Author Archives: Dominic Roser

Why Environmental Philosophers Fly to Conferences (or Not)

After some reflections on conference tourism (here, here, and here), we asked for statements “Why are you flying to conferences? If not — why not?”

Martin Schoenfeld (this is his blog) said:

Yes, I do restrict my air travel. Why? Frankly, because I think not doing so would be bad karma. How? In that I only go to places now where the trip serves multiple purposes, such as attending a conference and giving a departmental colloquium at the same destination, or combining personal reasons, such as visiting friends or looking up relatives, with professional activities. But just going to one place for one purpose—nope, not anymore. Karma!

Robin Attfield said:

I find this difficult. In practice, I try to avoid long-haul flights, but continue to travel to places in Western Europe, which can sometimes be done by train. I have passed up invitations to go to Hawaii and to China, in each case sending my paper by other means. (In the case of China, I made a DVD and posted it to the relevant conference, which apparently appreciated it.) But I did travel to Pennsylvania and Notre Dame to honour two invitations in 2011. On the other hand, I managed to send a paper to a conference in 2010 in Washington State electronically, and to reply to live questions by telephone.

I also had some thoughts:

yes, I do travel to conferences. And I now even accepted a job abroad which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t also said Yes to the “love miles” involved in visiting friends and family at home. I tried to justify work-related air travel to myself by envisioning these emissions as the university’s emissions rather than as my emissions. Though, to be honest, when I flew to Japan my curiosity to see a new country was just as much a motivation to attend the conference as the purely academic interest. In such a case, it’s much more difficult to claim that these emissions are not my emissions — which is only partly true anyway, if at all. And anyway, even if they aren’t my emissions, I am still the one in the position to do something about them.
While I do travel to various places for work-related reasons, this reduces my desire to travel for private reasons (it’s as if my privileged position as an academic allowed me to tick off the box “See the world” on my life’s to-do-list – a box which I shouldn’t have put on the list in the first place, though…).
I currently lack the will to restrict myself more, and if I would do more, I would start with other things. Still, I feel a lot of tension about flying and I refrain from acquiescing in my current stance. I also welcome hostile remarks from friends as a helpful reminder not to acquiesce…

If you’re willing to share some lines (also anonymously), please do so! You can contact us here.

Enforcing Mindsets and Lifestyles?

There is a widespread view that a liberal state may prevent people from harming others but that it should not promote certain comprehensive doctrines about the good life. In environmental policymaking this means

  1. that the state may prevent us from harming others (by limiting or taxing our emissions)
  2. but that the state may not prescribe by which means we should reduce emissions, whether this be eating less animal produce, travelling less, buying less stuff in general, etc. — that’s a matter of personal choice
  3. and that the state may not prescribe to reduce our emissions out of a certain motivation; as long as we reduce our emissions, the state should not care whether we do so grudgingly, whether we do so out of love of nature, whether we do so by embracing a lifestyle of simplicity, whether we embed this change in a religious lifestyle, etc.

Here is one specific way to challenge the 2nd and 3rd aspect of this widespread view. It is just terribly cumbersome if the state refrains from enforcing certain means of reducing emissions and refrains from engendering certain motivations in the citizenry. It is inefficient to let individuals decide individually on their preferred ways of reducing emissions. Coordinating lifestyle change would save costs. Changing mindests and motivations is simply much easier and needs less willpower, when it’s done together. The state could save each of us lots of trouble by using tax money to celebrate green changes in mentality, by inculcating new green paradigms in schoolkids, by coercively enforcing the normality of reduced mobility rather than letting us commit to this goal in isolation, by publicly creating momentum for a change in diet, etc.
Given that in the long run we have to change our mindsets and lifestyles anyway in order to refrain from harming others and given that travelling this road together is just much less pain, one might argue that the sheer cost savings of the community doing this with state enforcement and state encouragement justifies the accompanying curtailment of liberty.
I am making this point very hesitantly. It’s more of a question: How far do the mere psychological cost savings — the size of which is often  underestimated in my view — go in allowing illiberal environmental policy measures?

One Worry about Representatives for Future Generations

Future generations are affected by present-day decisions but the choices they would make if they could participate in these decisions obviously cannot enter the present-day democratic process. However, their interests can enter the present democratic process and they can do so in at least two ways:

  1. There can be special representatives for future generations in parliament. For example, 10% of the seats in parliament could be reserved for such representatives of future generations with the right to vote.
  2. The normal MPs can incorporate the interests of future generations in their normal decision-making. That’s what we currently do (though we could improve the current model by supporting the incorporation of the interests of future  generations by an ombudsman laying out the interest of future generations for MPs  and exhorting them to take account of them).

There are further options – such as constitutional provisions that put limits on what can be done to future generations – but I want to focus on one specific problem that the first option (representatives for future generations) has in contrast to the second option (expecting normal MPs to incorporate the interests of future generations in their choices).

If a country were to introduce special representatives for future generations in parliament by reserving 10% of the seats for them, then there are three effects:

  1. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of MPs are supposed to incorporate and represent exclusively those future interests.
  2. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process better because 10% of the MPs constantly remind the other 90% of the concerns of future generations.
  3. The interests of future generations enter the present democratic process worse because the 90% “normal” MPs might give less weight to the interests of future generations than they would do if there were no 10% special representatives. In other words: The fact that there are special representatives for future generations “crowds out” the motivation in normal MPs to take account of future generations. They can tell themselves that the concerns of future generations are already taken care of (by the 10% special representatives) and thus they can stop worrying about the future themselves.

I am worried that the third effect might outweigh the first two (and countervailing) effects. Even though it seems that reserving a certain number of seats in parliament for future generations would serve future generations well, the opposite might possibly happen. If special representatives mean that everyone else stops considering the future their own responsibility, then it’s better not to have special representatives.

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.

A crucial – but hardly mentioned – issue for climate negotiations

When asked about the prospects for climate negotiations, commentators usually sigh loudly and try to locate some small window of opportunity for incremental progress. The general impression is that there are stalemates, diametrically opposed interests, and few options for squaring the circle. Slow steps are all we can hope for in this bleak picture, it seems.

In the midst of this pessimism, we should not forget that there always remains the possibility of radically changing negotiating positions. Exogenous “shocks” to citizens’ views on climate change are imaginable. Here are two scenarios. A number of environmental disasters could hit a major country, thereby radically altering its perception of self-interest. A wave of religious awakening could sweep across another major country where the type of religion involved preaches radical harmony with nature. Both scenarios are unrealistic but we should not forget that in the past, political positions sometimes have been turned on their head in the course of a few years. We usually talk about low-probability-high-impact events with respect to bad outcomes. But we should not forget that there are also low probability events with respect to good outcomes. A radical change in public opinion is such a good outcome with low probability.

What does this have to do with climate negotiations? Climate negotiations should be set up such that they could accommodate any unexpected positive turn of negotiating positions. UNFCCC procedures, institutional flexibility, dialogue atmosphere etc. should not only be designed with the 99% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints set tight limits on climate policy but they should also be designed with the 1% probability in mind that political feasibility constraints could suddenly dramatically soften. It would be an awful shame if political will to solve the climate problem should surprisingly arrive but the inertia of political institutions would be unprepared to pick that up.

Those who think that the incremental progress of today is roughly on a par with not doing anything at all about climate change (a view I do not share), should be especially open to the above thoughts. In other words: Those who favor an all-or-nothing approach to mitigation (because they think doing little is about as bad as doing nothing) should view institutional preparedness for a radical turn in public opinion a high priority.

Money, Motivation, and Nature

Emissions trading faces opposition from many sides. One specific argument against emissions trading is based on the fact that humans are to some extent intrinsically motivated to care for the environment. This intrinsic motivation can disappear, however, if people are also paid for caring for the environment. Emissions trading can thus “crowd out” the intrinsic motivation to care for the environment. Therefore, it may ultimately lower environmental protection.

The effect of motivation crowding has been shown in spectacular experiments. For example, in one experiment people were asked whether they would be willing to host a radioactive waste site in their village (the idea being that this counts as some sort of altruistic act; it is driven by a sense of civic duty since some village in the country has to host the waste site). Other people were asked the same question but in addition they were told that the national government would compensate the village that hosted the site. Interestingly, people were less willing to host the waste site in their village if they knew that they would be compensated!

Without compensation people agreed to host the waste site because they probably thought something like: “One village or other has to host it, nothing speaks against us — so the right thing is to agree to it.” With the compensation people opposed the waste site because they probably thought something like: “Well, it’s a deal. We host the site and in return we get compensated. So, is that a good deal for us? No, it isn’t.”

The same with emissions trading. Without emissions trading, people might lower their emissions due to a sense of duty to play their part in the common effort. With emissions trading, they might get the impression that releasing emissions is in principle fine so long as one does not exceed one’s “cap” on emissions or so long as one buys emission rights off from others. One can get paid for emission reductions below the cap — so why do it voluntarily?

So — should we oppose emissions trading because it crowds out intrinsic motivation to reduce emissions voluntarily? I think not. My (semi-tentative) objection is this. I agree that emissions trading crowds out intrinsic motivation. I agree that this crowding out is bad. However, I think it’s unrealistic to avoid the motivation crowding effect anyway. Why?

  1. Firstly, I assume that there will be some “putting a price on carbon” anyway. It is completely unrealistic that future environmental policies will rely purely on voluntary (or command-andc-control) measures for the protection of the environment.
  2. Secondly, I assume that the motivation crowding effect depends much more on whether there is a “price on carbon” at all rather than on how extensively a “price on carbon” is used as a strategy for reducing carbon.

In other words: Given that people are already accostumed to the idea that there is a price on carbon (and carbon reductions), I doubt that much additional intrinsic motivation will be crowded out if emissions trading is used. Motivation crowding may thus not be a strong objection to using emissions trading more widely.

People in 1900 predict our times…

ImageIn yesterday’s seminar, we discussed Matthew Rendall’s fascinating article about protecting our grandchildren against climate catastrophe at their own expense. The article builds on the idea that under certain assumptions our grandchildren might be much better off than we are.

This assumption about rising levels of welfare caused a lot of protest. The point that still bothers me in this whole discussion is this: How on earth could we actually give reasons for claims to the effect that future generations will be better off than us or worse off than us?

I suggested some ways of giving reasons for such claims here. Here’s a further method one could use for avoiding arbitrariness about predictions about the future:

  1. Estimate your own gut feeling about the future being richer or poorer than us.
  2. Think hard and carefully about the direction in which our gut feeling is probably distorted by biases.

In that context, it might also be instructive to see whether the past over- or underestimated future welfare rises. A fun and interesting example is from the Ladies Home Journal of December 1900. A journalist asked the “wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” what they expect the world to look like in 2001. Read here for yourself.

They predicted peas as large as beets and strawberries as large as apples. Sometimes the forecasts are quite good, though. Twitter even seems to have made this prophecy come true  “Spelling by sound will have been adopted, first by the newspapers. English will be a language of condensed words expressing condensed ideas (…)”.

Are More Babies Better?

Two authors write about the same topic but about completely different subjects: Population.

Phil Cafaro writes an advanced review on Population and Climate Change for the WIREs Climate Change journal. The whole article is exclusively about how population size affects climate change.

But there’s also an effect the other way round: climate change affects population size. In John Broome’s new book on climate change there is a chapter entitled “Population” and pretty much the only topic is how climate change might decrease the human population (or increase it or eliminate it).

Funny how the two authors diverge so much in their focus. While Cafaro’s piece talks about population purely because climate change is bad, Broome’s chapter talks about climate change because a smaller population is bad.

I think Cafar0’s topic (population causing climate change) is more important than Broome’s (climate change causing population shrinkage). But at the same time, Broome is perfectly right to highlight the other side. It’s very difficult to come up with a coherent ethical view that would give no importance to how our actions affect population size. How come hardly anybody talks about that — the intrinsic value of a larger population — in climate policy?

A publication bias in ethics?

In areas such as medicine, “experimental results that are positive (i.e. showing a significant finding)” are reported differently from “results that are negative (i.e. supporting the null hypothesis) or inconclusive”. This is the most prominent example of a so-called publication bias.

Is there a publication bias in ethics, too?

In the last months I worked on the topic of responsibility for emissions. Is the producer of a good whose production involves emissions responsible for those emissions? Or is the consumer of the good responsible? Unfortunately, I arrived at messy results. Firstly, I concluded that the question has no easy answer. Secondly, I concluded that insofar as a tentative answer is possible, both the consumer and the producer are responsible. Thirdly, I concluded that it would be extremely difficult to determine shares of responsibility for the producer and the consumer.

How much neater would it have been, if I had arrived at a determinate and simple result! It would make presentation and publication of the results more attractive.

It’s not that I find my results boring. Given that in practice, we usually account emissions to the producer and given that some find it intuitively fairer to account emissions to the consumer, I did find it interesting to claim that the truth is, first of all, much less obvious than it seems and, secondly, probably somewhere in the middle.

Still: Even if my results are valuable and informative – in the same way that non-significant results in experimental studies are valuable and informative – they sell less well than clear-cut and simple results.

I wonder if this effect skews the publication of articles areas such as ethics, too, especially in applied ethics. In applied ethics, many issues must ultimately be evaluated as mixed bags and as inconclusive. Do papers that arrive at such disappointing conclusions get published as easily as papers who claim to have found certain and radical conclusions?


P.S.: Here’s a nice example of publication bias 🙂

Will the real Polluter Pays Principle please stand up?

What is “the” Polluter Pays Principle? One version of the principle says that the polluter ought to pay in proportion to her pollution. A second – and very different – version says that the polluter ought to bear a burden in proportion to her pollution.

There is a large difference between these two versions because the person who pays a tax on emissions is not necessarily the person who is actually made worse off by such a tax.

Here’s an imaginary example: Assume that consumers in Europe pay a tax on gas. This might not burden them at all (even though they are the agents who ultimately hand over money to the tax collector) because gas stations might just lower gas prices in response to the introduction of the tax. However, the gas station owners might not lose any profit, neither. Rather, they might be able to pass on the burden (the “tax incidence”) to oil producing countries by lowering the market price for oil. In an oil producing country, this might have the effect that company X goes bankrupt, as a result of which employee Y loses his job and must move to another town, as a result of which his child Z loses his friends and suffers from a depression.

There are certainly contexts in which  “Polluter Pays Principle” is used in the first sense and there are definitely contexts in which it is used in the second sense. And it is equally certain that this leads to confusion in debates over environmental policy and environmental justice! What is much less certain is whether one version is more sensible and whether one version represents the core idea behind the Polluter Pays Principle better.