A. COLONIZATION PROBLEM
In keeping with the constitutive view, when it comes to theory, economic realists usually embrace a very expansive concept of perceived self-interest. For instance, Posner and Weisbach say that altruism counts (“most people are altruistic to some extent, and it is in their interest to satisfy this altruism”16). Moreover, strikingly, they are willing to count almost anything as “altruistic,” including views at the heart of climate ethics, such as “moral” commitments to “the well-being of people living in the distant future” or to “environmentalism.”17 Consequently, perceived selfinterest swallows all.
This expansive account appears to involve a colonization of ethics; hence one might have expected the Chicago lawyers to have no theoretical objection to mainstream ethical positions. Nevertheless, Posner and Weisbach explicitly endorse the contrary position: that the expansive view rules out climate ethics. In particular, they brand their opponents “idealists” who believe that “nations should not act in their self-interest—even in the broad sense that includes altruism”18. This claim seems highly prejudicial. It threatens to paint ethics into a very (perhaps vanishingly) small box. Why suppose that climate ethics must go beyond arguing for altruism, especially if this includes moral commitments to future people and to environmentalism? Moreover, if even such moral commitments count as “self-interested,” what views would not? Are there any? If so, why are only these called “ethics”?
I will return to the expansive view in a moment. However, first it is worth highlighting that in practice economic realists usually emphasize a very different, shortterm, and narrowly economic conception of national self-interest. For instance, Posner and Weisbach insist that “states (and not just the United States) define their selfinterest in [narrow] terms, oriented mainly toward wealth and security,”19 that International Paretianism “probably requires that all states that participate in a climate treaty are economically better off,”20 that past climate policy does “not depart from nations’ perceived short-term self- interest,”21 and that “most nations have only modest forms of altruism.”22 Indeed, they declare that their conception of International Paretianism “rules out” even the possibility of persuading the United States (and similar nations) that they have a moral obligation to bear climate burdens that reflect their wealth and responsibility. This view, Posner and Weisbach say, is based on a reading of history: “we do not expect Americans (or people in other countries) to define their national interest so capaciously because they never have in the past.”23
The contrast between the expansive concept of selfinterest and the narrow conception is stark. On the expansive, moral commitments to future generations and environmentalism are subsumed in perceived self-interest, and so might play a strong role; on the narrow, most moral argument is ruled out. Oscillation between these perspectives often makes particular economic realists hard to pin down.
The narrow view is more threatening to ethics, but also highly controversial. Personally, I find its restrictions on national self-interest unconvincing, and the empirical thesis dubious (e.g., consider the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade). Still, my main complaint is that there is an alternate explanation for any historically observed narrowness. According to my reading of the perfect moral storm, existing institutions fail to capture people’s genuine intergenerational and ecological concerns, and the main ethical challenge facing our generation is to fill this institutional gap. Past failures only highlight this. Consequently, suggesting, as Posner and Weisbach do, that such failures define us is not merely ethically shocking, it obscures what needs to be done.