Monthly Archives: December 2012

Rosia Montana: Are We Drawing to a Close?

On the 9th of December, a referendum was organized in 35 small Romanian localities within the mining region where the Roşia Montană project is supposed to take place. The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the legislative elections was obviously neither coincidental, nor just a sensible cost-savings measure. Rather,the not-so-secret hope was that merging two deliberative issues for the same ballot would secure a good turnout and push the controversial project beneath the door and then up the decision makers’ table. After all, there are other examples from the recent past that consolidated this mechanism. But it so happened that the referendum had to be invalidated due to an insufficient turnout.

In the event that the referendum expressed the will of the local people to restart mining in the area, the corporation, project advocates, and politicians who have over the last years been reciting the mantra of job creation would have hailed its outcome as a clear triumph of democracy over demagogy and misinformation. But would it have really been so?

If, in 2002, when the Local Council voted that Roşia Montană should be transformed from a residential area into an industrial area, thus making it virtually impossible for any alternative economic activity to develop there, a referendum had been organized and the ‘will of people’ had spoken in one voice, it would have been more difficult to criticize now this proof of sham democracy.  But the major questions still remain, and, moreover, no significant effort is being made to answer them. Why should this project be simply a matter of securing jobs and temporary welfare for a community who is indeed very poor? After all, there should be more talk about non-renewable resources, environmental and legal protection mechanisms, and fair distribution of stakeholder responsibilities. Such issues are not strictly of local interest, but if the referendum had been held at national level, it is very plausible to say that not only  it would have been valid, but the project itself would had been rejected. It is still unclear to me whether a referendum, be it national, would be the best alternative to decide on such an issue. From one angle, it would just serve to cover decision makers in the voice and authority of the ‘people’, while preserving the same hazy distribution of responsibilities at policy level.

If, at the beginning of my posts on Roşia Montană, I saw this research topic riddled with questions, the answers to which would really make a difference, I rather tend to believe now that this project poses deep structural problems which must be addressed at their core, and not on a case-to-case basis.  Even if for the moment there is no definite answer on what is going to happen in that area, the fact that the referendum was invalidated should not be seen as a good sign by opponents of the projects. After all, it is a precedent procedurally approved, and it may be just a matter of time until it becomes successful.

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Call for Papers: The Ethics of Consumption (January 1, 2013)

The Ethics of Consumption: The Citizen, The Market, and The Law

EurSafe, Uppsala, Sweden, September 11-14, 2013

Confirmed Keynote Speakers

Philip Cafaro, Colorado State University, USA
Dorothea Kleine, University of London, UK
Mara Miele, Cardiff University, UK
Ian Robertson, International Animal Law, New Zealand

EurSafe 2013 is a forum for discussion of ethical issues at the intersection between social, economic and legal aspects of consumption of food and agricultural products. The congress has three main sub themes connected to the overall issue of ethical consumption. However, general contributions to agricultural and food ethics are also welcome.

You are invited to submit abstracts for oral or poster presentation. We welcome contributions on these themes as well as general themes on food and agricultural ethics from a range of fields, such as ethics and philosophy, anthrozoology, social and historical sciences, education and pedagogics, political philosophy, law, animal welfare science, applied ethology, laboratory animals, veterinary medicine, biology, environment, rural development, and recreation. Please refer to the congress website for detailed instructions.

We encourage new scholars to participate! Therefore, there is a limited number of bursaries for students (including PhD students) whose papers are accepted. The bursaries include a waiver of the conference fee plus budget accommodation (no travel costs covered). Recipients will be selected by the organizing committee. If you think you are eliglible, please indicate so when submitting your abstract.

Important dates

Nov 2012 2nd announcement and call for papers
1 Jan 2013 Deadline for submission of abstracts for oral or poster presentation. Extended!
11 Feb 2013 Notification of abstracts to authors
2 April 2013 Deadline for submission of full papers
2 May 2013 Notification of full papers to authors
3 June 2013 Deadline for suggestion of workshops
3 June 2013 Deadline for early bird registration

For more information, see http://www.slu.se/en/collaborative-centres-and-projects/ethics/eursafe-2013/eursafe-2013/

Neoliberalism and Climate Change

Here you can find a collection of interesting thoughts on climate change by George Monbiot, published on his personal blog:

http://www.monbiot.com/2012/12/03/forbidden-planet

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Extremism of Moderation

Idealists with integrity are pretty annoying and demanding to be around. These are people who emulate Gandhi and hold that we should be the change we want to see in the world. Most others prefer to talk about what should be done and then find a host of excuses for not doing so.

One way to avoid acting upon our values is by making people who actually do so seem suspicious. Often we use a word borrowed from the world of religion to ward them off. They are: ‘fanatics’!

I have come across this phenomena several times over the last few weeks. One instance was in connection with the commercial collaboration between Tivoli in Copenhagen – a famous amusement park, but also national heritage in Denmark – and Kopenhagen Fur. Also, I experienced it in several discussions about eating meat. Allow me to briefly explain both contexts.

Tivoli made a deal with the fur industry that would benefit them financially. In return, the fur industry could use Tivoli to promote their products and thus sprinkle themselves with fairy dust from the stories of magic and innocent childhood that are usually associated with Tivoli’s brand. This was a very odd mixture of child amusement and brutal fur production, wherefore Tivoli received more protests than expected. What is interesting though is the discourse used by supporters of the collaboration in the social media (online newspapers, Facebook etc.)

Two strategies were employed: the first strategy was to point out the inconsistency of those who objected to the cooperation. ”How can you oppose the fur industry if you eat meat? If you want to be against this you must be a 100% vegan – it is just another way of using animals”.

However, it is obviously not a viable position to place each and every use of animals in the same category. One can argue that A and B are not the same and that there e.g. are differences in the way free-range pigs and mink are raised that make it possible to enjoy the first but not the other without being ethically inconsistent. Disregarding this it is striking how self-evident consistency is taken as an ethical prerequistite. If situation A and B are alike, you must without a doubt judge them in the same way. But this view-point is not self-evident, but much discussed within ethics, usually under the heading of the importance of context for ethical decision-making.

Behind this, however, lies a much more far reaching claim: If one is not 100% consistent, then one should not act at all! If one is not perfect in a moral sense then one might as well be an utter bastard. At least this is viewed as being better than inconsistency or, as it is also known, hypocrisy. The question must be whether this is actually the case though? Can you ward off criticism of your behaviour merely by pointing out the imperfection of your opponent? Should we refrain from acting, if our actions are not totally consistent? What if we give the homeless man 10 euros on the way home, but then stop at the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine for 20? Somehow it seems that I would be more consistent, had I not given the money to the homeless person.

The demand for perfection thus becomes an excuse of oneself on logical grounds. It is an avoidance of actually engaging with a life where perfection might never be attainable. Nonetheless, everybody is to some degree able to help other beings to a better life in countless situations – even if we could do even better. However, the moral demand becomes senseless, if it is reduced to an alternative between perfection and indifference. Morally the task must be to do the best you can and find practical ways of dealing with your shortcomings.

The demand for consistency has also played a big role in the current Danish debate on how to act in light of animal contributions to climate change. One way to reduce emissions is to limit the amount of meat and animal products (dairy, eggs etc.) in your diet: less meat is preferable, vegetarianism more so, and going vegan the optimal solution for the climate. The fewer animal products, the fewer emissions (However, this is only a rule of thumb, since e.g. food miles may be highly detrimental for the positive effects of eating fruit and vegetables.). At the same time animal production causes a range of other problems with regard to deforestation, changes in savannas, drainage of wetlands and desertification, water use among other issues.

It seems there are a host of good reasons to change our diets. Nonetheless, many people promoting this change are very careful not to become purists. ”Let us not become fanatics/extremists” they warn. Other times they insist there is ”…no need to become religious about it.” Indeed, many similar expressions are frequently heard in public debate. It seems that vegetarianism and especially veganism is viewed as being fundamentally wrong – too drastic. This perspective marks vegetarians as a kind of food-Taleban militia with no regard for common sense. This would perhaps make sense if changing one’s diet were received in revelation as a divine command. The deity demands veganism as a sacrifice: the lord giveth vegetables and taketh away the meat. This is not the case though: vegetarianism/veganism is actually a rational choice in the scientific knowledge of our day and age.

Rather, the prevalent rhetoric seems designed to preserve the status quo instead of actually discussing the values, arguments and choices in front of us. Interestingly, those who call opponents of the fur industry hypocrites also often use the discourse of religious zealotry in other connections – and the result always seem to be that they are excused from changing, their behaviour

The discussions surrounding the human use of animals shows how many of us use concepts to get off the hook. Finger pointing and shouting ”Hypocrite” or ”Extremist” is enough for most to feel justified in continuing on the given path although the charade is wearing thin. Indeed, it is becoming ever more apparent that we are putting up a show to avoid admitting our indifference about our victims, about changing our ways, or about the paralyzing effect our fear has on us.

Perhaps it is time to follow those who act, however imperfectly, rather than be afraid of them. Perhaps the world would be better off with more hypocrites. Perhaps it is the time to be afraid of our amazing ability to lie to ourselves and invent excuses that allows us to do anything. Who knows – we might even make things a little better along the way if we avoid the extremism of moderation!

The author would like to thank Thomas Derek Robinson for valuable suggestions.

God as a Solution for Population Paradoxes?

Population ethics drives us into the most perplexing philosophical paradoxes. The “Repugnant Conclusion” is one of those mindboggling issues: How can we avoid the claim that we shouldn’t aim at creating a population of, say, 200 billion people with lives that are barely worth living (call that state Z) rather than a population of 5 billion with lives well worth living (call that state A) – without presupposing premises that stand in contradiction to some deeply held intuitions? A precise and thorough account of the “Repugnant Conclusion” can be found here.

After the literature has come up with innumerable ingenious but unsuccessful attempts to solve the theoretical paradoxes in this area, I would like to suggest a sketch of a further solution – a theistic solution to the paradoxes surrounding the Repugnant Conclusion. Two caveats in advance: Firstly, this post is for those who have some familiarity with the Repugnant Conclusion. Secondly, others in the literature might have suggested the same as I do here but I haven’t been able to find that on the quick.

The basic idea of the theistic solution is this.

  • Yes: state A and state Z can be compared in terms of how valuable they are.
  • No: How valuable these states are does not matter for human choices between these two states of affairs (at least not directly). It’s simply not our responsibility as little human beings to make the world a better place by creating more (or less) of us human beings.
  • Yes: How valuable these states of affairs are does matter for divine choice between these two states of affairs (which is then, possibly, commanded to humans subsequently). It is God’s responsibility to decide on population size and to take into account the value difference between state A and Z.
    The value of these two states is not the only factor that matters to the divine choice. There are further factors that matter for God’s choice between state A and Z. These further factors might well be inscrutable to the human mind. For example, God might have in mind to bring about certain specific individuals. Or s/he might have in mind to bring about a certain number of human counterparts for himself/herself. (I leave it open whether these further factors are whims of the divine mind – i.e. merely arbitrary preferences – or whether God has good reasons to give weight to these further factors).

Some further exposition about what this “solution” does solve and doesn’t solve.

In my view, the hardest problem about the Repugnant Conclusion doesn’t have to do with claims about value. In my view, state Z (i.e. 200 billion people with lives barely worth living) might well be more valuable than State A (i.e. 5 billion people with lives well worth living). There is no reason why we should expect our commonsense intuition (which resists the claim that state Z is more valuable than state A) to be reliable in such questions.
In my view, the hardest problem about the Repugnant Conclusion has to do with the fact that certain obligations follow from these claims about value. The SEP entry on the Repugnant Conclusion makes the point very well: “It might be tempting for people who have little sympathy with utilitarian thought to try to set the problems raised by the Repugnant Conclusion to one side, thinking that it constitutes a problem only for utilitarians. However, most people tend to believe that we have some obligation to make the world a better place (…).”
What the theistic solution to the Repugnant Conclusion does is the following. It agrees that, generally, there is some obligation to make the world a better place and it agrees that adding further people might well make the world a better place. While the theistic solution agrees that value differences between different states of affairs affect obligations in most cases (for example in the case where a child can be saved from drowning in a pond), it does not agree that value differences between states affect obligations for humans in those cases where the value difference is rooted in differences of population size. In those cases where the world can be made a better place by creating more people, only God has obligations derived directly from the betterness of the existence of more people (these obligations could then, of course, be transferred to humans via commandments). Population size is singled out as a special case — and moral responsibility for this specific area of choice is in God’s hands rather than in human hands.
This leads to the upshot that humans can acknowledge that (i) it might well be more valuable to have more people and (ii) that, in general, value does matter for our human choices but that (iii) the specific value of having more people does not matter for our human choices about population and procreation (except indirectly via divine commandments). Humans can therefore make their choices in politics and personal life in a two-step-procedure: Firstly, they can decide on population size and procreation on the basis of a limited set of reasons (including reasons such as the fact that adding people will affect the welfare of existing people and including reasons such as God’s commandments about population size and procreation). Secondly, given these decisions about population and procreation, they can then decide on further issues in life on the basis of the usual, comprehensive set of reasons (such as general consequentialist, deontological, and religious reasons).
What reasons might God have to keep the choice of population size for himself/herself? Here are two reasons. Firstly, some of the deepest moral problems seem inscrutable to the human mind similarly to how some of the deepest scientific and mathematical problems seem inscrutable to the human mind. It is no surprise then that God might step in for us little humans and solve these hard tasks (such as paradoxes in population ethics) for us and communicate the solution of these hard tasks to us without informing us about the rationale for the solution. A second and important reason for God to keep this area to himself is this: The decision about which humans and how many humans ought to exist seems to be a decision for which God as the creator and counterpart of humans – and as the “Ground of Being” – is the right person. Making up his/her mind about such things is his/her core business. If s/he had reasons to want, create, and love  humanity in the first place, s/he might as well have reasons for wanting a certain number of humans.
In my view, the “theistic solution” presents a coherent picture that takes the sting out of the hardest aspect of the Repugnant Conclusion. In other words: It denies – and it does so in a coherent way – that we have at least some reason to create a huge population of people with lives barely worth living. However, the theistic solution of course presupposes a certain premise: God. If anything, that is the “theistic solution’s” Achilles’ Heel.

An Objection

One might object that the “theistic solution” is ad hoc. It “solves” the Repugnant Conclusion by simply positing a God who mysteriously solves the Repugnant Conclusion in a way that humans cannot understand. That’s a bit too easy, isn’t it?
Well – if a solution is easy, that doesn’t really speak against it. Neither do I think that the solution is ad hoc. I actually gave some reasons why God (if s/he should exist) might keep the task of solving the Repugnant Conclusion to herself/himself (firstly because it is so difficult for humans and secondly because it has to do with creating individuals which is his/her business anyway). It’s not arbitrary to reserve exactly this moral problem for God to figure out.
One might think that any argument in science or philosophy that posits God just takes the “God of the Gaps” track. The “God of the Gaps” objection is roughly the following: “If we cannot understand how something works, it’s wrong to escape our lack of understanding by simply putting God into the equation. S/he should not serve as the ‘joker’ who rounds off the blanks in any unfinished theory. As time goes by, s/he will be needed as an explanation for less and less scientific and philosophical problems.”
To this I answer that the “God of the Gaps” objection is, when taken in general terms, an unsound objection anyway. If a certain entity explains something well, this gives us at least some reason to posit that entity. If God explains certain facts about the world or morality well, then that is a reason to posit God’s existence.
The real objection to the “theistic solution” must be that there are good (and independent) reasons to believe that there is no God.