Choice and moral reasoning

One of my purposes in starting this blog was to have a place to put bits and pieces of my own thoughts on philosophical, moral, and religious questions; things which didn't fit in with some of the more topical (science and energy) pieces I had written previously for other websites. I've read the principle texts of most of the major religions, and reread and studied more carefully those of my own. I've dabbled in reading philosophy from a variety of sources, but I am sure there is much that I have missed, and I couldn't specifically cite a source for most of what I consider to be settled within my own mind. Some of what I've concluded is based on purely subjective personal experience that I find utterly convincing, to myself at least.

There is much still that is not settled. And some things I perhaps think of now as being settled will become less so in future. Nevertheless there are some things I'd like to put down in fixed form for whatever they are worth to me, and perhaps to others, in future.

One of these issues is the moral impact of our decisions. I firmly believe we, as human beings, have freedom to make choices in this world, despite the apparently mechanical stuff of which we are built. Every choice we make changes the world, at least in some small way, changing at least ever so slightly the course of future history. And that means that every choice may carry with it a change in future human (or other beings') pain, suffering, perhaps even death; or on the other hand happiness, joy, and life, if one fork in the road is taken rather than the other. Only the omniscient can fully know the implications of every choice, but it is our mortal, moral duty to seek as far as we can, to make right choices as far as we are able.

Ignorance is bliss in this sense - the less we know about the implications of our decisions, the freer we can be to make those choices that are for our own benefit without moral qualms. The selfish choice at least will (we think, not being omniscient) increase our own happiness, and thanks to ignorance we have no other criteria on which to choose.

Ideology or blind adherence hold similar bliss, and therein lies much of their attraction - our decisions are made for us, with no need to think carefully and choose judiciously. Logic may tell us clearly that one choice will lead to the greater benefit of the larger number of people, even ourselves, but if that choice is forbidden by our ideology or creed, well, so much the worse for all those people. The choice of the thoughtless may or may not be a selfish choice, it may even be a good choice, but it comes from worship of a false, human-created god, not one of true omniscience, and is bound to eventually lead us astray.

The knowledgeable may choose selfishness or ideological adherence regardless of the consequences. We most often do this simply by forgetting, when the choice is upon us, that there may be broader implications of our actions. This habit of forgetting is at root immoral, but also perfectly natural for us as finite beings. Those who deliberately or repeatedly choose the wrong path, with knowledge of its wrongness, or even for that purpose, cross a line from good to evil. I have long loved Solzhenitsyn's expression of where that line lies:

[...] the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

True wisdom forces more measured, tempered choices upon us, when we make that effort to be moral and good. Yes, every choice could lead to pain, suffering, death. We must face that reality openly, with humility, and try our utmost to understand the real implications of our choices. When confronted by those who disagree with our choices, we must consider their point of view, and study whether the good they see in the alternate choice, or the bad they see in ours truly outweighs the good we see in ours or the bad in the alternative. The level of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom in those who are in opposition are important considerations; their apparent motivations by ideology, selfishness, or actual evil intent are also important, although perhaps harder to discern.

There are general rules of thumb that have guided good decision making through the ages. "Honesty is the best policy" - I believe that wholeheartedly. "Love thy neighbor as thyself". "Give the benefit of the doubt" where there is uncertainty. "Actions speak louder than words". But the good and moral choice always boils down to finding a way to make that choice that leads to the greatest benefit to all.

All this may sound very abstract. One motivation of mine to write on this now comes from Michael Tobis' plea for an honest discussion of the morality of various participants in public discussion of global warming and its implications. In trying to better understand what motivates Roger Pielke Jr. to continually attack climate scientists in one way or another, and what motivated NY Times reporter Andy Revkin to compare a minor (and corrected) mistake by Al Gore to continuing big picture errors from George Will, Tobis states the matter as a problem of ethics with real dimensions:

As for the scope of the ethical risk, let us consider the possibility that the behavior of the Times and the Post this year increases the chance of an extreme event with a premature mortality of a billion people by a mere part per million, a per cent of a per cent of a per cent. The expected mortality from this is a thousand people. Is that morally equivalent to actually killing a thousand people? It's not all that obvious to me that it isn't.

In practice one can and must excuse oneself behind all the myriad realistic uncertainties. We don't know, after all, which butterfly will cause the hurricane. Most likely if we do find our way to hell, we will have trodden on many good intentions along the way.

But the point is that we really are playing with fire here and we shouldn't be putting our own careers or our own self-worth (like a clever and easy column for the Times) ahead of the enormous scope of the problem, because mortalities on the order of a billion are by no means excluded.

Now, admittedly this presumes we are so far from coping that it is very clear which direction we should be pulling. I believe that Revkin agrees with that, which is why I am so horrified by his actions.

Roger, you say that our present policy is not commensurate with the risks. I presume this means you too accept that there are very large risks in a delayed-policy scenario. Is this so?

This in turn places a very large ethical weight on any public speech, does it not?

The science of climate has brought us to the point where the IPCC clearly finds a high likelihood of severe impacts on human and other life on our planet by the end of the present century, if we continue on our present fossil-fuel-burning path. Hundreds of millions of people will, at the least, suffer, and millions of species of life on Earth will become extinct, if the worst projected temperature scenario comes about. Those who have no knowledge of the link can continue in ignorant bliss, of course. But those who have knowledge of these conclusions, if they are truly choosing morally and not selfishly or ideologically, must either feel compelled to act to the best of their ability to limit this future devastation, or else must find some justification of greater good that comes from delaying or preventing action now.

And there certainly are such justifications. Ceasing all fossil-fuel burning immediately would leave hundreds of millions to suffer in the cold, and would starve billions as agriculture shuts down. Immediate cessation is almost certainly not the right choice to prevent the future suffering we know is coming thanks to climate change. But continuing on a "business as usual" path as if there was no such projection is also clearly immoral. Somewhere in between is the right path. Finding it is not going to be easy, and some wrong choices will almost certainly be made along the way. But taking actions that are of clear net benefit in the short term while reducing fossil fuel use is almost certainly a good start.

So yes, this really is a life and death matter, with true ethical implications on every action taken. Sometimes each of us who knows these implications may in our day-to-day lives forget, and choose wrongly. Change is hard. But it's time for it. And it is absolutely time to question the morality and values of those who know the truth, but still stand in the way.