Ethics For A Broken World

In The Philosophical Quarterly, ethicist Peter Singer reviews Ethics for a Broken World: Imagining Philosophy After Catastrophe:

Tim Mulgan’s first clever idea was to ask how Western moral and political philosophy might look to people living fifty or a hundred years from now if, during the interim, the basic necessities for supporting life become much more difficult to obtain than they are now. Climate change is the obvious way in which this might happen. … Mulgan’s second clever idea was to present his answer to the question he had posed in the form of a series of transcripts of a class held in the broken world on the history of philosophy. …

The affluent world was, by the standards of the broken world, astonishingly wasteful. A favourite leisure activity, for instance, was ‘to drive extremely inefficient carbon-fuelled vehicles around in circles’. In those days, philosophers just ‘took it for granted that everyone can survive.’ … The lectures begin with Nozick, who is taken to represent, ‘in an exaggerated form, the preoccupations and presuppositions of his age.’ … How could an initial acquirer in a pre-affluent world ever know whether the institution of private property will affect future people for the better or for the worse? To a philosopher of the affluent age this might seem obvious, but to the class in the broken world, it does not. …

The idea that utilitarianism leads to extremely demanding obligations to help those in great need was counter-intuitive in the affluent world, but is not in the broken world. So too was the view that it would be wrong for a sheriff to hang one innocent person if that is the only way to save several innocent people from being killed by rioters. … Those same utilitarians who said that we have extremely demanding obligations to the poor could also have pointed out that we have extremely demanding obligations to those who will exist in future. … In the broken world, liberty is not as highly valued as it was in the affluent world. Broken world people regret that affluent people were free to join ‘cults’ that denied climate change. …

The final lecture poses a challenge to affluent democracy on the grounds that, since governments make decisions that affect future generations, no democracy really has the consent of the governed, or of a majority. (more)

Since I also forecast a non-affluent future, I am also interested in how the morals and politics of non-affluent descendants will differ from ours. But I find the above pretty laughable as futurism. As described in this review, this book presents the morality and politics of future folk as overwhelmingly focused on what their ancestors (us) should have been doing for them, namely lots more.

But we have known lots of poor cultures around the world and through history, and their morality and politics has almost never focused on complaining that their ancestors did too little to help them. Most politics and morality has instead been focused on how people alive who interact often should treat each other. Which makes a lot of functional sense.

Wars have consistently caused vast destruction of resources could have gone to building roads, cities, canals, irrigation, etc. And most ancestors severely neglected innovation. Most everywhere in the globe, had ancestors prevented more wars and encouraged more innovation, their descendants would be richer. But almost no one complains about that today. Most discussion today of ancestors celebrates relative wins that suggest some of us are better than others of us, and to lament our ancestors’ backwardness, so we can feel superior by comparison.

The morality of our non-affluent descendants will likely also focus mostly on how they should treat each other, not on how we treated them. To the extent that they talk about us at all, they’ll mostly mention wins that suggest that some of them are better than others of them, and ways in which we seem backward, making them seem forward by comparison. And morality will probably return to be more like that of traditional farmers, relative to that of we rich forager-feeling industrialists of today.

It is a standard truism that discussion of the future is mostly a veiled discussion of today, especially on who today should be criticized or celebrated. The book Ethics for a Broken World seems an especially transparent example of this trend. It is almost all about which of us to blame, and almost none about actual future folk.

Added 11a: Here and here are similar but ungated reviews.

Added 1:30p: Interestingly, in Christianity the main bad guy is Satan, who supposedly obeys God, but not Adam and Eve, who disobeyed. If there were ever ancestors who should be blamed it would be Adam and Eve, but oddly Christians almost never complain about them, preferring to save their harsh words for Satan.

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  • Doug

    How the hell does a 2 Celsius rise in temperature precipitate a Mad Max scenario?

    “Damn this slightly warmer weather! If only our ancestors has funneled more money into Solyndra we’d have starships by now!”

    • 2 degrees doesn’t. Six degrees, on the other hand…

      • Alistairmorley

         Fair point, but the risk on that is a lot lower, right?

        And even 6C’ is mitigable. And may even be cheaper to mitigate than avoid.

    • A 2 C° raise in temperature would raise the water levels in the oceans. As a result costal cities are more likely to suffer from floods that consume economic resources that then can’t be spent elsewhere.

      A lot of fertile land will also stop being fertile. Due to global climate change. Even now this intensifies problems area’s like Darfur. 

      Together with other problems such as a rising pension costs society just might be unable to solve it’s problems and go bankrupt. 

      • Margin

        There is no such thing as “society” that can be unable to solve “it’s [sic]” problems.

        There are only individuals who are worse off and individuals who are better off.

        If women in developing countries stopped having 7 children they can’t feed, climate change would be a walk in the park.

        Arable land becomes unarable? Use other land.

        Living space is flooded? Move somewhere else.

        The planet is big.

      • ::facepalm::

        I don’t know where to begin telling you what’s wrong with that…

      • Margin

        That’s correct, Douglas: You don’t know.

        You just feel irked because someone disagreed with your ideology.

        Instead of calling, “Worship Nature! Lament greed! Show allegiance to The Tribe! Sacrifice your interests for its Grand Plan!”

        Jean Ziegler once said, “A child who dies from hunger is a murdered child.”

        He was correct. He just forgot to mention that the murderers are the child’s own parents.

        Any decent person who can’t afford children uses contraception.

      • Martin Epstein

         Douglas:  Margin doesn’t have everything wrong. Climate change makes
        some arable land unarable but also vice versa. The structures in a city
        are usually rebuilt within a century anyway, so the cost of moving it
        might be less than you think.

        My main issue is “if women in
        developing countries…” If I want to learn something about surviving
        poverty I’ll ask one of these women before you Margin. Sorry :p

      • Margin

        Martin: I did not refer to the women’s ability to survive poverty.

        I referred to the fact that their children do not survive poverty.

      • Peter Jones

        Thanks for informing me that it is only incompetence on the part of deveoping world parents that preents them from predicting in which future years the crops will fail….

        ((face palm))

      • John Smithbg

        I think the point is quite clear: if people who had no prospects for good life, no education and no sustainable source of income did not reproduce like rabbits, half of our long-term environmental problems would disappear. I wholeheartedly agree.
        In fact, I am all for a childbearing rationing system according to parents’ IQ and income.

      • Margin

        Thanks for informing me that it is only incompetence on the part of deveoping world parents that preents them from predicting in which future years the crops will fail….

        Peter: You can facepalm and distort my argument as much as you want, but it will not go away.

        Predicting when future crops will fail is not necessary to avoid starving children.

        Malnourished children are not a function of a lack of  resources.

        Malnourished children are a function of a lack of personal responsibility in reproductive choices.

        And possibly a surplus of government violence.

        Even for poor people there are ways to transfer wealth to the future, robust enough to predict whether or not they can feed more children.

        The murderous irresponsibility lies in the decision to breed even when the parent cannot guarantee such access to wealth.

        If someone like Marc Dutroux kidnaps a child, locks her up in a basement, and then fails to assure she doesn’t starve, we consider him responsible for that child’s suffering and death.

        If a parent creates a child using their own body, predictably in empoverished circumstances, and then fails to assure she doesn’t starve, we consider it a natural tragedy that is no one’s fault.

        But of course it is 100% their fault.

      • Honestly, I probably could write up a better, more reasoned response than “::facepalm::” and a Marge Simpson quote, but my experience is that all we’d end up doing is making each other angry anyway. So I’ll just ::facepalm:: and move on.

      • Nancy Lebovitz

        Might men in the third world be some fraction of the problem?

      • Peter Jones

        In reply to Margin:

        > Even for poor people there are ways to transfer wealth to the future,
        robust enough to predict whether or not they can feed more children.

        Give examples.

      • Malnourished children are not a function of a lack of  resources.Malnourished children are a function of a lack of personal responsibility in reproductive choices.

        Sheesh! What simple-minded thinking to appear in Comments to an economist’s blog! If impoverished people could be magically convinced to eschew offspring, you imagine the immediate effects and the demographic effects would be benign? 
        And from where derives the conceit that “malnutrition” is the Bright Line Moral Consideration. Why not condemn people who can’t afford to send their children to college to genetic extinction?.

      • Margin

        srdimond: I don’t believe in Bright Line Morality.

        But if anything is immoral, making children suffer and die is surely among it?

        Or the other way around: If making children suffer and die is not immoral, then surely we have no reason to condemn Marc Dutroux either?

        As for the line, if I were to aggress against your children, would you rather I make them suffer and die, or would you rather I make them omit college?

        Nancy: Yes, male aggression can be a problem.

        But it is women’s bodies who create the children.

        You could kill 99% of all men, and still have enough sperm to create as many children as you want.

        With the exception of rape, all children are a function of women voluntarily accepting sperm inside their bodies.

        Peter: In order to transfer wealth to the future, you need to have wealth.

        I admit that, but if you don’t have wealth, having kids harms them because it likely makes them suffer.

        If I can’t afford dog food, I don’t buy or breed a dog.

        As for the means of transfer, money and property rights exist even in poor countries.

        Even in totalitarian failed states, people pocket grains of gold and so on.

      • Throughout history a lot of societies did go down because they didn’t manage to solve it’s problems. Take the Maya. Their civilisation perished long before their calendar ended. 

        If you don’t have enough food the result isn’t simple that children starve.
        If arable land becomes unarable and you start using the land of other people, violent conflicts ensure.If problem aren’t solved at the level of the society you get political violence.Most individuals are also dependent on a lot of public infrastructure. If my supermarket wouldn’t have food for a month I would have real problems as I grow none of my own food.Actually in those developing countries women are stopping having 7 children. 30 years ago 23 countries had 7 or more children per woman. Today only Niger has. In 2010 Niger had 7.06 children per woman. In 2011 7.01 children per woman. We don’t have data yet for 2012 and maybe Niger got below the 7 mark in the last year. 

      • Alistair

         Are you SURE, Christian? IIRC, most projections up to 2C’  are beneficial or neutral for humanity, mostly via agricultural production gains via increased precipitation, growing season, and CO2 fertilisation, and lower cold deaths…

        Coastal city flooding is small change at the level of resources required for abatement strategies. Remember, 1/3rd of the netherlands is under water NOW. Doesn’t seem to bother the Dutch.

        You need to sketch out the abatement vs. mitigation costs for each ‘C, use the delta for opportunity cost, and discount appropriately to find the best path. I’ve never seen this done by the Greens….

      • “Are you SURE” is a bad question to ask when it comes to forcasting those events. It’s not about being sure. I don’t claim p>0.99 for that claim.

        It’s irresponsible to require p>0.99 for such a claim to become serious about preventing the risk.
        The Dutch have the advantage of not suffering any hurricanes or similar weather events. That makes there fate very different than the fate of costal cities in the US.The danger isn’t a gradual increase in see level but that extreme events get more likely and more painful with increased levels.That’s also why you can’t calculate the opportunity cost in an effective way. In complex system where you don’t know the output well enough it makes sense to focus on increasing resistence instead of maxizing a flawed utility function. 

      • Weaver

        Whats the risk of global pandemic/ supervolcano / tsunaumi / nuclear war / micro black hole / rogue nanobots / Bee population failure / alien invasion / asteroid impact? You’re not sure? Well, we should act! Its unreasonable to require p>0.99 to become serious about preventing the risk…

        You can’t use unknowability to fuel your pet risk aversion, because all manner of projects can be conjured into being on the same invocation of unknown risk. You have to pick a number and defend it!

        Sigh. The best way to increase resilience is wealth.

      • Christian Kleineidam

        You have to pick a number and defend it!

        No. and the comments provide a nice illustration of why that’s not the case.

        Picking probabilities and defending them is not the only paradigm for decision making. The fact that you can’t think of other paradigms doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

        Nassim Taleb books also provide good explanations.

      • Alistairmorley

        To Christian,

         I meant “are you SURE?” in the sense of “what’s your source?” Nearly all the studies I’ve seen don’t have much costs at up to 2C. Relax, I’m not demanding P>0.99 for those projections…

        I find your objection bizaare. Are you saying that tail risk is so huge AND unknowable (no uncertain) that we must avoid the scenario at all costs? We’re not talking a 50% uptick in Hurricanes here – that’s small change – you seem to be predicting 1000%+ increases in damage and frequency which is what you’d need to build an economic case for action.

        Note that we have no strong evidence for any change SO FAR.

        If so, I must ask for sources for these massive tail risks. I’ve never seen anyone suggest that for extreme weather phenomenon from climate change of a few degrees.

        I just think you are going very far beyond the mainstream models and even further from the empirical evidence.  

  • Margin

    Our fertility is lower. I don’t even have kids. But I have a higher per capita consumption and my technical job pays more.

    What does this mean?

    It means we can use all the resources we want, if we lower our reproduction appropriately.

    Nature doesn’t have rights nor interests, and neither do imaginary children never born.

    “Astonishingly wasteful” implies there must be a Grand Plan toward which we must work efficiently. I cannot see how people justify this idea.

  • I wonder why he didn’t use the behavior of giving philosophy professors tenure an example of astonishingly wasteful investment of resources.

    • Peter Jones

      Perhaps he thinks philosophy is a terminal value, or at least that it might be for some people

  • Corrado

    Concerning Christians never complaining about Adam and Eve, I believe Italians might be an exception: whenever anything goes wrong, you’ll find us often yelling “Puttana Eva!”. We use it quite as English “Shit!”, but it means ” (that) whore (of) Eve!”

  • rapscallion

    “Interestingly, in Christianity the main bad guy is Satan, who supposedly obeys God…”

    Waah? Satan disobeyed God by being prideful and was the one who talked Adam and Eve into sinning. He also had the temerity to bet against God on the matter of Job’s faith, but that was really just stupid because you should never bet against the omniscient.

    • Sabeletodo

       But isn’t everything part of God’s ineffable plan? Even if you ascribe free will to Satan, wouldn’t God have omnisciently known Satan would rebel even before God created Satan? How is that different than asserting God created Satan specifically to rebel in order to complete God’s own plan?

      • Alistair

         Yes, the whole God and Pre-crime problem. In the 2013 remake, Satan (played by Tom Cruise) finds himself accused of a rebellion he has not yet committed. 

        But the intial assetion by Robin did seem curious.


    Since I also forecast a non-affluent future,

    What I wonder is how–with this forecast–you motivate yourself to pay your cryonics bill.

    • Daniel Carrier

      He doesn’t believe wealth has a significant effect on happiness.

  • Daniel Carrier

    I was reading it more like values dissonance. They’d value preserving resources, and, when they bother to think about it, they’d consider us behaving immorally by wasting them. This is similar to how we value freedom, and when we bother to think about it, we consider historical slave-holding societies to be immoral.

    I don’t think driving cars in circles is a very common leisure activity. Most people just watch other people drive cars in circles, which is a less wasteful. I think most of the waste is actually from the people watching it who could be doing something more productive. Of course, when people do spend more time being productive, they tend to just waste all the money they make on leisure. Few people try to invest their money indefinitely to help people in the future.

  • Alistairmorley

    Ah, yes, Peter Singer. What is it about moral systems that invoke obligations to non-existent entities being so popular amoungst the bien pensant? I ran across this is justification in the Stern report for their ridiculous 0.1% discount rate decisions and it stuck badly in the craw there.

    Future entity welfare only has ethical claims insofar as current, real entities value such welfare. If you allow non-existent things to make ethical claims on their own behalf, all sorts of crazy can be conjured into being.

    I predict that the great numbers of our vastly wealthy descendents would prefer their ancestors to have enjoyed their sadly inferior time on earth. They would want us to kick back, have a beer, and invent workable jet packs and warp drive. They are very specific about the jet packs.

  • This, I think, is essentially the foundation of Machiavellian ethics, and the same sort of reasoning used by Lee Kuan Yew in the early years of Singapore’s independence. 

    We were war-torn following WW2 and the Japanese Occupation, and reparations were given priority over political freedoms. We were a broken country, and I think we’re doing quite alright now.