Ethical Obligations on a Tortured Earth: Should We Continue to Make Babies? Part. II

Mary Cassatt — ‘Little Girl in a Blue Armchair’

An Off-Limits Domain

I didn’t mean to leave that on such a cliffhanger, it was a strictly unintentional byproduct of the need for neatly demarcated sections. There is I believe a prospective resolution to the issue detailed above, even if we allow that having children genuinely is the worst (i.e. most harmful) thing we could do for the planet. We, I think, require, or at least need to establish ourselves, the possibility of a duty-exempt ‘domain’ relating to an individual’s projects, values, and commitments.

If such a thing could be established, we might be able to weightily suggest that ethical duties to refrain from, say, aeroplane travel — something which is individually far less harmful than bringing a new person into the world — do not necessarily lead towards other overly demanding duties, even if the associated activities (such as having children) have greater emissions and harms attached to them. Again, the thought here is that there can be some sphere which contains both the agent’s commitments, values, and personal projects, and which cannot be overridden (at least automatically) by the requirements of morality and moral reasoning.

But how do we go about creating such an ‘off-limits’ zone? It seems sensible to start with a caveat: mere hinderances to one’s projects and minor losses in pleasure and satisfaction aren’t sufficient to block the formation of ethical duties. Nor, I don’t think, should we expect phrases like ‘projects’ and ‘commitments’ to be vague enough to cover things which aren’t actually (in some substantive sense) essential to one’s values and continued, meaningful existence.

For example let’s say that in one instance there exists a duty to avoid flying; not such a cognitively demanding nor unrealistic example, I’m sure. Just because, I, in my holidaying, find the train to be a slightly bigger inconvenience (and less glamorous) does not mean that I can ignore the duty to avoid flying.

In fact I think it’s this kind of Enlightenment-inspired or Baconian (the first one) strive for human satisfaction and rational mastery over all possible environments (even at the expense of such environments) which has got us in the pickle we’re in. For the Western individual it’s better living, less scarcity, less suffering, less fear. Oil, steam, agriculture, industry. In other words, the rape and pillage of ecosystems for both pleasure and ease. In the words of the Dead Kennedy’s: Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death.

If something is going to block moral duties forming principally on the basis of pleasure then such pleasure must have a seriously strong relation to my well-being and what is genuinely, to me, conceived as valuable (not just handily labelled as such). An afternoon spent racing various supercars is more justifiable (i.e. not as likely to be ruled out on moral grounds, due to related environmental harms) if such an activity is a lifelong wish-come-true or done to commemorate a dear departed motor enthusiast, not just for a wanky corporate day out.

Now, we must naturally appreciate that scenarios of the above ilk are based on personal and qualitative data so any ‘my life vs duties not to harm’ calculations will rarely be straightforward. I only suggest here that such undertakings can not only be undertaken, but that they might be the means of preserving our ability to do things like have children.

By contending that (for a great many of us at least) having children is one of the most rewarding, important, continually satisfying, and life-affirming things we can do, we can then argue that such an activity, despite the simply enormous amounts of carbon (and harm) stemming from its completion, cannot be rendered an ethical impossibility based on these harms alone. Relatedly, given the uniquely important nature of procreation, we can maintain that there are plenty of moral duties requiring us to be less wasteful, travel greener, eat more locally (etc. etc.), but there is nevertheless not a duty to refrain from having children. We can avoid the earlier sorts of ‘demandingness’ concerns without invoking inconsistency.

What I have argued here is that — for most — the importance of procreating and bringing children into the world to outweighs (within reason) the damage such behaviours do to the planet. What this then opens up is a discussion about just how important other activities are to us, and whether we can reasonably ground the basis for continuing these activities on their importance to us alone.

A Little Extra

Whilst you might be relieved that you can go back to painting the nursery now (does anyone actually do that anymore?) we should still consider the nature of the calculations detailed above. As I mentioned, it’s rarely easy to measure the emissions and levels of harm which a behaviour produces, let alone to quantify, somehow, a hierarchy of our projects, commitments, tastes, and preferences. How on earth do we make these two opposing values commensurable?

A worry here is that such things are so difficult to do, especially on the fly, that a kind of calculative moral brainfreeze might occur, and when it does, we either end up at a point of total inaction, or continue blindly on. Thankfully, levels of ignorance surrounding emissions (and by extension, harms) is gradually decreasing. If governments get a little more behind the notion of personalised carbon-footprint measuring (though these too are admittedly not without their complexities) then this will help alleviate confusion over one value in our equation.

Similarly look where we are! It’s the age of growing interest in stocks, shares, cryptocurrencies, more accessible obsessions with health and fitness data (and devices to record said data), the use of analytics by bloggers, vloggers, and overly conscientious users of social media. It’s the age of numbers and crunching them. One more pesky calculation won’t wear us down, surely.

Great, but how do we pin down that other value set, that of personal meaning and importance? I’m afraid the answer to this introduces a little more vagueness. What is needed to construct a hierarchy of meaning, one which correlates to our current and possible behaviours, is a touch of pragmatism (don’t go telling me the most important thing in your life is to import lamb from New Zealand rather than more locally) and also a healthy dollop of introspection. It’s something we have to give some thought to — not just to what currently matters to me, but about what should matter to me, to reconfigure our pleasures if needs be, to discard that which, in the end, looks unnecessary.

This all appears arduous, no doubt. But if we do wish to ethically continue with some — and I use this word ‘some’ because certain activities may never be justifiable — of our emissions in the face of the harms they contribute to, then an evaluation of how they relate to our being seems an acceptable price to pay.

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