Collective Responsibility / Universal Law

As a student of Philosophy, this is a topic that is often on my mind – and is one that applies to all types of ethics, environmental or otherwise. It was finishing George Monbiot’s Heat a couple of days ago, though, that made me think it was time for a post on the subject. Indeed, it ties in quite well with my last post ‘The Power of Children’, but if it seems like I’m turning away from eco-issues and turning into a lecture series, please forgive me, it is topical, and important – honest.

The reason I felt like writing about this after finishing Heat, was because of the huge ‘ask’ Monboit is trying to make of his readers. He, like many others who have investigated scientists’ claims about climate change, states that we need to make an 80 or even 90% cut in our carbon emissions rates if we are to stay under the critical 2 degrees that is the danger warming threshold for this planet.

The text is full of attempts to demonstrate how we might do this, how we might possibly turn from huge retailers to internet delivery, change the way we build and heat our houses… and plenty of other ideas. But his main message at the end talks about the government’s willingness to fail on making carbon commitments. He says this is because, really, the government knows we want it to fail. We want to be able to keep buying cheap flights, we want the airline industry to stay as it is (at the very least), we want to have the luxury of leaving the heating on some times, of driving in our cars. We are used to being pampered with our 21st Century lifestyle; having hot water on demand, and electricity at our finger tips. So, whether it is conscious or subconscious for some – we are actually quite happy to continue raising the temperature. We don’t want to make sacrifices. I read this and I thought: well that makes a lot of sense.

Of course, the fact that others are unwilling to make sacrifices also has a negative effect on those who might do.  ‘What good will it make for me to cycle instead of use the car?  No one else does’ etc.  This argument comes up a lot in ethics – and it can be embedded in peoples’ attitudes – the ‘if he won’t change, why should I?’ gambit.

Yet, good reason to turn against this negative and defeatist fallacy comes from many a different ethicist, and, importantly, also from logic.  Kant, for example, applied ‘Universal Law’ to his ethical theories.  This means that to work out what is right we first work out whether we would like our action to be universalised.  If I’m thinking of killing someone, would I like that to become universal practise?  If I am in my right mind I would reason no, and, therefore, work out that killing someone might not actually be morally acceptable.

In terms of moral action, this is often the argument I think of when some one who is lazy, or apathetic, uses other peoples’ bad attitudes as means of excuse.  Do I want this attitude universalised?  No.  No, because I appreciate that if we all acted a little more thoughtfully, if we all valued the planet a little more – things might not have reached this dire point in the first place.  This theory, though often expressed in different ways, is found in numerous ethical systems, and logically, it makes sense.  Using other peoples’ attitudes is never justification for having a bad one yourself, and the work of any great movement is always driven by the determined work of individuals – people who are willing to go against the grain for a cause that they believe in.  Topically, the current Reith lectures by Aung San Suu Kyi demonstrate this message very powerfully, and it is easy to think of examples of other figures who have stood against the tide and changed things because of the strength of their beliefs.  As the Chinese proverb says – it is a single grain of rice that tips the scale.

That is how I think we should try to see ourselves; not as a drop in the ocean but as the single grain of rice which might make all the difference.  No good can come from being won over by defeatism, and feeling uninspired by the sheer number of people who don’t seem to care about their carbon footprint, what goes in the recycling, turning the lights off etc – because by giving in to those people we only add to the problem.  By changing your ways you are making a (admittedly, probably small) contribution to making things better, not only by being responsible but also by embodying a change in attitude that we very much need.  It is this attitude change that Monbiot is really asking for in Heat.  Imagine how capable and powerful we would all be if we all stepped up to this challenge and changed.

About EcoTheme

Welcome to EcoTheme. I’m from the the county of Dorset in the South West of England. Having studied environmental ethics and written a Masters dissertation on the ethics of sustainable living I now work with Campaign against Climate Change and Greenpeace. I started EcoTheme to present discussion and views on things going on in the environmental world. It should become clear through my posts that I believe our environmental problems to be the most pressing matters of the day – not simply because I place value in our natural world but also because it is the platform on which all life depends.
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