Which ethical systems can we tolerate?

Once again, the issue of morality has arisen in a discussion on my blog.

Contemplating it, it seems to me that there are two general types of moral systems that can exist in our world. There are (1) the whole range of moral systems which can be in place elsewhere, without really affecting us, and then there are (2) those that can fundamentally affect the kind of world we and our descendants will live in.

Universal human rights

The conventional notion of human rights doesn’t give much importance to this distinction. It tells us that we should be appalled about the murder of journalists in Russia, the virtual enslavement of women in many Islamic countries, and the torture of political prisoners in Myanmar. We should object to these things even in cases where they do not affect the lives of anyone who we know.

There are many reasons why this point of view is admirable, and has the potential to help create a better world. The recognition that everybody is human, and that this carries with it some sort of universal moral standing, seems far preferable to the idea that some people are sub-human, and thus not worthy of any moral consideration. That being said, in situations of extreme difficulty, it is natural enough that we will stop worrying about the human rights of people in distant places, and become almost exclusively concerned with the welfare of those around us. That shift may not be admirable, but it is the kind of thing that can be recognized as a general practical necessity.

Dealing with menacing ideologies

Within the second set of value systems – those that do affect us – there is a further sub-division. Specifically, there is a division between value systems that are deeply threatening to us and those that are not. For European nations in the interwar period, both German fascism and Soviet communism were deeply threatening. For First Nations groups in many parts of the world, value systems based around the extermination of traditional languages and cultures were deeply threatening. Today, given the threat from climate change, value systems that permit the unlimited burning of fossil fuels are deeply threatening to everybody, though many people have yet to really internalize this.

As a result, we cannot simply permit such ethical perspectives to continue operating unchecked. Challenging them is both an ethical and a practical necessity. That means challenging domestic political ideologies in developed states that deny the need to deal with climate change. It also means challenging the actions of foreign governments and entities that continue to advance the world towards destabilization and ruin. Ultimately, that will probably mean intervening in the ability of the places like West Virginia, Alberta, and Saudi Arabia to burn or sell the dangerous fossil fuels they possess.

None of this will be easy, but denying the fact that climate change policy-making is fundamentally bound up with ethical issues simply obscures what needs to be done, without making success any easier.

8 thoughts on “Which ethical systems can we tolerate?

  1. XUP

    You seem to be using the words “ethic”, “morals” and “values” interchangeably. I think while your value system may define your personal morality; morals and ethics are very different. Ethics are more useful in discussing more universal, human-conduct related issues — like cliimate change. Because ethics are objective you can prove how and why the unlimited burning of fossil fuels is unethical; but you can’t prove that it’s immoral — morality is subjective.

  2. Milan Post author

    Your first point was raised elsewhere.

    I do use the terms ‘ethics’ and ‘morals’ interchangeably. Their definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary suggest that this is appropriate.

    There is one distinction relevant to the discussion above, and that is between the morals/ethics embraced by a particular individual and the morals/ethics that underlie the actions of a group or a society.

    Even a large number of individuals who are unconcerned about climate change aren’t too likely to cause a disastrous outcome. A large number of states, companies, or political parties is another matter. The morals/ethics of entities like British Petroleum, the government of China, and the Conservative Party of Canada do seem likely to effect the lives of a huge number of people, insofar as they affect how much climate change will occur.

    As an extension of that, we can think about the situation faced by Britain or the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Killing one individual who had embraced the Nazi moral system is usually a matter of trivial importance; by contrast, crushing Nazism is a matter of existential importance.

  3. emily

    I’m inclined to agree. Anthropogenically manipulated climate change (the continuous burning of fossil fuels, with the knowledge of the ecological consequences) seems as cut and dry ethically, as any scenario involving the oppression of a disadvantaged community by a more privileged, powerful elite.

    I remember very clearly, when asked in history class, how many of us would stand up to NAZI oppression in war-period Germany. Of course, almost everyone put up their hand. Who wouldn’t?

    We think: “How could they just stand by and ignore the huge amount of human suffering happening all around them?”

    Because it is easy to ignore what a state wants you to ignore, it turns out.

    I wonder what one could do to peacefully protest the usage of fossil fuels in a public way. It seems like most actions we take (vegetarianism, eating locally, and not driving) are all relatively ‘quiet’ personal activities.

  4. Milan Post author

    The question about how to take a public stance is an interesting one.

    In particular, I would be curious about slogans that express concern about climate change and a desire to do something about it, but which are unlikely to be perceived as political in a partisan way.

    Perhaps something like: “Our great grandchildren deserve a stable climate.”

  5. .

    “We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.”

    Richard Feynman

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