December 02, 2013

Climate change vs. climate justice, or John Rawls meets reality

Eric Posner is, yes, a conservative of sorts. Actually, he's more of a principled small-l libertarian than a conservative. But, he's an intelligent one and one not always easily dismissed, whatever label one would hang on him.

That's why his piece saying that, on global warming, we can have either a climate treaty or climate justice, is well worth reading. It's worth reading not just for the environmental and public policy issues, but the philosophy ones.

Yes, the philosophy ones.

It's a great illustration of how John Rawls' theories on justice were wrong get well illustrated by this "climate treaty" vs. "climate justice" issue. For a detailed dismantling of Rawls, read Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice," as reviewed by me here. (Kaufmann is a Nietzschean, but you don't have to be, to get a lot from this book. I'm not; indeed, I'm not that close to being one, and I did.)

Posner may overstate the case somewhat, but, to some degree, developing nations have surely benefited from Western industrialization. At the same time, if Posner wants to pull the "benefits" card, Western nations have benefited from pharmaceuticals derived without compensation from plants, even animals on occasion, in non-developed countries.

So, while his arguments rightly undermine Rawls, they also become a petard against himself.

But, on to the broader philosophical point. Because we're all individuals, setting aside issues of greed (and, yes, just as even the downtrodden can have "privilege," victims can be greedy), "justice" simply cannot be a universal, or even close to it. Despite his divergence from Plato in various ways, Aristotle missed this with his values theory of ethics. Rawls definitely missed it. In his case, I think he also, if indirectly, threw in the Golden Rule, which makes things only worse. The so-called Silver Rule, which says, "Do NOT do unto others what you do NOT want them to do to you," makes a much better ethical guide. That said, even a quick glance should tell us it's more individualistic in some ways than the Golden Rule. It's definitely more socially libertarian.

But, as the petard getting ready to hoist Posner shows, sometimes a person can counter "justice" claims from a point that actually is, in the bad sense, "privileged." And, usually get his head and hat handed back to him.

I mentioned uncompensated pharmaceuticals as one way of trumping him. I am sure there are others, but I want to go to another philosophical point.

Rawlsian theories of justice depend, at least in part, on a utilitarian-type point of view. Well, I have a number of problems with utilitarianism. The biggest problem with utilitarianism is that none of us are omniscient. We have no way of knowing how many people an action of ours will benefit. Plus, we really can't step into the "view from nowhere" enough to know if an action of ours is even a benefit as much as we think it is.

Heck, per this particular story, and the pseudo-Chinese proverb with the "could be good, could be bad," refrain, none of us knows what will really be of maximal utilitarian benefit to our own selves beyond the very short term. Let that thought sink in. If we don't know what would be of maximum utilitarian benefit to ourselves, in a situation involving another human being, let alone the psychological version of the Newtonian three-body problem, we probably don't know what the most "just" outcome for ourselves is.

In short, if Samuel Johnson was right to say that "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel," how close is justice?

And, related to that, this is why I identify myself as a skeptical left-liberal, including being skeptical about at least some left-liberal public policy prescriptions.

That said, I do want to touch on the public policy and international relations side of this particular issue. Head below the fold.

At the same time, this is a good public policy piece, and ties in, indirectly, with my repeated insistence on a carbon tax, plus carbon tariffs on imports, working out better than a climate treaty.

And, the problem isn't just the US and China playing Alphonse and Gaston. India is worse, even far worse, as this piece makes clear. Add in that India is deliberately playing population warfare with China, and a carbon tax seems the only reasonable way to restrain it.

The problem with India is the same as with China, and a problem that ultimately stems back to the Kyoto accords. A hard, dualistic division between developed and undeveloped nations has already been leveraged by China, and is being leveraged harder yet by India. India may not fit into the same class as the US, but it's certainly not in the same class as Mali or Papua New Guinea.

We're going to have to address various trade-offs in climate issues. And, we're going to have to recognize that the Eric Posners of the world can make some interesting social psychology arguments, but that we should always ask the good old "Cui bono" behind these arguments.

In other words, if Posner's driving a Hummer, he's full of shit, just in a long-winded way. 

And, the good old rule of law, like utilitarianism, can be exploited by those making the rules.


Simon said...

Could you expand/clarify on this I'm a bit slow on what you are trying to say.

Gadfly said...

On Rawls in general (I've done a couple of other blog posts about him and you can use the search box), I agree with his political and political science ideas in general, but think he's all wet on the philosophy he claims that will support them. That's particularly true of his idea of "justice."

How that applies to Posner is that I agree somewhat we can's have both climate justice or a good climate treaty, but that Posner himself and his particular argument for that don't have much to stand on.

Simon said...

BTW I've only read a few articles on Climate Justice but I cannot agree with Posner's argument.

It's is very similar to colonial reparations. As an Australian I didn't commit the genocide and theft of land done by earlier Australian's but my standard of living - even on the lower wage end- is still directly linked to that earlier injustice.

David Boonin also talked about slave reparations and I think he still was for them even if no one today is directly linked or that many blacks in who pay taxes have done well or would be in effect paying their own reparations.

Regarding the Philippines I've been there many times and since a large percentage in living in poverty and will be greatly affected by climate change its hard for me to see any argument saying they have benefited from industrialization and don't deserve the reparations.

& even if many Americans or Europeans are now poor I think I would be looking current capacity to pay linked to the fruits of past and current economic activity when looking at any reparations.

In other words I have no problem with a historical approach and progressive reparations payments.

Simon said...

I wonder if it is similar to the truth and reconciliation goals in SA. You can have order but not justice. Personally I don't thin k it will last and there will be hell to pay when things fail economically because there was no justice post Apartheid

Gadfly said...

I think there probably is a reasonable parallel there. Reconciliation is at least somewhat dependent on trust; and trust and justice don't always go together. Then, if a second generation finds that revelation, and justice, were sacrificed for order, then, yes, the lid could come off.


In my writing about Rawls in general, I mention Kaufmann and his book on the issues of "justice" and "fairness." Basically, Kaufmann uses Nietzsche-type dialectical reasoning to show that one person's fairness could be another's tyranny. This is true of groups as well as individuals.


Some of this, as I note in other blog posts about Rawls, relates to general problems with utilitarian, or utilitarian-like, philosophies. Because we are temporally as well as spacially finite beings, it's simply impossible for us to have an ethical "view from nowhere."

Simon said...

Nice points.

I never had the opportunity to go into the more sophisticated formulations of utilitarianism but did have problems of the usual kind. As a general principle or goal I didn't mind it if incorporated within other ethical guidelines.

Gadfly said...

Agreed. I think all of us have a degree of a utilitarian streak in us as part of our evolutionary nature. But, per Hume's "is" not "ought," it doesn't have to be our lodestone in ethics, or philosophy in general. However, as part of a broader, more eclectic approach to ethics, or issues of philosophy in general, utilitarianism can be a good tool, I think, when appropriately used.

Simon said...

Couldn't agree more.

Regarding 'is' and 'ought' where do you stand on ethical relativism?

Gadfly said...

On a set of core values, i'm a strong semi-absolutist.

To unpack, let's take murder.

That's a universal among non-sociopaths. But, where does murder become manslaughter?
There can be some cultural difference on what constitutes premeditation, or how much weight we should give to premeditation or lack thereof as an issue.

On an issue like, say usury, I think such a thing exists, but still understand the issue of credit risks and other issues.

On some issues, they are "adiaphora," to use the old religious term. Per the "Silver Rule," if nobody is being harmed, and the matter is ultimately one of taste, even if society has mislabeled it as one of ethics, do what you want.

Simon said...

I'll have to admit I'm a bit of a ethical relativist and think there are non-moral reasons not to do things like murder or rape.

But still maintain they aren't objectively ethically wrong in the way it is usually framed.

I have a game theory like formation called procedural equality where most people accept that to play the game of normative morality the agents expect to be treated as if they have basically equal worth within the game. In other words fairly and non arbitrarily.

If one accepts the Golden and Silver rules and the sort of procedural equality that goes with it, to gain the myriad benefits of the game, it is 'wrong' by the rules you have accepted to then rape or murder.

OFC if you don't accept the rules that contractually link is and ought, you are just left with the brute facts and the repercussions from those who have accepted the above rules.