This is the first version of an article written as part of a research on intergenerational responsibility. Your comments are very welcome.
1. Introduction: Future ethics and the idea of a moral pragmatics
The branch of ethics that deals with questions reaching far into the future, in short, future ethics, is primarily concerned with ends rather than means. It is interested, in the first place, in the moral quality of the ends to which future-directed actions pertain and much less with the means by which these are, or might be, attained. It even has a tendency to leave questions concerning means to recognised ends to more “technical” disciplines like economics and political science. This does not mean that future ethics is inherently of a teleological or even utilitarian kind. Nevertheless, its primary concern is with postulating certain values and benefits, aggregative or distributional, irrespective of the means their consistent pursuit may involve.
This tendency contrasts in important ways with what is usually assumed in practical morality. In practical morality, the means usually matter no less than the ends. The saying, frequent in some ethical systems, that if you will the ends you must also will the means to that end, has no valid counterpart in practical morality. Even if there are strong moral reasons to achieve a certain end the situation may be such that the only available means are morally problematic to an extent that you either have to look for morally more defensible alternatives or to give up pursuing of the end in question. Even ends that seem to be highly morally commendable or even morally required have to given up if the only means to achieve them seem morally indefensible. From the point of view of practical morality, not only means have to be adjusted to ends on the basis of what is known about their expected efficacy and efficiency but also ends have to be adjusted to what is known about the means available for achieving them. Adjusting means to ends is a double-sided affair.
Is there a paradox when climate scientists fly to scientific conferences? Many people on the street think so. They find something inconsistent in the idea of contributing to climate change in order to solve climate change. I am sure that any researcher working on environmental topics had some explaining to do with respect to her conference flights: Friends and family push for it at some point or other. The same is true even more starkly for environmental activists who fly for their activism.
I’d be interested to start a collection of arguments that justify (or condemn) such conference flights. Surely the most common and plausible strategy for environmental researchers to justify their conference flights makes use of consequentialist reasoning: Greater good can be achieved (even in environmental terms) by researchers flying around the world in order to make scientific progress than would be achieved if they stayed at home.
A second strategy for exculpating the researcher is more radical: It questions the idea that the conference-travelling researcher has any explaining to do in the first place. Rather than the researcher, it is the university in whose name he travels (or the society who pays the university to do its work) who bears the burden of justification. The university who employs the researcher and expects results from him is the “principal” who bears the responsibility for his travels, while the individual researcher is only the “executive agent” who does what he is told to do.
A third strategy refers to the place that research has in the life of the researcher. The academic path is a personal project to which she is deeply committed — and, so it is claimed, everybody has a right to pursue such projects. This highly valued core aspect of her life would be thwarted if she couldn’t participate in the conference circuit. It would be “too much to ask” if she would have to give up being part of the academic community. The case for overdemandingness seems particularly strong when we notice that for those who do get funding it would need a very active and conscious decision to refrain from academic travelling.
These are just three possible justifications. I look forward to collect more of them (and also to collect condemnations). Note also that each of these strategies not only justifies flights but also delineates the limits to which it does so. To the extent that my decision for a workshop in Japan was motivated by the excitement of seeing that country, to the same extent none of the three strategies mentioned above would be of much help…
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