A third strand of hostility to ethics involves protests of “infeasibility.” All views accept some feasibility constraints (e.g., no one proposes magic wands). These usually involve hard physical or economic facts imposed by the world (e.g., we cannot simply declare that the oceans absorb much more carbon dioxide, or that the world is fifty times richer). By contrast, the economic realists’ “feasibility” constraints typically rest on political claims about what we are incapable of, or simply will not do. These are more controversial.
First, denials of political feasibility are notoriously treacherous. In my lifetime, many things previously touted as infeasible by seasoned political commentators and conventional wisdom have occurred (e.g., the fall of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful collapse of apartheid, the election of a black President). Pessimistic predictions based on past experience are not always a good guide to the future. Sometimes we do what (morally) needs to be done regardless of history, especially when there is no other way.
Second, alleged feasibility constraints often contain disguised value judgments, and in ways that prejudice policy. For example, Weisbach suggests an “iron law” of economics correlating wealth with energy use: “we cannot be wealthy without energy” and “energy use goes up with wealth at almost exactly the same rate in every country.”7 Yet notice that insisting on the iron law as a feasibility constraint implicitly rules out some approaches to climate policy, such as reducing overall energy consumption, or decoupling it from well-being, or promoting objectives other than wealth (e.g., freedom, community preservation). For instance, I am sympathetic to the capabilities approach to wellbeing pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Yet many central capabilities do not seem crucially dependent on high levels of material wealth or energy, but can be promoted in other ways (e.g., education, women’s rights, leisure).8 Perhaps we should investigate “iron laws of capability” instead.
Third, when applied to politics, claims of “infeasibility” tend to obscure important ethical questions. It is one thing to say that something cannot happen because it violates the laws of physics, but quite another to say that it cannot because people are not willing to do it. This is especially so when the people in question are us. For instance, Posner and Weisbach repeatedly emphasize that climate justice is infeasible because Americans will not accept its burdens. Hence, they imply that we are the main feasibility constraint that restricts our own climate policy.
While not incoherent, this claim is jarring. In my view, the underlying thought that Americans must promote unjust climate policies because they are incapable of meeting the ethical challenge is and ought to be tough for Americans to take. (Surely we believe we are “better than that.”) Moreover, even if our detractors were right (which they are not), it would be difficult for us to glibly dismiss this as a “feasibility constraint,” as if it were merely some inconvenience imposed by the world.9 Arguably, such a severe moral failure would involve (as President Obama put it) betraying some of our deepest values, and so constitute a serious blow to our very conception of “who we are.” Apparently, on Posner and Weisbach’s account, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” The technocratic language of “infeasibility” obscures this.