Part 1. Philosophy and Ethics – the missing environmental policy ingredients.
Where are the philosophers? I’m not asking “where are they located geographically?”. I know that; they are squirreled away in about 60 academic departments in major universities and colleges around the country. What I am asking is where the hell are professional philosophers in the current political and environmental mess that is Canada?
For try as I might, I could find no commentaries by bona fide philosophers on the infamous Omnibus Budget Bill (Bill C-38), the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area, characterizing environmentalists as proto-terrorists, changes to the Fisheries Act, the elimination of Canada’s Ocean Contaminants Program, or opposition of first nations to the Northern Gateway Pipeline.
These issues have important ethical and moral implications for Canada and Canadians. More than this, a serious consideration of any of them would raise important moral questions about the way policy decisions are now being made in this country.
And yet our philosophers were nowhere in sight. A search on the Philosophers’ Index data base unearthed only a smattering of academic articles on Canadian issues, including one on climate change, two on tar sands, and two on first nations issues. Not exactly a tidal wave of ethical thought. Even John Ralston Saul, whose 1993 “Voltaire’s Bastards” took on the paranoia partisanship, and penchant for secrecy of modern elites, has been silent on what many see as blatant abuses of parliamentary procedure and democracy by the Harper Government.
Tom Morris also asked why philosophers were absent from the public arena in a Huffington Post article:
“Why isn’t there a small army of sages out in the media and on the shelves of our bookstores helping with the worries and confusions that beset us as we tiptoe tentatively up to the doorstep of what’s likely to be a challenging new year?”
One reason advanced by Morris for this absence is the abstraction and obscurity of many modern philosophical texts. As Morris says:
“I was trained in matters and methods of thought so esoteric that some of my academic essays and early books could be read with profit and understood thoroughly by no more than a few hundred people around the globe”.
I consulted my former colleague, Peter Miller – a bona fide philosopher – on why Canadian philosophers are not commenting publically on the current state of the nation. He pointed me to the web page of the Global Integrity Group, a network of 250 scholars and thinkers who endeavour to develop philosophical, and legal foundations fro sustainability, ecological justice and intergenerational equity. They have an impressive output of books and articles to their credit, but none of their work has escaped the insular world of academia to enter the broader public sphere.
In fairness to philosophy, the same criticism could be leveled against many disciplines, either due to their technical difficult or because they use impenetrable jargon to block out awkward questions.
But if there was ever a time to revive a tradition of ethical debate in Canada, it is now! Some may question why we need professional philosophy, since the correct course of action in the face of our many environmental challenges seems obvious. And certainly, aren’t we all armchair philosophers – or at least critics – these days? But many of the challenges that we face are wicked problems with no clear-cut solution, and for which the sweet spot of threading a win-win path between competing viewpoints is elusive.
For these problems, we need people who are professionally trained in the art of thinking to clarify the issues and to see things in ways that would escape most amateur thinkers. Specifically, we need moral philosophers and environmental ethicists – the folks who think about defining what constitutes “right action” in the world – to clarify and even promote public debate about the consequences of environmental decisions. We need them to do this to balance the flavour of current discussions of the Canadian environment, which tend to be focused on technological aspects (e.g. is it practical to capture and store carbon to offset greenhouse emissions?) or political issues (e.g. is parliament falling into disrepute?). Whether or not a particular outcome is ethical or morally acceptable is scarcely discussed – at least not in a rigorous way that examines an issue in all its dimensions.
The questions that we need philosophers to tackle in public include:
- What duties, if any, do current generations owe to those of the future with respect to the environment?
- What responsibility do individuals have for the indirect effects of their material consumption on people in remote parts of the world (e.g. sea level rise due to the greenhouse effect)?
- What is the balance of rights between local communities that may suffer because of industrial developments and the larger country, which may stand to benefit from them?
- Are politicians in power obligated to act on scientific information, or can they ignore it based on their interpretation of the greater good?
- Can there be such a thing as “ethical oil”?
- What are the implications of accepting (as policy) a 40 percent chance that a population of an endangered species will be extirpated within 50 years?
None of these questions is hypothetical. They are relevant to environmental issues being debated within Canada right now. And they are just a subsample of the questions that a genuine philosopher might ask. I am here on the internet practicing philosophy without a license, and alas an amateur, I may be making mistakes! Genuine philosophers and ethicists have the background in logical reasoning, a deep knowledge of the history of thought, and the experience of thinking about current issues that would add weight to our deliberations.
I’m looking at an editorial by Jeffrey Simpson called “Science, not politics, should be at the heart of fisheries”. This is great, but it is axiomatic that science can not tell us what to do, only the consequences of certain actions – and even that not all of the time. Over 200 years ago, David Hume realized that you can not derive a moral claim from empirical facts (Van de Veer and Pierce 1998, pp 7 – 8). On the other hand, I do not believe that a truly modern environmental philosophy can exist unless it can incorporate the scientific facts on the ground. Any ethical system that does not acknowledge the latest science is merely wishful thinking.
So what sort of environmental philosophy do we need? I believe that we need a robust and assertive public philosophy written in plain English (not jargon) that tackles some of the crucially important environmental issues faced by Canadians today. We need our media to acknowledge the need for this ethical perspective so that philosophers can enter the debate. I want to read a future article by Jeffrey Simpson titled Science and ethics should be at the heart of fisheries”.
So much for what I think we need. In the next post on this subject, I’ll try to throw up some examples of what I am talking about.
To be continued…..
Van de Veer, D., and C. Pierce. 1998. The environmental ethics and policy book. 2nd edition. Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA.