Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Al Gore, Global Warming and Vicarious Veganism

In my FindLaw column yesterday, I argued that Al Gore undermines his ability to act as a spokesman for combating global warming by living in a very large house and jetting around the world --- even though he "carbon balances," i.e., pays green causes to plant trees, cover landfill and take other actions that compensate for his own generation of greenhouse gases. I compare these compensating measures to the purchase of papal indulgences and the payment of substitute soldiers by Civil War draftees. (I go on, however, to praise Gore's policy proposals.)

Here I want to add another example. Suppose I think that it's wrong to eat animals and animal products (as in fact I do) but that I really like the taste of meat. Could I discharge my moral obligation (as I see it) to be a vegan by continuing to pack away the hamburgers and steaks but pay a carnivore to convert to veganism so that I "meat balance?" The very idea seems absurd.

But I've been wondering whether this sort of comparison is unfair to Gore. Perhaps his real mistake was in referring to global warming as a "moral issue," and thereby implying that each of us has a moral duty to future inhabitants of the planet. If global warming is just a policy matter, then all we should really care about is the bottom line. Or perhaps there is a species of moral actions that we should evaluate simply by our net impact. So that maybe it is morally permissible to buy one's way out of some obligations but not others. I certainly have the intuition that this is so. I also have the intuition that vicarious veganism clearly doesn't work, while vicarious carbon neutrality is closer to the line of the permissible. Another clear example: I can't discharge my duty not to commit murder by going on a killing spree and then saving an equal number of other lives. However, I am quite unclear about what exactly the criteria should be for deciding when a moral duty can be discharged by payment rather than directly. Or perhaps I'm simply wrong, and all duties can be discharged vicariously? (Don't worry; I'm not armed.)


egarber said...

Not having read your Findlaw piece yet (where you probably trash the argument I’m about to make :) ), my sense is that global warming is a bottom line issue – much like the federal deficit.

If fiscal responsibility is a “value”, I’m not sure it matters whether you increase taxes or cut spending. Certainly, there are preferences among various interests as to the means, but again, if the benchmark is “fiscal responsibility”, I’m not sure that matters.

[BTW, your example reminds me of a Friends episode, where (as I recall) Phoebe eats meat while pregnant, but Joey gives it up. I might have that wrong.]

Tam said...

For global warming, the benefit of Gore's good action and the detriment of his bad action are received and suffered by the same entity: the Earth. In the examples involving murder and veganism, the beneficiary of the good action is different from the victim of the bad action.

So if we respect the distinction between entities, then a moral justification based on aggregate utility makes sense in the former case, but leaves a lot to be desired in the latter case, since the original victim is never compensated.

Classic argument against utilitarnism. Does it work here? Or am I missing something?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Okay, Tam, try this example. At the base of a mountain with naturally occurring landslides lies a village. In a typical year, 10 people are injured by falling rocks. I enjoy throwing rocks from the mountaintop, but to avoid adding to the net risk faced by the villagers, I install a screen that traps most of the naturally falling rocks and my thrown rocks. After the installation of my screen, the annual number of injuries from the naturally falling rocks and the rocks I throw falls to 5. I take it you would say (and I would agree) that I'm still not morally permitted to throw the rocks, even if knowing that in advance, I wouldn't have installed the screen. But note that ex ante I have no idea who, if anybody, will be hit by one of my rocks as opposed to the naturally falling rocks, so it's hard to say that I'm not taking individuals seriously. Or is the mere willingness of the hypothetical me in this example to think statistically disrespect the distinction between persons?

Caleb said...

Currently, I don't think that "trading-neutrality" works for either argument (or really very many moral imperatives at all). I take Gore's message to be (roughly) that we must act to save and preserve the environment before things get much much worse. One problem is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; if Gore can afford to pay people to plant trees, etc, then he could (presumably) live in a smaller house, and still pay (perhaps more) people to do so. If there is a moral imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then he seems to be failing it.

Most moral imperatives seem to me to come in two varieties, an affirmative command to achieve something (reduce suffering, do good), or a command to avoid an action (Thou shalt not murder, lie, etc). Neither type really seems to leave much room for balancing (If I must reduce suffering, and I only seem to do so "on balance" it doesn't seem that I'm really living up to my obligations).

The only way Gore's actions seem to satisfy an imperative would be if the imperative was not to change things (Suppose that we were happy with our environmental balance and didn't wish to change things in either direction)... But, at that point, it seems to me that it would have ceased being a moral imperative.

So, I'd argue that it's either a policy issue (or a "bottom line issue"), or Gore's failing the moral imperative he argues for.

Carl said...

Tam, your argument assumes that our duties to the environment derive from some obligation we have to the planet rather than, as I would assume, its present and future (sentient) inhabitants. But the effects of global warming are not evenly distributed over those populations (the effects are disproportionately felt by the world's poorest inhabitants). But if we're to take the distinctions between person's seriously, Gore's attempts at balancing would be seriously morally flawed on your view. This, of course, assumes that I'm right about the sources of our duties to the environment, which is an open question. I would submit however that we'd have no such duties if we knew that within a generation all sentient life would cease to exist without the possibility of reemerging later. This would imply that our duties cannot be to the planet. Your intuitions, of course, may vary.

Kenji said...

I am still not convinced that the Pigovian tax proposal is sensible to address global warming, despite the fact that many economists like Mankiw are lining up in its support. First of all, given the wide range of estimates on costs of global warming, I don't see how anyone could reasonably determine the appropriate tax rate. Secondly, many of the projects intended to bring about innovations to address global warming are being carried out by the oil companies, which are using profits from their existing operations to fund the projects. This means a Pigovian tax can prevent innovations. Economists always gravitate toward proposals that use the pricing mechanism of markets to solve any issue, but the mechanism just does not address certain complex problems like ways to stimulate innovation.

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

Not sure how this plays into the moral vs. bottom-line imperative discussion, but consider that Al is upgrading the house with solar panels and other energy saving improvements.

In that case, doesn't his BIGGER house drive the market for green technologies? Somebody got a nice contract to install those panels -- so you *could* say that Gore is fueling demand for green technology more than someone in a small house.

In addition to the immediate credit for using the panels, he's using his wealth (and home size) to infuse demand for green technologies. That has to be figured in somehow, I think.

Brian said...

Mike, I'm not sure I agree that we're morally obligated to hold ourselves, in our everyday "market" decisions, to the standard we believe the government should demand by regulation.

For example, there's the problem that Amartya Sen raises with "assurance." As I understand it, Sen argues that since we have no assurance that others will act morally in an unregulated field, such that acting morally ourselves would be futile, we may have a diminished obligation to act morally. In contrast, where we can somewhat effectively negotiate mutual restraint, we may be obligated to do so. Don't Sunstein & Ackerman also both trade on this distinction somewhat?

Tam said...

Tough one, Mike. Without loss of generality, let’s say that the screen will capture all the landslide rocks, and that the 5 deaths will all result from HD’s thrown rocks. (I think this takes probability out of the hypo in a way that removes a potential complexity, while hopefully retaining the desired features.) So my question is: why is it relevant that HD doesn’t know the identities of the persons he’s going to kill? I think that makes no difference. Indeed, the veganism example already contains this property, since carnivore human does not know which specific animals are being treated inhumanely and then killed for his consumption, and which ones are being spared by his paying someone else (or 10 others) not to eat meat. And we already agreed on the outcome of that hypo. I think the same reasoning can apply here, no?

For me, the hard part of this example comes from my intuition that from an ex ante standpoint, the town should accept such a proposal from the hypothetical you (HD). So the difficulty is to reconcile the moral permissibility of the town’s acceptance with the moral impermissibility of HD going through with it. Why is utility aggregation okay for the town but not for HD?

The difference, I suppose, lies in that we assume that the town has a democratic decisionmaking process, so that the decision is akin to someone making a decision in the Rawlsian original position. So it’s not a result of utility aggregation at all, but is one based on a rights conception.

But suppose that HD loves throw rocks across his body, Brett Favre style, so that they disproportionately land on the side of the town to his left. Now, would the town’s democratic acceptance of the offer, over the objection of the higher-risk people, and with knowledge of HD’s throwing habits, be as permissible? (Assume that people cannot relocate.) If the deal increases the chances of death for the more-at-risk persons from what they were in the naturally-falling-rocks regime, then I think it would be invalid under the difference principle.

Tam said...

Carl, even if duties are ultimately owed to Earthlings rather than Earth (which I would agree with), as long as the distributional effects of Gore's good and bad actions are the same, then they still affect the same entities, and so aggregation is still okay, no? Seems like that would merely require another "iteration" in the analysis, rather than changing the argument.

Or are you saying that the consequences of the good and bad actions are geographically different? If so, I agree that would move it towards the murder/veganism and "Brett Favre" hypos.

Carl said...

Right, Tam. I was suggesting that the harm done disproportionately falls on the world's least well off while the benefits are exclusively experienced by people like Gore and citizens of the world's wealthiest nations.

Aaeamdar said...

The distinction should not be drawn on moral/policy nor on some concept of two "kinds" of morality. As I see it, there is one legitimate distinction to be made and in the end, I think even if Gore did not fall on th wrong side of that distinction, his actions are environmentally unsound anyway.

Firstly, there is a distinction between Al Gore - a leader of the environmental movement - and Richard Rich - a guy with Gore's means and environmental outlook. Gore cannot engage in carbon balancing to the same extent as Mr. Rich.

Gore cannot realistically expect to avoid harm to the cause by flying around in a personal jet and being carted around in a limo in the same Academy Award winning movie where he recommends that people take public transportation or ride a bike. Every leader of a cause has an obligation to that cause to personally set an example - and not just an example suitable for the exceptionally wealthy. This obligation is seperate from the obligation all humans have (if you believe that such an obligation exists (I do)) to take efforts to reduce the individual's carbon footprint.

Secondly, even if Gore weren't a leader in the cause, an individual's obligation to a reduced (and preferably zero) carbon footprint cannot be mitigated vicariously because an individual's choices are much larger than the choice itself - particularly when facing a high "free externality" situation like we have with polutions.

If Mr. Rich buys a Hummer (or like Gore, a private jet) and then compensates for this by paying for the covering of some feed lot in Central America he is still failing to fulfill his obligations to the planet. Mr. Rich has taken an action that encourages the continued production of an environmentally unsound vehicle while similtaniously failing to contribute to the market for environmentally sound vehicles (Big SUV sales went up by 1, NGV/Hybrids/Electrics failed to go up by 1. Since, by far, most SUV purchases will not be made with corresponding pro-environmental purchases to offset, Mr. Rich's contribution to making SUV's cheaper for everyone (and his corresponding failure to do so for pro-environmental technology) is of greater importance.

SUVs are a problem. They are a problem independant of Central AMerican (or North American, for that matter) pig farms. Both of these (and the countless other related issues) need to be addressed and controlled.

egarber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
egarber said...

Every leader of a cause has an obligation to that cause to personally set an example - and not just an example suitable for the exceptionally wealthy.

Does that mean a leader who sends his kids to private school can't be a champion of public education?

Are only former military people capable of leading on defense issues? Or inversely, can a general / soldier not be a peace advocate? By this logic, Wes Clark or Jim Webb have no credibility when they say we should engage regional players in the mid-east for peace.

Aaeamdar said...

Does that mean a leader who sends his kids to private school can't be a champion of public education?

Of course not. But that distinction should be clear. Clearly someone can champion the public schools and want something better for their own children. Now, a champion of public schools taking advantage of a "voucher" program, or the like, would be a very different thing.

I would be al for Al Gore championing environmental protection, following the "minimum" guidelines he sets out for others and then going beyond what most people could reasonably afford to do to make his own "footprint" smaller still (preferably negative).

What he is doing, however, is saying "people must sacrifice for teh good of the planet, unless, that is, you are me (or someone with my means), in which case you can polute all you like as long as you 'make up for it'."

If you cannot see how that harms the message, I am not sure what to say to change your mind.

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