In my last post, I used the example of one particularly widespread argument against the Kyoto Protocols as an example of the sort of inappropriate moral relativism which is often used in politics. I made the case that you cannot ethically use the argument that “if they don’t do x, we shouldn’t do x” on this—or any other—issue. And yet, in the comments, one poster completely ignored my argument and rehashed the very position I had been criticizing.
According to the International Energy Agency, as much as 85 percent of the projected increase in CO2 emissions over the next 20 years will be produced in exempt countries like China. As long as China is exempt from Kyoto (or the like), what evidence shows that the rest of us – even in unanimous die-hard commitment- can put a dent in the climate change problem?
Not to put to fine a point on it, this is simply a morally bankrupt argument. Would we argue that because our efforts will not make a dent in the level of global infidelity in society, we should not bother being faithful to our spouses? Others will continue to steal whether or not I do—so why shouldn’t I get mine? My lack of participation hasn’t made any splash in the drunk driving rate, so why shouldn’t I go ahead and get liquored up behind the wheel?
We should expect ourselves to do the moral, the just thing, regardless of what others do, regardless of whether we think it will make a difference. We are called to fight the good fight because it is right.
And will it make a difference? Maybe not. But maybe—just maybe—when the most wealthy and economic power is willing to repent for its monumental contribution to the problem in question (carbon emissions and global climate change) by committing to and achieving massive change, that leadership may inspire other nations to follow our example. I am an idealist, and I do believe in miracles. I could be naive. But I can absolutely guarantee that no dent will be made if nobody is willing to make the committment.
This commentor brings up another issue of morality important to address in all realms of politics and social action.
We have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this earth. I do not feel morally obligated to support international treaties that would slow wage growth, widen the rich-poor gap by eliminating the middle class, or raise taxes. Government action is will coerced. Coerced morality is not morality at all.
People of the libertarian persuasion often bring up the immorality of government coercion in rejecting government action on a given topic. Because government’s authority ultimately comes from the point of a gun, any claims to morality are merely pretense. The only real morality is individual in action.
I agree that freedom is a crucial concern, as I noted in my post “Social Justice III: The Libertarian Criticism of Social Justice”. However, this claim does not trump all other concerns. No libertarian I know of would claim that murder should be legal. I’ve heard of none who would claim that freedom of speech permits people to use that speech to deliberately put others in harms way (the classic “yelling fire in a crowded theater” scenario). No libertarian politician has suggested theft should be decriminalized. No, even libertarians recognize what John Stewart Mill referred to as the harm principle.
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (On Liberty)
Government has the authority, granted it by the consent of the people, to restrict the freedom of the people when the exercise of that freedom would result in harm to others. Say what you want about the government’s monopoly on violence; given the widely recognized harm principle, it is fundamentally immoral for the government not to use its power to prevent direct harm to others in the name of freedom.
There is a great deal of evidence that the byproducts of our consumption (the production of the goods we use, the powering and use of those goods, the disposal of those goods, the energy to transport those goods or ourselves, et al) is causing great harm to others. This happens on a local scale (along the Wasatch Front, there are a number of days each winter and summer when we are advised not to breath the air). And I believe that there is pretty comprehensive evidence that this is also happening on a global scale.
As I said in my original post, there are other arguments which can be made the Kyoto Protocols. You may believe that human activity does not impact climate, that our consumption activities cause no direct harm in that regard. If the volume of scientific data and opinion which has come forth in the past couple decades hasn’t convinced you, I’m certainly not about to try here. You may believe that there are other methods are more likely to effect positive change than international agreements or federal legislation. I may disagree with those arguments, but they are morally legitimate positions. The “they’re not, so I won’t” and government coercion arguments are not. When people use those arguments, they undercut any sort of rational discourse and any moral authority they might have.