Why should I care about saving the planet?

Marion asked:

“I signed no contract to save the earth.” — Is there really an ethical argument against this viewpoint? We all have different values and responsibilities. Can we really insist it is our “ethical responsibility” as humans to put into place measures which will help ensure a safe and healthy planet for generations to come?

Why is it our responsibility to do this? It was never a condition of our birth onto this planet.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I would love to own a Jensen Interceptor, but it would be wrong. Why? Apart from the fact that it takes up a rather large amount of kerb space and our neighbours all have small cars, the Jensen’s 7 litre engine does around 8 miles per gallon. Compared with smaller cars or cars that are smaller engined, it’s carbon footprint is huge. Why should I care, if I can afford the petrol? What should I care about?

Questions like this are not usually meant as foundational challenges to the very existence of ethics or ethical commands. The questioner would (probably) not challenge the widely held ethical belief that it is wrong to cook and eat human infants — regardless of the satirical suggestion by the young Jonathan Swift, that it would be a reasonable ‘solution’ to the Irish potato famine.

Some ethical considerations relate to a ‘contract’, either real or imaginary, but not all. The prohibition against infant cannibalism is not based on any contract (the ‘social contract’ as it is called). That’s just one example. So the statement that ‘I signed no contract to save the Earth’ does not entail that I have no ethical responsibility towards the planet. But we can leave that aside.

What the question is really about is the consistency of our ethical beliefs. The notion that it is our ‘ethical responsibility… to ensure a safe and healthy planet’ is less widely held than the ethical command against eating babies. Is it possible that at least some persons who are sceptical about saving the earth could be persuaded to change their view by demonstrating its inconsistency with other things they believe?

Let’s play a game of ‘suppose’, a familiar trope in philosophical debate. Suppose that we had strong evidence that human life would be completely destroyed in five thousand years time if we failed to do something now to prevent this. Fill this sketch out with whatever details you like. Action now has a cost. The benefit will only be appreciated five thousand years from now. I don’t have a certain answer to this. Surely, there are other matters that have higher priority than that hypothetical possibility? Questions of priority loom large in decisions about what we ‘ought’ to do.

Then again, it would be easy to construct a ‘slippery slope’ argument that if we needn’t worry about human life five thousand years from now, then it makes no difference ‘give or take’ a hundred years. And yet, if you go on subtracting a hundred years you will eventually reach the year 2121. Your grandchildren, or great grandchildren will die when human life comes to an end. — The problem with this is a justified scepticism of slippery slope arguments, which can very easily degenerate into mere casuistry.

Here’s a different angle. Start by asking the questioner whether they care about anything that happens after their death. If not, then it is difficult to see how then can claim to hold any real ethical beliefs. It’s all about ‘me’, and the things I will experience, enjoy or suffer during my life time. On the other hand, if they do care — for example, by taking the time to draw up a will — then surely the fate of the planet is also something they should care about, isn’t it? — I’m not convinced that that’s a conclusive argument, but it could be a start.

You can see from the above that the process of making ethical beliefs consistent presents a different challenge to each individual person. A given argument will persuade some but not others. However, it is surely not an unreasonable question to ask, and we can make a start by asking ourselves why we care.

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