Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Climate change: Ethics, politics, economics

Next year I'm teaching an "Introduction to Ethics" course with an emphasis on sustainability issues.

One inevitable pitfall will be the temptation to be distracted from the discourse of ethics by the details of policy. My students, most of whom prefer technical problems to theoretical questions, will be tempted by this distraction. And since I'm usually so concerned to show that theory matters to practice, I will be too. But it's a lower-level course, not a place for settling what policy should be for specific cases.

Another pitfall will be overcoming both apathy and skepticism. In just about every class or lecture where the question of global warming comes up, there is one (and usually only one) skeptic. I hope that I can pull the ever-present skeptic into a debate on the ethics of the issue instead of the facts. I personally believe the facts are settled, but there is no time in a philosophy course to teach all the science--both basic and complex--that is needed to place trust in the consensus of climate scientists. (For example, one student this year insisted that since Mars is warmer than the earth, and Mars has no humans on it, climate change on earth can't possibly be caused by humans.)

Freeman Dyson has a piece in the New York Review of Books discussing an economic evaluation of climate change policies in the book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies. The author, William Nordhaus, holds that the more ambitious plans, such as Al Gore's call for a drastic reduction in emissions, will not be cost-effective in the long run. That is, they will cost more to implement than the economy will benefit from climate stabilization. (This evaluation seems to ignore the ethical question of whether the costs of failure to act are disproportionately paid by the vulnerable.) On the other hand, doing nothing could be disastrous. Nordhaus says that any policy proposal which tries to avoid raising the price of carbon (and doesn't that translate into allowing gas prices to rise?) is simply not serious.

Dyson also takes on the question of the global warming skeptics, as I'm sure I'll have to do. The main argument in their favor is the problem of induction that attacks any scientific generalization, plus the philosopher of science's skeptical metainduction: any scientific inference could be wrong, and in the history of science many have been wrong. So maybe the climate scientists, with all their evidence for anthropogenic causes of global warming and the even greater consensus that, human-caused or not, the current warming trend will be fueled by positive feedback mechanisms, are just wrong. Maybe. But the idea of inductive risk does hold that skepticism in check: if we're wrong, we'll be in really bad shape.

Dyson's concern is that the global warming issue distracts from other environmental issues. He writes:
Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice.


Noumena said...

one student this year insisted that since Mars is warmer than the earth, and Mars has no humans on it, climate change on earth can't possibly be caused by humans

This would make my head hurt, if tendonitis wasn't leading me to eat ibuprofen like candy.

I've been thinking a little bit lately about teaching strategies for medical ethics (since there's a good chance I'll be TAing for it again in the fall). The basic problem I had with it the last time around is along the same lines as one you allude to here: the students find ethical theory boring and irrelevant, and don't want to use it to analyse the case studies anyways.

I wonder if part of the problem might be the way the standard ethical theories are presented in the context of applied ethics classes: `Here is a way-too-brief summary of the three options. One is right, but we don't know which, and they all have crazy implications.'

Of course the students aren't going to like that. Here's the Dewey-inspired tack I'm considering taking this fall: `Here are three conceptual tools philosophers have developed to understand what's going in ethically tricky situations. Like ordinary, real-life tools, none is perfect for every job. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and works well in some cases but disastrously in others. We'll spend lots of time this semester learning how to use these tools in particular cases.'

Evelyn Brister said...

Indeed. I'm not a specialist in ethics but spent years teaching a course called "Ethics in the Information Age." I tend to teach these courses with a focus on social and political philosophy and have stopped worrying about whether I'm doing justice to the the three (or four-depending on whether care ethics is a subset of virtue theory) standard ethical frameworks.

The students, as you note, take away a relativist message from the teaching of multiple (incompatible) frameworks. If the three frameworks all come around to making the same concrete recommendations, then why do they matter? But if they don't, then how do we choose? "And if philosophers haven't chosen between them despite hundreds of years of thinking about it, then how can I, a freshman accounting major, be anything but confused?"

I like your approach, but I think it might require more thoughtful development for the course than I'm willing to put in. Instead, I work these frameworks in where I see fit, talking about them quite a lot, but never making them the whole point.

I get more mileage out of concepts in social philosophy, like justice, fairness, equality, liberty. I find that these concepts, which are already somewhat familiar to the students, work as a bridge between their experience and the theoretical questions.

Here's a question for you: do you think there's some dissonance between teaching the options of principle-based vs. consequentialist ethics and being a pragmatist? The theories emphasize consistency-if a Kantian approach is right for one problem, then a Kantian approach is right for all. But pragmatists are contextualists. This inconsistency, of course, is often given as a knock against pragmatism. But you've advocated a way of using the theories that undercuts the demand for consistency.

Noumena said...

I've also thought that political philosophy is more useful in Applied Ethics classes than ethics per se. Typically the problems have less to do with individual actions than public policy, after all.

If I was teaching a history class, then I would want to explain, for example, categorical vs. hypothetical imperatives and the Kantian unconditioned. But I think that's too esoteric for an Applied Ethics class. It seems much more efficient to me to just talk about agency/autonomy as the aspect that deontology looks at.

More theoretically, from a pragmatist perspective, the demand for consistency or the (I think equivalent) claims to universality or completeness are a weakness or vice of the standard theories. So, as part of improving or refining, say, Kantianism as a conceptual tool, we should strip out these features.

A Kantian is going to object that we've just stripped out the core of the theory (the notion of a categorical imperative). But, from that same pragmatist perspective, the `core' isn't actually doing anything useful. At best, it's just providing a (purported) justification of the theory -- and, of course, no such justification is needed according to a pragmatist.

Evelyn Brister said...

Thanks-sounds good to me!

Khadimir said...

I concur with EB's mileage suggestion. Per Dewey, start with what is already familiar within student experience and draw out the educational experience from there.

However, I am hesitant to follow Noumena's subsequent suggestion. There is something morally vacuous in describing ethical theories as "conceptual tools," which was was noted, and I do not believe that an appeal to contextualism will solve that problem. To treat ethical theories that way is to cast ethical theories as cognitive/reflective decision theories, which mistreat virtue ethics, etc., and prick the latent Christianized cultural sensibilities of most students. That is, these ethical theories have very, very different backgrounds, and it makes them look "flat" if we ignore these informative backgrounds.

Perhaps a broaching of the question is in order; can ethics be "ethics" and be (appear) instrumental? Dewey thought so, but his thought was united in a vision of social melioration. Kant and Mill/Bentham had different visions: of human autonomy and rationality, and a science of social engineering, respectively.

My point is that you, Noumena, might be able to treat the different views as less instrumental if you include the vision that they were attempting to achieve. It might only take a 5-10 minute explanation per theory.

So, while the "'core' isn't actually doing anything useful," it is an expression and artifact of the vision that originally situated the theory, which points to a past culture that just happens to no longer be useful *to us.* So if we're going to make this useful again, we might want to be explicit about what our core is, which is what I take EB's mileage suggestion to be--implicitly reworking the motivating vision of a theory.

So, from this pragmatist perspective, I think that it is critically important to deal with Noumena's concern by *explicitly* (to the students) linking EB's suggestion (mileage and social philosophy) and your pragmatist contextualist experimentalism, Noumena.