by Kathleen Dean Moore, September 24, 2010 10:52 AM
Of all the questions that interviewers and audience members have asked me about our book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril
, there is one I like the best. At the end of this week, after considering all the questions that made me squirm — or cry — let me consider this one last question: After reading testimony from the world's moral leaders about our obligations in the face of climate change, after a couple of years of sifting through the best thoughts of brilliant people, what have you learned?
So much. But here are three new ideas:
A. The climate crisis and its attendant environmental disasters have caught the world in the dangerous crosswinds of ecological disruption and human irresponsibility. We are challenged to make world-altering decisions about our current life choices and our obligations to planetary and human futures. But when philosophers race across the pitching deck to launch the moral theories that we have long relied on in times of difficult choices, we find that the life rafts themselves are on fire. It is possible to argue that among the coming casualties of the climate change crisis may be western ethics-as-usual. For we find that our usual ways of thinking about moral obligations may not be robust enough to define our obligations at a time when the usual ways of thinking have allowed us to drift into the teeth of this terrible storm.
B. If there is any one theme that emerges from Moral Ground, it is that the Western world is undergoing a fundamental change in our answers to basic philosophical questions: What is the world? What is the place of humans in the world? How, then, shall we live? We once might have thought that the Earth was created for our use alone and drew all its value from its usefulness to us, or that we had no obligations except to ourselves, as individuals or as a species. We might have thought that humans find their greatest flourishing as individuals in competition with one another. But ecological science and almost all the religions of the world renounce human exceptionalism as simply false and deeply dangerous. Rather, humans are part of intricate, delicately balanced systems of living and dying that have created a richness of life greater than the world has ever seen. Because we are part of the Earth's systems, we are utterly dependent on their thriving. As humans, we are created and defined by our relation to those great systems; we find our greatest flourishing in cultural and ecological community.
We should probably not be surprised that moral theories devised to fit the prior worldview are not serving us as well in the world that the ecologists describe.
C. However we come to justify claims about our moral obligation to avert the worst effects the environmental emergencies, a number of ideas emerge from the testimony of Moral Ground's writers to suggest the general shape of future moral arguments.
First, there is the matter of match between what is and what ought to be. Philosophers work hard to be sure that moral theories are internally consistent, a minimal requirement for any system that might guide us. But the efficacy of theories depends also on external consistency. Just as Christian ethics gain their moral authority from religious worldviews, other ethics are necessarily linked to particular understandings of the human condition. To the extent that (an important caveat) an ecological explanation of the planet and the place of humankind in its systems gains traction, moral arguments in the future will need to be at least consistent with an ecological understanding of the interconnection of all being. It will not do to have a view of the world that is frankly ecological, while holding moral views drawn from human exceptionalism. A sign of the times to come is the effort we see in the Moral Ground arguments to re-cast moral reasoning (Christian, Buddhist, utilitarian, virtue-based, etc.) in ecological terms.
Second, even as they work within the common framework of ecological thinking, it seems likely that moral arguments about the responsibilities to avert the climate emergencies will be many and varied. One challenge of Western philosophy will be to find a way to make room in the moral world for dozens of reasons. Lawyers call this approach “parallel pleading”: when their clients' lives turn on the efficacy of argument to shape the judgments of judges and juries, attorneys do not trust only one approach. They offer them all, as many appeals to law and precedent and justice as they can muster, on the principle that if one argument doesn't work, maybe another will.
Or put this differently (the reader will see parallel pleading at work here): The enormity of the crisis might well be better answered if philosophers shifted their understanding of their work: not to look for the one most defensible reason to act, but to find a way to embrace all the reasons. What I call the “dead-duck theory of truth,” whereby philosophers shoot at arguments until there's only one crippled and wing-shot bird left standing, may be a way of working that we can no longer afford.
Third, the importance of a wide variety of moral approaches to climate change issues is underscored by sociologists' work on framing issues. It may or may not be the work of philosophers to change the world. But surely we can offer good ideas that might do that job. Persuasion, sociologists are increasingly convinced, is a matter of fitting an argument to the core values of the audience. Speak to Christians about the sacred and holy Earth. Speak to Utilitarians about the future of their grandchildren. Speak to egoists about their legacy. To formulate a wide variety of arguments as carefully and as honorably as we can and to put them into the hands of change-agents may be our most important work.
So off we go, Michael and I, to Wisconsin and Iowa now, then Montana and Georgia, to learn what we can learn from people who give up an evening to talk with their neighbors about the moral principles that might guide them into the next way of living justly and joyously on earth for a very long time. By the time we get home, leaves will have fallen off the trees and darkness will be descending before supper. Snow storms will build over the airports. There is hard work to be
by Kathleen Dean Moore, September 23, 2010 11:20 AM
All week, I've been reporting in from the book tour for Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril
, writing about the questions I get and what I wish I would have said in response. I'm going to do that again today, but first I want to tell a story.
In early September, we were all sitting on the porch of our family's cabin in southeast Alaska, watching a glittering morning, keeping an eye out for feeding whales. When I went around the back of the cabin to pick huckleberries, I heard a sound I didn't recognize. I scanned the nearby forest, then the sharp peaks behind. Nothing that I could see. It sounded like a thousand trumpets underwater, playing Fanfare for the Common Man. No. It sounded like a thousand nestling ravens speaking German. No. It sounded like:
Sandhill cranes, said my daughter-in law.
Sandhill cranes, said my son.
Sandhill cranes! said my granddaughter, Zoey, who is three years old.
We ran our eyes up the forest, up the granite cliffs and tundra, past the clouds until we saw them, a thousand cranes kettling at the top of the blue sky. They swirled there in a disordered gyre, calling and calling. Zoey promptly lay down on her back so she could see straight up. I lay down beside her. We watched the cranes as they gained altitude, the wind cranking the big circle of flopping wings. People had told us the cranes would come on the first north wind in September. I should have been expecting them.
The sky was so blue it seemed white. The cranes seemed enormous, even though they were tiny crosses, so high in the sky. Their calls shook down like autumn leaves. Next to me, Zoey murmured and laughed and called out to these astonishing birds who were flying south as they have done for nine million years.
Oh, may there always be sandhill cranes, I remember praying. And may there always be children who delight in them.
I worry about this. I worry that we have made the world unsafe for cranes and the delight of children. The poet Robinson Jeffers warned us, writing of the heart-breaking beauty that will remain when there is no heart to break for it. But what if it's worse than that? What if it's the heart-broken children who remain in a world without natural beauty?
Which brings me to Question #7. A large man, crisply dressed, came up after all the questions were asked and all the answers were blurted out. He didn't have a question. He had something to tell me, and he wanted to say it in my face: I love my daughter more than anything else in the world. I am not going to sacrifice her future. I am going to make as much money as I can, in whatever way I can, so that she can be safe and comfortable all her life. That's all, he said, and he walked away.
I too love my children and grandchildren more than anything else in the world, and by some kind of commutative principle whereby one instantly loves someone who loves what you love, I wanted to embrace this man. I wanted to talk about our shared love for children and what that asks of us. But he was gone, and so I will say it here.
Sometimes I don't know what to do, I would tell him: what to hope and what to fear, what to invest in and what to give up, what to insist on and what to refuse, how exactly to love my children. But I do know that whatever I do, it has to nourish the lives and the joy of children.
But look at us. We are harming children, even as (especially as) we believe we are acting to provide for them. Think of what we do for our own privileged children. To give them big houses, we cut ancient forests. To give them perfect fruit, we poison their food with pesticides. To give them the latest technologies, we reduce entire valleys to toxic dumps. To give them the best education, we invest in companies that profit from death. To give them peace, we kill other people's children, or send them to be killed, and build enough weapons to kill the children again, kill them 20 times if necessary. It's a tragic irony that the amassing of material wealth in the name of our children's futures — all these things we work so hard to do because we so desperately love them — will harm our children in the end and undermine their chances for a decent life.
This says nothing of what our decisions do to the children who are not privileged. This is not just an irony, it's a moral abomination. These children, in other countries and in the distant country of the future, will never know even the short-term benefits of misusing fossil fuels. But they are the ones who will suffer as the seas rise, as fires scorch cropland, as freshwater becomes desperately scarce, as diseases spread north, as famine returns to lands that had been abundant. The damage to their future is a deliberate theft, a preventable child abuse.
If we have a moral obligation to protect the children, I would tell him, and if environmental harms and climate change are manifestly harmful to them, then we have a moral obligation to expend extraordinary effort to immediately stop those harms and redress the wrongs that we have already done in their names.
What shall we give the children? Sandhill cranes, surely sandhill cranes. And the sweet whistle of the varied thrush in the morning. Frog calls, owl calls, trumpeting whales. Fresh cold water to drink at the end of a saltwater day. Deep green shade. Starfish, and a child's delight in these. Blueberries and potatoes. Safe nights. A sense of decency and fairness that will last them all their lives. Far-sighted
by Kathleen Dean Moore, September 22, 2010 10:51 AM
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
by Kathleen Dean Moore, September 21, 2010 12:00 PM
From City Hall in San Jose, on book tour for Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril
"... Then you will remember why you try so hard to protect this beloved world, and why you must succeed." I finished my talk, paused, and asked for questions. The third question came from a young woman with curly red hair piled on her head like ribbon on a present. She stood up, took a breath so deep it raised her shoulders. This is what she said: "Okay. So I'm on board about climate change. I get it. Now what do I do?"
The room murmured. Mmmm: the whole auditorium, assenting. Heads nodded: white heads, dark heads, heads with hats. This is the question. It isn't easy. Our options are limited, our cities and homes are wastefully designed, destructive ways of living are skillfully protected by tangles of profit and power around the world, and we have run out of time. The most conscientious person is going to have a hard time making significant change.
I was pretty sure that everybody in the room had already checked off everything on the lists of "50 things you can do to save the planet." These lists are all over the internet. Lightbulb Lists, I call them, because #1 is always, switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Of course, every single person should do all fifty of those things. Yes, you should buy local food. Yes, you should avoid beef, a hideous methane machine. Yes, you should unplug your appliances. Yes, you should refuse to invest in companies that profit from death. Yes, you should vote. Yes, you should opt for alternative energies and take the bus to work. Yes, you should refuse to buy poisons or plastic. Yes, and yes, and yes. No excuses, no delay, no exceptions.
All this is important. By these means, you can refuse to make yourself an instrument of destruction and injustice. Corporations are happy to shovel blame onto the consumer who makes the "free choice" for greed and poisons and waste. Don't let them do that.
But refusal isn't enough, and everybody knows it. The room was asking for something different, something bigger. And frankly, I think they were looking for something that wasn't so grief-stricken, that wasn't so... well, so lonely and sad.
I looked down at my notes, but they weren't going to help me. I looked at the young woman who was looking back at me. I loved her for her honesty, loved her for her bewilderment.
"The theologian Frederick Buechner wrote that if you are looking for your calling," I said, "you will find it at the place where your great joy intersects with the world's great need. We are overwhelmed by news of the world's great and desperate need. In that desperation, we forget to think about our great joy. Find that joy," I told the young woman. "Find that need. Go to that intersection. Do that work."
The audience was listening, waiting.
"What is your passion? What do you love? What joy defines who you are? That defines also your work.
"Say your great joy is singing in the choir. You, with the beautiful voices, make it your job to protect the voices of the frogs and the songbirds. Make your church and its lands truly a sanctuary. Replace that great expanse of chemically poisoned lawn with native plants in a wildlife refuge, so that when people walk into the church, they hear the great choir of God's creatures. If you have to, take your choir onto the city streets and bear witness. Is BP's Board of Directors meeting? Is Kmart planning a new parking lot in the marshland? Sing on the street outside the glass doors. Turn Back O Man, Foreswear Thy Foolish Ways. You already know the words.
"Say you are a watercolor painter, and there is nothing you love more than plein air painting. Then organize your fellow painters to protect beautiful landscapes. Find out when the next bulldozer will gouge out the next meadow, and get there before they do. Bring the press. Set up your easels and start to paint the glory of that morning. When the bulldozers come, keep on painting, in brown hues now. Keep on painting, even if you can hardly see through your tears. The next day, go to the site of the next clearcut. Paint there. And the next, so that every person who would destroy a natural place understands that they are destroying something that is beautiful and of deep value.
"Say you are a surfer, and all you want to do is bob on that sea, waiting for the Wave. Then your work is to protect the shining clean waters. Find the poor overworked person whose job is to monitor water quality along your beach. Sign yourself up as her assistant; sign up your buddies. Do some of her work. Find out the sources of pollution and take them on. Organize yourselves into Surfer Dudes for Clean Water and go for it in every way you know how.
"Say you are a grandparent, and there is nothing you care about more than your grandbabies. Then, my god, your work is clear. Grandparents are in a powerful position to protect their grandchildren. We have skills, experience, and knowledge gained over a lifetime of productive work. We vote, and there are a lot of us. Many of us have time. We often have money. Put these assets together and we command the power to shape the new world. How? By organizing our huge political power to elect officials who will get down to the most important work of protecting the life-sustaining systems of the planet. Knock on doors for these politicians, then hold them to account. If they dither or jabber or make excuses, send them home. Madeline's Grandparents for Clean Electricity. Fierce Grandmothers for Safe Food. Retired People for Redwing Swamps. The Grandparent's Coal Boycott.
"The point I want to make is that there is power is sorrow, but there is a greater power in joy. Each of us can make our life into a work of art that expresses our deepest values. There are two steps here. First, do no harm: that's the point of the Lightbulb List. Then, challenge your joy to do great
by Kathleen Dean Moore, September 20, 2010 10:51 AM
Forget fear of public speaking. Forget fear of flying. My biggest fear on this book tour for Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril
is of that moment toward the end of the evening when a student ? it's always a student ? stands up in the back of the auditorium and says, "There's no hope. Nothing I do will make any difference. I can't save the world from climate change or ecological collapse. So I'll just keep on buyin' and burnin', the way I always have. There's no point in sacrificing for nothing."
First I want to shake the student. Then I want to give him a hug. But I'm a philosophy professor, so I challenge his reasoning. "What kind of logic is that? You don't do the right thing because it will have good results. You do the right thing because it's the right thing. What would you say to a slave-owner who made the same kind of argument? Alas, I could free every one of my slaves and it wouldn't make a dent in the slave trade. The institution of slavery is so much bigger than one little owner. So I'll just keep on working these people in the day and chaining them up at night. No point in sacrificing for nothing. What would you say to that? You'd say, It doesn't matter whether you can or cannot change the world. What matters is that you can change yourself. And that's what I say to you."
If it's wrong to take more than your fair share of the Earth's resources and possibilities, leaving what's left of a degraded and destabilized world for people in other nations or other times (and I believe it is); if it's wrong to reap the benefits of the profligate use of fossil fuels and foist off the costs on other people, especially future people who are completely powerless to defend themselves (and I believe it is); if it's wrong to bulldoze what is beautiful and life-giving and billions of years in the making (and I believe it is); if poisoning the water and the air is an utter betrayal of the children, whom we love more than anything else in the world (and I know it is) — then we shouldn't do it. Period. End of question.
We in the western world have inherited a bizarre moral tradition. It's an aberration in the moral history of the universe. But because it has infused our ways of thinking, we think it's the normal — or the only — way to think. The name of the tradition is consequentialism, and its central principle is that an act is right if it has good consequences; otherwise it is wrong. If that's how we judge right and wrong, by this complicated cost-benefit analysis, then we have to be always "fixated on the future," as my friend and co-editor Michael P. Nelson writes, "perpetually...justifying means by their ends. So we have built a society that can be readily disempowered." And of course, the student is completely disempowered — but not by hopelessness. He's disempowered by this bizarre idea that the only acts worth doing are those that will have some sort of payoff.
What I want to tell the student is that there is a huge, essential middle ground between hope and despair. This is not acting-out-of-hope, or failing-to-act-out-of-despair, but acting out of virtue, an affirmation of who we are and what is worthy of us as moral beings. This is integrity, which is consistency between belief and action. To act lovingly because we love. To act justly because we are just. To live gratefully because this life is a gift.
If you are horrified by the gyre of plastic in the middle of the Pacific, I want to tell the student, don't buy plastic. If you think it's terrible what beef cattle are doing to the rivers, don't buy beef. If you don't like the thought of Chinese children boiling out the heavy metals in a junk pile of discarded electronics, don't buy the latest in electronic equipment. If you are sickened by reports of oil slathering the ocean floor, use alternative energies. Like conscientious objectors in any other war, do not allow yourself to be made into an instrument of death and injustice. When all is said and done, make sure that you are able to say you lived a life you believe in, conscientiously refusing what is wrong and destructive, exhibiting in your life choices what is compassionate and just. Even if hope is rapidly failing that you can make a difference to the future of the Earth, you can always make a difference to who you are.
Standing at the podium, trying to steady my voice, here's what I say to the student: "Don't ask, will my acts save the world? Maybe they won't. But ask, do my actions match up with what I most deeply believe is right and good? This is our calling — the calling for you and me and everybody else in the room: To do what is right, even if it does no good; to celebrate and care for the world, even if its fate breaks our