Difficult Issues

In the next few posts, I'll try to cover some of the most difficult questions. These are:
  • What am I called? Stephen or Steve?
  • What energy sources should we use? Is nuclear in or out?
  • What are appropriate design principles for economic systems or policy changes?
  • What theories of ethics and politics should we use?
  • What is 'realism' when applied to politics?
I'm going to try to 'tie off' a few things.

A Minimalist, Shared, Personal Morality

"...tis a cause that hath no mean dependance
Upon our joint and several dignities."
(William Shakespeare, 'Troilus and Cressida', Act II, Scene 2)

A friend of mine wishes me to comment on moral matters. I'm extremely reluctant to do so, partly because, at least until recently, I have been a young man "...whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philosophy" (ibid.). I have flaws, and think those more skilled at the art of life may have more to say. Perhaps also, there is some truth to Lao Tzu's aphorism, "Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know". However, time waits for no man. Those who devote much time to theoretical thought and words may lack balance, unless they set aside some thoughts and words to moral matters, difficult and hard to demonstrate as these subjects may be.

The scientific method, our best guide to the how the world is; needs at the very least some care if applied to questions of value and of action. For example, I am conscious personal experimentation may be a poor guide to living well. Experimentation always delays the point of choice to some future time when we have 'found ourselves'; and the act of experimentation itself has moral implications. It is too late once we have experimented to know in advance what one should experiment on. In the case of the atmospheric experiment that humanity is carrying out at present, decisions over what to do now cannot wait until we have a full physical demonstration what the true consequences of our possible paths of action could be.

Given that a young man knows nothing about morality except that which he has instinctively or been taught, but that some sort of guidance seems to be essential when living in society - and given that at least those who think long and hard about life can be influenced by those thoughts -it seems necessary to adopt some sort of 'defensive' theory of morality - one that is not novel or new, but is guided by those who have come before. A theory of morality may require at least some experience of living; and since the young have not had much such experience; a mid sympathetic to empirical demonstration may argue in favour of granting the experienced at least some authority over such matters.

Such a defensive theory should not be over theoretical; it should deal with the common sense wisdom over how to live one's life, and with perhaps justified agnosticism over the sources of such wisdom.

Such a theory should not over extend itself by asking too much; we have justified skepticism over those who invent new laws to bind others in society. We are well aware that some people are powerful that lack certain virtues and some people with many virtues are not powerful. Our minimalist conception will focus on those virtues that are common to both parties.
The ancient concept of virtue (Arete in Ancient Greek; there is a possibly similar concept De in Chinese philosophy) tend to have the connotation of 'excellence' and 'power' in addition to our modern sense of personal goodness. Living a good life is good for the individual and is good for society; and we will focus on those principles that are in the intersection of the individual and the society good, leaving it to judgment where there may be a conflict.

Ancient Greek philosophers distinguished between moral laws specific to certain societies, and those that tend to be shared by all. In our minimalism we deal with only those that are shared by most successful civilizations.

I think such a defensive, minimalist, common-sense, practical, theory exists, and has been outlined by C.S.Lewis, for example. This outline is from Lewis and the notes in brackets are from here:
I. The Law of General Beneficence: (Golden Rule, help the community)
  • A. Negative (Do no harm, Golden Rule)
  • B. Positive (Preserve society, make people happy)
II. The Law of Special Beneficence (Put own family and friends first)

III. Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors (Respect and care for elders)


IV. Duties to Children and Posterity (Protect and care for children)


V. The Law of Justice:

  • A. Sexual Justice (No adultery)
  • B. Honesty (Re property, money)
  • C. Justice in Court (No bribes, no favoritism)
VI. The Law of Good Faith and Veracity (Tell truth, keep promises)

VII. The Law of Mercy (Be tender-hearted)


VIII. The Law of Magnanimity: (Soul should rule the body)

  • A. (Courage, defense against attacks)
  • B. (Death before dishonor)
  • C. ("Is not the love of Wisdom a practice of death? [Ancient Greek]")

The point of this post is not to outline anything new, of course, but the opposite. These are laws shared by many societies and successful civilizations around the world.

In order to slim down our obligations a little more (so as to preserve the core), we could examine the consistency of modern norms with these. The main way that modern Western man differs is in the concept of adultery (we have different norms below that of marriage) maybe a pragmatic response would be that conduct in such fields should be governed by 'good judgment' rather than moral stricture. But even we replace a moral stricture with 'good judgment' in that case, the spirit of the law and its justice still applies. Keeping promises is also sometimes difficult for our politicians; perhaps it is good to promise less in order to deliver more. It's helpful not to make inconsistent promises and to deliver upon them mechanically. We don't need to think about everything.

Our obligations in regard to climate change seem to be a case both of "Positive General Beneficence" and "Duties to Children and Posterity". So, even though we were careful to not over extend our idea of morality, we still have obligations to the future. Let us then proceed; strengthened by moral vigour of the principles of all successful and well-respected individuals and societies.

An Unsustainable Concept

sustainable, adj.

1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable. Obs. rare.

2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.

3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

4. Ecol. Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

There are two problems with burning fossil fuels. The first problem is that fossil fuels are running out; the second is that fossil fuels are not running out. The first problem is often called 'peak oil' and the second is known as 'climate change'. If either the first problem or the second is accurate, then we can say that burning fossil fuels is 'not sustainable'. This amounts to arguing that if either A or not-A is true, burning fossil fuels is unsustainable. It seems to be that we can determine sustainability from pure logic. But to get such important results from a tautology, appears to be suspicious at the very least.

Perhaps the problem with our line of reasoning is that we have failed to distinguish between positive and negative effects of an activity. A natural resource running out would not be problem if the use of the resource only imposed costs on society; nor would inexhaustibility be a problem when an activity only provides benefits. So we can rephrase our criterion. If an activity provides benefits and the capability to continue the activity is limited, or if the activity imposes costs and the capability to continue it is not limited, then the activity is not sustainable. From this it can be shown by simple logic that any activity that has both positive and negative effects is not sustainable.


Well at best it seems that sustainability is a pretty hard thing to achieve; and at worst the whole concept looks a little incoherent. Sustainability is, however, an idea to which we often are encouraged to pay homage, despite (or perhaps because of) these problems of definition and coherence.

I think the widespread use of this notion of sustainability explains quite a lot of the religious claptrap surrounding environmental issues. When I say 'religious'; what I mean, broadly, is the tendency of some environmentalists to think about environmental issues in somewhat 'moralistic' terms - 'wind turbines are good', 'cooling towers bad' etc. But such black and white terms may be misleading. The primary concept of value here, "sustainability", is one that, strictly speaking, almost no activities satisfy. This leads, inevitably to a sense of guilt at having to engage in so many activities that seem immoral, and the psychological need for at least some redeeming activities that can make us feel virtuous again. When some such positive activities turn up, there is a great temptation to cover up any negative features (remember any activity with both negative and positive features is unsustainable), even if such downsides actually do exist. So wind turbines may be lovely despite them having some quite serious downsides both in terms of the opinions of those nearby and the reliability of the output they produce. For others nuclear power stations are lovely and wind turbines unlovely. Such distinctions, unless they can be justified by some more fundamental principle, appear somewhat arbitrary.

As an aside, actions with purely negative consequences could be included as 'sustainable' too, if they are exhausted quickly. Perhaps one example is the extra expense in buying a more expensive product (say shampoo) which differs from the standard one by the eco-friendly blurb on the side (say the shampoo is kind to hedgehogs for example). Presumably, your wallet is finite and so limits the damage that your efforts to do the right thing can do.

Some activities fail to be sustainable on both levels. Presumably they both have positive effects and are limited and negative effects and are unlimited. How bad can you get? It's in these cases that the concept of sustainability appear to have serious self-consistency problems. To assert A and not-A is inconsistent; to assert A and B at the same time as not-A and not-B is doubly so. Either fossil fuels are running out or they are not. What should we do? Are wind turbines actually sustainable? What about burning fossil fuels?

A related problem with the categorical notion of sustainability is to do with the idea of criticality. Put bluntly, some aspects of sustainability matter more than others. If my sofa is on fire, then this constitutes a sustainability issue to living in a house. Imagine too that my wooden walls are, over decades, rotting, due to damp and occasional flooding. If I use a fire extinguisher it may well be an unsustainable act, because it causes flooding in the house, and makes my rotting problem worse. But if I don't put out my fire, my house would burn to the ground anyhow. Some may argue that I should instead use a sustainable method to put out the fire; such as finding a blanket in my loft. Rather than use the 'unsustainable' fire-extinguisher; I should use the 'sustainable' fire blanket in my loft. But what if the problem has grown so big by the time I get my fire blanket that the fire is then unmanageable? Failure to focus on our critical problems may lead to undesirable outcomes.

I therefore propose that rather as looking at sustainability as some sort of idol in which we invest all of our scarce hopes, we recognize that all of the activities of humanity are unsustainable. We need to be more precise about things. Instead we need to focus on critical unsustainability of activities that are akin to our house burning down.


I suggest two principles: first, an overall civilization-focus on tackling critical issues and risks, particularly climate change; Secondly the principle that we should do activities only if they add to overall (natural and human) wealth [n759hv]. The notion of wealth may be as difficult to define operationally as sustainability, since it requires some method of valuation over and above that of the market, when dealing with environmental concerns. But it least may well be internally consistent and able to sanely direct those with inflammable furniture.