In discussions about climate change and climate justice, there has been quite some debate about individual duties – should we try to change our lifestyle to reduce emissions, or should we try to influence political processes that bring about institutional change? It always seemed to me that the correct answer is: do both, or whatever you are able to do. Given how drastic the consequences of climate change are likely to be, and given how climate-unfriendly our Western lifestyle typically is, this seemed the right answer. Wouter Peeters has made this case in previous posts, so there is no need to repeat the arguments here. But I’ll add a third point: in our attempts to do good, we also have a duty to be as well-informed as possible.
Author: Lisa Herzog (Page 2 of 3)
What a weird question, you may think. But consider:
- In textbook markets, what is traded are products that are supposedly useful to customers. What is traded in many financial markets are highly artificial contractual arrangements that are several layers away from what happens in the real economy.
- In textbook markets, participants are liable to go bankrupt if they overspend. In financial markets, some market participants know that they are too big to fail, creating problems of “moral hazard.”
- In textbook markets, participants are expected to inform themselves about the products they trade. At least in some financial markets, what matters are not the “fundamentals” (e.g. the economic success of a company the shares of which are traded), but what other participants do. Many participants try to make profits by outrunning market movements or “sentiments”; this can lead to large swings, in disconnect from fundamentals
Relational egalitarians hold what matters for justice is that all members of a society “stand in relations of equality to others.” The idea that all human beings are moral equals is widely shared: it underlies the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many national constitutions. How will this norm be affected by the arrival of “big data,” the collecting and analysing of huge amounts of data about individuals? Internet companies and government services collect data about individuals’ activities, including geographic locations, shopping behaviour and friendships. Many individuals voluntarily share such information on social media, some also track their physical activities in meticulous details. Experts expect that “people analytics” – big data applied to the measurement of work performance – will have a revolutionary impact on labour markets.
This article in the Guardian, which some members of our team have shared on Facebook, suggests that the British prime minister David Cameron may have (had) no clue about what his policies did to local services. If we assume that this is true, it raises a moral question of great importance for today’s societies: how can leaders make sure that they know enough about the consequences of their decisions to make decisions at all?
There has been much talk about effective altruism recently (see e.g. here or here) – the idea that you should try to do as much good as you can, using the most effective means. It reads a bit like an update of good old Jeremy Bentham and “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” by a McKinsey consultant. It is easy to ridicule, and ridicule is indeed a frequent reaction because humour eases the tension that one can feel when confronted with these ideas. For there seems to be more than a grain of truth in effective altruists’ claim that we could do so much more to help those who were less fortunate in the “natural lottery” of where and when they were born. One thing that speaks in their favor, after all, is that effective altruists ask serious questions about what it means to be a moral agent in today’s world. What I here want to pick out from the debate is their picture the social world and of human institutions, which I take to be flawed. It is an illustration of why moral philosophy should not neglect the world we live in and the institutions that structure it.
One thing that I learned as a PhD student at Oxford was that philosophically interesting questions and questions about existing injustice do not always overlap – some existing practices are so obviously wrong from a normative perspective, I was told, that there is no point in writing normative theories about them. This seems right for certain cases, but I still haven’t quite made up my mind about whether it is always true.
I remember this Oxford seminar while reading this utterly depressing piece about incarceration and its effect on black communities in the U.S. in this month’s issue of the Atlantic.