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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The philosophical problem of having obligations to future generations (and hence, future people) is a very interesting one; far too complex of a discussion to do any justice to in a blog comment. But I will say that the analysis gets very tricky when we start to bring in the language of 'rights' and 'obligations' when we talk about potential beings. The so-called 'problem of the subject(s)' comes to the forefront; that is, there are no subjects to which we can assign harm or injustice to, a similar obstacle that pops up when trying to assign posthumous harms and injustices to the deceased. That people born in 2200 are harmed by actions/omissions that we perform now poses all sorts of philosophical problems, like trying to establish a date of when the harm takes place (at present and before they are born, or after they are born and when we are dead and gone?). Compare this case with one in which a villain plants a bomb in a pre-school 7 years before it detonates, and the victims, who are under the age of 6, all were, in some sense, 'harmed' before they were even born (assuming determinism) by the villian's treacherous deeds before they even existed. Then there is that legal case (which I only remember vaguely) in which a plaintiff, born into unfortunate circumstance, tried to file a civil suit against her parents for an 'unrightful birth', or something to that effect. If my memory serves me correctly, Joel Feinberg touches on these and related issues in his work, "Harm to Others: The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law", and I think he cites some authors for further reading if you might be interested.
-Michael Gentzel
Johns Hopkins University