Marginalization by Definition

To begin with, ethics should not be ruled out of policy by definitional fiat. In my view, ethical analysis is an essential part of policy work. Understanding values and ethical parameters is a vital step in identifying the problem to be solved, providing guidance on how it may be addressed, and assessing whether proposed solutions are acceptable. Consequently, dismissing ethics would require a strong argument. Ruling it out by definition is no argument.

Worse, the “pure policy” approach disguises what is really going on. Since values are essential, the approach effectively relinquishes the ethical decisions to “technical” experts, often obscuring their value judgments behind a veil of technical language. This is not only morally and politically inappropriate, but also dangerous, especially in a perfect moral storm where the threat of corruption is high.

The “philosophy vs. what works” framing should also be rejected, since it invites two common prejudices. The first is that the ethics camp is involved in some mysterious, abstract, and otherworldly endeavor (“philosophy”) that is out of touch with reality, irrelevant to action, and ultimately pointless. In context, this prejudice is ill founded. The central concerns of climate ethics are issues such as suffering, vulnerability, injustice, rights, and responsibilities. These are hardly mysterious, otherworldly, or pointless concerns. Moreover, it is difficult to see how they could be set aside in an analysis of “what works.” To put the point polemically, “if climate policy ignores issues such as preventing suffering, injustice and massive human rights violations, what is it concerned with?” (“What is the point of it?”) Given the intelligibility constraints mentioned in chapter 2, this is not an empty challenge.

The second common prejudice is that “philosophy” and “ethics” are somehow the purview of starry-eyed idealists too naive for the real world, and so likely to bring on well- intentioned folly. However, there is nothing “starry-eyed” about the perfect moral storm analysis, or consideration of the real sufferings, vulnerabilities and responsibilities brought on by climate change. These are central aspects of the problem to be confronted (and presuppose a rather grim reality). Moreover, ambitious ideals can be found in both camps. Consider, for example, the common assumption that current national institutions can be relied upon to pursue the best interests of the next few generations, or Posner and Sunstein’s background goal of maximizing global welfare. Why think such views are notably less politically naive than mainstream climate ethics?

A more evenhanded contrast than “philosophy vs. what works” might be between “what works” and “what matters" This framing tends to valorize ethics. (How could talk about “what matters” be irrelevant, or dangerous?) It also makes it clear why ethics cannot easily be dismissed from policy. (How can you determine “what works” without considering what matters?)

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