Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Limitless Harm Morality

Let’s say that I decide that I want to have an old-fashioned barbeque in my back yard. I want to dig a pit in my yard, fill it full of wood, set it on fire. Unfortunately, the wind being what it is, there is a good chance - in fact, it is highly likely - that sparks from the fire will cross over onto your property and likely burn your home to the ground.

You might think that it would be morally wrong for me to go ahead and have the barbeque. At the very least, if I have the barbeque and burn down your home, then I would owe you compensation for your loss.

However, there is a new system of morality in use today, a system that allows people to harm others with impunity, a system embraced by many Republicans in Congress, that says that I have no obligation to refrain from having the barbeque. This Limitless Harm Morality goes on to say that if I have the barbeque and burn your house down, I am not morally obligated to provide compensation. Any idea that punishment would be justified is out of the question.

How would I, using Limitless Harm Morality, defeat the claim that having the barbeque at all would be wrong? Quite simply, all I need to do is to point out that if I accepted your moral objections to having the barbeque, then I would not be allowed to do what I want. No moral principle can hope to stand up against the claim, “This is what I wish to do; therefore, it cannot be wrong.” It is absurd to hold that the risk of burning your house down provides a moral objection to my having a barbeque. That’s all there is to it.

So, now, let’s say that I go ahead and have my barbeque. As predicted, the wind carries sparks from my fire over onto your property and burns your house to the ground. Now, you are saying that I owe you compensation for destroying your home. How can I defeat this claim?

Limitless Harm Morality says that there is no duty to provide those harmed with compensation if that compensation will leave the person paying it economically worse off. If I were to pay you compensation for the loss of your property, then I would certainly be made poorer than I would be if I paid you nothing. Since the moral value of a policy is to be judged by its impact on my economic well-being, it is obviously wrong to say that I owe you compensation.

I’m sorry about the home, by the way. However, I hope that you find solace and comfort in the fact that God must have wanted you to be homeless, or He would never have let this happen.

The Real World Case

The real world situation that is analogous to the barbeque pit concerns global warming. I have been spending some time listening to congressional testimony on the subject of climate change. The arguments given above are my recasting of the claims made during these hearings. Their objections to legislation that aims to control global warming are quite similar to those that one might use against a ‘no sparks’ rule applied to backyard barbeques.


For example, speakers protested that those concerned with fighting global warming did not consider the cost of adopting this ‘no-sparks’ policy.

Imagine a person who is supplementing his income by robbing convenience stores telling his wife that he is planning on giving up this activity. He says that it is wrong to live a life where he does so much harm to others, and he wishes to put an end to it. His wife shouts back, “All you do is talk about how wrong it is to rob convenience stores. I never once heard you talk about the cost of this new plan of yours. You ignore the fact that if you do this we simply will not have as much money to spend.”

Of course, the wife is appealing to Limitless Harm Morality to defend her husband’s theft. A more conventional morality says that it is not a ‘cost’ in any legitimate sense to give up something that one has no right to. If I leave my co-worker’s $1500 camera on her desk, when I could otherwise take it without getting caught, my morality did not “cost” me $1500 dollars. Saying that this is a cost is the same as saying that I have a moral right to take the camera.

So, when the advocates of Limitless Harm Morality speak about the ‘cost’ of legislation to fight global warming, in essence they are saying that we have a right to do limitless harm to our neighbors for the sake of maintaining our standard of living. This is how Limitless Harm Morality gets its name.


On the moral system that I am more familiar with, if I burn your house down, then this really is a cost, and it is a cost that I have a duty to bear. I may not force you to suffer this cost. You may be forced to endure the cost if I simply have no way to compensate you. However, barring this, justice demands that the cost of harms I inflict on you come out of my paycheck.

Those who hold to Limitless Harm Morality say that there are no costs associated with providing compensation for harms done. If it is the case that I do not have an obligation to compensate you for the loss of your house, then the loss of your house is not a ‘cost’ to me, and any discussion of costs would not mention it. However, if I do have an obligation to pay you for the harms that I do to you, then these are ‘costs’, and any discussion of the ‘cost’ of various options has to cover it.

This debt that comes from burning your house down would have to be considered a part of the ‘cost’ of having the barbeque. If I have to figure the cost of compensation for your house in my calculation to have a barbeque, I may discover that the costs exceed the benefits. The only way to make the barbeque worthwhile again is if I can force innocent people, such as you, to suffer the costs yourself – forcing you to suffer the loss of your own house without compensation.

This act of forcing others to suffer costs against their will - robbing them of life, health, and well-being for personal benefit - is exactly what Limitless Harm Morality is all about. Under its principles, the profitability of throwing out these greenhouse gas emissions (as long as we refuse to provide compensation to those we harm) is all that matters.

Granted, America is not the only country producing greenhouse gas emissions. We produce only 25 percent of those emissions. So, let’s just say that we are responsible for 25% of the costs. We would still be talking about trillions of dollars per year in compensation to our victims - if we are a fair and just people. Or, we could talk about spending those trillions of dollars on ways of making sure that we do not kill, sicken, or impose other suffering on our neighbors.

Denying Responsibility

Limitless Harm Morality begins with the acceptance that one is acting in ways that put others at risk of losing their life, health, or well-being. Another way that somebody may avoid moral responsibility for one’s actions is to deny that one does harm.

On this measure, those who oppose climate initiatives have shown themselves to be much like child rapists – who chronically deny that raping a child does harm. They simply ignore all of the scientific evidence to the contrary, and insist that their actions are perfect innocent and harmless.

Yesterday, I found an article in Sci-Tech Today that identifies some of those reality-denying changes.

A comparison of the original document, written by scientists, and the finished paper showed major reductions in forecasts for hunger and flooding victims. Instead of "hundreds of millions" of potential flood victims, the report said "many millions."

Imagine the Nazi sympathizer editing a history book, crossing out a sentence that says that there were “tens of millions” of people killed in World War II and replacing it with a sentence that says “many hundreds of thousands” of people were killed.

A key mention of up to 120 million people at risk of hunger because of global warming was eliminated.

Again, I wonder if these people think that if they cross out the fact that 120 million people are at risk of hunger that they will not starve; the same way that if the Nazi sympathizer crosses out any reference to 6 million Jews killed that they can change the facts. These people simply ignore the harmfulness of their actions, so they do not have to face up to its immoral character.

In fact, an effective way to make sure that these people will be made to suffer from global warming is to bury the warning. This way, nobody will read about it, and nobody will take serious action to prevent it. Scratching out this line is simply a way of saying, “Your hunger is of no moral significance; forget about it.”

The article mentions other items in the scientists’ report that political representatives of the Bush Administration thought unimportant.

More than one sixth of the world population live in glacier- or snowmelt-fed river basins and will be affected by decrease of water volume." And depending on how much fossil fuels are burned in the future, "262-983 million people are likely to move into the water stressed-category" by 2050.

Global warming could increase the number of hungry in the world in 2080 by anywhere between 140 million and 1 billion, depending on how much greenhouse gas is emitted into the air over the next few decades.

"Overall a 2 to 3 fold increase of population to be flooded is expected by 2080."

Malaria, diarrhea diseases, dengue fever, tick-borne diseases, heat-related deaths will all rise with global warming. But in the United Kingdom, the drop in cold-related deaths will be bigger than the increase in heatstroke related deaths.

In eastern North America, depending on fossil fuel emissions, smog will increase and there would be a 4.5 percent increase in smog-related deaths.

But what does it matter? The people doing the killing will not have to worry about these things. The additional money they put in the bank will help ensure that they will not suffer.

The Politician’s Victory

There is one other item in this article that strikes a note of concern with me. According to the article, the politicians were able to score a victory over the scientists by playing out the clock.

With such deadline problems, some countries - especially China, Saudi Arabia and at times Russia and the United States -- were able to play hard ball.

They could force scientists to remove mention of hundreds of people put at risk of harm simply by refusing to accept the document. This is far easier than the old days, when the Church had to resort to threats of torture to get scientists to recant their findings in public.

It strongly grates on the moral nerves to have bad people win by manipulating the rules. For one thing, it teaches a moral lesson by example – teaching a new generation to profit through manipulation regardless of the harms others might suffer. We promote virtue by making sure virtue is rewarded; and we discourage vice to make sure that the vicious do not prosper. Events such where evil prospers deals a significant blow to any quest to make a more moral society. Where evil people win and prosper, why be good?

We now know that the people who demanded these concessions are the type of people who will hide massive harms to hundreds of millions of people if it will profit them to do so. The next time you give your child a drink, think about the moral character of the person who handed you the glass. Is it somebody who would willingly hide the fact that the water is poisoned if it profits him to do so?

If he subscribes to this Limitless Harm Morality that American negotiators at the Climate Change conference appealed to in deciding how to behave, then he clearly is somebody who would hide the toxicity of the water he gives you if it profits him to do so.


Anonymous said...

Someone pointed something out to me, and perhaps you have a better way of articulating it because of your background:
People can be put into two groups - those who think global warming is real, human caused, and dangerous; and those who think global warming may or may not be real, but in any regard is not human caused and/or not harmful in any meaningful way.

The thing to look at in this division is the cost of error. If group A is wrong, then we waste money on environmental tech and can't drive SUVs (though waste actually just means different people are getting paid for items of dubious benefit). If group B is wrong, millions die, including the extinction of several species.

So shouldn't we be taking the path with the least risk? And as a bonus, the vast majority of scientists are in group A!

One other note: This idea of limitless harm morality is not itself limited to global warming. It is the philosophy behind the trend known as "tort reform". The idea is that people who screw up should not have to pay for the harm they cause.

BlackSun said...

Great post, Alonzo. I would extend the classification not only to those who deny global warming or change significant wording in reports. People who attempt to stop attribution of costs of any externalities are essentially doing the same thing.

For example: There's an article in Wikipedia about something called a Pigovian tax, which attempts to quantify externalities of economic processes and levy a tax on the offenders.


On two different occasions, someone has gone into that article and placed language saying that it was impossible to properly determine externalities, and hence the tax could never be effectively levied.

I went in and edited the article to say that "by current methods" it would not be possible to determine this, but that through better economic modeling, it might be in the future, and it would be a good idea.

Then someone came back and changed the entry again to say that it was "theoretically impossible, by any current or future method that could be invented" to determine the proper amounts of these taxes, and therefore the entire idea was invalid.

It's amazing how slippery people get when it comes to taking responsibility for their actions. This global warming issue has brought out the absolute worst in people, and amazingly, they justify their positions as if they had some grounding in fact or logic. Camille Paglia is the latest perpetrator of this folly. It's the single biggest example of the subversion of facts and denial of reason that I know of in human history.

Every person who participates in the continued production of C02, and I count myself here as well, is indirectly participating in creating flooding, drought, disease, and all the other global warming effects. As you said, this is little different than outright murder of the poor and disadvantaged, which eventually will result in widespread destruction of civilization.

We have blood on our hands, pure and simple. We need an effective method to turn this around globally. Buying REC's is a positive step, (it's all most people can do at the moment). But we need government action so that the reductions by one person aren't simply canceled out by another.

As for the deniers: grow up and get a clue.