Invisible Hands

Optimism sometimes reveals itself in another way.30 When attacking ethics those attracted to self-interest usually invoke short-term economic considerations. However, in defending their own views they often appeal to much wider concerns (e.g., many invoke the children and grandchildren, and so implicitly expand “self-interest” to include two or-three generations’ worth of interests).31 Yet it is far from clear that economic realists can have it both ways. Moreover, it seems highly implausible that current institutions reliably pursue the interests of the next few generations, and very bold for realists to assume that they can (feasibly) be made to do so.

One way to reconcile these two very different conceptions of national self-interest would be to posit an invisible hand, claiming that pursuit of short-term economic interest turns out to be the best strategy for promoting (say) the three-generational interest, since short-term economic growth ultimately produces benefits that trickle down the generations. Unfortunately, this argument faces major challenges in this context.

First, the invisible hand lacks the usual material with which to do its work. Climate change involves a massive externality: the biggest market failure the world has ever seen, according to the economist Nicholas Stern.32 Given spatial, temporal, and ecological dispersion, the costs of climate change are currently not adequately registered by market prices. (For instance, future generations cannot buy up the coal to keep it in the ground.)

Second, climate change appears to be a serious collective action problem, and such problems produce the opposite of an invisible hand: situations where each agent’s pursuit of her own objectives frustrates the realization of those objectives (an “invisible boot”). For instance, if severe impacts occur, there is strong reason to believe that this will undermine the accumulation of economic benefits into the future. Proponents of the invisible hand in other contexts might thus see climate change as a threat to the conditions under which current invisible hand mechanisms work, especially in the long-term. Thus, they should be concerned to protect those mechanisms through climate action.

In any case, intergenerational concern is probably best understood in ethical terms. One reason is that the attempt to subsume concern even for three generations under “self-interest” is dubious: the vertical descent (“our children and grandchildren”) model seems too limited to do the necessary work. Some people do not have or care about children or grandchildren. Even for those who do, the implications may be limited. People typically have very few children and grandchildren. Consequently, concern for their immediate descendants does not automatically justify concern for the three generations of the entire population, whether of their nation, or of humanity as such (e.g., perhaps a large inheritance is a better bet for protecting one’s own kids than climate action). More robust concern for the future needs to be more horizontal. This requires wider (ethical) values.

A second reason is that concern for three generations would be insufficient to the ethical challenge. Climate change has implications for thousands of years, some potentially catastrophic. For example, consider the possibility of a massive release of methane from the deep ocean, which scientists say may be more devastating than the Permian extinction, the worse extinction event in the planet’s history. Such “time bombs” are difficult to address without an overt appeal to ethics.

Third, a radical expansion of perceived self-interest to three generations muddies the waters between an ethical and egoistic approach. It is egoistic in a standard sense to be concerned for one’s children only insofar as they are instrumental in producing tangible benefits for oneself, such as pleasure and security in old age. However, to genuinely value them for their own sake and take their interests as partially constitutive of one’s own good is something else, and less easily separated from ethics. (Aristotle, for example, is often thought to offer a formally egoistic theory, since he says that both moral virtue (including justice) and the good of one’s friends are to be valued for their own sake, but also as part of one’s own good. Yet Aristotle’s is still a theory of ethics.)

One issue with the separation is that once one defines “one’s own good” to include the good of others, valued for their own sakes, it is no longer clear what is at stake in the dispute. (As Aristotle points out, it is not the usual problem with egoism: that the egoists are selfish.) A second issue is that, if one insists that people who value their children and grandchildren for their own sakes regard this as a central part of “who they are,” one should acknowledge that many also value justice and other ethical concerns in the same way. To call one “self-interest” and the other “ethics” requires a good argument. Without one, the exclusion of values like justice seems arbitrary.

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