Moral puzzles about collective action

by on February 27, 2008 at 5:57 am in Philosophy | Permalink

If I don’t fly from London to my sister’s
wedding in New Zealand she will be upset, I will cause her pain and so
that’s morally bad. If I do fly to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand I
will put about four tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which
will contribute to climate change, which, according to the World Health
Organisation, already causes about 150,000 deaths every year. Clearly
that’s also morally bad. Which is the morally correct thing to do?

That question is considered by Will Wilkinson.  Don’t argue the facts of carbon emissions (you can choose another scenario if you wish), focus on the moral dilemma.  Will says fly, the plane is going anyway.  That makes my brain hurt with game theory and the probability of threshold effects and triggers.  (Isn’t there some chance that your patronage, eventually, sets another flight in motion, if only stochastically?)  Under an alternative approach, say you are allowed some quota of carbon emissions; otherwise suicide or residence in Iceland as a pedestrian would be required.

Your net carbon impact depends far more on the number of children you will have than any other variable; remember good environmentalism uses a zero rate of discount.  So people with no biological children should be allowed to fly a lot and people with lots of biological children should not get to fly so much at all.  Is that so far from the reality we observe?

Here is a good new piece on our carbon footprints.

1 Mark Westling February 27, 2008 at 6:43 am

Actually, that’s exactly the reality I observe:

“Every year, we also take a nice holiday – we’ve just come back from South Africa.

“We feel we can have one long-haul flight a year, as we are vegan and childless, thereby greatly reducing our carbon footprint and combating over-population.”

2 Jason February 27, 2008 at 6:56 am

You picked an awfully cold day to post about global warming. A trip to New Zealand is expensive; also we should be investing more in things that will help us in case of climate change. Buy her shares in such a company as a wedding present instead of going. He can add extra for guilt.

3 Ronald Brak February 27, 2008 at 7:27 am

So not going to your sister’s wedding is morally bad because it causes her pain? In that case, wouldn’t
not paying for malaria prevention be morally bad because it causes people pain? Wouldn’t it be morally
wrong to go to your sister’s wedding instead of using the money to prevent malaria, since the pain of
having malaria, or having your child die of it, is worse than the pain of not having your brother at your
wedding? It seems that once you decide that not preventing pain is morally wrong, you’re going to have a
hard time staying moral. Maybe the easiest option would be for this person to change their concept of
morality, a process that emits very little CO2 in most cases.

4 Anonoy February 27, 2008 at 8:22 am

Just offset your emissions. There are better and worse ways of doing this, but the reputable companies will offset that flight for no more than $120.

5 hmmm February 27, 2008 at 9:24 am

Also, please note, that even with the most generous assumptions on the part of the global warming side, the 5.8 seconds I show is a vast overestimation, as I assume that each of the 150,000 deaths has their lives shortened by 60 years. In reality, their lives are shortened by some function, but on average will be closer to their expected lifespan anyway.

If you want to stop 150,000 deaths per year effectively, invest in foreign economies or donate to (effective) charities. You’ll have much more positive an impact, as poverty is the primary factor in the short lifespan of most of the world’s population, not carbon.

6 Dolohov February 27, 2008 at 9:38 am

Agreed w/ Anony: this is not a decision made in a vacuum, but in a larger context. It is not a dilemma, as stated. Will can go to the wedding, and “pay” for it by taking public transportation for a few months, thereby achieving both his objectives. The real dilemma is whether attending his sister’s wedding is worth what it would take for him to feel good about it.

7 Milan February 27, 2008 at 10:10 am

I see at least five lines of argumentation that can be used to justify flying:

1) Questioning the fact of unsustainability
2) Restricting the scope of whose utility matters
3) Stressing the limitations of individuals
4) Utilitarian arguments
5) Competing duties (the argument about duties to family, etc)

I have spelled them out much more comprehensively here.

8 samson February 27, 2008 at 11:02 am

Tyler, thanks for making the point about children. I hope Bryan Caplan points out this environmental cost of having more children (an externality) in the book he is currently working on.

9 David Zetland February 27, 2008 at 12:53 pm

Find someone in NZ with a sister getting married in the UK and exchange invitations. Gains from trade, voila!

10 weirdone February 27, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Since I can’t have a child, and any woman can have a child of her own with out my assistance,only men should be able to fly and therefor I can fly as often as I like. Right

11 Sam February 27, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Charge a Pigou tax on air travel, use it to pour iron oxide into the sea, then decide if your sister is worth the money.

12 CLS February 28, 2008 at 5:40 am

Fly! The 150,000 deaths are from warmer weather allegedly caused by man-made CO2 emissions. But warmer weather also reduces deaths related to cold. And even the British government recently admitted that the lives saved due to warmer weather would be greater than the number lost. In the name of humanity, save lives and fly.

13 Slocum February 28, 2008 at 12:46 pm

“So people with no biological children should be allowed to fly a lot and people with lots of biological children should not get to fly so much at all.”

Whereas people without biological children should not be permitted to collect social security…

14 John February 28, 2008 at 10:45 pm

I’m gonna put a carbon footprint up Algore’s ass.

It’s the SUN, you morons.

15 aaron February 29, 2008 at 5:48 pm

By going to New Zealand you are contributing to the death of 150,000 who would otherwise produce many greenhouse gasses. It’s win-win.

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It is enlightening!

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