Monday, January 28, 2008
Beware of Philosophers!
A lot of people assume that there are some deep ethical issues involved in considering climate change - the sort of issues that call for an expert consultation. It reminds me of the early days of medical ethics when philosophers had beepers and doctors would call them in for emergency consults. Then as now, I worried that as the philosopher worried about all the considerations and all the possibilities, the patient died! Philosophers mostly traffic in undermining our sense of certainty – at its best, to echo Bertrand Russell, we substitute articulate hesitation for inarticulate certainty. We don’t do especially well when presented with hesitation in search certainty! Beware of philosophers! We will just end up creating more hesitation. Take our obligations to future generations. That we have such obligations may seem screamingly obvious. But in fact the idea is rife with problems since those future generations don’t exist and might not exist given our current actions. Destroy the planet and there will be no future generations to which we failed in our obligations. Now hold on! That can’t be right. And of course it isn’t. But it turns out to be much harder than one might think to apply the language of rights and obligations to potential beings than actual ones. This turns out to be a really interesting philosophical problem. But resolving it is not really important for the problem at hand. To think otherwise is to misapply the standard of precision of philosophy.