emissions market, but also ties the cost of emissions rights to something meaningful, and (more importantly) directs the money paid for the right to pollute to those who incur the most severe harms. Of course, this also seems less politically feasible than the quota systems we’re already seeing implemented.

The second half of Singer’s talk was on foreign aid, and the obligation to provide it. Oddly enough, there was very little philosophy involved here. Instead, Singer brought out charts showing how much various nations gave in foreign aid (as a percentage of GDP) and to whom. The point of this was to show how little, relatively speaking, the U.S. gives, and to make us all feel embarassed about this fact. It was only during the question period that one fellow asked, just to play “devil’s advocate” why the developed world is under any obligation to pump money into the developing world. Singer offered two answers, one of which I partially agree with, one of which I find terribly misguided.

The first appeal was to the principle that when one can provide an enormous benefit to someone else (or spare them a very bad consequence) at a negligible cost to oneself, one ought to do so. Singer believes this because he’s a utilitarian, but I don’t think one needs to be a balls-to-the-wall consequentialist to think this is a good maxim. Insofar as any moral system requires that in some sense we incorporate the resons others have (at minimum, their reasons to pursue their ends without coercive interference) then in at least extreme cases, it seems plausible to say that someone’s desire for food or medicine will provide a stronger reason (if desires provide reasons, but that’s a longer entry, so let’s just say desire) than my desire for the new Death Cab for Cutie album. Fine; I buy that.

The second (repellent) justification was the “no acts/omissions distinction” argument, which holds that there’s no difference between causing someone’s death (or suffering) and failing to prevent it. Philosophy geeks will recognize this as the main argument of Living High and Letting Die by NYU’s own Peter Unger. Now, I’m personally very fond of Unger, who’s always been extremely helpful to me in a professorial capacity. But I really dislike this argument, because it seems at base to deny the idea that practical reason (of which ethics is a special case) is irreducibly first-personal. This is not to say that we should accept the repugnant Randian doctrine that morality is just a refined self-interest. It only means that morality has to take as its subject what we do rather than simply what happens. That’s why we have a special responsibility for ameliorating harms we ourselves have caused.

I’ve always liked Thomas Nagel‘s way of putting it: “[W]hen we aim at evil, we are swimming head-on against the normative current. Our action is guided by the goal at every point in the direction diametrically opposite to that in which the value of that goal points. To put it another way, if we aim at evil, we make what we do in the first instance a positive rather than a negative function of evil. At every point, the intentional function is simply the normative function reversed, and from the point of view of the agent, this produces the acute sense of doing something awful.”

I was most intrigued, I have to admit, by the question period. In addition to those I already mentioned, there were several revealing questions. One woman asked about those nasty free-market people who think that giving money to the poor will muck with these mysterious “market” things, which they somehow believe will always produce the best outcome. Well, Singer tried to be a good liberal and make fun of the “rising tide lifts all boats” doctrine. But he kept having to hedge his statements. Well, yes, it isn’t a good idea to just hand out money or food. And yes, foreign aid often has done more harm than good… we just shouldn’t give that kind. (Delta’s response later: “Oh, the magic foreign aid that only has good effects. Yeah, why don’t we just give that kind out?”) He observed that some of the worst off countries haven’t had their conditions improved (their “boats lifted”) by globalization, but then immediately granted that, yes, that was usually because the governments in those countries were corrupt, or themselves presenting enormous obstacles to globalization.

My favorite question was from a girl who wondered whether it might be that, even if we each as individuals have an obligation to donate sizable chunks of our spare cash to the worst off, politicians couldn’t use the coercive power delegated to them to compel such donations against our will. It came out as a question about the obligation of legislators to wait for democratic approval, but could equally well have been taken as one about the legitimate scope of state power. Singer was more interested in the pragmatic end of this — a politician who started shuffling half the federal budget to Africa wouldn’t last long — but seemed grudgingly open to the possiblity that elected officials might be bound by an office-specific “role ethics.” I don’t know that I’d put it quite that way, but this sounds basically right to me. We do each have an obligation to aid the poorest nations, but our leaders have a stronger obligation not to compel us to carry out the first one. I wonder if any of the green/lefty/animal-liberationist audience were prompted to ponder that possiblity. Well, hope springs eternal, anyway.

Tags: Uncategorized