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.