GBS Schweiz

Responding on a “political” or “individual” level?

on März 16. 2013

us congress

A political philosopher friend recently asked:

What are your 2-3 core reasons for considering it permissible/obligatory to respond to climate change primarily on a political rather than an individual level?

Someone answered:

(a) It is arrogant hybris to think one has the responsibility to respond to that question solitarily. Hybris because responsibilty implies ability, arrogant because one thinks that one can decide by oneself how to respond to a global problem.

(b) It is denying one’s responsibility to not respond to the global question of climate change politically. Because one has shared ability with one’s society to respond effectively to climate change, and with that comes a shared responsibility.

I have a hard time understanding these points. Why is it „arrogant“ to respond solitarily? What does that even mean? It seems to me that any action/decision is necessarily the solitary action/decision of an individual agent. The decision to support some political lobbying, to take sides and part in some political process or to help build up certain institutions is a solitary and individual decision too. „Arrogant because one thinks one can decide by oneself how to respond to a global problem“ – well, you decide by yourself how to respond to anything, of necessity. You can only ever make your decisions (and only you can make your decisions). The only valid point here, really, lies in the expression „respond effectively“. If it turns out (empirically) that individually supporting some political action has the highest expected value in terms of climate change (i.e. is the most ethically cost-effective decision an individual can make), then that’s what one should individually do. So my core reasons for an individual obligation (all those tautologies!) to opt for some sort of political activism would be empirical points such as:

Depending on the empirical situation, there might also be an obligation not to act politically (yet), though. For instance, although I believe the problem of our relation to non-human beings and their suffering is a global (and maybe even cosmic) issue, many forms of political activism would probably be unwise at this point, i.e. not maximally cost-effective, and thus wrong. The reason being that we are not yet memetically mature enough for political action to be non-negligibly effective. So we need a friendlier meme-pool first, which might be most cost-effectively achieved by targeting very young and educated minds specifically. Some forms of political action might be instrumental here (if they – although currently institutionally ineffective – provide enough benefits in the media attention and meme-spreading department). The discussion went on:

What if I put the question slightly different? Should individuals put their effort into mitigating climate change:
(a) by voluntarily planting trees and reducing heating (and convincing others to do so)
(b) by supporting institutions that coerce themselves and the rest of society to plant trees and reduce heating?
Would the effectiveness of (a) vs (b) be your *sole* criterion then, too?

…and here’s a small defence of the arrogance point. Yes, any decision is (on a fundamental level) *necessarily* the solitary decision of an individual. Let’s assume that I have to decide on how much to reduce my personal emissions. I have two options:
(a) I decide to reduce my personal emissions by the amount that *I* find appropriate 
(b) I decide to reduce my personal emissions by whatever amount *society* will find appropriate.
…it seems that there is something more „humble“ or less „arrogant“ in the latter stance. (I myself am more used to think about whether it’s right or wrong to listen to society’s views in that case but I think it’s a fair and valuable point to highlight the attitudes and mindset behind this stance.

Is cost-effectiveness the sole criterion? I’d say: Of course! It seems that the goal is clear (mitigating harms caused by climate change) and shared by people opting for (a) or (b). And so the only relevant question is which option (or which combination of the two) is most cost-effective in terms of achieving the goal. If the goal is fixed (reducing climate change harms) and if I decide to spend a defined amount of resources on achieving that goal, then it would be irrational not to go for the option that likely gets us most of what we want to achieve (which is by definition the most cost-effective option; and what we want to achieve seems to be the reduction of climate change harms).

How would (a) be „arrogant“, by the way? (b) involves coercion, which many directly associate with „arrogance“. (This view is utterly misguided, of course. I’m just pointing to a possible inconsistency in the „commonsensical“ argument.)

My proposed standard for deciding this „arrogance“ issue would simply and straightforwardly be how much egoism my decision involves. I should do whatever is most likely to reduce (climate change) harms the most (i.e. maximally cost-effectively) – this is what is and what I should find ethically appropriate, no matter what society does or does not require me to do. The more I live up to that standard, the less egoistic (i.e. the more altruistic) will my decision be; and the less arrogantly will I be putting my interests over the equal interests of others.

On a general note, I find the alleged normative separation of „ethics“ and „politics“ deeply troubling – it seems to cause a lot of harm. It confuses matters, for it somehow denies that political courses of action are just one possible empirical application of normative ethics that are to be chosen (or not) based on whether they are (not) maximally cost-effective in terms of achieving the normative-ethical goal(s). I don’t see how politics could be anything else. I’m not aware of any argument convincingly showing that political institutions or actions have intrinsic value, i.e. that it would be good to create or do them if they didn’t exist and did not improve anything else. It seems that they would be utterly pointless in that case. If that’s correct, then politics is just one possible tool for achieving what is valuable and what our true goals are – and as such it is entirely subject to the ethical cost-benefit analysis (how well does it (not) lead to the implementation of our values). The alleged separation thus confuses matters and leads people to do stuff that’s ineffective; and not to do stuff that would be effective. It prevents us from having our best go at achieving our goals (which equals instrumental irrationality). To illustrate the point: I remember a comparatively rich socialist politician being asked in an interview why he wouldn’t just eliminate the party’s burdensome debt with a large donation. The response was laughter – the question wasn’t even taken seriously. But it is a very serious moral question; and the politician’s value system arguably doesn’t make rational sense if he rejects a duty to help his party out financially. – See: That’s a result of deontology (heavy omission bias in particular) and of the normative separation between „ethics“ and „politics“. For an effective altruist there would be no question about granting the organisation one deems most effective at solving the most important problems significant personal financial support. Anything else would be irrational. That’s why we need consequentialism in order to really get things done. So a very good way of having a very large problem-solving and world-improving impact is by creating more consequentialists – instead of reinforcing deontological distinctions.