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Flying for the Environment, One Last Time

Announcement: This blog will now not be actively updated anymore. We hope you enjoyed the writings on this page over the past months and years!

However, if you do have any interesting further thoughts on the ethics of conference air travel — or, of course, in line with the focus of this blog: on any other green/future/ethics-oriented topic — that you would like to see go live on this blog, feel free to send them our way and we will consider it.

On a final note, let us remark that there is not too much writing on the ethics of (conference) air travel. But we thought, we’d mention that it appears in Anthony Weston’s “Mobilizing the Green Imagination” on p. 58/9 (thanks to William Grove-Fanning for the pointer). It also gets a small mention in the opening paragraph of an editorial by Clive Spash in Environmental Values. Philip Cafaro has written a whole paper on “Reducing consumption to avert catastrophic global climate change: The case of aviation“. 
P.S.: There’s also a Twitter profile called “Stop Flying” for frequent critical updates on air travel.

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Flying for the Environment, Again

On this blog, we have examined the question whether green folks & philosophers should refrain from flying to conferences (see for example here).

Some time ago, Ian Christie (University of Surrey) responded to our request and sent in some personal thoughts on the topic:

This is a tough issue for environmentally aware and responsible scholars. I made the commitment to give up flights for holidays back in 1999, and have not gone back on it. For work, I made the same decision in 2000 on the way back to London from a two-day trip to a conference in New York – I was dismayed to reflect on the ratio of GHG emissions to achievements for the event. I had to take a last-minute flight – to Berlin – in 2004; other than that, I’ve kept to the commitment.
The problems it poses are large. For one thing, my holiday travels are more expensive and more restricted, as I use trains and ships and stay within Europe. For another, my academic career is constrained quite considerably. And finally, the commitment – as part of an effort to ‘walk the talk ‘ and reduce my eco-footprint – receives little or no social approval and encouragement. I also see almost no peer support even from environmentalists: I know hardly any who have given up flying for work, though I do come across some who have stopped all holiday flights.
I would break my personal pledge for two reasons: first, to visit a friend or relative in need ; and second, to do some work in a distant place that I felt was so valuable as to justify the flight, which I would also offset. But I don’t see that my giving a conference paper in person is work of such value as to justify a flight. Maybe giving policy advice to a committed government or business or community would be.
At all events, I think any academic committed to sustainable development must make some personal stand that demonstrates the possibility of living more lightly and responsibly on the Earth. And since flights have a large impact, they must come into question unless they can be argued to be a small price to pay for a greater good.

Zen and the Art of Airplane Travel

At some point, we were collecting statements from environmental philosophers on whether they are willing to fly or not. A perceptive and stimulating statement comes from Lucy Weir:

Using any kind of energy other than that derived directly from a simple vegan diet to propel ourselves from place to place might be an ideal position. But I’m interested in showing that there are serious problems with ideals, with ideologies, and in particular, with imposing ideologies on others. Therefore I have to conclude that I cannot advise others on a right or wrong way to live and that includes no right and wrong in the context even of deeply damaging activities, like flying in aeroplanes propelled by fossil fuels.

What would an ecologically aware Zen practitioner do?

There are no guidelines in Zen. But there is the constant demand to pay attention, to wake up to what is going on, to a reality that is evident, observable, when the attention is kept focussed on each moment. The practice of seeing oneself see opens one to the full implications of the impact of ones actions. And yet one may not always be able to avoid causing suffering. This is the tragedy. We may still, even without principles, be bound to a course of action that condemns us to exacerbate harm, right until the end. Yet we can only respond from the particular set of circumstances, from the context. And if raising the question causes more of us to shift uneasily in our aeroplane seats, or to forego the joyous whoosh of take off, then perhaps the loosening of our attachment even to this wonderful luxury can be brought into focus.

There is no perfect relationship with the world. The relationship with the world that we would have if we were to hope to live more in accordance with natural laws would demand so much of us that we would have to give up every luxury, everything but the most simple materials to meet our needs, even challenging our natural drive to procreate. But there is no perfect relationship. There is only the work to see ourselves as impartially as possible, as impermanent connections that unfold into one another. We inevitably create suffering. We can, however, see ourselves seeing what is going on, both in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with other humans, and even in how we relate to the non-human, living and non-living, systems within which we’re embedded. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves and setting ourselves up with idealistic expectations causes ever more rigidity in our reactions which is entirely counter productive. But we can be compassionately aware of that suffering, and even when we fail to relieve it, we can use that failure as an opportunity to observe, impartially, to forgive, and reflect on what could happen differently. When we succeed, to relieve suffering, that is enlightenment.

Would I willingly fly to conferences? I want not to want to. I watch my moment by moment response and I feel wry relief when the possibility is closed to me, through poverty. When I can afford to travel at all, I consciously seek out alternatives to flying, and if I can, I take them. However, like wine, I find the rush of take-off utterly seductive and I regret that I can’t indulge myself more often. In spite of the stark sterility of airports, the heart-thumping anxiety of security checks and final calls, the sheer exotic pleasure of being whisked from one time zone to another is thrilling. I would fly unwillingly, then, feeling the huge weight of what suffering that action supports. But I’d probably find myself smiling as the plane lifts off.

Flying for the Environment

On this blog, we have examined the question whether green folks & philosophers should refrain from flying to conferences (see for example here).

Some time ago, Dr. Rupert Read wrote a very perceptive piece for the Philosopher’s Magazine (4th issue of 2010)  which we repost in full below.

Can one justify, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, flying to conferences on environmental philosophy?

First, let me make clear that the issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to help stop dangerous climate change, is of secondary importance. The primary issue is political: collective action is what is really needed if we are to do enough to stop manmade climate change. If I choose not to fly,  the actual positive impact on the climate resulting from my decision may be less than small: it may even be zero (if it sends a tiny price signal, by reducing demand for fuel, that others then burn up more readily because it is slightly cheaper than it would otherwise have been). Whereas, if I get involved in a successful collective effort to rein in emissions (e.g. a successful international climate treaty), that effort will have a very large impact, a guaranteed impact that cannot be bypassed by others’ short-term self-interested economic behaviour.

The issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to stop dangerous climate change, is then of secondary importance; but secondary importance is still a kind of importance. Furthermore, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, one needs to take a lead.   Just as it was nauseating and self-defeating to see the world’s leaders flying into Copenhagen last December, so the credibility of environmental philosophers is just inevitably somewhat tarnished if they turn up to their conferences by air.

Which brings us back, and now directly, to the question that prompts this article: To fly, or not to fly?

One starting point for me, in relation to this difficult question, is to recall the Latin phrase Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm”, associated with the Hippocratic Oath. This dictum, as well as the moral prescriptions behind it, is taught to many doctors in medical school. The injunction of course does not bar them from (say) doing surgery.  It certainly does bar them from doing unnecessary surgery. The thing that environmental philosophers need to ask themselves, if they are serious about fighting the war on dangerous climate change, is this: Is your journey really necessary?

There is a tremendous risk of self-deception here. It is so easy for human beings to think that what they are doing is very important, more so than what others are doing.  One needs to ask oneself whether one can really be an environmental leader, and a morally self-respecting person, if one sends enough CO2 into the atmosphere to potentially injure or kill a present or future person. I am thinking here of the ground-breaking study by Craig Simmons et al laid out in the early chapters of The Zed Book, a study which should be much better-known than it is. It indicates that for every person currently living a high-carbon lifestyle, including flights etc, on average about 10 future people will suffer from manmade ‘natural’ disasters.

Environmental philosophy might change the world. The choices we as a civilization make really could depend on what wisdom we manage to achieve about ourselves and our place in the world.  Does the end justify the means? Well, it certainly doesn’t if there is virtually no prospect of wisdom being achieved.

So those of us contemplating jetting off to a philosophy conference abroad really do need to ask ourselves how much good we would really be doing by going, and whether we can justify the harm that we are certainly responsible for if we go.

I do not say any of this lightly. I love conferences.  I can’t do my job as a philosopher properly without going to some, even occasionally by air, although not as many and not as often as in the past.  Conferences on climate and the environment could be of huge importance to our dwindling chances of saving ourselves as a civilisation. What’s needed is wisdom, and if philosophers lack the wisdom to help sustain our civilisation, then who has it?

But it does seem to me an extraordinary sign of the level of denial in relation to the climate crisis that hardly anyone seems to take the question of flying to conferences seriously

Let me give some examples. A few years ago, I said to the organisers of a conference in Florida on ‘Climate Philosophy’ that I wasn’t willing to fly to it. I hoped that we could organise my ‘giving’ my talk there via video-conference. They couldn’t manage this.  To their credit, they did set up an audio-link for me to take questions, after someone else read my paper out.

This summer I have had a more discouraging experience. A Scandinavian environmental philosophy event later this year, ‘Climate Existence,’ was not even willing to consider my attending by remote means. It is depressing, when the organisers of a conference designed to look explicitly at how to stop ourselves climatically obliterating ourselves is not willing to consider how to minimise its own destructive impacts.

On the plus side, I will (I hope) soon be ‘attending’ by video-conferencing facilities a conference in Australia on ‘Changing the climate: Utopia, dystopia and catastrophe’.

The most surprising experience I had recently was arranging my attendance this autumn at an EU event in Brussels on intellectual perspectives on biodiversity.  The travel form assumed that I would be coming by plane! Of course, I am planning to go to that event by Eurostar. (If one can conveniently go to an environmental philosophy conference by train, then there is no excuse for plane-ing it.) What hope is there, if the organisers of an event on biodiversity – massively threatened by rising, dangerous emissions – do not even consider the possibility that international participants will come by means other than plane?

There is hope. Through technologies such as Skype and Oovoo, more and more people are getting used to video-conferencing as an effective way of interacting. I am hopeful that within a few years conference-organisers will be thinking of this, and it won’t be an awkward bolt from the blue when I say to them that I am keen to be there but preferably in electronic form.

To sum up, then. There are, of course, real losses if one chooses not to attend international conferences. Even if one does attend an event by means of new technology, there is no way of recreating by videoconference the feel, the informality, the networking opportunities that come from people being together in a place. As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his recent book, The Empathic Civilisation, the unprecedented dilemma that we face as a civilisation is how to expand our mutual empathy and concern, while reducing our entropic and environmentally-catastrophic impacts.

But certainly I think at least this: If philosophers do not ask themselves whether they can justify travelling to conferences by air, then who will?

My purpose in writing this piece would be served, if each reader were to ask themselves seriously the various questions that I have raised in the course of it. I close by briefly indicating the way that I try to answer them.

Aware of the above-mentioned tendency to self-deception, I endeavour to ask myself whether the benefit – I mean, a foreseen benefit in terms of philosophical advancement that may itself help people — for me and others of my attending a given conference by air are worth the down-side of the possible negative effect on future people of my doing so. I perform, in other words, a crude and rather imprecise utilitarian calculation, using the study by Simmons et al as an aide-memoire for the reality of the stakes. As noted above, the result of this is that I have drastically reduced my flying. Rather than being a habit and a norm, it has become a rare exception.

Dr. Rupert Read is Reader in the UEA School of Philosophy, Chair of the Green House thinktank, and Green Party Politican.

And I was hoping for spring…

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’Winter is coming’… is the motto of one of the rivaling clans in the very popular HBO TV-series Game of Thrones based on an even more popular book series by George R. R. Martin calles A Song of Ice and Fire. It depicts a small world with rivaling political forces fighting for influence and power in the shadow of a pending natural disaster – The Winter – that will make the battles, intrigues and cunningly laid plans to dominate others seem like child´s play.

’Winter is coming’… Soon the different groups and parties will be forced to join rank against this common enemy – or be overrun by forces much greater than their own. At least that is the impression I am left with having seen the first two seasons of the series. It might just be me looking through a distorted perspective, but I cannot help see the series as an allegory of the political landscape today and the fight for power, resources, influence and economic advantages that takes place in the shadow of the ”winter that is coming” in our reality: climate change. I am not sure whether it is this resemblance with the current political situation or the surprising amount of very scantily clad young women, blood filled action scenes and mythological scenery that has given the series the huge success it has had.

But it does seem fitting that the series is aired in a situation where we basically seem to have given up on climate change and are just focusing on getting the economy back in growth mode.  It is very hard not to hear the words ”Winter is coming” as a comment to our own situation. A situation that is characterized by the inability of democratic societies to recognize that the idea of perpetual growth in a closed system is suicidal. A situation characterized by our common ability to close our eyes to the dire warnings from climate scientists that we are heading for 4 degrees temperature raises or more within the next 100 years (for some reason nobody seems concerned about what will happen in 150 years).

’Winter is coming’… and as the as the severity of the situation grows, reality to an ever incressing degree resembles a lazy tv-movie: from the stereotypical scientists warning us about a pending disaster to the stereotypically uninterested politicians that are more concerned about re-election than taking care of the public good. It is like watching ’Jaws’, ’Earthquake’ and ’Vulcano’ at the same time with the only difference being that we are all playing the part of the politicians these days.

No matter how many hyped concepts such as ’green’, ’sustainable’, ’responsible’ or environmentally friendly’  we place before the basic notion of ’growth’ there can be little doubt that the current tehcno-fetishism and daydreaming about golden technologies that will allow us to continue our patterns of consumptions and save the planet, are wearing thin. Techo-optimism is a new phrase describing the bankrupcy of a culture that is left hoping for the impossible while digging its own grave. A culture so unimaginative and fearful that the mere idea of changing our life-styles seems more threatening than the catastrophic climate changes caused by our current way of life.

’Winter is coming’… and as it approaches we go on with our daily lives: watch Game of Thromes, song contests, Champions League, make babies, laugh at stupid pictures on Facebook, and generally forget about the reality we live in. The human ability to hope in the face of hopelessness and continue to live everyday lives in the shadow of events out of our control is a beautiful phenomena. There is strength and hope in that. But what about our ability to deny that we are in a situation where we need to hope and fight? Our ability to simply close our eyes to the havoc we create and vaguley hope that spring will come no matter what we do? It is hard to see that as anything else than part of reason why the winter is still coming – and it is already April.

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.

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.

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?

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

Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences

Is there a paradox when climate scientists fly to scientific conferences? Many people on the street think so. They find something inconsistent in the idea of contributing to climate change in order to solve climate change. I am sure that any researcher working on environmental topics had some explaining to do with respect to her conference flights: Friends and family push for it at some point or other. The same is true even more starkly for environmental activists who fly for their activism.

I’d be interested to start a collection of arguments that justify (or condemn) such conference flights. Surely the most common and plausible strategy for environmental researchers to justify their conference flights makes use of consequentialist reasoning: Greater good can be achieved (even in environmental terms) by researchers flying around the world in order to make scientific progress than would be achieved if they stayed at home.

A second strategy for exculpating the researcher is more radical: It questions the idea that the conference-travelling researcher has any explaining to do in the first place. Rather than the researcher, it is the university in whose name he travels (or the society who pays the university to do its work) who bears the burden of justification. The university who employs the researcher and expects results from him is the “principal” who bears the responsibility for his travels, while the individual researcher is only the “executive agent” who does what he is told to do.

A third strategy refers to the place that research has in the life of the researcher. The academic path is a personal project to which she is deeply committed — and, so it is claimed, everybody has a right to pursue such projects. This highly valued core aspect of her life would be thwarted if she couldn’t participate in the conference circuit. It would be “too much to ask” if she would have to give up being part of the academic community. The case for overdemandingness seems particularly strong when we notice that for those who do get funding it would need a very active and conscious decision to refrain from academic travelling.

These are just three possible justifications. I look forward to collect more of them (and also to collect condemnations). Note also that each of these strategies not only justifies flights but also delineates the limits to which it does so. To the extent that my decision for a workshop in Japan was motivated by the excitement of seeing that country, to the same extent none of the three strategies mentioned above would be of much help…