The Perfect Moral Storm, When the Life Rafts are on Fire

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The climate crisis and its attendant environ­mental disasters have caught the world in the dangerous crosswinds of ecological dis­ruption and human irresponsibility. We are challenged to make world-altering decisions about our current life choices and our obligations to plan­etary and human futures. But when philosophers race across the pitching deck to launch the moral theories that we have long relied on in times of difficult choices, we find that the life rafts themselves are on fire. It is possible to argue that among the coming casualties of the climate change crisis may be Western ethics-as-usual. For we find that our usual ways of thinking about moral obligations may not be robust enough to define our obligations at a time when the usual ways of thinking have allowed us to drift into the teeth of this terrible storm.

This is a serious, even future-threatening, problem. As philosophers are the first to explain, any argument that reaches a conclusion about what we ought to do will have at least two premises. The first is empirical and descriptive, often based on science. Climate sci­entists have achieved a global consensus on the first premise: Climate change is real, it is dangerous, it is upon us. But to reach a prescriptive decision requires a second premise. This is the normative premise, an affirmation of our moral responsibilities to the human and planetary future in the face of this danger. When the normative premise is inchoate—or worse, when moral discourse has gone missing from the public debate—we should not be surprised to find ourselves, and entire nations, unable to respond. Saving a fully thriving future will require not just good science and new technology, but perhaps the greatest exercise of moral imagination the world has ever seen.

Given this, we launched what we call the Second Premise Project, with the goals of amplifying the na­tional discourse about moral obligation in the face of the climate emergency and perhaps achieving a global moral consensus as robust as the scientific one. As part of that project, we called for the testimony of the world’s moral and intellectual leaders, asking one hundred people of wisdom—theologians, poets, phi­losophers, scientists, indigenous wisdom-keepers, statesmen, teachers, and activists—to reflect on these questions: Does the world have an obligation to the fu­ture to avert the worst effects of a lurching climate and impoverished environment? If so, why? What explains our obligation? From every continent save Antarctica, they sent in beautiful, moving, carefully crafted moral argument.[1] (If they didn’t, we scoured their publica­tions for important answers and reprinted them.) We published this collected work as Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Trinity University Press, 2010), and we are using it to inform and ener­gize town hall and radio discussions across the nation.

In the meantime, it is possible to draw from this collected wisdom some ideas about the directions that public discourse about public and personal responsi­bility might well take. Drawing on the arguments col­lected in Moral Ground, this paper (a) summarizes claims about the insufficiency of several traditional Western moral theories to define the moral impera­tives of the planetary crisis, (b) suggests some of the conditions that a sufficient theory should meet, and (c) puts on the table for discussion four disparate ideas for how we might more usefully think about our moral obligations: re­sponsibilities based on a people’s right to culture, responsibilities based on gratitude, responsibili­ties grounded in person­al integrity, and respon­sibilities that grow from love.

The Trouble We Find Ourselves In

We can begin by ac­knowledging that human decisions have landed us in this environmental crisis, however much the effects of human decisions may or may not be magnified by naturally changing conditions. Whether this is a result of widespread human failure to live up to the moral standards set by the worldviews we profess to believe, or whether the moral standards themselves have not asked enough—or the right things—of us, or indeed whether the worldviews and consequent moral guid­ance have actively led us to disastrous decisions does not need to be settled here. There is surely some truth in all these explanations. The tragedy may be that gen­erally good and well-meaning people, making what they can argue are sensible decisions, have created an instability that threatens to destroy the planetary conditions for human and other lives in all their abun­dance and variety.

In this context, usual ways of Western thinking about ethics may not be able to help us. Consider, for example, utilitarianism. One would think that a con­sequentialist theory, with its exclusive emphasis on the future results of an act, would be ideally suited to guide thinking about our obligations to the future. But what a morass utilitarian thought about climate change has become. How does one weigh the benefits and burdens of a decision when the benefits are here and now and the burdens far away in place and time?  Can we discount—and to what degree—the costs to the future?  How does one factor in the costs to non-human life? Does cumulative human happiness trump considerations of justice? Are we to weigh costs to this generation against costs to the next, the next one hun­dred, an infinitude of generations? How do we calcu­late the benefits and burdens when we have only the slightest idea of how our decisions will play out in the confused seas of the future? If our well-meaning deci­sions cause some potential persons never to be born, have they been harmed? Is it better to be born into an awful life than never to be born at all? These are ques­tions that utilitarianism itself cannot answer.

And then there is this: Critics point out that indi­vidual sacrifices will in all likelihood have a negligible effect on stabilizing the climate. If so, utilitarianism struggles to ask anything of us at all. Sometimes it seems that climate change has taken all the objections to utilitarianism raised by our undergraduate students and given them monstrous life. The greatest of the monsters is hopelessness.

A number of philosophers—notably Dale Jamie­son and J. Baird Callicott—point out how difficult it is for traditional theories about rights to guide our thinking about the rights of future generations. To paraphrase Jamieson: We understand that when Jill steals Jack’s bicycle, Jill has violated Jack’s property right. But when, say, the cumulative effect of the lives of 3.2 billion Jills means that an indeterminate num­ber of Jacks a hundred years in the future will not be able to own a bicycle, who has violated what right, and whose right is it? And what sense does it make to as­sign people rights when the people in question don’t even exist?

If rights are a matter of the relative claims of in­dividuals who are in a position to harm one another as they compete for scarce resources (as philosophers have held for hundreds of years), then climate-change ethics may not meet the basic conditions of a discourse of rights. Competition for scarce resources? Check. Relative claims of individuals? Maybe not. The cli­mate change crisis puts an entire generation in com­petition with its posterity; it pits one culture against another; it asks one nation to answer collectively for the harms it has done to another. Individuals who are in a position to harm one another? Again, maybe not. An economist famously asked, “What has posterity ever done for me?” But we may ask the reverse: “How is posterity ever going to hurt me?” It’s hard to imag­ine the revenge of the future against the past (although it might be a salutatory exercise). So it would seem that if we want to talk about rights claims in regard to climate change—and we may very well want to do this—we will need to be talking about something that differs in some important ways from traditional rights theory.

But there may be a larger point to make about the insufficiency of traditional Western moral theories to guide us in a time of climate change. Taking a global view, scientists tell us that the Earth’s planetary sys­tems are approaching a tipping point—a time of dra­matic and irreversible change that the planet has not seen for a very long time. When we pull back and take a larger view of ethics, we may realize that the Earth is shifting under moral theory as well.

If there is any one theme that emerges from the Second Premise Project, it is that the Western world is undergoing a fundamental change in our answers to basic philosophical questions: What is the world? What is the place of humans in it? How, then, shall we live? We might once have thought that the Earth was created for our use alone and that it drew all its value from its usefulness to us, or that we had no obligations except to ourselves, as individuals or as a species. We might have thought that humans find their greatest flourishing as individuals in competition with one another. But ecological science and almost all the reli­gions of the world renounce human exceptionalism as simply false and deeply dangerous. Rather, humans are part of intricate, delicately balanced systems of living and dying that have created a richness of life great­er than the world has ever seen. Because we are part of the Earth’s systems, we are utterly dependent on their thriving. As humans, we are created and defined by our relation to those great systems; we find our great­est flourishing in cultural and ecological community.

We should probably not be surprised that moral theories devised to fit the prior worldview are not serv­ing us as well in the world that the ecologists describe.

What We Need Next

However we come to justify claims about our mor­al obligation to avert the worst effects of the environ­mental emergencies, a number of ideas emerge from the testimony in Moral Ground to suggest the general shape of future moral arguments.

First, there is the matter of match between on­tology and ethics. Philosophers work hard to be sure that moral theories are internally consistent, a minimal requirement for any system that might guide us. But the efficacy of theories depends also on external consistency. Just as Christian ethics gains its moral authority from religious worldviews, other ethics are necessarily linked to particular understandings of the human condition. To the extent that (an important ca­veat) an ecological explanation of the planet and the place of humankind in its systems gains traction, mor­al arguments in the future must be at least consistent with an ecological understanding of the interconnec­tion of all being. It will not do to have a view of the world that is frankly ecological while holding moral views drawn from human exceptionalism. A sign of the times to come is the effort we see in the Second Premise Project arguments to re-cast moral reasoning (Christian, Buddhist, utilitarian, virtue-based, etc.) in ecological terms.

Second, even as they work within the common framework of ecological thinking, it seems likely that moral arguments about the responsibilities to avert the climate emergencies will be many and varied. One challenge of Western philosophy will be to find a way to make room in the moral world for dozens of reasons. Lawyers call this approach “parallel pleading”: when their clients’ lives turn on the efficacy of argument to shape the judgments of judges and juries, attor­neys do not trust only one approach. They of­fer them all—as many appeals to law and precedent and justice as they can muster—on the principle that if one argument doesn’t work, maybe another will.

Or to put this dif­ferently (the reader will see parallel pleading at work here): The enor­mity of the crisis might well be better answered if philosophers shifted their understanding of their work, not to look for the one most defensible reason to act, but to find a way to embrace all the reasons.  What the authors call the “dead-duck theory of truth”—whereby philosophers shoot at arguments until there’s only one crippled and wing-shot bird left standing—may be a way of working that we can no longer afford. 

Third, the importance of a wide variety of moral approaches to climate change issues is underscored by sociologists’ work on framing issues. It may or may not be the work of philosophers to change the world. But surely we can offer good ideas that might do that job. Persuasion, so­ciologists are increasing­ly convinced, is a matter of fitting an argument to the core values of the au­dience. Speak to Chris­tians about the sacred and holy Earth. Speak to utilitarians about the future of their grandchildren. Speak to egoists about their legacy. To formulate a wide variety of arguments as carefully and as honorably as we can and to put them into the hands of change agents may be our most important work.

Some Interesting and Promising Ideas

Among the hundred or so arguments that people of wisdom have sent us are many that have caught our attention especially, either because they seem to offer something new or because they seem to have particu­lar power at this point in history. Acknowledging that in this setting we can offer only the barest sketches of the arguments, we excerpt and describe several of them here. None of them are new; in fact, some of them are already the subject of lively philosophical de­bate. What may be new about them is how urgently and poignantly they speak to current situations. What may be promising about them is how powerfully they call to Western moral philosophers to listen to (and to collaborate with) people outside their philosophical communities.

The right to culture. In speeches around the globe, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, former International Chair for the Inuit Circumpolar Council, makes the following argument:

We Inuit live in four countries of Canada, Alaska, USA, Greenland and Russia. And we’re about 155,000 Inuit in the entire world, at the top of the world, in the land of the cold, the ice and the snow. . . . Among the harms that we have suffered both in Canada and Alaska are the eroded land­scape, the contaminated drinking water, the coastal losses because of erosion, the melting permafrost that is now causing beach slump­ing and increased snowfall in some areas, not enough snow in other areas, longer sea-ice-free seasons. New species of birds and fish and insects have arrived in the Arctic, which we don’t even have names for half the time. There are unpredictable sea-ice conditions. Glaciers are melting, creating torrential rivers instead of streams, and now we have more drownings where our hunters thought they could cross safely. . . . It’s becoming very stark, and it’s be­coming a real dangerous reality for many of us up there. And so, it is starting to undermine the ecosystem, of course, on the very land, the ice, and the snow that we depend for our own physical and cultural survival. . . .

What we’re saying to the governments is, you must develop your economies using appro­priate technologies that limit the pollution, that limit the greenhouse gases that are at the root of what is happening in the Arctic and the melting of the glaciers and the ice and the snow . . .

. . . in fact what we are doing here is we are de­fending our right to culture, our right to lands traditionally used and occupied, our right to health, our right to physical security, our right to our own means of subsistence and our rights to residence and movement. And as our cul­ture, again, as I say, is based on the cold, the ice and snow, we are in essence defending our right to be cold.[2]

Here is important and potentially fruitful work for philosophers. How can we understand the right to cul­ture? If there is a right to culture, does that imply a corresponding right to the ecological conditions neces­sary to the survival of that culture? Are we speaking of a peoples’ right to culture, or of the rights of cultures themselves? Are they morally considerable? The in­sight that we think may be most important here, cer­tainly worthy of serious thought, is the expansion of the sphere of moral concern beyond individual humans to the astonishing and (heretofore) lasting ways of life they have collectively created in particular places. 

Responsibilities of gratitude. We were surprised to find that an argument from gratitude came to us from three very different places, an ethical convergence we never anticipated: from Robin Kimmerer, mycologist and member of the Citizens Band Potawatami tribe; from His Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bar­tholomew; and from Professor Courtney Campbell, a member of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Al­though they differ in details, the argument is essen­tially this: The gifts of the Earth (what we cravenly call “natural resources” or “ecosystem services”) are freely given—rain, sun, fresh air, rich soil, all the abundance that nourishes our lives and spirits. Perhaps they are given to us by God or the gods; maybe they are the fruits of a fecund Earth. It doesn’t matter to the ar­gument: let that be a mystery, why we are chosen to receive such amazing gifts. What is important is that they are given. We do not earn these gifts. We have no claim on them. If they were taken away, there is noth­ing we could do to get them back. At the same time, we are utterly dependent on these gifts. Without them, we quickly die. This unequal relationship, the relation­ship of giver and receiver of gifts, makes all the moral difference.

We understand the ethics of gift-giving. To receive a gift requires us to be grateful. To dishonor or disre­gard the gift—to ruin it, or waste it, or grind it into the ground, to turn it against the giver or lay greedy claim to it or sourly complain—all these violate our responsibilities as a recipient. Rather, to be grateful is to honor the gift in our words and our actions, to say, “This is a great gift,” and to protect it and use it well. In this way, gratitude calls us to attentiveness, celebration, and careful use.

Furthermore, an important part of gratitude is reciprocity, the responsibility to give in return. We give in return when we use our gifts well for the ben­efit of the Earth and the inhabitants who depend on its generosity. In this way, gratitude for our abundant gifts is the root of our moral obligation to the future to avert the coming environmental calamities and leave a world as rich in possibilities as the world that has been given to us.

Responsibilities grounded in personal integrity. Bill McKibben bleakly states the challenge to moral thought: “The chance that we will in fact ‘leave to the future a world as least as rich in possibilities as the world that was left to us’ is nil. As in, not going to hap­pen. We have effectively ended the Holocene, the ten thousand years of climatic stability that allowed hu­man society to establish itself, and then to flourish.”[3]

This is a problem. We have built a society fixated on the future, perpetually risking all the attendant problems of justifying means by their ends. We have therefore built a society that can be readily disempow­ered by hopelessness. The conviction that no matter what we do, we can’t help but diminish and destabi­lize the planet, is an invitation to hopelessness and the wholesale abandonment of ethics. However, as Spi­noza wrote, “lack of power consists only in this, that a man allows himself to be guided by things outside him, and to be determined by them.” Because our vir­tue is the one thing that is within our control, we are invited by the bleak scenario to take virtue ethics very seriously. The Second Premise Project brought forth a number of richly provocative (and often inspiring) explorations of how a virtue ethic might guide us. Con­sider, for example, Dale Jamieson:

My point is simple, if radical. I have suggested that climate change poses a fundamental chal­lenge to how we think of our lives having mean­ing, and that respecting those who will follow is part of how we might constructively respond to this challenge. Such a response does not de­pend on sweeping views about rights, duties, and responsibilities, but only on modest views about what gives our lives meaning. What makes our lives worth living is the activities we engage in that are in accordance with our values, whatever happens in the world. If we live in this way, even if our cause isn’t success­ful, we will have lived a life that is worthwhile because it will be a life that is authentically our own.[4]

As utilitarian and deontological moral reasoning get sort of wobbly around the knees in this most per­fect of moral storms, virtue ethics might be a personal flotation device worth holding on to. Our environmen­tal woes, a virtue-based argument might continue, are ultimately the result of not acting rightly as people of moral integrity. Instead, we are morally unthinking; we act selfishly, unwisely, and arrogantly; we fail to consider and enact an appropriately inclusive sense of moral responsibility; we lie to ourselves about the harms we cause and allow to be caused; we dumbly fail to fully account for the negative impacts of our actions and our policies. Our hypocrisy is a wonder to behold. The thrust of this argument is not swayed or impacted by moral excuse-making. The prediction that acting in accordance with our values, acting as people of moral integrity, might not impact the world, help the future, or stop global climate change is irrelevant. Without an overt decision to be a person of moral integrity—to be a person who does what she or he believes is right—we will forever be unable to fulfill our obligations to one another and certainly to the future.

If this is so, then a virtue ethic may be a way to go forward, a way to find reason to act rightly, even in a time as dangerous as our own, and by that means to create a most lasting culture. The possibility is worth serious thought.

Responsibilities that grow from love. What does it mean to love a place? We do fall in love with places, there is no doubt. The crest of a mountain, the child­hood shelter behind the hedge, the rockwrack shore of the sea, the lilac in bloom by the bus stop—each of us has a place that makes us feel whole and happy and alive. Sometimes, we fall in love with the entirety of these, the global home so beautiful from space, with its glowing blue skin and soft clouds. Loving a place is a way of feeling connected and at peace. But loving is also a way of acting. Can we claim to love a place if we skim it for our own gain, or slash it and leave it to die? Just as in loving a person, loving a place means being kind to it, protecting it, caring about its well-being as much as your own.

That analogy is the basis of what has come to be called the “ecological ethic of care.” Humans are born to love. When we are most fully blessed, we are born into loving relationships, with people and with plac­es. We have treasured memories of caring and being cared for, of sheltering and being sheltered. Our moral responsibilities grow from those relationships. Just so, because we love the world are born to—a world now so deeply imperiled—we have a responsibility to come to its defense.

A Call to Moral Discourse

We call on universities, media, civic organizations, churches, neighborhoods to create the social spaces for a great national conversation about what the environ­mental emergencies ask of us as moral beings. In this perfect moral storm, we need to build a floating ark of ideas in response to the global challenge to the moral imagination—ideas expressed in all the languages of love, grief, prayer, philosophical analysis, and storms.

[1]. For the purposes of the book, we group the arguments in fifteen categories based on the nature of the appeal. To honor the arguments in all their variety and uniqueness, we chose not to force them into the usual categories of utilitarian, deontological, etc., although readers can see how this might be done. The appeals are as follows:

In a time of climate change and other environmental calamities, do we have a moral obli­gation to the future to leave a world as rich in possibilities as the world we live in?

• Yes, because the survival of humankind depends on it.

• Yes, for the sake of the children.

• Yes, for the sake of the Earth itself.

• Yes, for the sake of the sparrows and seagrass, for newborn whales and tons of krill, for fish like confetti on coral reefs, for lignonberries and the paw-prints of bears, for each of these and all the others.

• Yes, because the gifts of the Earth are freely given, and we are called to gratitude and reciprocity.

• Yes, for the full expression of human virtue.

• Yes, because all flourishing is mutual.

• Yes, for the stewardship of God’s creation.

• Yes, because compassion requires us to reduce or prevent suffering.

• Yes, because justice demands it.

• Yes, because the world is beautiful.

• Yes, because we love the world.

• Yes, to honor the rights of future generations of all species.

• Yes, for the honor and celebration of the Earth and Earth systems.

• Yes, because our moral integrity requires us to do what is right.

[2]. S. Watt-Cloutier, speaking at “Indigenous Peoples’ Resistance to Economic Globalization: A Celebration of Victories, Rights and Cultures,” held by Democracy Now, November 23, 2006, New York, NY; transcript available at

[3]. B. McKibben, “Something Braver Than Trying to Save the World,” in K. Dean Moore and M.P. Nelson, eds., Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (San Antonio, TX: Trinity University Press, 2010), 174-77.

[4]. D. Jamieson, “A Life Worth Living,” in Moore and Nelson, eds., Moral Ground, 183-88.

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