Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Weighing our own prosperity against future generations

Scientific American has a thoughtful piece about the ethics of climate change. Well worth a look: Climate change raises a number of ethical questions. How should we—all of us living today—evaluate the well-being of future generations, given that they are likely to have more material goods than we do? … By emitting greenhouse gases, are the rich perpetrating an injustice on the world’s poor? How should we respond to the small but real chance that climate change could lead to worldwide catastrophe?

Many ethical questions can be settled by common sense. Sophisticated philosophy is rarely needed. All of us are to some extent equipped to face up to the ethical questions raised by climate change. For example, almost everyone recognizes (with some exceptions) the elementary moral principle that you should not do something for your own benefit if it harms another person. True, sometimes you cannot avoid harming someone, and sometimes you may do it accidentally without realizing it. But whenever you cause harm, you should normally compensate the victim.

…In going about our daily lives, each of us causes greenhouse gases to be emitted. Driving a car, using electric power, buying anything whose manufacture or transport consumes energy—all those activities generate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In that way, what we each do for our own benefit harms others. Perhaps at the moment we cannot help it, and in the past we did not realize we were doing it. But the elementary moral principle I mentioned tells us we should try to stop doing it and compensate the people we harm…

John Stuart Mill would have had some thoughts on the subject. From Wikimedia Commons

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