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 done.