Ethics as Facilitator

While I tend to be more pessimistic about current institutions than economic realists, I remain more optimistic about the role of ethics in facilitating change. Rather than presenting an obstacle, a more generous account of our self-understanding suggests a powerful motivator of climate action: since the perfect storm threatens our evaluation of ourselves, it may also inspire us to do, and be, more.

Most obviously, persistent inaction may lead future people to regard the current generation as the “scum of the Earth”: a group of ruthless self-asserters, who cared nothing for the interests of others or nature.33 Few want to be remembered that way. Less obviously, we may also be seen as merely shallow and apathetic bunglers, more to be pitied than reviled. In one respect, this is worse. Though they have bad motives, the scum are, at least, effective agents. Shallow bunglers are inept as well as destructive. This suggests further ethical motivation for climate action: to show that we are capable of (much) more.

Importantly, there is also a positive side to this ethical situation. On my account, the charge is not really that we are mere bunglers. The perfect moral storm is a profound ethical challenge, and the world bequeathed to us seems not only ill equipped to address it, but also to raise major obstacles. Consequently, success may take extreme effort, and constitute a heroic achievement. Given this, confronting climate change provides us with an opportunity not merely to avoid being seen as scum or bunglers, but also to become a truly great generation. Even valiant failure may earn us a seat at the table. Moreover, if we leave humanity much more capable of meeting global, intergenerational, and ecological challenges in general— of addressing not just climate change but other perfect moral storms as they emerge—we have a shot at becoming the greatest generation so far. If “who we are” ethically speaking forms a central part of our self-conception, this is powerful stuff.

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