It's happened again. I'm on book tour with Moral Ground, a call for moral action to avert the worst effects of a warming and degraded planet. The audience is convinced; climate change is real, it is dangerous, it is upon us. They are empowered; nothing is stopping them from dramatically changing how they live on earth. The first question out of the box is, What about those Rapture-Ready, End-Times people who can't wait for the world to end? Forest fires, earthquakes — bring it on! Those people are never going to take action against climate change. The second is, What do you say to the people who deny climate change altogether? How do you change their minds?
Full disclosure: Half of me wants to say that I'm not especially worried about the people busily denying climate change or closing their bank accounts. I'm worried about us, the believers — people like me (and you) who shake our heads at the dangers we face, truly worried, unable to sleep, and don't do a damn thing of any meaning whatsoever. Lunatics aren't the problem; hypocrites are. But that wasn't the question, so here I go.
What about those Rapture-Ready people? Honestly, what about them? How many are there? Compassion would advise us to let them wise up on their own. People aren't irredeemably stupid and time is the great teacher. It's possible that at some glorious moment in time, a few of the believers will float, grinning, to heaven, while an equal number of them are sucked into hell, disappearing like astonished gophers into the bowels of the earth. Or maybe none of this will happen. It's not on my Top Ten List of Things to Worry About.
But what about those people — more than half the population — who distrust climate change science and deny the dangers we face? That's a truly interesting and important question that goes to the heart of the nature of science and human nature. So first, a story; then a short discursus on the practical syllogism.
The story: So. I ask my brother if he'd like to drive to Ashland to see a performance of Hamlet. What? he says. Ashland is a seven-hour drive, and the hotels there cost hundreds of dollars a night. We can't do that. Okay, so Ashland is in fact four hours away, and nice rooms cost a hundred dollars. What gives? The deal is that a discussion about the facts is easy — we're used to talking about what is true. But talking about values is hard — nobody knows how to address the question of whether watching Hamlet is a good use of time. So we debate the facts, endlessly, avoiding altogether the harder conversation about what is good, what is worthy, what is of value.
The syllogism: Every argument that has as its conclusion a statement about what we ought to do will have two premises. First, it will have an empirical premise, a descriptive premise that comes from scientific or other observation. It is a statement of fact. It says, this is the way the world is, this is the way the world will be. (For example, global climate change is real, it is dangerous, it is upon us.) But you can't get to a conclusion about what we ought to do on the basis of facts alone; you need a second premise.
The second premise is ethical. It is an affirmation of what is worthy and worth doing, of what is right in human actions, of what is of deep value. It says, this is good, this is sacred, this is what I believe in, this is what it means to be fully human. (Say, for example, this world is worth saving.)
From the descriptive premise and the ethical premise, but from neither alone, a conclusion follows about what we ought to do.
1. Climate change will undermine the well-being of future people. (statement of fact)
2. It's wrong to undermine the well-being of future generations. (statement of value)
3. Therefore, we ought to take action to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
This logic explains, I believe, why people work so hard to deny the reality of climate change. I think people intuitively understand this logic. They understand that if you don't want to accept a conclusion about what we ought to do, there are two ways to refute it. One is to challenge the facts. The other is to challenge the values.
It's easy to challenge facts. We know how to do this. We know a variety of fallacious ways to do it — challenge the character of the persons making the claim (argumentum ad hominem), generalize from one scientific mistake to all of science (fallacy of over-generalization), or simply refuse to believe on the evidence (the fallacy of invincible ignorance). But we also know how to debate facts honorably, and that is happening too, although it's hard to hear over the ruckus. The point is that from kindergarten on, we are trained in empirical reasoning, bringing evidence to bear to establish a claim.
It's more difficult to challenge the values. We don't know how to have reasonable discussions about competing values (cf. the shouting on Fox News). Do we have a moral obligation to the future? Is our profligate use of fossil fuels an intergenerational or international injustice? How do we weigh values like personal freedom against values like compassion and justice? Do we have an absolute liberty to serve our own interests? How do we weigh the interests of our own children against the interests of others'? Do others have any claim against us at all? Do we have an obligation to what is beautiful and life-giving on the planet? These are tough questions, deeply ethical questions.
What I think is happening is that those who do not want to take action against climate change, for whatever reason, find it easier to undercut the science than to engage in real dialogue about the values. So we have a national climate-change debate that is marked by a furious, often fallacious, certainly futile debate about facts. But the national discourse about values — the conversation about what we most deeply value in our lives, about what we most owe the future — has gone missing.
America has a long tradition of public moral discourse. Think of the debates that resulted in the affirmation of human values of life and liberty of conscience that are encoded in the Declaration of Independence. Think of the movement to abolish slavery, which turned on arguments of human liberty and worth. Think of the civil rights movement, the dream, the national debate about what is worthy of us as moral beings. We have done it. We can do it. We must do it again.
Do we have a moral obligation to the future to leave a world as rich in possibilities as the world we live in? Let's talk.
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Kathleen Dean Moore is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University. She is the author or editor of many books including Wild Comfort, The Pine Island Paradox, Holdfast, and Riverwalking, and countless journal and magazine articles. She serves on the board of directors for Orion Society and Island Institute. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon.
Books mentioned in this post
Kathleen Dean Moore is the author of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril