June 08, 2014

Do we have to be good to set things right?

Berlaymont building morningI have been somewhat mystified by why some people in my libertarian network have become climate denialists. After all, they are pro-science and generally critical thinkers. Heck, I have often expressed at least climate sceptic sentiments. But yesterday Janet Radcliffe-Richards gave an off the cuff gave an explanation for climate denialism during the Q&A after a talk:

"We have not being doing anything [morally] wrong, hence climate change cannot happen."

Expressed like that it sounds silly. But she argued in her talk (which built on her 2012 Uehiro lectures) that there is a particular, widespread mode of thinking going on here.

The natural order

According to this account there is a natural order which is not just how things are, but intrinsically also a moral order of how good or meritorious different things are. Consider the traditional Aristotelian-Christian worldview with a fallen Earth in the centre of the universe, surrounded by concentric spheres of increasing purity; with all objects, plants, animals, humans and angels forming a Great Chain of Being going towards physical *and* moral perfection.

This natural order view is a metaphysical presupposition that make people look for whose fault something bad is: badness has a moral cause, not just a physical cause. And of course, breaking the natural order is also a transgression against the moral order. The naturalistic fallacy ("natural is good") is however only part of it: good/evil is causally active in what consequences ensue. It is a just world hypothesis applied to everything. This leads to a very problematic assumption: "We have been bad, and we must be good to put things right". This is the error of thinking moral duty is causally responsible for good outcomes.

The Copernican and Darwinian revolutions were upsetting because they ruined this certain and neat order. They separated fact and value absolutely. Suddenly there was no plan - nothing that can be interfered with. No balance of nature. No reason to expect harmony. No reason to expect anything to go well. And not our fault if things go wrong. As Janet put it, most of the world is just a mess and not because of morally bad individuals.

But these revolutions have not truly percolated into our mindset, and many of us still run on parts or fragments of the natural order worldview.

I did nothing wrong, so nothing happened

So when confronted with climate change, I think some of us perform roughly the following reasoning: if I gain possession of something through legitimate means, it is legitimately mine. The same is true for wealth of our society: it has largely come into being through honest work and trade, and hence we are legitimately wealthy. If this is a legitimate process then it cannot have any bad moral or practical consequences. Hence climate change cannot be a problem.

The metaphysical mistake here is of course to assume that morally legitimate actions do not have bad effects.

Of course, this undercutting debunking doesn't mean all forms of climate scepticism are erroneous, just that there is loads of motivated cognition going on. In fact, it cuts the other way too: the view that we have been doing something immoral (consumerism, capitalism, rejection of traditional values, whatever) and hence should and will be punished is equally wrong. Climate change will mainly hurt the poor people who did not historically burn fossil fuel, and really workable interventions are unlikely to be austerity programs or assign blame to people who are major causes. One can and should criticise proposals for fixing the climate on empirical and moral grounds: a lot of them are no good.

One could argue that externalities like pollution have not been borne by the people polluting, and this makes their gains illegitimate. But in order to accept this a person who thinks he has acted legitimately has to overcome the "moral = safe" intuition. If you start out by already thinking what you do might be morally suspect, then you are already open to the possibilities that consequences will be morally or practically bad. But few people are that open about their own core values.

My arguments get knocked down, but I get up again

The natural order argument shows up in all sorts of places, from anti-GMO and anti-vaccination views to conservative/reactionary arguments that the old order is the right one. It is often motivating an unease about changes, but then other arguments used to defend the view: when those arguments are knocked down, it does not change the mind of the proposer since they are not the causes of their belief.

The associated fact/value confusion also shows up in defending many beliefs: because the motivation of developing the belief was a moral one, arguments against the belief implies that the critic is driven by immoral motivations (or even that arguing against it is immoral). Janet used some forms of political correctness as an example in her lecture series, where badly supported views used to support high-minded ideals are defended fiercely from critics, who are denounced as being against the ideals since they critique the views. If you are sceptical of the harms of pornography you must be in favour of the subjugation of women. In the climate debate we see similar polarization: some people imagine their opponents must have been bought by the Koch brothers/the climate bureaucratic complex in order to argue as they do, rather than assume they actually hold the views they hold for normal reasons.

Most readers will no doubt feel that they are too clever to fall into this mess of confusion: it is their opponents who are mixing up facts and values! But unless you have observable objective reasons to think the other side is thinking very differently from your side, with different biases and metaphysical confusions, the best hypothesis is that you are as fallible as them.

As long as we think we have to be good to set the world to order we will either be paralysed by utopianism (nothing cannot be done until everybody is united in niceness), assume that what we do to fix things is the right thing and must not be criticised, or that we should be fatalistic about the threats and problems since they are the way things are. Neither is helpful.

Posted by Anders3 at June 8, 2014 12:21 PM