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Monday, November 10, 2003

Why we should clean up -- a reaction 

In reference to Kramer's post regarding the cost:benefit of environmental regulation given likely timescales for climate change, there may be an ethical consideration to do with the mode of time.

We are fairly good at dealing justice in the present. Some things that we might assess have to do with the intent, agency, and consequences to an action. On their own, these factors themselves can be complicated. But the temporality, endurance, and compounding effect of actions in time are just as important to any sense of justice.

Looking at our history, we might think of righting wrongs or making people whole. This may be the ethical underpinnings of damage awards, reparations, and the like. Injustice done in the past often has an effect on the present, frequently in terms of pain and suffering in torts, or in terms of some cumulative disadvantage endured. This might describe the case of family members compensated for some wrong that befell a deceased member. There is, I would suggest, a compounding need to right these wrongs. Time can bury the hatchet, but it can also chaffe and compromise the ethics we would hope to enact in the here and now.

Looking ahead from the present to the future, however, our ethical sensibilities are much less evolved. What responsiblities do we really owe those sure to come after us, anyhow? I think that serious thought is needed about this, as about a lot of things that may employ technological solutions, if only because technology will never answer these questions. Know-how does not equal knowledge in the sense of understanding. Our ethics is being dangerously outpaced in many realms by technology (see genetic research). Fortunately, or not, this is hardly the case regarding climate change. Our technology and development is actually speeding the crisis, sparing us, at least, the fevered hand-wringing about whether we should do just because we can do (see cloning).

Let me throw out, though, that religions are exemplary, for obvious reasons, in their sense of time (though less so for the Judeo-Christianity that remains fixated on an imminent apocalypse.) Within the J-C tradition, there is interesting language around covenants and the common good. In this context, our responsibilities toward future life are robust. Unpacking this stuff demands thought about relational ethics. We need to assess the multi-valent spheres of allegiences, interactions and duties that govern our own species and the environmental order.

-Geoffrey
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