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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