Graduation year: 2022
Semester/year area of interest proposed: Spring 2020
Major status: ENVS minor
Other major (if applicable): Philosophy
Minor(s) (if applicable): Environmental Studies
I want to examine the relationship between ethical ideologies and policy relating to climate change. There are three main theories of ethics; virtue, deontology, and utilitarianism. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, have written tirelessly on the topic of ethics. They focus specifically on virtue ethics in an attempt to understand the basis of morality. John Stewart Mill, a 19th century British philosopher details his theories in support of utilitarianism. In his view, an action is right if and only if it maximizes utility. This means that actions are right if they produce the maximum amount of happiness. Happiness, to Mill, means pleasure. Immanuel Kant, a 19th century German philosopher, sparked a philosophical movement when he introduced Kantianism, a theory of deontology. Kant’s categorical imperative outlines a series of rules that distinguish right from wrong. Actions are only good, according to Kant, if they are done for the sole purpose of duty and never because of perceived consequences. The three main theories of ethics have set the foundation for the ethical norms we see today in society. These norms provide a way for people throughout history to gauge good from bad and right from wrong.
Experts and individuals have been debating what to do about climate change for almost 50 years. Since the publication of Limits to Growth in 1972, the world has been exposed to the possible consequences of anthropogenic climate change. After the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 1990, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 was the first time countries came together to discuss the need for behavioral changes for a sustainable future. The U.S. began to take action towards environmental policy early on and was a leader when the environmental movement was first gaining ground. However, we do not have national policies in place that limit emissions of greenhouse gasses extensively enough to keep the planet below a warming threshold of 2 degrees Celsius. In order to curb greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., we must establish regulations. The reason that this is so difficult to do is because of the controversy surrounding both the issue of climate change and the diversity of policy options.
Controversy can be a healthy tool in investigating best practices. In the field of ethics, philosophers endlessly debate their theories. How might the classic influential philosophers contextualize our climate change dilemma? Since all of the philosophers I have referred to are dead, I investigate the application of their frameworks to the modern day dilemma through the use of applied ethics.
In order to explore this question with more detail, I focus on a controversial and current legislative bill. The Green New Deal is a 2019 Congressional bill with objectives that include national net-zero emissions, high paying jobs for Americans, investment in infrastructure, and help provide clean air and water for all socio-economic classes. All of these things would seemingly help millions of people in the US and around the world with little cost to voters. If it is assumed that the majority of voting age Americans would like to consider themselves following at least basic ethical norms, then what is stopping them from voting for the Green New Deal?
A virtue ethicist such as Plato or Aristotle would ask, what would a virtuous person do? This is a problem because the virtuous person someone might choose would be subjective. Answering this question would be speculative at best. Aristotle would say that the law has failed if morality is no longer represented in it. But what does morality mean for Aristotle? Aristotle would say to do whatever would result in human flourishing, or Eudaimonia (Timmons, 2012). The problem here is that people have different opinions about what human flourishing might mean. If we were to assume that the Green New Deal were to result in overall improved environmental and economic conditions, then Aristotle would probably have to say that we should be in support of it. This is because, if humans are less preoccupied by the stress of their economic status and the state of the planet, they would have more time to focus on their true purpose. This purpose for Aristotle, is reason. It is the thing that we can do that no other thing can. The problem is, we cannot just assume this premise and there is no way to prove that the Green New Deal would result in overall benefit.
There is no direct way to prove that one type of legislation or one legislative bill would result in more overall happiness than another. More importantly, the consideration of efficiency leads one directly on a path towards utilitarianism. Mill would say to vote for the Green New Deal if it resulted in increased pleasure and decreased pain for the most amount of people affected. Environmentalists, politicians, and economists all have conflicting opinions regarding what would be the most efficient way to mitigate climate change. Bjorn Lumborg is an economist and the former head of the Danish government’s Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen. He has strong economics based opinions on climate change policy and has written many books on its behest. He said in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, “Just because there is a problem doesn’t mean that we have to solve it, if the cure is going to be more expensive than the original ailment” (Lumborg, 1998). He thinks that climate change is a problem but there are more immediate problems we should be focusing on such as hunger and poverty. He has been deeply criticized by the scientific community for starting a large following of climate skeptics that deter from the climate movement and for treating humans as mere numbers. Lumborg would probably say that his ideals would lead to the most net pleasure whereas a large portion of the scientific community might disagree.
Kant would say that we must never treat others as a mere means but as ends in themselves. We should do things for the sake of duty alone. This means that we should not do something for the perceived outcome, but for the sake of doing the right thing. Something is right if it is in accordance with duty. To determine what a Kantian would say, we must put it in terms of a universalized maxim. In other words, we have to imagine a rule that if everyone followed it, the results would not be chaos. For example, imagine I were to follow the rule that it is okay to lie. We would then have to imagine a world where everyone was lying all the time. This world would be impossible to live in. So, if everyone were to not vote for climate change legislation, the Earth would most likely be worse off. But, if everyone were to not vote for the Green New Deal, it is impossible to tell whether the world would be worse off because there could be an alternative legislative bill.
- What would philosophers such as Kant, Socrates, and Aristotle say about ethical duty to help others?
- What are all the different reasons why US voting age citizens would/would not support climate change regulation?
- Why is climate legislation moving at its current pace?
- Is political controversy affecting the future of our planet?
- What determines right from wrong and how will this help society decide how to mitigate climate change?
PHIL 250 (Philosophical Methods) Fall 2020. I will learn philosophical methods, concepts, distinctions, and areas of systematic philosophical inquiry.
PHIL 451 (Philosophical Studies: History of Philosophy) Fall 2020. Advanced study of movements and philosophers throughout history.
PHIL 452 (Philosophical Studies: Topics in Value Theory) Fall 2021. Advanced study of classical and current philosophical issues and problems in value theory, including the philosophy of art and beauty, ethics and morality, philosophy of religion, social and political thought, and the philosophy of law.
PHIL 453 (Philosophical Studies: Advanced Themes in Philosophy) Fall 2021. Advanced study of topics of ethics, metaphysics, and other topics other than value theory. It will be a closer look at the concepts already studied and include various writing assignments where students will practice true philosophical thought.
Here are the required breadth courses I will include in my ENVS major/minor: BIO 201, ENVS 460, PHIL 215. These are in addition to my ENVS core courses, and the area of interest courses I propose above.
Revisions to date
Joel Martinez-Faculty Advisor 4/7 and 3/3
- Be more concise
- Don’t generalize or group together different ideas
- Include utilitarianism
Jessica Kleiss-Instructor 4/3
- Focus on a specific bill that’s interesting
- Don’t focus too much on that bill
- Be specific and site sources
- Include altering views, like Bjorn Lumborg
- Do not make an argument
- Explain for people who are not familiar with philosophy
- Percival, Robert V. 1991. “Checks without Balance: Executive Office Oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency.” Law and Contemporary Problems 54, no. 4: 127. Link
- Sher, George. 1987. Moral Philosophy: Selected Readings. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Ch. 2
- Timmons, Mark. 2012. Conduct and Character: Readings in Moral Theory. 5th ed. Boston, MA, USA: Wadsworth, Ch. 7.
- U.S. Congress. House. 2019. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal. 116TH CONGRESS 1ST SESSION. H. RES. 109. In the House of Representatives. link
- Lomborg, Bjørn, Frederic P. Miller, Agnes F. Vandome, and John McBrewster. 2009.Skeptical Environmentalist. Beau Bassin, Mauritius: Alphascript Publishing.
- Lomborg, Bjørn. 2010. Cool It: the Skeptical Environmentalists Guide to Global Warming. New York: Vintage.