Hegel and Climate Denial

From Philosophy of right § 132:

“The right of the subjective will is that whatever it is to recognise as valid shall be seen by it as good, and that an action, as its aim entering upon external objectivity, shall be imputed to it as right or wrong, good or evil, legal or illegal, in accordance with its knowledge of the worth which the action has in this objectivity.”

There is a standard dogma in contemporary ethics which says that any ethical theory must decide whether any action is right either because of the intention behind it, or because of the results that it causes. (As with most problems in contemporary philosophy, this one is caused by ignoring Hegel – the historical genesis of this rejection can be traced largely to Russell, whose dominance was cemented in the American academy by post war McCarthyism).

What Hegel is asserting in this quote is that the rightness of an action can be comprehended neither by simply by looking inside to the pure validity of motive (as in Kant), nor purely by evaluating external effects no matter their connection to motive (strict utilitarianism), but rather that what makes an action right has to do with a motive which already grasps the worth of that action’s external, objective effects. Humans are not purely internal subjects – they are always engaged in a world, and all of their actions are, to an extent, pre-comprehensible in their objective ramifications. This is obvious to everyone, except perhaps some moral philosophers, and is enshrined in our legal system through the duel requirement of an actus reus and mens rea for conviction in a criminal case. If Hegel, in saying this, adds something to this everyday liberal notion, it is only that the external and internal elements in a moral act mutually include each other – a mens rea is only a mens rea when it contains the actus reus as “knowledge”, and that an “actus reus” is only genuinely a moral transgression if it is generated out of a subjective will which entered into external objectivity in accordance with knowledge of the worth of the objective act in its knowledge.

But what does this have to do with climate change? It would mean very little, almost nothing, if Hegel were merely asserting a slightly different way to metaphysically understand the relations between the actus rae and the mens reus. However, Hegel actually disagrees with the standard liberal notion that “the criminal in the moment of his action must have had a ‘clear idea’ of the wrong and its culpability before it can be imputed to him as a crime”. On the contrary – the fact that we have insight into the objective good means that we can be culpable for failing to exercise this insight:

“But to turn momentary blindness, the goad of passion, intoxication, or, in a word, what is called the strength of sensual impulse (excluding impulses which are the basis of the right of distress – see § 127) into reasons when the imputation, specific character, and culpability of a crime are in question, and to look upon such circumstances as if they took away the criminal’s guilt, again means (compare § 100 and the Remark to § 120) failing to treat the criminal in accordance with the right and honour due to him as a man; for the nature of man consists precisely in the fact that he is essentially something universal, not a being whose knowledge is an abstractly momentary and piecemeal affair.” (my emphasis)

Hegel’s conclusions follow from taking seriously the fact that humans are “something universal”, which means here merely that they are capable of knowledge and responsibility – that they are not simply random assemblages being but things that transcend beings, stand over beings, can see and know beings. If we really believe humans are capable of knowledge, that means we can understand them as being guilty for failing to have knowledge in a particular circumstance. This does not mean humans are guilty of every mal effect of their actions which they do not happen to predict – but it means that the negative effects of actions can be understood as having a form of presence in the knowledge of those subjects who acted – a negative presence, a lack for which they are culpable. Failing to recognize the culpability people can have for not knowing the effects of an action means treating them as beings for which knowledge is only a “piecemeal affair” – they know something one minute, and forget it the next.

Now, Hegel is using this argument in Philosophy of Right to claim that punishment is demanded even in situations where the criminal did not have what liberal scholars today would call an mens rea – because that mens rea is really contained in the lack of a mens rea when a universal being fails to grasp the ends of their actions in, for instance, lighting a building on fire. However, the same argument extends to moral issues where the lack of some knowledge (such as knowledge about global warming) might be used to assert those who don’t know about global warming, or those who choose to believe global warming is not a serious problem for our generation, are not morally culpable for climate damaging activity which they engage in out of this ignorance. Perhaps the greatest climate damaging activity of all is the reproduction of false claims concerning global warming – because of the huge practical effect of mainstream media in contemporary society. We tend to think that people are ignorant, and that it is our duty to enlighten them. While this is certainly true, what Hegel might say is that because we understand humans to be capable of knowledge, those who fail to gain knowledge about the effects of their actions when such knowledge is readily available (i.e. through blog projects like this one), can actually be held morally culpable for their ignorance.

This of course does not apply only to the case of climate change – it applies to all practical action. For instance, if knowledge concerning state injustices against specific groups is readily available, it might be right to hold you morally culpable for not engaging in specific boycott and divestment campaigns. Similarly, actively and passively concealing knowledge about past crimes is morally condemnable, insofar as you are capable of knowing about them – mediated by the fact that we are finite and can’t help but set personal priorities concerning how much time we can spend working on various issues.

All citations of Hegel in this post are from paragraph number 132 of the Philosophy of Right, Knox translation.

4 thoughts on “Hegel and Climate Denial

  1. Milan

    [T]hose who fail to gain knowledge about the effects of their actions when such knowledge is readily available (i.e. through blog projects like this one), can actually be held morally culpable for their ignorance.

    The big problem is that people who ignore climate change cannot practically be held morally culpable, except perhaps by a few finger-wagging environmentalists. For the most part, the people doing the most to drive cumulative emissions upwards are celebrated as creators of wealth and jobs.

    Clearly what can be done logically and what can be done practically differ in this case.

  2. Tristan Post author

    This is just a cutesy little argument, but I’m fond of it. I’m thinking about extending it, filling it out, to the point where it could be a short conference submission. Then I can use philosophy graduate conferences as a platform to lecture people about climate change!

  3. Pingback: Coal as Metaphor: Expanding our understanding of “non-renewable”

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