Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Conservative Response on Global Warming

I would like to give a proper conservative answer to the issue of climate change – the type of answer that a conservative political candidate would give if he were to give an answer true to conservative moral and economic principles.

We will see that this answer is not permitted in our current political system. At least, no candidate who sincerely wants to win public office would dare to suggest that these principles apply in the way described here.

Well, the science of climate change is not subject to partisan interpretations. The science of what happens when we put greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is like the science of what happens when a person fires a bullet into another person’s body. Science tells us the consequences of those types of actions, and it is up to us to apply our moral principles to those facts to determine what we should do.

Conservative moral principles tell us that it is basically wrong to fire a bullet into somebody else’s body. It is wrong to burn down his house, to take possession of his car without his consent, to take a baseball bat to his collection of fine china. They say that governments exist to provide people with protections against these types of harms. The perpetrators of these forms of harm – no matter how wealthy they are or their political position – are equally subject to the same moral law, which requires that those who do harm to others be made accountable for the harms they cause.

There are a few who seem to think that the only punishment a perpetrator should suffer is a loss of reputation. This and the free market will see that murderers, rapists, thieves and robbers, con men, and violent gangs demanding protection money, all suffer the same free-market fate when others simply refuse to trade with them. However, I will assume that this who want to close down all the prisons after releasing all the prisoners, shut down the government-run courts, and fire the police, are very few. Even among conservative thinkers, the government runs a police, court, and prison system to prevent people from inflicting harms on the lives, health, and property of others with impunity.

Throwing a chemical into somebody’s eyes that blinds them, or throwing a chemical into the air that sets fire to their homes or that summons a wave from the ocean to destroy their property are not separate moral categories. Where they inflict harm on others, they fall into the same moral category. The inflict the type of harms that governments exist to prevent or, at least, to make sure that the harm-doers answer for.

Even if it takes a whole crowd of people to throw enough chemical into the air to summon a wave from the ocean to destroy a neighbor’s house. If you are a part of the crowd, you are morally responsible for the results. You cannot destroy somebody else’s property and declare innocence just because you were a part of a violent and destructive mob. Nor are you morally innocent just because your mob is large enough to threaten anybody who might want to hold you accountable for the harms done.

That is what morality tells us.

That is our ethos - or morality. This is how we reduce irresponsible and harmful behaviors in society. If we allow harmful actions to go unpunished - if we do not demand accountability and responsibility for harms done - the effect is to promote and encourage irresponsibility and the destruction that comes from it. Society exists – and governments rightfully exist – as hostile opponents to this type of unanswered harms.

When the rich and powerful try to defend a legal permission to do harm to others, they are not defending a free market. They are not asserting conservative moral principles. They are defending something like corporate feudalism, where the corporate lords and ladies can utterly disregard the lives, health, and property of the lesser beings. This so-called right to do harm with impunity utterly contradicts the principle that ALL people are created equal, and the lives, health and well-being of even the poorest citizen cannot be harmed on a whim for the pleasure if the upper class.

Science tells us that putting greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere constitutes an action harmful to the life, health, and property of others. Science tells us what happens when we put greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, just science tells us what happens when you fire a bullet into another person's body. Science, itself, is non-partisan.

And the fact that ALL people have the same moral rights means that we ought not to live in a world where doing harm to the life, health, and property of the poor does not matter so long as the rich can profit from it. The wealthy and powerful may not show a callous disregard for the life, health, and property of other human beings - and must respect those rights just as they demand that others respect their equal rights.

This is what conservative morality tells us.

Conservative economics, as it turns out - and not coincidentally - gives us exactly the same message.
 I will cover that angle tomorrow.

I want to add that I do not agree fully with this position. It depends fundamentally on an assumption of foundational self-evident intrinsic rights that do not exist. However, an argument grounded on things that do exist – desires, some of which are malleable, states of affairs, and the relationships between them – can get to substantially the same conclusion, at least up to a point. There is a point at which those two systems diverge, but we have not yet reached it.

Not coincidentally, that desirist moral argument has a lot in common with the conservative economic argument for these principles. I will discuss them tomorrow.

Until then.

1 comment:

mojo.rhythm said...

As far as I can tell, John Huntsman is the only Republican politician who accepts the scientific consensus on climate change.

His attitude seems to be that it should be put on the back-burner while America tries to repair its failing economy.

And in a separate camp, there are conservatives who have a sincere belief in the free-market's ability to combat climate change.

Both of these conservative attitudes towards climate change are inadequate IMHO. Both fail to ultimately look at the big picture, seeing what needs to happen, fundamentally, to capitalism, in order to get the state of the world back on track.