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On The Need for a Revolution in Ethics
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Christine Johnson, October 2002

Due to centuries of immigration from around the world, the United States is one of the most diverse nations on the planet and this diversity has resulted in a multiplicity of viewpoints concerning values. Often these values and their consequent goals are in conflict with one another; American society has not yet learned to reconcile all these values in a satisfactory manner, largely due to the class-based political and economic history of the country. Because many modern activities produce environmental damage yet their proponents are able to deflect or delay criticism of their actions, a shift must be made in the political decision making process which will integrate ethical rationality in order to adequately protect the public welfare. This integration of ethical rationality into the decision making process could be achieved via political reform or revolution, but given the tight linkage between economic and political power and the large inertia of existing political institutions, it is likely that growing economic inequality will make reform impossible, requiring an ethical revolution if the health of the planet is to be protected. Since the health of the planet is a necessary precondition for humans to exist, it is an absolute value that supersedes all other values.

From the beginnings of this country, political decisions have been made almost solely by and for the moneyed class. In Federalist No. 10, Madison, under the pseudonym Publius, argues that there are two distinct classes of people generated by the processes of capitalism, saying, “Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” These different interests flowed naturally from the basic tenets of capitalism and created a bifurcation in society that was a direct result of the recognition of unequal property rights asserted by Locke, and later justified by the utilitarian principles espoused by Bentham and Mill, demonstrating that the utilitarian view was commonly held when the Constitution of the United States was written. The majority of Federalist No. 10, which concerns itself with controlling the effects of factions, especially factions wishing to redistribute wealth more equally, can be seen to parallel Bentham’s assertion that “[the legislator] ought to maintain the distribution [of property] as it is actually established” Madison acknowledges the need for unequal property rights under capitalism and that in a democracy, unequal distribution of property would be impossible, saying “From this view of the subject, it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction.”

This class distinction has persisted throughout the history of American society, albeit progressive changes that resulted in marginally reduced inequality have occurred at several points in our history including the New Deal social welfare programs, post-WWII policies aimed at transportation and education, and civil rights legislation. Also, during the period of Cooperative Federalism, (1962-1980) a significant number of environmental regulations were adopted to address the concerns of environmentalists who were becoming increasingly aware of the consequences of environmental degradation caused by human activities. These successes were to be short lived; the moneyed class was busy creating think-tanks and other institutions designed to wrest control away from progressives to ensure continued control over the economic and political processes of the country.

With the election of Ronald Reagan, this control was achieved by taking advantage of an existing opportunity, primarily the failure of Keynesian economics to explain stagflation, to implement so-called “supply-side economics,” thus exacerbating an already class-divided society by increasing the transfer of wealth from the lower classes to the upper classes, purportedly to provide incentives for the wealthy to invest in activities which would create jobs, and thus improve the lot of the average person. In the process of this massive upward redistribution of wealth, the Reagan administration spent an enormous amount of money for military projects, while at the same time shifting social program costs to the states and initiating changes to the tax codes to benefit the wealthy, all of which combined to drive the debt to levels so high that it became unimaginable for liberals to suggest any new programs aimed at addressing environmental problems. A virtually identical process is again occuring in the Bush administration, with the addition of a war and the treat of terrorism to spur high rates of national debt that benefits the wealthy twice – first when they receive government dollars for producing the machinery of war, and second when they reap the interest of the national debt, since the wealthy own the majority of government treasury bonds.

However, a fundamental flaw in the epistemology of the political theory under capitalism has been to ignore the fact that political questions are ultimately ethical questions; they are concerned with actions, and the effects that actions have, not only on people, but also on animals, plants, and ecosystems of the Earth. The use of any theory, whether it is scientific, economic, or social, to serve as the justification for making political decisions is without a just basis because the only things that have any importance in the political domain are actions. Judging the effects and consequences of actions are the central problem of ethics. But in the face of numerous uncertainties in any of the models that could be used to serve as a basis for political decision-making, ethical rationality requires us to err on the side of caution with respect to those actions that would negatively affect the health of the planet.  

A salient point is that humans should not be used as a means to some social or economic end. Yet this is precisely what happens when scientific rationality is used as a basis for political decisions because scientific rationality has a bias for minimizing type I errors, in effect placing the burden of proof upon those who claim that a particular technology or practice is harmful. This results in the situation where profits are privatized, but costs are shifted onto the whole society or selected segments of society, thus avoiding the incorporation of externalities into economic calculations. In other words, while minimizing false positives may make sense using scientific rationality, (you don’t want to say there is an effect when there is in fact not an effect; that’s “bad science”) ethical rationality is the only sound basis for decision making because it considers not only the science, but the consequences of the actions advocated by science, by taking into account existing uncertainties and erring on the side of protecting the public rather than protecting property rights. This is the central tenet of the precautionary principle, which is more sound on ethical grounds.

At this point, the question turns from what changes need to be made in order to attain environmental justice, to a question of how these changes are to be achieved. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, “Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones,” referring to the existence of anomalies as an indicator of paradigm failure followed by the search for alternative solutions, in this case coming from environmentalists. As Kuhn also relates “Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between incompatible modes of community life.” If we are to believe that Kuhn’s model of scientific revolutions is correct – and there is little reason to think otherwise, the method of change will resemble that of a revolution, because the basic beliefs and values of two segments of the community are completely incompatible with one another. The conflict in question exists primarily between the moneyed class and those concerned with the state of the environment.

However, the crisis in world-view between these two segments of society has not yet occurred, and the timing of such an occurrence would be difficult to predict. As Kuhn states: “… external factors … are principally significant in determining the timing of the breakdown, the ease with which it can be recognized, and the area which, because it is given particular attention, the breakdown occurs.” Kuhn characterizes these factors as “immensely important,” but claims they are outside the bounds of his inquiry. Although he does not delve into this topic, it is easy to see how outside forces could result in a shift in paradigm from an economic centered world-view to an ecocentric world-view. One such possible external cause for paradigm shift may result due to public outrage over a future major environmental catastrophe.

Integral to this change in world-view is a commensurate change in economics; market based capitalism is insufficient to rise to the task. Because it is impossible to assign an economic value to many things which many people value highly, this implies that another form of value will have to be developed, and that the use of money as a universal quantification of value is problematic and will likely need to be modified or abandoned in the future.

There is one critical difference between environmental problems and any other problem that can exist in the world of economics and politics. It is possible to oppress all sorts of views for an essentially indefinite period of time, provided the oppression does not negatively impact the environment, which is required for human life to exist. For instance, one can subject people to abject poverty with virtually no consequences, barring political revolution for going too far. But the moment that decisions are made that have a negative effect on the environment, this changes the situation substantially. Because there are great uncertainties in the ability of humans to correct environmental damage, activities which result in environmental degradation cannot be founded on science, because science requires empirical evidence in order to establish the validity of any theory. If we destroy the environment, there is no opportunity to try again using a different set of criteria for decision making. Therefore, the one and only adequate criteria upon which to make decisions is to err on the side of caution. This requires an integration of ethical rationality into political and economic processes so that actions that have substantial negative consequences on the environment are not entertained by anyone.

For those advocating protection of the environment, the most effective arguments would focus on the type of rationality employed. By pointing out the distinction between ethical rationality and scientific rationality, environmentalists and concerned citizens can make an effective argument that under conditions of scientific uncertainty, continued existence requires that a precautionary approach is chosen.  

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