The Moral Pragmatics of Climate Politics

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.

The ethical sub-discipline concerned with means-ends-relations might be called moral pragmatics. While philosophical ethics is primarily concerned with giving an account of the structure, content, and foundations of morality as a system of legitimate ends, moral pragmatics is primarily concerned with questions concerning the means of realising moral principles under real-world conditions. Taken in this sense, moral pragmatics is an enormously important undertaking, especially in future ethics. There is little controversy about what the most pressing moral challenges concerning the future are. The most important is, in my view, to feed a more than nine-billion population of humans projected for the year 2050 on limited resources of arable land, limited water resources and limited energy supplies. The more general challenge is to achieve sustainability in man’s dealings with nature in a world with continuing population growth and rising expectations of material wellbeing.

Other, more familiar challenges concern long-term security: to secure peace on the background of continuing enmity and distrust between nations and groups; and to limit the long-term risks of the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy while at the same time satisfying the “hunger for energy” that can be expected to increase with more and more countries of what is now the developing world becoming industrialised.

With all these challenges there is far less controversy about their moral urgency than about the strategic options open for confronting them, both in theory and in practice. It is far from clear whether these challenges can be met even in theory, on the level of modelling. Even greater are the difficulties in making any of these models work in practice. In many cases, however, what is unclear is not only the feasibility and efficacy of strategies but also their moral defensibility. For any strategy that can be expected to be successful, given its aims, it still is an open question whether it is defensible from a amoral point of view.

Is a rigorous one-child politics like that practised in China defensible, all things considered, in spite of its being incompatible with the idea of reproductive freedom set down in the U. N. Declaration of Human Rights? Is it morally defensible to the build up a second-strike nuclear threat in the service of peacekeeping? How much moral pressure is defensible in attempting to change the vested interested and lifestyles in the highly industrialised world incompatible with a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions? What changes in the existing social and legal institutions and procedures are justified to make provisions for future risks that are highly probable but do not yet make themselves felt directly to people living at the present?

Would it be legitimate to install a “second chamber” comparable to the British House of Lords with an explicit mission to safeguard the sustainability of the policies of the first chamber? Would it be legitimate to give up the principle of democratic government altogether, as some authors suggest, because of its inefficiency in implementing long-term policies that meet with massive resistance both from interest-groups and from the electorate?

Any strategy that presents itself as a possible solution has not only be tested for its probability of success and the costs and opportunity costs it imposes on people but also for its moral quality. It is likely, however, that in many cases there is no uniform standard to judge this quality. Judgements on how far the moral urgency if the ends justify morally problematic means is, and will be, no less controversial than controversies about the efficacy and efficiency of the means.  In this respect, moral pragmatics is not too far from “normal” political controversy concerning strategies. In fact, it is, one might say, the continuation of political controversy on a more theoretical level of discourse.

The likeliness of controversies has something to do with the fact that the principles on which the moral quality of long-term strategies is assessed are not of the nature of strict constraints providing yes-or-no answers. As a rule, they allow for negotiations between the moral quality of ends and the moral quality of the means by which these may be achieved. A balance of some kind has to be struck between the moral urgency of the ends and the moral imperfection of the means on the background of, among others, an assessment of their probable efficacy. Though there are some means that are evidently acceptable and others that are evidently unacceptable, most strategies will lie somewhere in between. To give an example: In assessing potential incentives to change present life-styles in the highly industrialised countries in the direction of more sustainable consumption patterns, there is a long way to go from more or less innocuous ‘nudges’[1] to massive moral and social pressure. The difficulty is to say where the threshold lies between those means that are justified and those that are not. Even if the goodness of the ends to which the potential changes of life-style serve goes undisputed, there may be doubt, or dissent, about which of the changes in this continuum are acceptable.

It is clear that moral pragmatics understood as the systematic study of mean-ends-relations in this sense requires contributions from more than one discipline: philosophy, psychology, sociology, political theory and the theory of education. As far as sustainability and climate change are concerned, all of these disciplines have something relevant to say. Some of the factors relevant to sustainability and long-term orientation have been an object of study for quite a long time. Time preference, the preference for what is present over what is future, has for long been a subject of study in Motivation and Developmental Psychology, especially as an indicator of character formation from childhood to adulthood; Moral Psychology has been interested in finding out what conditions are favourable and unfavourable to altruism, both in motivation and in performance; Social Psychology tells us a lot about the extent to which individual action depends on social expectations and the motivation to act in accordance with what is seen as the “done thing”; Empirical Decision Theory has a lot to say about the conscious and unconscious heuristics people use in making decisions under risk and uncertainty and about the complex determinants of how present and future risks are perceived in non-ideal epistemic situations; and Political Science can offer important insights into how much leeway there is for collective agents, especially governments and  international organisations, in adapting their policies to what seems ethically called for within the field of forces between public discussion, lobbying and legal pre-commitments. There is a lot that can be learned from these different fields of study. Nevertheless, it is a formidable task to integrate what they have to say into a coherent over-all picture. The following contribution cannot hope to present this picture. It will be content to provide some fragments from the point of view of a moral philosopher.

2. Concern about the future – theory versus practice

Part of the challenge the moral pragmatics of future ethics has to face is the gap between, on the one hand, the degree to which the concern about the future is present in the consciousness of present individual and collective agents and the degree to which these agents are convinced of necessity to contribute to meeting them by suitable changes in behaviour, and, on the other hand, the degree to which these agents are prepared to act in accordance with their convictions.

On the one hand, it is no longer true that people are generally unconcerned about future generations. The diagnosis given by Tocqueville in the 19th century about North America that “people want to think only about the following day”[2] is no longer true, neither of North America nor of Europe. On the contrary, long-term preservation of the natural conditions on which human life depends and maintenance of a satisfactory quality of life seem to be widely recognised values. The same seems to hold for what Hans Jonas has called the “first commandment” of future ethics, the imperative not to endanger the future existence of mankind. In a study of attitudes to anthropogenic climate change Russell et al. found that imposing climate changes on future generations by present energy use is predominantly judged to be morally unjust to these generations. They also found a clear correlation between the feeling of injustice and the expressed readiness to act in ways appropriate to reduce the risk of long-term climate change.[3] Similar results were found in a study of attitudes to the environment conducted by the American ecologists Minteer and Manning. The primary aim of this study, which was based on a representative sample of the population of Vermont, USA, was to find out about what matters to people in policies of environmental protection.[4] One of the results was that there is a considerable pluralism of environmental values even within the relatively closed New England population. Not surprisingly, values with a religious background are more important to some than to others. The most interesting result was, however, that the three values which were the most often nominated and on which there is the highest degree of agreement were also the three values with the highest values in relative importance, namely “future generations” (with the representative statement “Nature will be important to future generations”), “quality of life” (with the representative statement “Nature adds to the quality of our lives (for example, outdoor recreation, natural beauty)”) and “ecological survival” (with the repre­sentative statement “Human survival depends on nature and natural processes”). This points to the conclusion that a justification of environmental protection can be expected to be the more successful the more it invokes anthropo­centric but unselfish values of a collectively “prudential” sort: the values of stewardship and of keeping nature intact for future genera­tions.

This picture of our obligations to future generations is supported both by universalistic and communitarian ethical approaches. Universalistic approaches typically do not make a difference between “people now” and “people later”. Universalists, whether of more Kantian or more Utilitarian denominations, typically refuse to count temporal proximity as morally relevant. The same, however, holds at least for some variants of the particularistic, or communitarian, paradigm of morality for which the range of moral norms is restricted to the members of a certain group or community. Communitarian models generally include the future members of the community along with its present members.[5] Since acceptance of the norms of the community depends, in this paradigm, not, or not only, on their plausibility judged from an impartial and rational perspective but at least partly on group loyalty and adherence to the group’s customs and traditions, these norms extend as naturally to the future members of the community in question as the universalistic motivations to future mankind. Though intergenerational moral responsibility has always been a theme more prominent in universalistic systems of ethics such as Kantianism and Utilitarianism, temporal universalisation is no exclusive feature of universalistic mora­lity. The crucial difference between the universalistic and the particularistic paradigm is not the former’s tendency to go beyond temporal but to go beyond ethnic, social, and cultural limits.

We have no reason to doubt that the future-directed values expressed by large portions of present populations are authentic. Nevertheless they seem to have relatively little impact on behaviour, both individually and collectively. Everyday experience shows that future-oriented norms, laudable as they are, largely fail to make an impression on the motives of individual and political agents. Most initiatives to save fossil fuels and thereby lower carbon emissions are thwarted by what is called the rebound effect. Though each new car makes more miles with the same amount of fuel it, as a rule, consumes more fuel because drivers use it more often, thus consuming the same amount of fuel in the same time interval. Paradoxically, in the developed world, there never have been so many gas-guzzling cars around than at present, no doubt most of them with drivers subscribing to future-oriented values. An analogous paradoxical situation prevails in politics. The same governments that strongly subsidise alternative energy sources pursue projects of carbon-fired power stations on an unprecedented scale with a correspondingly high discharge of greenhouse gases. On the same line, the national balance of emissions is kept low by increasingly importing goods from Asian countries like China that are known to care less about climate politics than about their economic development.

Why do future-oriented values and motives fail to influence action more than they do?

There seem to be two answers. One is that, on the background of the biological origins of morality, universalistic ethics is, in practice, overly demanding. In successively extending the range of ‘moral patients’ that have to be taken into consideration in judging the morality of action, universalistic ethics deeply challenge the anthropological drive towards keeping morality within the limits of emotional bonds. Indeed, there can be no more conspicuous contrast than that between what universalistic ethical systems such as Kantianism and Utilitarianism expect of moral motivation and the evolutionary origins of morality in the low-distance-morality of the family, the clan and the tribe. While this origin is delibe­rate­ly disavowed in the principles of these moralities, it stubbornly reappears in the limits of moti­vation documented by moral psychology. Moral emotions such as love of humanity, a sense of justice and international solidarity are readily affirmed in the abstract but rarely lived in the concrete.

The second answer is that it is a common-place of everyday psychology that acceptance of values and principles is not by itself sufficient to prompt action in accordance with them. It is a long way from accepting a principle or maxim and acting accordingly. On a closer look, four steps seem to be involved: acceptance, adoption, application, and action.[6] It is a necessary condition of acting in accordance with a maxim that the agent accepts the maxim, in the sense of judging it to be right and justified. This, however, is not enough to make an impact on his motivation to act accordingly. As a further step, the agent must adopt the maxim as a principle by which to guide his behaviour, to incorporate it, as it were, into his own identity. Moral psychologists tend to insist on the distinction between acceptance and adoption because empirical evidence suggests that the capacity to make, for example, moral judgements is largely independent of the readiness to act in accordance with them.[7] Tests that measure the capacity of making moral judgements (like the dilemma tests of the Kohlberg school of moral psychology) have little prognostic validity about moral behaviour. Making moral judgements is largely a cognitive affair and does not seem to involve any strong commitment to act appropriately. In contrast, adopting a maxim is more than assenting to it on a purely intellectual level. It means that acting against it is accompanied by feelings of shame, at least of unease.

In moral philosophy, it is a matter of dispute how far acceptance of moral maxims commits an agent into integrating the maxim into his moral outlook. Psychological internalism says that the judgement that a certain principle is right and proper implies a certain motivation to act in accordance with it. In contrast, externalists construe acceptance of a moral principle as a purely cognitive act. Internalists about moral motivation are certainly right in maintaining that there is a logical oddity in regarding acceptance of a moral maxim as a purely intellectual exercise. Acceptance and adoption seem to be analytically related, if only weakly. To accept a moral maxim means more than to accept a descriptive statement of fact. It implies that the principle in question is introduced, to a certain extent, into one’s system of motivation. Accepting a rule cannot be conceived as a purely cognitive act but involves at least a modicum of affective identification. Whoever accepts a principle has a reason to act in certain ways rather than in others. But identification need not go so far as to motivate action in accordance with it. Other motivations can intervene and supersede the maxim in question. Since this latter condition is fulfilled more often than not, pure acceptance of a moral principle is rarely sufficient for its practical observance. From the perspective of weak internalism there will be many occasions on which there have to be additional motivations, of a non-moral kind, to make moral maxims effective.

Some meta-ethical prescriptivists like Hare have gone so far as to maintain that only action in conformity with a maxim is sufficient proof that is has been accepted. Though they do not want to deny the reality of weakness of will, they insist that at least continued non-conformity is incompatible with saying that a rule has been accepted.[8] On this view, a person accepting a maxim but consistently failing to act accordingly merely asserts that he accepts the maxim without really accepting it. But this account does not seem fine-grained enough to be adequate. Weak internalism seems the better alternative.

A further step that must intervene between acceptance and action is application. An agent must relate the maxim he has adopted to the realities that confront him in experience. He must apply it to situations of the appropriate kind, i.e. identify situations to which his maxim is relevant, which can require considerable intellectual effort. This will be so especially in the case of consequentialist maxims because of the need to calculate consequences. Application is a separate step also for other than intellectual reasons. In cases where there are strong motives to deviate from an accepted rule, the empirically well-established theory of cognitive dissonance[9] predicts that even the capacity to identify the situations in which it should be applied will be weakened. We not only fail to observe the principles we have adopted but even fail to see that we do so by unconsciously, or half-consciously, misrepresenting the situation to ourselves. The same motives that make us act in ways incompatible with our principles blind us about the nature, and, given the case, the consequences of our actions.

3. Motivational obstacles specific to future ethics: time preference, uncertainty and limited altruism

Future ethics poses more stringent problems of motivation than other branches of practical philoso­phy. There is a more striking discrepancy between the motivation to accept principles of future ethics and the motivation to act in accordance with them than in other areas of ethics. This is mainly due a combination of three factors: time preference, uncertainty and limited altruism.

            Time preference is a complex phenomenon that is best explained as the preference for present over future consumption of a good. The Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk distinguished three motives because of which present consumption is preferred to future consumption: 1. pure (positive) time preference, the preference of the present merely because of being present, 2. the expectation of a decreasing marginal utility because of increasing possibilities of consumption in the future, and 3. the chance to realise technological progress through present consumption with the expectation of thereby increasing future possibilities of consumption.[10]  Of these motives, pure time preference is the most problematic from the point of view of rationality. It does not seem reasonable to place value on the pure point of time at which a certain benefit is reaped. It does not come as a surprise that for the rationalist Spinoza, for example, pure time preference was one of the most evident (though at the same time one of the most common) cases of irrationality that have to be corrected by sound reason: From a rational point of view it cannot matter whether a thing is present of future, and if future, how far in the future.[11] For Sidgwick, the assumption that temporal position of an action is relevant to its moral evaluation was incompatible with the claim to universality inherent in moral principles and maxims.[12] In fact, a great number of psychological experiments with delayed gratification with children and young adults have shown that pure time preference is negatively correlated with a number of conditions that can be associated with rationality and maturity. The probability of the choice of delayed over immediate gratification increases with prudence and the readiness to think about the future (“future perspective”). It increases with age, intelligence, ego-strength, achievement motives and social responsibility. It decreases with neurotic pathology and delinquency.[13]

Pure time-preference is at least a contributing factor to what has been termed “obliviousness of the future”. Future dangers rarely find our spontaneous attention without constant efforts to keep them on the agenda. It seems part of the explanation of the relative ease with which the Montreal convention was established, the convention that banned gases that contributed to the dramatic increase in skin cancer around the globe by destroying the protective ozone layer. Apart from the fact that only small adaptations on the part of producers were necessary to reduce emissions, the fact that the consequences became visible massively in the immediate present greatly helped finding an agreement. In the case of greenhouse gases this is much more uncertain, not only because much more comprehensive changes in energy use are at stake but also because the victims of global warming have not yet made their appearance and the impact of present styles of production will mainly be felt in the generations to come.

The second factor is the inevitable uncertainty of the forecasts on which future-directed action has to be based. Uncertainty about the future has more than one dimension. First, there is the residual uncertainty about the scientific validity of the theories and scenarios on which the prognosis of future risks is based. Though, in the case of climate change, there seems to be little room for doubt about the physical side of the matter, there is room for doubt about the impact of rising temperatures on local economies and living conditions. Since motivation to effectively lower greenhouse gas emission depends, to a large extent, on the explicit or implicit calculation of consequences for oneself or for one’s immediate descendents, uncertainty is most important as far it concerns how Europeans will be affected by global warming. What is the probability that living conditions in some parts of the developing world will be worsened by climatic change to an extent that massive migration occurs to the North, putting a heavy strain on its infrastructure and its assimilation capacity?

Second, there is the uncertainty about future technical fixes. It seems improbable that the technologies discussed at present will cut much ice. Carbon capture and storage, even if feasible, will not suffice to lower total emissions of greenhouse gases on a climatically relevant scale, and present blueprints for geo-engineering carry with them too many incalculable risks. It cannot be excluded, however, that technical solutions of an as yet unknown kind will present themselves that lower the impact of continuing greenhouse gas emissions on vulnerable economies.

Third, and most importantly, there is uncertainty about whether present efforts to lower emissions will make more than a minimal contribution to the reduction of impacts. One reason is that we have much less empirical control about the consequences of present saving on the future than we have for present actions on spatially distant regions of the world. We have no effective ‘control beliefs’ about present saving, i.e. beliefs that appropriate action will be effective in attaining the desired goals. However, control beliefs are an important precondition for action motivation. Without relevant ‘control beliefs’, the motivation to enter upon a course of action can be expected to be unstable. Another reason is that we have no certainty about whether future people will share our values and continue the strategies initiated now. In order to attain their goal, long-term strategies have to be undertaken by a series of successively co-operating generations. However, no single individual and no single collective can be sure that its descendents will honour their efforts by carrying on the process into the distant future. There can be, in the nature of the case, no certainty that countervailing interests of later generations will not annul the beneficial effects of the efforts of the first generation. We cannot expect that later generations will co-operate simply because our generation has taken the lead. After all, we know from the series of post-Kyoto conferences how difficult it is to make even present agents co-operate with the nations leading in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. It is true, it is a real possibility that one-sided saving may serve as a model for others especially if those taking the lead are able to demonstrate that saving fossil fuels is compatible with (further) economic growth. But it seems more probable that, supply in fossil fuels remaining constant, the fuels saved by the countries resorting to alternative energy sources will be bought at (possibly) lower prices and consumed by the rest of the world, so that, in the total, no reduction occurs.

The third factor standing in the way of putting high-flung future-directed maxims into operation is limited altruism. The fact that moral emotions and motives of universal scope such as love of humanity, a sense of justice and international solidarity are readily affirmed in the abstract but rarely lived in the concrete has something to do with the fact that the prospective beneficiaries of these actions are primarily people who are spatially and temporally distant from the relevant agents. The great majority of people who haven been asked whether they think they are themselves directly affected by global warming and climate change answer in the negative.[14] Thus, any changes in life-style that might be required by a coherent policy of reducing greenhouse gas emissions have to rely on altruistic motivations. The fact that the beneficiaries of present action are not only distant but, in addition, for the most part unidentified, anonymous and abstract, does not make things better. It is true. altruism includes self-centred altruism: love of one’s immediate descendents, of one’s group and of one’s country.  However, this kind of altruism will not be sufficient, in the case of climate change, to support future-directed action. Though some of the risks of climate change will affect, at least indirectly, the inhabitants of the northern parts of Europe, the main beneficiaries of reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not be our own descendents but the descendents of today’s populations of the South. It is an open question whether Northern Europe has very much to fear from climate change. It is not at all clear that, apart form large-scale migration from the South and some ecological changes, there is anything in climate change that makes it threatening to the populations contributing most, by their life-styles, to its further course. The risks fall mainly on those populations that are already very much at risk, both by poverty as well as by ecological damages like desertification and scarcity of water supplies.

4. Short term objectives and ‘system variables’

Probably the greatest threat to present motivations to implement a coherent climate policy in accordance with people’s professed long-term concerns is the attention paid by citizens and politicians to short-term objectives that promise more immediate benefits but counteract the effects of long-term climate strategies. In general, these objectives are in line with what Renate Hübner has identified as the five most dominant orientations of consumers in modern industrial society: mobility, flexibility, convenience, safety and hygiene.[15] To take only the first of these orientations: Will it be possible to maintain, or even increase, the present level of mobility and at the same time reduce fossil fuel use to the extent required by the ambitious aims of the European Union? The answer is uncertain given that, for reasons of security, the contribution of nuclear energy is likely to be cut down at the same time. The surveys of the last ten years leave no doubt that even those who are seriously concerned about climate change have other, competing concerns that might not be compatible with a coherent politics of climate protection. A study of a representative sample of the population of Baden-Württemberg in 2001 showed that 50 per cent of the people interviewed associated the climate problem with a ‘high’ or even ‘very high’ catastrophe potential and 54 per cent saw great or very great societal dangers in it. However, this did not correlate with a willingness to find the causes for this problem in their own behaviour. Only 11 per cent associated the responsibility for climate change with their own ways of acting.[16] Roughly the same proportion of people who attributed a high catastrophe potential to climate change think that individual car traffic provides important individual and social benefits.

Nothing else is to be expected in a world in which the ‘system variables’ characteristic of modern industrialised countries are gradually becoming universal and in which the values typical of industrialised democracies are more and more the values of the world, including those parts of the world that live under dictatorial regimes: individual freedom, consumerism, and egalitarianism. These values have become matters-of-course to such a degree that it costs considerable efforts to confront them with the prospect that they may not be sustainable in a world with finite resources. To quote Eduard Müller, a social ecologist working in the Central America: “Modern society has been structured under paradigms that typically ignore unsustainable human activities, making change seem like an impossible or absurd task.”[17]

Initiating fundamental changes in consumption patterns is extremely difficult in societies in which consumption of material goods is seen as an indicator of well-being and status and in which there is a latent pressure for economic growth to satisfy rising expectations of material welfare for oneself and one’s children. Further pressure for economic growth comes from egalitarianism. Growth seems necessary to satisfy the expectations in the improvement of social transfers for those below the average and to prevent social disruption and estrangement by evening out the most glaring discrepancies in income and status.

Though short-term objectives of economic growth and social peace-keeping can be in harmony with long-term objectives like climate protection, reality shows that more often than not they are not. In general they challenge the adherence of governments to their long-term commitments and greatly reduce the chances of introducing more than minimal structural changes. At present, the German government, for example, presents the picture of an almost acrobatic performance in trying to reconcile its ambitious climate protection programme with its continuing support of the German car industry with its focus on the production of so-called premium cars on which more than a sixth of the national economy depends. The paradoxical consequence can be seen all over the world: A state that claims to be a forerunner in climate politics produces and successfully exports motor vehicles that exhaust tons of greenhouse gases simply for fun, as luxury toys for adults.

5. Self-binding as a check on myopia

One way to maintain long-term policies in the face of short-term challenges is to make ever renewed efforts to keep them on top of the agenda. Another, and probably more comfortable way, is self-binding. Self-binding functions either by raising the threshold to deviate from the road of virtue defined by one’s own principles, or by deliberately limiting one’s freedom to deviate from these principles. In either case, an attempt is made to control in advance the extent to which future motivations that deviate from one’s principles result in  u u undesired behaviour, either by making deviations more difficult or less attractive, or by restricting future options.

The paradigmatic field of operation of self-binding mechanisms is the field of prudential maxims like paying one’s debts, saving a portion of one’s income, or not resuming smoking after having given it up. The agent pre-commits himself to live up to his maxims by delegating control to an external personal or institutional agency, thus protecting himself from his own opportunism. Self-binding must be attractive to anyone who thinks that he is inclined to impulses by which he risks jeopardising his long-term objectives.

Self-binding can take various forms. Internal self-binding consists in self-binding relying on mechanisms internal to the agent. In the case of the individual, internal self-binding can assume the form of adopting maxims by which internal sanctions are activated to avoid opportu­nistic deviations from one’s principles, so that deviations are ‘punished’ e.g. by feelings of guilt or shame that are mobilised whenever the person does not live up to the obligations of his moral identity. Once these internal sanctions have been established, even the most extreme egoist has a reason to take these sanctions into account. In the case of collectives, internal self-binding can consist in establishing institutions within a society by which collective decisions are controlled and potentially revised. External self-binding consists in delegating these sanctions to an external agency, either by making it raise the threshold for deviations or by restricting the options open to oneself. Delegating the power to make one follow a rule according to the Ulysses-and-the-Sirens pattern can be thought of as a kind of self-paternalism, which, however, is without the moral problems characteristic of other forms of paternalism since the subject and object of paternalistic intervention are one and the same.

Self-binding is highly relevant in the context of long-term strategies. Given the psychological facts about time preference and limited altruism, self-binding is, in principle, a potent device in effectively caring for the future, both on the individual and the social level. On the social level, internal self-binding might serve as a potent instrument of protecting collective long-term concerns from being weakened by myopic temptations, both by formal and informal means. The most important formal means are legal and constitutional safeguards that may act as a check on the temptations of politicians to serve themselves or their electorates at the expense of the future. In this respect, constitutional safeguards are clearly more reliable than legal safeguards. They are not only less easy to change than simple laws, they can also be expected to pre-commit future generations of politicians and other decision-makers, thus contributing to continuity in the pursuit of transgenerational objectives.[18] Though there can be, in the nature of the case, no guarantee that they will remain in force during future generations, they provide as much certainty that the projects of today are carried on in the future as one can possibly hope for. One of the procedural safeguards designed to control short-term orientation in political decision-making is the institution of indirect democracy, which requires that the members of the legislative organs are bound exclusively by their own conscience and/or party discipline and not by an imperative mandate. By assigning the control of the executive not to the constituencies themselves but to their elected representatives, potential pressure from the basis to prioritise short-term objectives over long-term objectives of preservation and development is effectively reduced. Again, this assignment of control will work in favour of long-term orientations only to the extent that the decisions taken by political representatives are in fact less myopic than those hypothetically taken by their constituencies. Whether this is so, is open to doubt.

Another procedural safeguard is the institution of an independent constitutional court with the power to control government policies by constitutional principles. Most constitutions contain material principles limiting the extent to which governments may indulge in ‘obliviousness of the future’. In the German Grundgesetz, there are two articles to that effect, article 115 which limits the national debt to the sum total of national investments (which is going to be considerably extended in 2016 with the full implementation of the constitutional debt limit) and the recently introduced article 20a, which contains an explicit commitment to care adequately for the needs of future generations, especially by preserving resources and by protecting the natural environment.

There are other hopeful developments in establishing self-binding mechanisms by which collective agents keep their own myopia under control. In a number of political areas, such as economics, science, technology, environment, medicine and social security, there is a growing number of indepen­dent bodies whose counsel is heard, and often respected, in practical politics. Examples of such independent bodies are, on the one hand, research institutions, think tanks, and foundations designed to exist over longer periods of time and wholly or partly financed by the state, and, on the other hand, committees and commissions expected to work on more limited tasks. The intention in setting up these bodies is, partly, to make them act as a kind of collective ‘future ethical conscience’, a role which politics is often unable to play because of pressures of lobbying, party politics and election campaigns. Of course, there is no guarantee that the advice of these committees and commissions (even where it is unanimous) is respected. The advice coming from these bodies binds those to whom it is addressed as little as advice from a friend binds an individual. The alternative of endowing these bodies with executive or legislative powers, however, would not be compa­tible with basic democratic principles. The sovereignty of the people, or of its representatives, must not be usurped by experts.

Internal self-binding mechanisms gain momentum to the degree to which they are supplemented by external self-binding devices. On the level of the individual, self-binding by an external agency is the more attractive the more firmly an individual wants to act on its long-term principles and the higher its risk of impulsive­ness. An extreme case is the situation of gambling addicts, some of whom have gone so far as to demand legal possibilities to make gambling casinos restrict access to them on an international scale.

Since time preference is a universal phenomenon, delegating responsibility for long-term provi­sions to an external agency like the state is often rational even for those who are less prone to suc­cumb to their impulses. For one, control costs are shifted to an external institution. Self-restraint is wholly or partly replaced by restrictions coming from outside. Second, the individual can be more certain that his individual investment has an effect on the future in all cases where a cumulative effort is needed to make a difference. Third, it is more probable that the burdens of realising long-term objectives are fairly distributed and that free riding on the idealism of others is ruled out. Fourth, there are advantages of a moral division of labour made possible by institutional solutions. Instead of each individual making its own provisions for the future, those with an intrinsic interest in the class of objects to be protected can be assigned the task of keeping them in good order, with environmentalists caring for the conservation of nature, and economists caring for the conservation of capital. Empirical surveys repeatedly show that a large proportion of citizens is interested in the conservation of nature but that very few are willing to actively contribute to it by voluntary work. In all such cases it is rational to lay these widely shared aims into the hands of those who are intrinsically motivated.

On the level of the collective, several external self-binding mechanisms with a clear relevance to future ethics are already in operation, some of them taking the form of international law and international contracts, others taking the form of transnational organisations and authorities. A model of an internationally effective agency able not only to give advice to national governments but also to implement their future directed policies independently of national politics is the European Central Bank. It functions independently of national governments and is bound exclusively by the criteria of the European Union Treaty. However, given the fact that governments are the key agents of most future hazards such as the destruction of large parts of tropical rain forest, the reduction of biodiversity, and the degradation of soils by intensive agriculture, there is still much to be done. There are quite a number of proposals about how this may be effected. One option that should be taken into consideration is the global court for future issues proposed, together with other options, by Weiss.[19] Such a court, even if it lacks the authority to check the ‘obliviousness of the future’ of national governments by issuing sanctions, would at least be able to protest against policies that endanger the interests of future people and to encourage the search for sustainable alternatives.

6. How much moral pressure is compatible with individual liberty?

Given that mechanisms of internal and external self-binding work out successfully, the central question, from the point of view of moral pragmatics, is how much pressure governments should be allowed to exercise on their citizens in order to gain support for their long-term strategies. What kinds of moral pressure are compatible with individual liberty? At what point does moral suasion and the implementation of ‘nudges’ of the kind recommended by libertarian paternalism change into genuine paternalism and moral dictatorship?

One accepted medium of spreading long-term orientations through all layers of society, though with some temporal delay, is education. By educating the young generation in the spirit of sustainability and by creating an atmosphere in which cautious use of resources, nature conservation, and the long-term stability of social security are strengthened against countervailing short-term interests, society might build up resistance to its own tendencies to over-use resources. Recently, Daniel Jamieson has drawn up a list of “green virtues” that provides the coordinates of an education for sustainability: humility (against nature), temperance (in consumption), mindfulness (in relation to the more distant consequences and side-effects of our actions) and co-operativeness (in coming to terms with the ecological problems before us).[20]

The function of an education in the spirit of sustainability is not only called for by climatic change and other environmental problems lying ahead. It might also have the important function of opening up new horizons of meaning that in turn support future-directed action. In the developed world, a spiritual vacuum has made itself felt that can be traced back both to the continuing historical process of secularisation and to saturation with purely economic private and collective objectives. There is a high degree of preparedness to contribute to causes or projects that reach further than one’s own person, one’s own personal context, and one’s own lifetime. Ernest Partridge has called such motives motives of ‘self-transcendence’.[21] Future orientation and responsibility to the future offer themselves as the natural candidates for the longing for existential meaning in a secularised world. Acting for the future fits such motives most neatly because a commitment to the future makes the individual feel his own value and makes him feel embedded in a wider context of meaning that reaches from the past into the far future. By acting for the future, the individual is able to see himself as an element in a chain of generations held together by an intergenerational feeling of community that joins obligations in the direction of the future to feelings of gratitude in the direction of the past. However modest his contribution, he thereby situates himself in a context transcending the individual both in personal and temporal respects.

This motive might gain particular momentum by being combined with the communitarian motive and supported by the feeling that one’s own contribution is part of the objectives of a larger community. Concern about the future well-being of a group to which one has a close emotional relationship can be expected to be more reliable than the interest in the well-being of abstractions like humanity or future generations. Caring for the future of one’s reference group can even be part of one’s own moral identity. Whoever defines himself as German, Christian, or as a scientist, can hardly be indifferent to the future of the group to which his identity refers, though, with a plurality of identities and loyalties, there may be conflicts between the future-directed motivations associated with each. This source of motivation has been called ‘community bonding’.[22] One’s own contribution to the future is seen as a contribution to a common cause which one expects to be carried further by an indefinite number of subsequent generations of members of the same community. That community-bonding can be a powerful support of future-directed motivation is also confirmed by experimental psychology.[23] Of course, at least part of the robustness of this motivation depends on the fact that it cannot be disappointed by experience. In this respect, motivations to act for the future resemble religious commitments of a more literally transcendent kind. Both are, for the present agent, unfalsifiable. Partly in consequence thereof, they are liable to be abused. Whether there will in fact be the temporally overarching community with shared objectives and values and shared feelings of solidarity implicitly assumed to exist in this motivation is highly uncertain. It is an open question whether our descendents will recognise, or honour by acting in accordance with them, the present generation’s principles of intergenerational responsibility and visions of intergenerational justice. The more remote in time a later generation is situated and the more its principles are shaped by a long series of intermediary generations coming between ours and theirs, the less certain we can be that they will in fact be part of the same moral community.[24] As historical examples of powerful ideologies like Marxism have shown, however, the risk of illusion does not necessarily detract from the strength of this motivation.

Another strategy to influence behavioural patterns in the direction of long-term objectives like climate protection and sustainability is default, the redefining of what counts as socially accepted and what stands in need of special justification. Such processes of redefinition happen all the time. The best example is the process of re-definition that has occurred in the 1980s with environmental pollution and the rise of the green movement. Whereas pollution was accepted for a long time as a more or less inevitable by-product of economic progress, sensibilities changed radically with the awakening of the ecological conscience and redistributed burdens of justification. At present, there is no political party that has not integrated typically ‘green’ values into its programme, values that were originally proclaimed by a small minority of at the fringe hardly taken seriously and even openly ridiculed by the establishment.

Default strategies are, no doubt, a powerful instrument in the hand of politicians, company representatives and opinion leaders, especially if words are combined with actions and the virtues preached to others are lived, and seen to be lived, by those in power. To come back to the question of mobility: I find it hard to accept that politicians preaching sustainability to their own citizens not only solemnly open car exhibitions like that in Frankfurt but even congratulate the bosses of the relevant companies for their high-emissions models instead of blaming them as providers of drugs to addicts in the same way as drug-dealers provide heroine to heroine addicts.

The important point of default strategies, from the perspective of moral pragmatics, is that they set new standards of what counts as normal and accepted without restricting the freedom to act otherwise. One important condition for implementing such standards is, naturally, information. Consumers, for example, must be able to judge how much their market transactions contribute to global warming. That means that goods should have labels not only with their prices on them but also with the rough amount of emissions that have gone into it (or by a climatic quality classification similar to the familiar quality classification). At least one big company, the British supermarket Tesco, seems seriously to consider such a strategy. It has promised to put ‘carbon labels’ on all its 80.000 product lines, so that consumers know what volume of greenhouse gases has gone into their production.[25] This initiative is to be welcomed. Of course, carbon going into production is only part of the carbon emitted during its whole life-cycle. Its life-cycle also includes average use and decommissioning. Without information about the complete emission load of goods environmental and climate virtues run idle.

Attractive as these ideas are, it must be admitted that there is a whiff of ecological puritanism in them that might deviate into a public ecological moralism incompatible with liberty, at least if supported, and perhaps controlled, by a majority. A ‘tyranny of the majority’, to quote Tocqueville again, might develop that makes dissidents feel like outcasts. Something similar has recently happened with smokers. e.g. by legislation following a public vote against pubs with smoking licenses, a measure that massively infringes on the liberty of a considerable minority of citizens. After all, smokers are for the most part addicts who succeed to give up smoking only at very high costs to themselves. Though I sympathise with the thesis put forward by some ecologically minded authors that the risk of libertarian paternalism degenerating into a downright dictatorial paternalism is negligible given the risks run by the unrestricted continuance of the wasteful lifestyles of industrialised societies,[26] I have even more sympathy with those who, in the libertarian spirit of John Stuart Mill, warn us of the social pressure resulting from an overdose of public ecological moralising, especially if this comes not only from organisations and parties but from government and other state agencies.[27] Not to have to feel ashamed for one’s actions as far these are within the law and not obviously immoral is undoubtedly one of the greatest goods of a free society.

There are better strategies states may consider in the service of climate protection than moral pressure, strategies that are both more in conformity with the market mechanism and probably more successful, namely either to tax on goods according to the extent to which they directly and indirectly affect the climate through greenhouse gas emissions over their life-cycle or to install a system of cap-and-trade by auctioned emission permits on the line of the existing European Union Emissions Trading Scheme. A carbon tax and auctioned emission rights are not only more in line with libertarian paternalism than mere suasion plus information but also corresponds much better to the differentiation of behaviour patterns characteristic of modern societies. One of the characteristics of modern society is that behavioural norms vary widely between social contexts. Moral and ideological criteria have an important role to play in decisions concerning politics, e. g. in elections and political campaigns. They have little impact on the sphere of consumption in which most people think and act as homines oeconomici, i.e. by maximising their personal utility irrespective of moral and ecological concerns. Even as ecological moralists we should accept the fact that the values actually followed in everyday life are strongly influenced by context and role and that only few people are prepared to orient themselves by moral or ecological considerations in their daily visits at the supermarket. Nevertheless, a carbon tax would have good prospects to change consumption patterns because prices would, in many cases, change drastically in order to reflect more adequately the external costs of goods and services. Meat, for example, could no longer be as inexpensive as it is at the moment, given the enormous costs in carbon emissions its production involves. To secure an effective lowering of emissions by full cost pricing would in addition require the taxing of imports (though some economists doubt that it would be particularly efficient)[28]. Otherwise emissions would simply be shifted to other countries with more generous carbon policies so that the climate situation would possibly be worsened instead of being improved.

7.  Bibliography

Auerbach, B. E. (1995): Unto the thousandth generation. Conceptualizing intergenerational justice. New York.

Birnbacher, D. (2009): What motivates us to care for the (distant) future? In: A. Gosseries/L.  H. Meyer (eds.): Intergenerational Justice. Oxford, 273-300.

Böhm-Bawerk, E. von (1889): Positive Theorie des Kapitals. Innsbruck.

Care, N. S. (1982): Future generations, public policy, and the motivation problem.  Environmental Ethics, 4, 195‑213.

De-Shalit, A. (1995): Why posterity matters. Environmental policies and future generations. London/New York.

Elster, J. (1979): Ulysses and the Sirens. Studies in rationality and irrationality. Cambridge/


Festinger, L. (1957): A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford.

Giddens, A. (2009): The politics of climate change. Cambridge.

Hare, R. M. (1963): Freedom and reason. Oxford.

Heidbrink, L./J. Reidel (2011): Nachhaltiger Konsum durch politische Selbstbindung. Gaia 20/3, 152-156

Hübner, R. (2000): Die Magie der Dinge. Materielle Güter, Identität und metaphysische Lücke. In: O. Parodi, G. Banse, A. Schaffer (eds.): Wechselspiele: Kultur und Nachhaltigkeit. Annäherungen an ein Spannungsfeld. Berlin, 119-150.

Minteer, B A./R. E. Manning (1999): Pragmatism in environmental ethics: Democracy, pluralism, and the management of nature. Environmental Ethics, 21, 191-207.

Mischel, W. (1974): Processes in delay of gratification. New York/London.

Montada, L. (1993): Moralische Gefühle. In: W. Edelstein/G. Nunner-Winkler/G. Noam (eds.): Moral und Person. Frankfurt/M., 259-277.

Müller, E./K. C. Lindeman (2011): Climate change in several Central and South American ecosystems. In: G. Banse/G. L. Nelson/O. Parodi (eds.): Sustainable development – the cultural perspective. Berlin 2011, 339-348.

Partridge, E. (1980): Why care about the future? in: E. Partridge (ed.), Responsibilities to future generations. Buffalo (N. Y), 203-220.

Petersen, T./ J. Schiller (2011): Politische Verantwortung für Nachhaltigkeit und Konsumentensouveränität. Gaia 20/3, 157-161.

Russell, Y./E. Kals/L. Montada (2003): Generationengerechtigkeit im allgemeinen Bewußtsein? – Eine umweltpsychologische Untersuchung, in: Stiftung für die Rechte zukünftiger Generationen (ed.), Handbuch Generationengerechtigkeit, München, 153-171.

Sidgwick, H. (1907).:The methods of ethics. 7th ed. London.

Stern, N. (2010): A blueprint for a safer planet. London.

Thaler, R. H./C. R. Sunstein (2008): Nudge. Improving decisions about health. wealth and happiness. New Haven (Conn.).

Tocqueville, A. de (1951): De la démocratie en Amérique (Œuvres complètes, tome 1,2), Paris.

Van Vugt, M. (2009): Averting the Tragedy of the Commons. Using social psychological science to protect the environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science 18, 169-173.

Weiss, E. B. (1989): In fairness to future generations: International law, common patrimony, and intergenerational equity. Tokyo/Dobbsferry (N. Y).

Zwick, M. M. (2001): Der globale Klimawandel in der Wahrnehmung der Öffentlichkeit. Gaia 10, 299-303.

[1] Thaler/Sunstein 2008.

[2] Tocqueville 1951, 156.

[3] Russell et al. 2003, 167.

[4] Minteer/Manning 1999.

[5] A communitarian conception of ‘transgenerational communities’ on the basis of what is called  ‘moral similarity’ is developed in De-Shalit 1995, ch. 1.

[6] cf. Birnbacher 2009, 276.

[7] cf., e.g., Montada 1993, 268.

[8] cf. Hare 1963, 82 f.

[9] Festinger 1957.

[10] Böhm-Bawerk 1889, 262 ff.

[11] Spinoza, Ethics IV, prop. 62 sch., dem.

[12] Sidgwick 1907, 381.

[13] cf. Mischel 1974.

[14] Giddens 2009, 113.

[15] Hübner  2000, 126.

[16] Zwick 2001, 302.

[17] Müller  2011, 346.

[18] cf. Elster 1979, 95.

[19] Weiss 1989, 121.

[20] Jamieson 2007, 181 f.

[21] Partridge 1980, 204.

[22] Care 1982, 207.

[23] Van Vugt 2009.

[24] cf. Auerbach 199, 79 f.

[25] Giddens 2009, 121.

[26] see, e. g. Heidbrink/Riedel 2011 155.

[27] cf. Petersen/Schiller 2011, 160.

[28] cf. Stern 2010, 164.


2 responses to “The Moral Pragmatics of Climate Politics

  1. Jorinde Kuiper

    I am so happy that there is a blog from you.
    But is there a possibility for me as a Dutch not well speaking English person to make a kind of short and simple version of your tekst which can be understand?
    I understand this subject is difficult and cannot be described in a few words.
    My interest is move people by the subject: how human being can survive on earth and conserving culture.For this I really want to understand your tekst but it is to difficult for me.
    I think it is important that everybody can understand the content of the problems we have so we can change our way of living.
    Thank you all so much for this website!

  2. Many thanks to Professor Birnbacher for this contribution that offers so many insights! In my view, this covers territory that urgently needs covering: the intersection of ethical and motivational questions.

    Here are a small number of randomly collected comments:

    — Sometimes I wonder whether self-binding is the most appropriate strategy for dealing with the motivational problem in future ethics. Self-binding is appropriate when we deal with impulses we cannot hold back, with addictions, with weakness of the will. But is the motivational problem in future ethics primarily a problem of weakness of the will? Is it a correct description to say that humans are basically willing to care for their distant descendants but then cannot resist giving in to their temptations in the heat of the moment? The answer seems to be no: These descriptions rather describe alcoholics and other addicts. In contrast, in future ethics the problem seems to be that we are not willing to care for our distant descendants in the first place. And if there is no willingness to start with there can neither be any weakness of the will. Rather, the presently living seem to make a quite conscious and deliberate decision not to bear further costs for the sake of their descendants. Their limited altruism is not the same as the alcoholic’s uncontrollable craving but rather just what it says it is: simple and plain voluntary limits on altruism.
    Now you will probably object: In section 2 studies are cited that prove that people do express willingness to care for the future. I have no doubts that these and similar studies are correct. However, I would like to make two points. Firstly, you mention that acceptance of a value does not by itself amount to adoption of the value. And if the problem should actually lie in the step between acceptance and adoption, is self-binding then really the appropriate strategy? Isn’t self-binding a strategy for people who have adopted a value – i.e. who have the will to put this value into practice – but then fail to act upon this will due to addictions, inclinations in the heat of weak moments, etc? If people only accept but do not adopt a value, where should the motivation to bind themselves come from? Secondly, people can accept inconsistent moral beliefs (and they can also accept moral beliefs whose implications are inconsistent). So even if people in surveys profess an acceptance of the belief that we ought to care for distant descendants this does not mean that they do not simultaneously accept beliefs about the basic justifiability of their current lifestyle – and this belief (or its implications) might be inconsistent with the belief about the demands of future ethics. In that case, the problem is one of theoretical inconsistency and self-binding is not the appropriate strategy for solving problems of inconsistency in beliefs.
    Many words – short message: The classic self-binding strategy is for problems such as uncontrollable cravings whereas the motivational situation in future ethics is not one of uncontrollable cravings that go counter to a genuine willingness to care for distant descendants. Rather, a genuine willingness lacks in the first place.
    Post-script: This does not mean that I am against self-binding strategies. But rather than justifying them as a remedy against weakness of the will, we could justify them simply on the basis that they bind unwilling agents to act in accordance with the demands of justice.

    — In order to judge how morally problematic collective (self-)binding and nudging are, I think it is extremely important that we make very explicit which agents bind/nudge which agents. Here are three options: Firstly, a collective agent (such as a region, country, or even humanity) can be said to bind/nudge itself. Secondly, a collective agent (such as the presently living generation) binds/nudges another collective agent (future generations). Thirdly, a collective agent (such as a green majority in a country) binds a larger collective agent to which it belongs (the whole country).
    When we speak of political action (governments, laws, constitutions) binding/nudging citizens, then it is particularly unclear which case we have in mind. We can conceptualise such action as an agent binding/nudging himself, but we can also conceptualise it as one agent (such as a majority of society; or such as government institutions) binding/nudging another agent (such as the minority of society; or such as the citizenry). Depending on which conceptualization we choose, the moral assessment of binding/nudging will look differently.

    — Regarding section 4 (“Short term objectives and ‘system variables'”) I was wondering whether this could be interpreted as simply belonging to the general category of “limited altruism”. Preferring present consumption to wellbeing for our descendants seems to be just one example of limited altruism. (You also mention egalitarianism as contributing to the pressure for economic growth. However, the fact that egalitarian policies can be implemented much easier if there is growth rests itself on the fact that there is limited altruism, i.e. that those who are well-off are not willing to pursue egalitarian policies without growth).

    — The text – in particular, the description of how large the motivational obstacles are – did not only have the effect of making me think harder about how to overcome the motivational obstacles through nudging, self-binding, etc. but also of making me think about how we ought to react to the fact that these obstacles will apparently not be overcome to a large extent. Some reactions are: despair&fatalism, hope against the odds, revolution&terrorism, …

    — One last thought concerning the danger of public ecological moralism (mentioned towards the end of the text). I sometimes wonder whether we should simply live with the risk of displaying moralism. I say this because I am impressed by how extremely easily “moralism” can be perceived in even the most cautious green dialogue. Even the best intentions to completely refrain from moralism in discussing environmental problems seem to fail. The public smells moralism everywhere — often unjustifiably. It seems like perceived moralism could only be escaped by avoiding environmental topics altogether. That is: Trying to avoid moralism might simply have too large costs.

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