"What does it matter that, by following my advice, my friend gave the kid third degree burns over fifty percent of his whole body? The kid didn't die."
What would you think of the moral character of a person who made this type of claim.
So, consider the moral character of the claim, "What does it matter that we destroy whole cities and cause widespread suffering among whole populations? We didn't destroy the earth?"
I hear that latter comment - or something very much like it - among the global warming deniers quite regularly. Usually it takes the form, "CO2 levels were much higher in the past than they are now, and it wasn't the end of the world."
Nope, it wasn't "the end of the world." However, there are a lot of things that humans have reason to be concerned about other than "the end of the world." The idea that, "If it does not bring about the end of the world, then it is not worth worrying about" is absurd.
It displays the same type of moral callousness as, "My victim did not die, so I have done no wrong.'
The culprit in my example - the person who encouraged a friend to act to as to cause a kid to be severely burned - is a paradigm of virtue when held up against the "not the end of the world" global-warming denier. The person in my example brings about the suffering of one kid. It is a lot of suffering to be sure, but it is only one kid.
The global-warming denier who treats us to the "not the end of the world" argument is willing to see the destruction of whole cities and the suffering of whole populations. As long as the world does not end, it doesn't matter.
However, the peculiar thing is that we do not TREAT the "not-the-end-of-the-world" denier the way we treat the, "I burned the kid but did not kill him" denier of harm. In the latter case, we truly are trained to respond with moral outrage - and moral outrage is well deserved. We can't have those types of attitudes running around in our society. The idea of tolerating the attitude that whatever does not kill a child is permissible is intolerable.
Yet, there is even less of a reason to find the attitude, "That which does not end the world is permissible" that some global-warming deniers give us. Here is an example in which our moral sense simply is not properly tuned. We are giving a moral pass on something that is far more morally horrendous than something that we find absolutely intolerable.
The proof that we give a moral pass on this kind of argument is that it is quite common in discussions of global warming, and yet our reaction to that claim is much, much milder than our reaction would be to somebody who made a similar claim about burning a child.
I suspect that the reason for this is that, until recently, the moral callousness of being indifferent to the destruction of whole cities has not been much of an issue. We have not had to train our children for moral outrage against that type of person, because the capacity to bring about the widespread destruction of whole cities did not exist before. There was the potential of wiping out whole cities in a war, but this was not callous indifference to the destruction of whole cities. This was tribal "us" versus "them" sentiments getting out of hand.
Now, casual indifference to the destruction of whole cities risks inaction when whole cities are actually at risk of destruction. Now, there is a cost of ignoring the moral crime of indifference to such destruction. Now, we have real, practical, real-world reason to condemn the person who says, "It does not matter if whole cities are destroyed, as long as the Earth itself is not destroyed," as somebody morally much worse than the person who says, "It does not matter if a child is burned over 50% of his body, as long as he wasn't killed."
We may need to train ourselves to have the aversion to such a person that the moral situation now requires. One way we can do that - one way we can train our emotions - is by recognizing the logical equivalence of relevant moral analogies, and by recognizing that we are talking about the real-world effects of real-world actions.
The next time you encounter a global-warming denier who uses the "not the end of the world" argument, think of a person who has just said, "It does not matter whether I burned the kid over 50% of his body. I didn't kill him." Think about that type of person, and recognize that the person you are discussing global warming with has just said something much, much worse.
It is time for my standard statement that regular readers to this blog are sick of. The right to freedom of speech is not a right to immunity from condemnation for what one says and writes. However, it IS a right to immunity from violence in response to what one says or writes. Legitimate responses must be limited to words (including words of condemnation) and non-violent actions.