Opinion: We need new ethics and emotions appropriate to our new destructive powers

There are three important dimensions to inadequacy of traditional ways of thinking

climate-change-global-earth-trees-weather-rain-water-drought-shut Representational image

For its G20 presidency, India has chosen a theme drawn from the Maha Upanishad, a phrase that is engraved in the entrance hall of Parliament: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

For the purposes of the G20 presidency, the phrase has been translated thus: “One Earth, One Family, One Future”. The G20 website says this theme “affirms the value of all life–human, animal, plant, and microorganisms–and their interconnectedness on the planet Earth and in the wider universe.”

Now, on the one hand, these words are platitudes, nice-sounding bits of fluff that PR people seem contractually obligated to produce. But on the other, these words, and the sentiments behind them, have never felt more urgent or necessary.

For even as I write these words, the world burns.

Temperatures are at all-time highs in the Mediterranean. Flames are spreading—like wildfire, because they are wildfire—across Europe. India faces recurring heatwaves, of an intensity and regularity hitherto unknown.

And while the world burns, it also drowns. Rivers overflowing, sea level rising, uncontrollable floods, dams breaking, mountains collapsing. The icebergs are melting, the jungles are disappearing. Soon enough, the polar bears will disappear and the birds will stop singing.

To the extent that one can know such things, I know all this. I accept the overwhelming scientific consensus. I accept that we are on the road to disaster and that catastrophe is imminent. I accept that we have a very small window left in which to act. I accept that we must act.

And yet, I do nothing.

This fact interests me. I suspect it is true of many people: on the one hand we accept the scientific consensus regarding climate change and its effects, and on the other we continue living exactly as we had before. Why?

One explanation I want to dismiss immediately: we are not bad people. Taking me as an example: I am (mostly) nice to my wife. I care about my family. I care about my neighbours. I am not a saint, but neither am I a psychopath. It is too convenient to say, “we are weak or bad, that is why we don’t do anything”. Let us see if we can do better than that.

As soon as human beings began living together, they were forced to ask: how should we treat each other?

The first records we have of people asking and answering these questions are many millennia old. The answers that human beings gave ended up becoming what we nowadays call ethics and morality.

Those original answers are one of the most astonishing achievements of humanity. And they have proven remarkably functional and adaptable. For even as society evolved, as forms of organisation and ways of life changed, as human beings and human possibilities were transformed, through all of this, the old concepts and frameworks retained their relevance and their usefulness.

As any historian of morality will tell you, the ethical precepts, the moral concepts, the systems and frameworks that we use today to understand moral questions and solve moral problems—all of these are modified versions of the original answers that human beings first gave millennia ago.

Consider a human being living any time before, say, 1750 AD. He lived in his village, perhaps once in a while travelling a few kilometres for special occasions. His impact was restricted to this circumference. Perhaps he could burn the local market down, perhaps he could cut a few more trees from the jungle than other men. If he was especially evil, perhaps he could kill a handful of men.

Just as important as what he could do, was what he couldn’t. Our pre-1750 man could not, as a rule, do anything to harm someone living thousands of kilometres today. The blacksmith in the shires of Nottingham could do nothing to affect the life of the jeweller in Surat. Still less could either of them do anything that would harm someone living centuries later.

That was the background against which our concepts and codes of ethics and morality were developed. Human beings were relatively limited in their power, in the range of their impact across space and time. Correspondingly, we developed ethical prescriptions appropriate for creatures with that range of power.

And as the German philosopher Hans Jonas pointed out in the 1970s, that background no longer holds. The problem of climate change makes this very clear. Through our actions, we are now able to affect people far away from us in space and time.

Our ways of thinking and feeling morally were developed in a context where what mattered was local action and local impact. Is it any surprise that they are not adequate for a situation where what matters is cosmic action and cosmic impact? We are trying to repair iPhones with axes, which helps neither the phone nor the axe.

There are three important dimensions to the inadequacy of our traditional ways of thinking.

First, as an illustrative example, consider a standard ethical precept like “Do no harm”. These precepts made sense when humankind lived in villages, when the only people a person could harm or love were those that she encountered in her daily life. Under those circumstances, these ethical principles gave us solid, actionable advice.

But today, when our actions can harm people living far away in space and time, people we cannot even imagine, let alone meet, it is difficult to understand what the precept means for us. What is it to do no harm in a world where going for a drive in Hamburg may mean floods in the Sunderbans? Or where not turning the lights off may mean thousands of people dying thousands of years later?

Second, the traditional moralities were set up to deal with individual action that had individual consequences. I steal my neighbour’s axe, the neighbour is harmed, I get punished. But the problems of climate change (and, incidentally, most of the big global problems we face) are classic collective action problems. A vast number of people act together, with each action contributing to the system and helping to generate the consequences we want to avoid. But what is the contribution that each individual action makes to the bad consequences? What is the individual responsibility that each of us has for the collective consequences?

We may sum up the first two dimensions thus: our moral concepts and theories are broken. They have collapsed under the strain of trying to accommodate circumstances for which they were never made.

The third dimension of the problem is not conceptual. Rather, it is emotional. For most of human history, our moral emotions have functioned in lockstep with our circumstances. When we were told to love our neighbour, well, it was our actual neighbours we were loving. There they were, in their flesh and blood, and we could respond to them on a visceral, physical level, the level below rational thought, the level where most of our emotions live. When we murdered someone with our stone axes, we could hear the victim’s cries, we could see the terror in his eyes, we could smell the sweat and taste the blood. So when we were told not to murder, we could understand with our emotions why murder was bad, and our emotions agreed with morality.

Climate change is a very different kind of problem. We are told that we are one earth, one family, and perhaps with our thinking minds we agree, but (unless perhaps we are saints) it has no pull on our emotions. The entire world is not my family—my family is my family. I want to put food on their table, I want my wife to be happy, I want my son to flourish. Of course, in a general, abstract kind of way I wish the entire world well, but I do not feel anything towards them, certainly nothing even close to comparable to what I feel for my family.

In the context of climate change, this is a problem because the human being is an emotional animal. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out 300 years ago, in order for us to act, our emotions need to be engaged. The traditional ethics limited its principles to the sphere where our emotions were already engaged—our families, our neighbours, our tribe members. The new ethics, the kind of ethics we need for global problems like climate change, demands action in spheres where our emotions do not follow. Is it then any wonder that we do not act?

On July 16, 1945, the world saw the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon. It was carried out in the deserts of New Mexico under the aegis of the Manhattan Project. Specifically, it was the fruit of work done at the Los Alamos Laboratory, a secret lab whose mission was to build the first atomic bombs.

The Los Alamos Laboratory was run by the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. He was present at the detonation. According to legend, when he saw the explosion, when the mushroom cloud rose into the sky of the desert, he alluded to the Bhagavad Gita and said: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

Well, we are all become death now. With our actions we have the power to destroy worlds. We need ethics and emotions that are appropriate to our new powers. Will we get them in time to stop the world going up in flames?

I am not optimistic. But I hope nonetheless.

The writer is a former professor of philosophy, who lives in Austria.

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