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Why aren't more philosophers involved in discussions and policy on global

Why aren't more philosophers involved in discussions and policy on global warming? It is a desperate issue to be addressed and regardless of the philosophical stance in regard to it (i.e. moral skepticism), moral reasons and moral knowledge motivate action in a profound way! I do not think that much progress can be made towards addressing global warming unless the moral seriousness of the matter becomes clear to people and our unjustified indifference is slashed. The culture and spirit of the time should inspire philosophy, just as the excessive violence inspired Descartes in his skeptical exploits. If philosophers, whose reason is supposed to be strong to say the least don't get very involved, who should? I'm sure that this is a bit outlandish, but under what current conditions does a philosopher not have an obligation to get involved? Also, this would be a nice way to reconnect philosophy to the world, especially since a lot of its progress is connected to the insights of philosophy and reason.

I don't know about other philosophers, but their reluctance may be motivated by thoughts such as those Gerald Gaus expresses in his essay "Should Philosophers Apply Ethics?" in Think (2005), pp. 63-67, available at

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=THI&tab=mostdown...

I am involved in a new organization called ASAP -- Academics Stand Against Poverty -- which (in a soon-to-be-posted essay) has examined and argued against Gaus's arguments and is now very actively doing the kinds of things that Gaus warns against. You can find some relevant material on our website www.academicsstand.org. You will there also find that one of our current projects is "Climate Voices", a project that focuses on global warming and its effects on people whose home environment is made uninhabitable thereby. This project is, by the way, essentially run by students.

I don't know about other philosophers, but their reluctance may be motivated by thoughts such as those Gerald Gaus expresses in his essay "Should Philosophers Apply Ethics?" in Think (2005), pp. 63-67, available at http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayJournal?jid=THI&tab=mostdownloaded I am involved in a new organization called ASAP -- Academics Stand Against Poverty -- which (in a soon-to-be-posted essay) has examined and argued against Gaus's arguments and is now very actively doing the kinds of things that Gaus warns against. You can find some relevant material on our website www.academicsstand.org . You will there also find that one of our current projects is "Climate Voices", a project that focuses on global warming and its effects on people whose home environment is made uninhabitable thereby. This project is, by the way, essentially run by students.

Over at TED.com, a website where videos are posted of speakers discussing things

Over at TED.com, a website where videos are posted of speakers discussing things from consciousness and virtual reality to comedy and architecture, there are often talks dealing with issues such as hunger, AIDS, and poverty. Shockingly, to me, many people who post comments on these videos strongly oppose measures helping those suffering based on the fact that "there are already far too many people on this planet." Helping those who are currently dying or otherwise suffering, the logic goes, increases the ecological and economical burden on the world by letting more people live longer and healthier lives, which, they seem to think, will ultimately worsen conditions for everyone via lack of resources. So my question is this. Assume it is true that there are too many people on this planet (a debatable fact that depends on what metrics one uses). Is it then ethical to let millions die because helping them would further increase the ecological burden humanity places on the planet?

I let others answer the hypothetical. The key point to stress in response to such comments is that the assumption on which they are based is empirically false (see my answer to question 2459 at www.askphilosophers.org/question/2459). We are fortunate that the moral imperative to eradicate the massive incidence of hunger, severe poverty and trivial diseases is in harmony with the moral imperative to bequeath a sustainable world, with a sustainable human population, to future generations. It is very unfortunate that this fact is not widely known. It should be stressed in any discussion of your hypothetical: a morally attractive and highly cost-effective way of slowing human population growth is to fight hunger, severe poverty and trivial diseases and to promote education, especiaally for girls and women.

I let others answer the hypothetical. The key point to stress in response to such comments is that the assumption on which they are based is empirically false (see my answer to question 2459 at www.askphilosophers.org/question/2459 ). We are fortunate that the moral imperative to eradicate the massive incidence of hunger, severe poverty and trivial diseases is in harmony with the moral imperative to bequeath a sustainable world, with a sustainable human population, to future generations. It is very unfortunate that this fact is not widely known. It should be stressed in any discussion of your hypothetical: a morally attractive and highly cost-effective way of slowing human population growth is to fight hunger, severe poverty and trivial diseases and to promote education, especiaally for girls and women.

It's becoming increasingly clear that democratic societies are incapable of

It's becoming increasingly clear that democratic societies are incapable of solving long-range, diffuse ecological problems such as climate change and peak oil, which, although indistinct and nebulous, pose what are potentially existential threats to whole populations. How serious a threat does this pose to the legitimacy of democracy? A related question, or perhaps the same question in different language: the inter-generational transfer of resources which democracies permit is clearly immoral, and profoundly so. At what point does this immorality trump the morality inherent in democratic institutions?

I agree with Thomas that it would be nice if we could identify multiple forms of government that can handle these ecological issues -- it would be much better to be able to make comparative assessments of those forms of governments and their capacities and legitimacies than to contemplate, say, the prospect that no existing form of government may be able to handle these crises or that no combination of current governments may be able to work effectively together to tackle them in concert.

But does our ability to assess the impact, if any, of those crises no the legitimacy of our government depends on knowing that "another, non-democratic form of government" has the capacity and realistic prospects to address those issues?

On the one hand, knowledge of that sort could cause us to create a comparative assessment on which the urgency and significance of those crises makes that non-democratic form of government preferable to our own. Whether or not that sort of comparison could also motivate an argument that our democratic government has less legitimacy than we think it does, I'm unsure.

On the other hand, I think there is some plausibility in thinking that a strong case that our form of government lacks the capacity to handle those issues--and has little realistic prospect to reform itself to be able to address them in time to help prevent global catastrophe--may lessen its legitimacy. At least, I agree with the questioner that the existence of ecological catastrophes on a global scale would represent a fundamental challenge to governments, and having in hand a strong case that (1) there is a strong case that such global castrophes will occur unless there is effective governmental action and (2) the prospects for democratic reform of the sort that Thomas discusses are dim might well motivate an argument that would threaten the legitimacy of our form of government.

I don't know whether those two points can be strongly defended, but those are the two issues that I would address to investigate whether these prospective crises do effect the legitimacy of democratic governments, and I think we can do this without having already identified a different form of government that is able to handle those crises.

There is a hidden assumption in your questions, namely that we know another, non-democratic form of government under which distant ecological threats and intergenerational injustice would be adequately tackled. In my view, this assumption is false. Any government is run by human beings, and human beings have more togain by making decisions favorable to the living than by makingdecisions favorable to future populations. But if you disagree, and know of a non-democratic form of government that would do the trick, I would like to know which this is and, more eagerly, what evidence you have for your view. For the time being, I would then look elsewhere to a solution to the very serious problems you highlight. I would think hard about reforms of the present systems of democracy to make them more likely to take the more distant future into account. How can this be done? First, we might institute an independent agency that, for any major piece of legislation, prepares a future impact assessment of it...

Scientists, artists, poets, technocrats..., philosophers (etc.) ..., all may

Scientists, artists, poets, technocrats..., philosophers (etc.) ..., all may respond in their differing ways to a phenomenon like global warming. What might philosophers bring to this serious planetary crisis?

Philosophers can bring reflection on the responsibilities that contributors to global pollution have toward foreigners, future people, and animals and the rest of nature.

Foreigners. Global warming is likely to cause severe harms to foreigners -- from draughts in Africa to flooding in Bangladesh -- especially to foreigners who are poor and vulnerable (who, for this reason, are themselves only very minimal contributors to global warming). Most of us shrug off the thought that we owe them anything. We think it's alright to pollute or that our individual contribution is too small to matter. Is this an adequate response if millions die prematurely as a result of the pollution we together produce?

Future people. Global warming is likely to have devastating effects far in the future. In cost-benefit analyses, it is common to discount the interests of future people, typically by 3 percent per annum. This is thought plausible in analogy to how individuals discount future pains and pleasures -- we are much more distraught when we face death tomorrow than we when face death in 40 years. But is the discounting of future people really plausible? Are deaths in 23 years only half as important, and deaths in 53 years one-fifth as important as deaths today? Is one human death today the moral equivalent of 500 deaths in 204 years, ... of 300,000 deaths in 414 years, of 17 trillion human deaths in 1000 years?

Animals and the rest of nature. Global warming may wipe out many biological species and destroy places of natural beauty. Do these losses have any disvalue beyond the significance they have for us? Or are we human beings permitted to destroy all these beings and places so long as we are ready to do without them?

Philosophers can bring reflection on the responsibilities that contributors to global pollution have toward foreigners, future people, and animals and the rest of nature. Foreigners. Global warming is likely to cause severe harms to foreigners -- from draughts in Africa to flooding in Bangladesh -- especially to foreigners who are poor and vulnerable (who, for this reason, are themselves only very minimal contributors to global warming). Most of us shrug off the thought that we owe them anything. We think it's alright to pollute or that our individual contribution is too small to matter. Is this an adequate response if millions die prematurely as a result of the pollution we together produce? Future people. Global warming is likely to have devastating effects far in the future. In cost-benefit analyses, it is common to discount the interests of future people, typically by 3 percent per annum. This is thought plausible in analogy to how individuals discount future pains and pleasures -- we are...

What can explain the blindspot of mainstream politics that prevents global

What can explain the blindspot of mainstream politics that prevents global warming from being the biggest current agenda? This question is not possible to answer unless you accept the blatant assumption within it viz. that global warming should be the biggest current agenda that our intellectual, moral and political efforts should focus on. I believe this because I have read from various sources that it is scientific consensus that current levels of energy consumption will lead to global environmental catastrophe within a short time period. If you accept this, then this issue really smokes out all of the other important social causes that make up the majority of political discourse. I don’t believe, for example, that democracy matters in the true sense of peoples’ interests being weighted equally and determining equally political outcomes, when – whatever can be said of the virtues of such an ideal – this isn’t the way decisions are made in realpolitik – the amount of political discourse about spreading...

I think there are three plausible candidates for the title of most urgent issue on humanity's political agenda. Global warming is is one. A substantial change in the global climate, induced by human activities, might well have catastrophic consequences.

The second, somewhat related problem is that of world poverty. Today, the bottom half of humankind are still living in severe poverty, and quite avoidably so: the bottom half of the human income hierarchy have less than 2 percent of global income and even much less of global wealth. Among these people, some 850 million are reported to be chronically undernourished, 1037 million to be without access to safe water, 2600 million without access to improved sanitation, about 2000 million without access to essential drugs, some 1000 million without adequate shelter, and 2000 million without electricity. Some 18 million of them (including 10.6 million children under five) die prematurely each year from poverty-related causes, which amounts to nearly one-third of all human deaths.

These two problems are related in that the global poor are vastly more vulnerable to climate change than the rest of us who can prepare and protect ourselves.

The third problem is that of major wars involving weapons of mass destruction. This problem has receded from public consciousness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the overkill capacities of the major powers still exist. And, more disturbingly, new countries, such as India and Pakistan, have been joining the club. Sanctifying their accession by waiving the Pressler Amendment in the aftermath of 9/11 (on 9/22/2001), the Bush administration has severely undermined the principle of non-proliferation by encouraging other countries (such as Iran) to strive for nuclear weapons as well. The message is that we will scold and discourage you while you strive to develop such weapons but, once you have them, we will restore good relations. So there is no long-term cost involved in developing a nuclear deterrent. And there is a great cost in remaining without such a deterrent, as major Western powers deem themselves entitled to invade and occupy other countries, even without UN Security Council authorization.

I don't think it is especially important to work out which of these three problems is the most urgent. What is important is that all three of them receive far less attention than they merit. Why is this?

One significant factor with regard to problems 1 and 3 is surely the short-term orientation of the world's major agents: corporations, national governments and their international organizations. Corporate executives are focused on the price of their company's shares in the short term, and politicians are focused on the next elections. Both groups fear that spreading concerns about possible future catastrophes might undermine that on which their success depends: share prices and incumbents' popularity.

Problem 2 is a different matter, as this catastrophe is happening right now. It is ignored because it does not hurt the agents that matter: politicians, corporate executies, the mass media and their paying customers.

To correct the skewed emphasis of our public discourse, ordinary people must take an interest in the important problems and mobilize to place them on the political agenda. Such popular movements exist -- a global green movement focusing on climate change, a global anti-poverty movement focusing on the lopsided distribution of the benefits from globalization, and a global peace movement focusing on military aggression, arms exports and proliferation. These movements are strong enough to make a difference, but they could be much stronger and better focused if they had more citizen input and support. We do better to give such input and support, I think, than to wait for our governments to live up to their most vital responsibilities.

I think there are three plausible candidates for the title of most urgent issue on humanity's political agenda. Global warming is is one. A substantial change in the global climate, induced by human activities, might well have catastrophic consequences. The second, somewhat related problem is that of world poverty. Today, the bottom half of humankind are still living in severe poverty, and quite avoidably so: the bottom half of the human income hierarchy have less than 2 percent of global income and even much less of global wealth. Among these people, some 850 million are reported to be chronically undernourished, 1037 million to be without access to safe water, 2600 million without access to improved sanitation, about 2000 million without access to essential drugs, some 1000 million without adequate shelter, and 2000 million without electricity. Some 18 million of them (including 10.6 million children under five) die prematurely each year from poverty-related causes, which amounts to nearly one...

Regardless of all the technological and agricultural improvements made since the

Regardless of all the technological and agricultural improvements made since the end of the 18th century when Malthus wrote his essay on population, there are more people living in extreme poverty today than there were people (in total) living when his essay was published. This is consistent with what Malthus claimed: there is no way for human population centers to live within their means -- any increase in resources will inevitably lead to a rise in population until the available resources are again insufficient to maintain the population. The seemingly noble cause of ending world hunger, if doable even for a relatively short time, would ultimately lead to more poverty and hunger (barring some unknown hole in Malthus' theory). Is it ethical to help someone in need today if you are quite certain this will only cause more people to suffer later?

Yes, the fact you cite is consistent with what Malthus claimed. But many other facts are not. There is a strong negative correlation between countries' affluence and their fertility: The more affluent countries tend to have lower fertility, with many affluent countries having fertility rates well below what is needed to maintain their population (Italy's and Spain's are now at 1.28 children per woman, Japan's and Germany's at 1.39, versus 4.96 for Kenya -- find data for other countries e.g. in the CIA World Factbook on the web).

The negative correlation holds diachronically within countries as well: As countries become more affluent, their fertility rate drops. This phenomenon can be observed the world over, across continents and cultures. A good example is the Indian state of Kerala. It used to be among the poorer ones in terms of per capita income, but has had a very strong and effective commitment to the fulfillment of basic social and economic needs, including education for women. In the 1950's, Kerala had a fertility rate of 5.6 children per woman; it was down to 4.1 in 1971, and in 1993 it stood at 1.7 (well below the replacement level of 2.05!). The decline is substantially steeper than the one achieved in China with a very heavy-handed one-child-per-couple policy. It demonstrates conclusively that a dramatic and fully sufficient reduction in fertility can be achieved without coercion. And this even at rather low levels of economic sufficiency: Although Kerala has (because of its emphasis on nutrition, medical care, education, and consequently falling fertility) achieved better economic growth (ca. 6%) than the rest of India and now has higher per capita income than India as a whole, its per capita income is still only about US$700 per person per year (as compared to US$30,000 plus in the affluent countries).

So it's just factually incorrect that, as people can afford more children, they'll have more. In the real world, the exact opposite is true: Among those who have a lot of offspring, the very poor are greatly overrepresented -- because they fear that their survival in old age depends on having children who take care of them and because they fear that a substantial proportion of their offspring will not survive to adulthood.

Contrary to what you say, then, the best way to get fertility rates down without coercion and to reduce future human population numbers is to eradicate severe poverty.

Yes, the fact you cite is consistent with what Malthus claimed. But many other facts are not. There is a strong negative correlation between countries' affluence and their fertility: The more affluent countries tend to have lower fertility, with many affluent countries having fertility rates well below what is needed to maintain their population (Italy's and Spain's are now at 1.28 children per woman, Japan's and Germany's at 1.39, versus 4.96 for Kenya -- find data for other countries e.g. in the CIA World Factbook on the web). The negative correlation holds diachronically within countries as well: As countries become more affluent, their fertility rate drops. This phenomenon can be observed the world over, across continents and cultures. A good example is the Indian state of Kerala. It used to be among the poorer ones in terms of per capita income, but has had a very strong and effective commitment to the fulfillment of basic social and economic needs, including education for women. In...

How immoral (amoral?) is it that, despite rising awareness over the past few

How immoral (amoral?) is it that, despite rising awareness over the past few decades of "Spaceship Earth's" limited resources and carrying capacity, we continue to pursue a growth-dependent economy and grossly materialistic lifestyles that are clearly unsustainable and must have catastrophic consequences, if not for ourselves, probably for our own children and certainly for coming generations. Since we are all participating in the plundering and spoiling of our planet, with whom does responsibility lie? And does the fact, that we are in "collective denial" of the consequences in any way reduce or excuse our culpability? Roger Hicks

It is not quite right to say that we are all participating in the spoiling of our planet. While the 16 percent of world population residing in the high-income countries live on around $30,000 annually on average, the bottom half of humankind live on less (often very much less) than $1,300 annually at purchasing power parity (corresponding to roughly $300 at market exchange rates). The bottom half are consuming and burdening the environment, but not excessively so. Nearly all the harms the question highlights are produced by their wealthier compatriots in the poorer countries and (especially) by the populations of the high-income countries.

This point heightens our responsibility. We are plundering our planet and also appropriating the spoils of this plunder so lopsidedly that half of the human population still lives in dire poverty, which exposes 850 million people to hunger and malnutrition (UNDP) and causes millions of deaths (including annually 10.6 million children under age 5) from poverty-related causes (UNICEF).

Responsibility falls on political leaders of industrialized and industrializing countries. Though some governments are doing much better than others in restraining the contributions their corporations and citizens make to environmental degradation and the persistence of severe poverty, nearly all societies are contributing far too much to these harms. In reasonably free and democratic societies at least, responsibility for these contributions is shared by ordinary adult citizens who can organize themselves to change the legal rules and policies of their government and can also make personal efforts to mitigate the harms their society is contributing to. Here greater responsibility falls on citizens who are more privileged and influential, and also on those who profit more from the injustice. They ought to make greater efforts at social reforms or mitigation of harms.

Collective denial may render some such citizens less blameworthy -- those who really never had reason to doubt that the environment is in good shape and that globalization is reducing poverty just as quickly as possible. But most adult citizens in the high-income countries and most affluent citizens in the industrializing countries do not fit this description. They have reason to think, and decide not to. Each of them bears some share of responsibility for the ongoing harms of global poverty as well as for the present and foreseeable harms of resource depletion and environmental degradation. Given the magnitude of the harms at stake, this responsibility is quite substantial.

It is not quite right to say that we are all participating in the spoiling of our planet. While the 16 percent of world population residing in the high-income countries live on around $30,000 annually on average, the bottom half of humankind live on less (often very much less) than $1,300 annually at purchasing power parity (corresponding to roughly $300 at market exchange rates). The bottom half are consuming and burdening the environment, but not excessively so. Nearly all the harms the question highlights are produced by their wealthier compatriots in the poorer countries and (especially) by the populations of the high-income countries. This point heightens our responsibility. We are plundering our planet and also appropriating the spoils of this plunder so lopsidedly that half of the human population still lives in dire poverty, which exposes 850 million people to hunger and malnutrition (UNDP) and causes millions of deaths (including annually 10.6 million children under age 5) from poverty...