We need a better concept of collective morality to be able to deal with climate change

Suppose God told you that you would go to hell if the median human faith of humanity is insufficient when you die. If the median faith of humanity is good enough, then everyone goes to heaven, but if not, than everyone goes to hell. That would be a radically different kind of religion than any the world has seen; it would be a religion with a universal collective morality rather than focused on individual morality. Collective issues like climate change are like this because mother nature will judge every individual based on humanity’s collective actions and ignore how people behaved as individuals.

Westerners are particularly individualistic and most try to focus upon the morality of each person’s individual actions. We are taught that we should mind our own business about other people’s morality because other people’s choices are their individual personal responsibility. Western moral philosophers have neglected collective moral responsibility and when they do identify it, it is often disparaged because some forms of collective morality are problematic including:

  1. Intergenerational moral guilt is an idea that is in the Old Testament. It condemns descendants for the sins of their fathers “unto the third and fourth generation.” Even more dramatically, it says that all humans are collectively punished for the original sin of Adam and Eve. Some of the calls for reparations for slavery are based upon ancestral sin to atone for ancestral trauma. A better justification for reparations would be to forget about intergenerational moral guilt and just look at intergenerational wealth inheritance. People don’t inherit wealth due to any moral merit and if someone inherited something that is stolen, then that should be returned even though there is no moral guilt upon the possessor unless they knowingly try to keep stolen goods.
  2. A more common instinct for collective morality is moral tribalism. For example, Russian-speaking kids who live outside of Russia are being bullied around the world because of being blamed for Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. This kind of collective morality comes all too easily to human instinct, and it is one of the motivations for nationalistic wars and racism. This kind of collective morality leads to the guilt by association fallacy such as when Putin bombs Ukrainian civilians because they support the Ukrainian resistance and so they are partly guilty by association.
  3. Corporate anthropomorphism wherein people act like a corporation (or other group) is a moral person that is separate from the individuals that run it. This is frequently used to shield decision makers from moral responsibility as illustrated by the concept of limited liability.

Now we need a new kind of collective morality to help address global problems like climate change. Individual morality isn’t enough and inter-generational morality won’t suffice and tribalistic morality just creates strife and pulls peoples apart when we really need for everyone to pull together. We need a universal collective morality because global warming is a moral issue unlike any the world has faced before. With previous moral issues, each individual’s harms created identifiable victims because the harms were much more concentrated. For example, untreated sewage had the biggest impact on the nearest neighbors downstream and reducing it immediately increases their chances of staying healthy. But no individual* creates enough greenhouse gas to have any effect on anyone whatsoever. Humans will be judged collectively for the total greenhouse gasses and the amount any individual contributes is too small to have a measurable impact.

It doesn’t matter whether I stop producing greenhouse gasses entirely or whether I produce 100 times more. My carbon footprint affects nobody. Nonetheless, most people cannot stop thinking selfishly about their own individual responsibility for global warming. When someone entirely stops producing carbon emissions, that just means that they are doing nothing to solve the real problem. We need a collective response to solve climate change, not just individual responses. You might quibble that the collective response is just the sum of individual responses, but even a lot of individual responses are not going to be enough. For example, a large nation like the US cannot solve the problem by eliminating our greenhouse gas emissions because that will just delay the inevitable by about 11%. Even if all the rich countries in the world completely eliminated their greenhouse gas emissions, it would only delay climate change because the majority of greenhouse gas emissions are now being produced by developing nations and their emissions are growing rapidly. What the planet truly needs is a way for developing countries to grow economically without the massive carbon emissions that rich countries relied upon to get rich. It isn’t fair that rich nations got rich by burning massive amounts of fossil fuels and the globe cannot afford to let everyone else follow the same path too. What we really need is an alternative path to solve climate change. Rich nations simply cannot solve the problem by cutting emissions without finding a way for developing nations to develop without burning lots of carbon.

Another way to illustrate the moral issues is to think of it as a trolley problem. Suppose you are on a trolley together with eight billion people, and it is careening toward a precipice. Nearly every single person on the trolley is pushing it towards the cliff. Some are pushing it harder than others, and you are have been pushing harder than most, but If you stop pushing the trolley, it isn’t going to make any difference at all. If you stop pushing, there is no reason at all to feel smug about it because you have done literally nothing to solve the problem. To solve the problem will require everyone else to stop pushing the trolley too, so your primary moral responsibility is to convince as many people as possible to stop pushing. That matters much more than how much you yourself are pushing the trolley.

When Greta Thurnberg came to America to campaign for greenhouse gas reductions, she sailed across the Atlantic rather than flying in an airplane because she felt a personal responsibility to avoid the carbon produced by buying an airplane ticket. But the carbon produced by an airplane trip literally makes zero difference and humans will ultimately be judged for our collective greenhouse emissions, not for anyone’s individual emissions. If her voyage helped convince the world to collectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then it doesn’t matter if she rode on an airplane. Even worse, her sailing trip caused some of the sailors to fly across the ocean, so even though Greta could feel virtuous that she hadn’t flown herself, she actually caused more flights than if she had just bought an airplane ticket for herself. A focus on individual moral purity solves nothing. The important question is whether the sailing trip helped her influence the world to find a collective solution or whether it made her less influential because it allegedly made her seem elitist and out of touch.

Each person needs to transfer more resources away from thinking about our own carbon footprint and put more resources into solving the collective carbon footprint. Reducing your own carbon footprint is only worth doing if it also helps influence others to do the same. For example, buying solar panels can help develop economies of scale which will help lower costs and hasten the day when solar is cheaper than fossil fuels. But when people focus on their own individual carbon footprint there is a danger of falling into moral license in which they feel like they have done their part and don’t have to worry about what other people are doing about global warming. Another danger is self-righteousness which could alienate other people who we need to join the effort. The priority for Americans who are worried about climate change should be to influence their fellow Americans to care. So far we cannot even get a majority of Americans to agree to make any sacrifice to reduce global warming and if we can’t even get most people in rich nations to care, then individual sacrifices are doomed to failure.

To return to the original thought experiment, if you want to go to heaven and eligibility is entirely dependent upon the collective faith of humanity rather than your own individual faith, then you would put most of your efforts into building up other people’s faith. The only effort you would put into maintaining your own faith would be the bare minimum necessary to keep up your efforts for helping others build the collective faith. Global warming is the same kind of moral issue. Don’t worry about your individual carbon footprint except so much as it helps you influence the carbon footprint of the rest of the world.

As Jesus might say based upon Matthew 7:5:

If having a log of wood in your own eye helps you remove specks from other people’s eyes, then don’t worry about the log in your own eye. Only worry about the log in your own eye if it impacts how much you can reduce the total wood in all eyes.

This is the kind of universal collective morality we need to deal with global issues like climate change.

*If you believe the corporate anthropomorphist idea that corporations are people, then the 25 largest fossil-fuel corporations produce 50% of carbon emissions! But they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of billions of customers, and millions of workers so the individual responsibility is still very diffuse.

Posted in Environment, Philosophy and ethics

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