Catastrophe Ethics

From The Wall Street Journal:

It’s getting harder and harder to be a decent person. You wake up hankering for a coffee. But hold on! Before you order one, better make sure that a fair-trade producer supplied the beans. And then: a drop of milk? Cows have such a huge carbon footprint. Almond milk? Growing almonds requires copious quantities of water. Soy? Don’t even think about it.

Time to walk to work. That’s how you’ve been getting there since learning, last week, that your electric car’s cobalt comes from mines that engage in unacceptable labor practices. Now you’ve arrived but—can you believe it?—a co-worker just made a deplorable comment about the presidential campaign. Cut ties? A busy day of discussion ensues.

At last you’re home for the evening. Perhaps watch a comedian on your favorite streaming service? Not till you’ve checked whether he’s uttered something offensive in the past 15 years.

Modern life, Travis Rieder declares in “Catastrophe Ethics,” is “morally exhausting.” Everything we do “seems to matter,” he notes, and yet “nothing we do seems to matter.” The term “catastrophe” might seem to apply more to climate change than offensive comedians, but Mr. Rieder is speaking generally of collective problems that lie beyond the capacity of any of us to affect individually. They’re catastrophic in that they involve large social matters—the comedian, say, might be contributing to public prejudices by ridiculing a particular group—even though our own role in affecting them is vanishingly small. You’re not going to stop climate change on your own—you are, after all, one person in a global population of eight billion. Nor will the comedian you cancel even notice. What to do?

The great moral theories, Mr. Rieder tells us, are of little help. His prime target is utilitarianism, which holds that the right thing to do is whatever will maximize benefits and minimize costs for all concerned. Such counsel is useless, though, when our individual actions will neither yield any measurable benefit nor reduce any perceptible cost.

Other doctrines are explored as well. “Deontology” argues that we should not treat other human beings manipulatively, simply as means to our own ends. But its prohibitions seem better suited to acts like lying or promise-breaking, Mr. Rieder notes, than buying coffee or watching a comedian.

Then there is virtue ethics, which advises us to cultivate morally good character traits like temperance or moderation. Because the development of such traits takes place over time, though, it can’t really tell us whether our taking a joyride in our Hummer next Tuesday is right or wrong, since it’s unlikely to affect our character one way or another. Virtue ethics is not, Mr. Rieder concludes, particularly action-guiding.

Mr. Rieder, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins, advises that the best course is simply to follow our own sense of personal “integrity,” an idea he derives from the philosopher Bernard Williams. For example, you might drink only fair-trade coffee because the proper treatment of workers is central to your sense of right and wrong, but you’re OK with listening to a comedian who offends particular groups. I, on the other hand, might cancel the comedian because his humor crosses some non-negotiable lines in my moral core, but I don’t get particularly worked up over where my coffee comes from.

We can’t, Mr. Rieder says, do everything. But we can be a person of integrity, as long as we “walk the walk” of our deepest values. There is a gentle wisdom here, reminiscent of the rabbinical saying: “You are not obliged to complete the work of the world, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Even so, Mr. Rieder might be too quick to dismiss utilitarianism and too sanguine about personal integrity.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “Catastrophe Ethics”

  1. Now, that kind of pragmatic recognition that we have to prioritize and select our core concerns is the sort of ethical thinking I can get in line with. Too many people are kind of OCD about their morality. Like Martin Luther, they are consumed with guilt about their own imperfection.

    I’m a long time Catholic. The best advice I ever got about Confession was to focus on 4 – 5 sins I wanted to work on. Don’t sweat the small stuff too much.

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