3 Questions: How
philosophy can address the problem of climate change
MIT professor of philosophy Kieran
explores how individuals and societies can think about and act on climate
change. - MIT
School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS)
the obligation to act on climate change a matter of distributive justice,
restitution, or insurance against catastrophe? Which should be our focus?
These questions bridge theory and practice, moral principle and political
strategy," says philosopher Kieran Setiya. "I want my MIT
students to think about ethics beyond the limits of problem-solving,
to explore not just the demands of morality but ideals of human flourishing."
Science and technology are essential tools for innovation, and to reap
their full potential, we also need to articulate and solve the many
aspects of todays global issues that are rooted in the political,
cultural, and economic realities of the human world. With that mission
in mind, MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences has launched
"The Human Factor" an ongoing series of stories and
interviews that highlight research on the human dimensions of global
challenges. As the editors of the journal Nature have said, framing
such questions effectively incorporating all factors that influence
the issue is a key to generating successful solutions. Contributors
to this series also share ideas for advancing the multidisciplinary
collaborations needed to solve the major global issues.
Kieran Setiya is a professor
of philosophy within the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social
Sciences (SHASS) who explores questions of ethics (including climate
change ethics), epistemology, and the philosophy of mind. He is the
author of two books: "Reasons without Rationalism" and "Knowing
Right From Wrong." SHASS Communications asked him to share his
thoughts on how philosophy can help people tackle the problem of climate
Q: How can an understanding
of philosophy help people make better decisions about how to handle
major global issues such as climate change?
A: Whether they
acknowledge it or not, almost anyone engaged with global issues of human
well-being, the distribution of resources, or the future of society
is doing moral philosophy. The most technocratic assessment of costs
and benefits makes assumptions about what counts as cost and benefit:
about the value of human life and the demands of justice. As John Maynard
Keynes wrote 80 years ago, those who believe themselves to be
quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slave of
some defunct economist or philosopher.
Making our ethics more
explicit, being self-conscious about our principles and premises, improves
our moral thinking. This is particularly true when the questions are
ones of public policy, when they operate at scales that defy intuitive
judgement, and when they threaten our complacent desire to maintain
the status quo.
The problem of climate
change is challenging in all these ways. It is unique, or unusual, in
that it leads rapidly beyond the usual terrain of political theory to
questions more abstract and existential. Why should we care about the
survival of humanity? The answer makes a difference to our assessment
of catastrophic risks. How should we think about decisions that affect
the identity of future individuals? If we do not act on climate change,
people born 50 or 100 years from now will lead impoverished lives. But
they would have been no better off if we had acted otherwise: in that
alternative history, they would not exist.
Along with problems of
identity, there are problems of time itself: Economists often discount
not only wealth but human welfare as they project into the future. Because
it compounds year by year, the discount rate swamps other factors in
the economic assessment of climate change. What forms of discounting
are ethically defensible? Philosophers have been thinking about these
questions for decades. Their ideas are relevant now.
Q: What moral questions
do we need to address as a society if we are to succeed in working together
to meet communal goals such as the emissions reduction targets set by
the 2015 Paris Agreement?
A: We know that
climate change will cause tremendous harm and that the extent of this
harm depends collectively on us. Many would agree that climate change
is a moral issue and that we are obligated to act. But there is little
clarity on the basis of our obligations or on what exactly they are.
Climate change will disproportionately
affect the developing world, hitting India and Africa especially hard.
In narrowly economic terms, a recent study saw the likely cost of 2
degrees of warming as 5 percent of GDP in India, 4 percent in Africa,
but only 0.5 percent in the United States and less in China. These facts
bear on questions of distributive justice, even apart from the causes
of climate change.
When we turn to history,
we find issues of corrective justice or restitution. More than half
of all emissions have been caused by the United States and Europe, as
they reaped the benefits of industrialization. How far can developed
nations be held accountable for past emissions? Do our obligations now
depend on the extent of our contribution to the problem?
And then there is the risk
of global climate catastrophe. This is what lies behind the 2 degree
target embraced by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
and others. Beyond 2 degrees, there is a danger of feedback in the climate
system that would increase average temperatures by 5 or 6 degrees, threatening
Is the obligation to act
on climate change a matter of distributive justice, restitution, or
insurance against catastrophe? The answers are not exclusive. Which
should be our focus?
These questions bridge
theory and practice, moral principle and political strategy. We need
to address them in interpreting the common but differentiated
responsibilities of the Paris Agreement. We need to address them
in finding ways to motivate action in the present whose impact will
only be felt by future generations. And we need to address them when
we ask how far to compromise ideals of justice in the name of necessity.
How complicit should we
be with energy companies whose business model rests on catastrophic
levels of fossil fuel consumption? Or with corporations that sponsor
climate denial? These are questions for institutions like MIT. At the
same time, we face the challenge, as individuals, of maintaining hope
for the future or continuing to act without it.
Q: How do you think
the courses you teach, such as 24.02 (Moral Problems and the Good Life),
prepare MIT students to make valuable contributions to a better world
whether their field is engineering, science, or something else?
A: Teaching ethics
is a risky business. If the end is to make people better, it is open
to question whether moral philosophy is the most effective means. Some
philosophers fear that it is counter-productive. As Annette Baier once
complained, the standard introduction to ethics acquaints the
student with a variety of theories, and shows the difference in the
guidance they give. We, in effect, give courses in comparative moral
theory, and like courses in comparative religion, their usual effect
on the student is loss of faith in any of the alternatives presented.
One of my aims in 24.02
is to present moral philosophy as something more than a stalemate of
conflicting views. Moral argument is not a zero-sum game: It generates
insight and illumination. At least when they go well, courses like mine
prepare students to make a positive difference in the world in part
by convincing them that it is worth thinking about ethical questions,
that they can make progress in finding answers, and that doing so changes
In the 2016 Senior Survey,
more than 20 percent of MIT students said that working for social and
political change is not important to them at all. I dont know
what explains this statistic, but I make a point of exposing students
to some of our most urgent moral challenges, including global climate
change, and of confronting doubts about the efficacy of individual action.
At the same time, I want
students to think about ethics beyond the limits of problem-solving,
to explore not just the demands of morality but ideals of human flourishing.
What does it take to live a good and meaningful life? The value of philosophy
is partly instrumental, a tool for innovation, creativity, and civic
engagement. But it calls us to reflect on what matters in itself, not
as a means to an end or the answer to a need we would be better off
When we engineer prosperity
and progress, when we struggle against injustice, what sort of lives
are we fighting for? Lives in which philosophy has an enduring place.
As Jonathan Wolff writes, with useful hyperbole: Medicine helps
us live longer; scientific advances save us time; but the arts and humanities
make it worth living longer, with time on our hands.
Interview prepared by
MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial Team: Emily Hiestand, Kathryn O'Neill