Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Last Man

I'm currently at work developing a new paper, which I hope will be the first publication from my investigation of the tragic outlook in the ethics of the built environment.

Since I cannot, yet, take on the whole thing at once I have, for the purposes of this paper, narrowed the focus down to the charge that, by attempting to promulgate a tragic outlook, I am guilty of creating a moral hazard.

(I first mentioned the charge here.)

The argument goes something like this: If you give people reason to think there is no solution to the problems of sustainability and/or environmental protection, they will stop looking for solutions. In fact, they may just give up and engage in all sorts of self-indulgent and self- and nature-destroying behavior.

If the game is up anyway, they might say to themselves, we may as well have fun on our way out.

My goal will be to set out a reply to this charge, an argument that a tragic outlook, as distinct from a fatalistic or apocalyptic outlook, does not set up a moral hazard.

Now, I'll have more to say in later posts - and in the paper itself - about the ways in which the charge against the tragic outlook departs from the original meaning of 'moral hazard', as it developed in the insurance industry and made its way (notably in 1963) into welfare economics and into public policy.

Suffice it to say that, like the traditional problem of a moral hazard, the charge concerns changes in the motivations of individual conduct in relation to risk

Now, as the charge has been laid against the tragic outlook, the logic of it seems to parallel one of the oldest thought experiments in the field of environmental philosophy: the last man example, introduced by Richard Sylvan (then Routley) in his groundbreaking 1973 article, "Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?" (I pointed out this connection once before.)

As Sylvan (Routley) puts it:
The last man (or person) surviving the collapse of the world system lays about him, eliminating, as far as he can, every living thing, animal or plant . . . What he does is quite permissible according to basic [human] chauvinism, but on environmental grounds what he does is wrong.
Sylvan takes this as an illustration of the difference between human chauvinism (later to be dubbed "anthropocentrism") and the kind of environmental ethic he envisions. Indeed, the last man example seems to set up a kind of litmus test: an environmental ethic is adequate only to the extent it would compel the last man to stay his hand.

Since this is a thought experiment, Sylvan is free to stipulate that this is, indeed, the last human being on Earth.

But, if you were the last person on Earth, how would you know it?

Really, how could you know with certainty that there are no other living human beings on the whole of the planet, given the limited means you have for investigating the question after "the collapse of the world system"?

Or, again, suppose you were among the last people, which is where Sylvan turns next.
The last man example can be broadened to the last people example. We can assume that they know they are the last people, e.g., because they are aware that radiation effects have blocked any chance of reproduction. One considers the last people in order to rule out the possibility that what these people do harms or somehow physically interferes with later people.
Again, if the last people - or the last generation - sets about destroying nature before they die out, Sylvan claims, a human chauvinist would see no problem, whereas environmentalists, armed with the proposed environmental ethic, would hold they have behaved badly.

But note that Sylvan explicitly stipulates certainty on the part of the last people that they are, indeed, the last people, that further reproduction is impossible.

Again, what would be the grounds for such certainty?

It is a little beside the main point of this post (and my own proposed paper), but the problem of knowledge seems to blunt the edge of Sylvan's examples. In idealized circumstances, indeed, human chauvinism might lead to widespread destruction of the kind most environmentalists would deplore. But, in real world conditions, tempered by skepticism or, at least, a bit of intellectual modesty, it need not do so.

Suppose I find myself utterly alone after a cataclysm. There is always the live possibility of other human beings carrying on somewhere else in this wide world who would be harmed by wanton acts of destruction; to the extent I feel solidarity with potential fellow survivors, I would be bound to stay my hand.

Come to that, since I can't really know how long I might live, or what I might need in the future, my own self interest might drive me to leave natural entities and systems well alone, or change them only modestly, simply from enlightened self-interest.

More central to my purpose here is the connection between the last people example and the charge that I am setting up a moral hazard.

Consider: If people come to believe that we are the last generation, that a collapse is coming, that the game is up, they will start to misbehave. Perhaps so, but only if people came to be convinced that, in effect, there would be no more people after us, that we truly are the last generation.

In short, the moral hazard arises if people adopt an apocalyptic outlook, one that projects a certain and final cataclysm, a total loss of all value, the total failure of all human projects.

However, under real-world conditions, given the limits of human knowledge, the apocalyptic outlook is untenable, at least at the historical and ecological timescales: We have no good grounds for making any such projection, even if it remains a theoretical possibility.

The tragic outlook, by contrast, is an awareness of the possibility - or, at the appropriate time scale, inevitability - of terrible losses. To claim foreknowledge of total loss would amount to a kind of intellectual arrogance; it's more than we can really know.

The tragic outlook is, as I have indicated elsewhere, skeptical.

(In that space, between terrible loss and total loss, grows hope and the need for resolve. But that's an idea for another time.)

So, here we are, facing the possibility or, perhaps, the probability of terrible losses, as the world shifts out from under the complex and stubbornly obdurate systems on which we have come to depend. We don't know with any certainty when or how - or, really, whether - the crisis will be upon us, or what form it will take, or how severe it will really get.

In fact, what we do now will likely, for better or for worse, have some impact on how the crisis plays itself out, and on what and how much we can save of our most essential projects.

So, times are perilous, but they are not hopeless. A clear-eyed look at our peril does not in itself create a moral hazard.

If people take the tragic outlook as license to behave badly, that is their own failing.

Richard Sylvan (Routley). 1973. "Is There a Need for a New, an Environmental Ethic?"  Proceedings of the 15th World congress of Philosophy, vol. 1. Sophia: Sophia Press. 205-10.

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