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Diverse group of Indiana high school ethics bowl students working on a case.

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum. Fabio vel iudice vincam, sunt in culpa qui officia. Salutantibus vitae elit libero, a pharetra augue. Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se differunt.

Wildlife Recoveries with Christopher Preston

In an age when endangered species are dying out by the hundreds, philosopher Christopher Preston argues that there’s hope to be found in the stories of successful wildlife recoveries. These animals not only have a lot to teach us about restoration, but they can also help bridge the political divide over climate change.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Christopher Preston, Tenacious Beasts: Wildlife Recoveries That Change How We Think about Animals


Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Capering” by Blue Dot Sessions

Town Market” by Blue Dot Sessions

Climate Ethics with Manuel Wörsdörfer

On this episode of Examining Ethics, philosopher Manuel Wörsdörfer joins us to review some of the most pressing climate ethics issues we face today. We explore intergenerational justice, responsibility for climate change and much more.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Manuel Wörsdörfer, “Climate Ethics and Climate Politics: Current Challenges and Potential Solutions
  2. Stephen Gardiner’s work on climate ethics
  3. Darrel Moellendorf, Mobilizing Hope: Climate Change and Global Poverty


Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Single Still” by Blue Dot Sessions

Cran Ras” by Blue Dot Sessions

Ethics and Cities with Quill R. Kukla

How much does the place where you live affect your behavior or your values? And how much could you affect the place where you live? Answering these questions on the show today is the philosopher Quill R. Kukla. Their book City Living: How Urban Dwellers and Urban Spaces Make One Another explores the symbiotic relationship between cities and the people who live in them.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. More information about gentrification and displacement
  2. Neil Smith’s book about revanchism
  3. Relationship between zip codes and life span
  4. Writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs
  5. More about “third places” and Ray Oldenburg

Bonus Content!

Quill Kukla on cat cafes and gentrification


Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Gin Boheme” by Blue Dot Sessions

Songe d’Automne” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Climate Change is Unjust War: Kyle Fruh and Marcus Hedahl

Most of us probably think of war as violent conflict between countries. There are aggressors and victims, and it’s essentially a battle between groups of people. My guests today, Kyle Fruh and Marcus Hedahl, complicate this notion of war. They argue that many island nations around the world are currently in a war and fighting for their survival. For these places, the enemy isn’t other nation states, it’s climate change.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Send questions or comments to examiningethics@gmail.com.

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Climate Change is Unjust War” by Kyle Fruh and Marcus Hedahl
  2. Just War Theory
  3. Solar Radiation Management
  4. War in the “William James sense
  5. Environmental Modification Convention


Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Golden Grass” by Blue Dot Sessions

Pintle 1 Min” by Blue Dot Sessions

Ethical Obligations to Climate Refugees

photograph of waves threatening coastal city

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

According to projections, by 2060 the lower third of Florida, home to 8 million residents, will be underwater. Within just a few decades many of Miami Beach’s landmarks will be lost. In response, some areas plan to fight rising sea levels with new infrastructure and new sea walls while other areas plan for a “managed retreat.” However, there are many more places around the world where there isn’t the money or capability to prevent homes from slipping into the water. People losing their homes to the sea means that they will need to go somewhere, and as time goes on we can expect to see a rising number of climate refugees. So, what are our ethical obligations to those being displaced?

Climate change is causing the melting of ice sheets and glaciers and the expansion of sea water. Current estimates show that sea levels are rising by 3.6 mm per year. A 2019 study projected that sea levels will rise by 69-111 cm by 2100. (In February, however, a paper in Ocean Science argued that previous projections have been conservative and that sea level rises will be higher.) What this means is that by 2100, we can expect significant threats to many areas of human habitation. In addition to Florida, which faces a number of climate challenges, Brazil, Egypt, Cameroon, China, India, and Indonesia will all face serious problems. For Bangladesh, rising sea levels represents a growing existential threat. Flooding owing to rising sea levels could result in the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees. Indeed, while 2011 estimates had 187 million people potentially having to flee their homes, recent figures now project that as many as 630 million people (that is roughly 12% of Earth’s population) may be displaced.

But this is not simply a humanitarian crisis where we might feel obligated to lend a hand. The fact that the relationship between rising sea levels and climate change is generally well known changes the moral situation. Our intervention is demanded not (only) as a response to those desperately in need of help, but as a matter of justice given the harms we’re responsible for. If a nation or group of nations emits carbon, which in turn raises sea levels, and thus causes people to be displaced from their homes, surely there is an added moral dimension concerning what aid is owed to climate refugees. Given their particular contribution to the problem, what unique obligations might Western nations, for example, bear?

First, there are potential legal obligations. According to international law, people who are fleeing persecution in their country can seek to enter another. However, the current definition of “refugee” doesn’t apply to people who flee their homes because of climate displacement. Recently this controversy was addressed by the UN Human Rights Committee, who in 2020, ruled that climate migrants cannot be returned to countries where their lives might be threatened by climate change. Unfortunately, this is not binding; the issue is controversial and remains disputed. There are some who believe that the original 1951 convention on refugees should be interpreted to include those who are fleeing climate disasters. Others, like Alexander Betts and Nina Birkeland have argued against trying to redefine what it means to be a refugee because it would be impractical; renegotiating the convention would likely result in a worse deal for refugees.

Where does this leave us? According to the “conventional view” as described by Joseph Carens, states are free to exercise considerable discretionary control over the admission and exclusion of immigrants. As this is a power often considered an inherent part of what it means to be sovereign, it would seem that nations are not obligated to help climate refugees. Indeed, international libertarians argue that the only obligations that extend beyond a state’s border concern respecting other nations’ right to self-determination and refraining from harming them. (Though an important exception to this is refugees who are governed under international agreement.)

Putting aside the legal matter of potential obligations, there are those who argue that a state should provide aid and accept climate refugees if that nation has disproportionately benefited from the combustion of fossil fuels. Since many Western nations are largely responsible for the increased carbon emissions, the rising sea levels, and thus the environmental disasters that follow, it is argued that the developed world has a special responsibility not only to restrict emissions, but to protect and assist the global poor who are facing fallout from said disasters. On the other hand, there are critics who argue that historical responsibility as a justification for an obligation to assist migrants is problematic.

The polluter pays principle, for example, holds that those who pollute should bear the costs of managing the fallout. In other words, responsibility is tied to historical facts. It suggests that a nation like the United States should be obligated to aid climate refugees because of its role in causing the problem. However, there are difficulties in attributing blame in this way because of our inability to identify the specific harms done and to trace them back to specific causal factors. This complicates our ability to say that any particular nation might be obligated to accept certain refugees. There is also disagreement about how far back this kind of responsibility goes. Should a nation be held just as accountable for emissions dating back to a time when the effects of climate change were not well known? Theorists, like David Miller, have argued that emissions prior to the 1980s were not inherently harmful and so don’t count towards historical responsibility.

On the other hand, some philosophers argue that considerations of historical responsibility are beside the point; what we owe to climate refugees need not depend on establishing causality. For example, Jamie Draper argues that high-emitting states have a responsibility to climate refugees because even since the 1980s there has been a foreseeable connection between rising carbon emissions and harmful consequences of climate change. Because of this a nation like the United States can be said to be obligated to help regardless of the specifics concerning the causal relationship. These nations were well aware of the risks; they knew their emissions would generate harmful effects. Their failure to take the appropriate precautions render them a guilty party. For Draper, it isn’t a causal connection, but a failure to take due care that obligates nations to aid climate refugees.

It is to recognize that this is a problem being felt today, not merely one we must plan to confront in the future. There are already millions of people facing the prospect of fleeing their home. Addressing this problem means answering difficult questions: Does it matter who caused climate change? Should one’s ability to bear these costs be factored in? Do nations, or regions, or corporations, or individuals bear the blame? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility that we all share? Will our moral and legal frameworks catch up before it’s too late?

The Ethics of Animal Dis-Enhancement

photograph of chickens packed into pens at poultry farm

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Human beings have long treated animals not as sentient beings, but as objects or products to be used and consumed. We do this in spite of the fact that animals demonstrate every sign of having mental lives. We have the same reasons to believe that animals have mental lives that we do to believe that other human beings have mental lives; the best evidence we have is behavior. Humans report having affection for animals. Nevertheless, we intensively farm them for food and use them for medical experiments, activities which are quite painful and lead to suffering, permanent disability, and/or death. Engaging in these activities requires compartmentalization and moral disengagement.

The tension arises because humans want to use animals for all of the purposes that they typically use them for, but they also don’t want the animals to feel pain or to suffer if it can be prevented. Under ordinary conditions, when faced with this choice, humans use animals rather than exhibit care for their suffering. Recently, some scientists and philosophers have suggested an alternative solution: genetically engineering farm and research animals to experience little to no suffering. Recent research on pain suggests that it is registered in the brain in two places. The first is in the primary or somatosensory cortex, which establishes the nature of the pain (burning, throbbing, etc.). The second involves the affective dimension which happens in the anterior cingulate cortex. This area controls not the pain itself, but how much the sentient creature minds the pain. Either area could be genetically engineered to reduce the discomfort experienced by the animal.

Advocates of this approach care about animal pain and suffering; if they didn’t, they would remain satisfied with the status quo. They are advocating what philosophers frequently refer to as an approach in line with non-ideal theory. The distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory is a meta-ethical distinction, that is, it is a distinction between different theories of what ethics is and how we ought to approach it. Ideal theorists argue that ethics should be concerned with identifying the correct moral theory and then directing behavior so that it conforms to that standard. The non-ideal theorist, on the other hand, acknowledges that everyone would follow the ideal theory in a perfect world, but emphasizes that we don’t live in such a world. As such, our ethical theorizing should situate itself in the world that we actually inhabit, with all of its flaws and imperfections — a world where we perhaps can’t or shouldn’t expect everyone’s compliance or agreement on all things at all times.

When it comes to dis-enhancement, these non-ideal theorists often acknowledge that it would be best if we simply stopped exploiting animals and using them as objects for human purposes. They also recognize, however, that animal advocates have been shouting their messages from the rooftops for decades, even centuries in some parts of the world. To the extent that these messages are being heard, they are also largely being dismissed. If we are going to continue to use animals for food and research, at least we could do so in a way that minimizes pain. This may not realize what true justice demands, but it may represent incremental change toward that ideal state of affairs.

Opponents of dis-enhancement make several different kinds of arguments. First, they argue that dis-enhancement leaves animals vulnerable. The ability to experience and to care about pain is an evolutionary mechanism that helps creatures to avoid danger. If there is no longer any fear of pain because dis-enhanced animals do not feel it, then animals could die from otherwise avoidable risk. In response to these claims, the non-ideal theorist might argue that the unfortunate truth is that these animals aren’t going to be venturing out into the wide world in which they might make bad decisions. Their fate is certain — they are destined to live lives during which they are imprisoned and used and then discarded. If this is the case, why not do what we can to make their existences less unpleasant?

Opponents argue further that our willingness to do this to non-human animals highlights the extent of our speciesism — our tendency to direct our moral concern only to members of certain species on the basis of species membership alone. Imagine that a scientist wanted to create a group of people to enslave and abuse. The scientist doesn’t want to cause the resultant humans any pain, so he creates them without the ability to experience it. It is reasonable to suppose that many people would object to this experiment. Would their objections be justified? How is this different from creating a horde of robotic slaves? If we react negatively to this thought experiment, but not to dis-enhancing animals, what could explain our reaction other than speciesism?

Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake takes place in a futuristic universe that is increasingly bioengineered. At one point, Crake, who is working in the “Neo-agricultural Department” at a research university takes the main character, Jimmy, to observe a new method of food production. They are growing parts of chickens — only the breasts — for the purposes of food. Crake says,

“You get chicken breasts in two weeks – that’s a three-week improvement on the most efficient low-light, high-density chicken farming operation so far devised. And the animal-welfare freaks won’t be able to say a word, because this thing feels no pain.”

Crake’s laboratory is experimenting with animal parts, but, at least at this point in the story, they are not creating sentient beings. They are just chicken breasts, they aren’t having lived experiences of the world, they don’t have preferences or a dignity to contend with. (Consider in vitro meat, which allows scientists to create meat and organs to eat or to test on without changing the genetic structure of future sentient animals.)

When it comes to farm and research animals who have been “dis-enhanced,” we are still dealing with sentient creatures that have experiences of their world. They may lack the ability to feel or to care about feeling their own pain, but they still have a set of dispositions to behave in certain ways and have the ability to develop preferences. This makes them different from robots or disembodied chicken breasts. They are aware of their own experiences. Some opponents argue that respect for the lived experiences of sentient creatures demands that researchers refrain from playing Frankenstein with their bodies in ways that have serious consequences.

In response, advocates of dis-enhancement might appeal again to the non-ideal nature of the theory under which they are operating. They might agree that it would be wonderful if everyone respected the dignity of sentient creatures. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen. Given this, dis-enhancement might be our best chance at reducing or eliminating the massive amounts of suffering that these processes entail.

Another objection to dis-enhancement comes from the perspective of environmental virtue ethics. Are we oriented virtuously toward the natural world and the living creatures on it if we respond to the crises that we face with dis-enhancement? Consider the following parallel case. One way of responding to climate change is to engage in geoengineering. One form that this can take is changing the chemical constitution of our atmosphere in such a way as to roll back or lessen the effects of global warming. Opponents of geoengineering point out that when a child messes up their room, the right thing to do is get them to clean it and teach them how to keep it clean rather than searching for ways to mess it up ever further without consequences. By analogy, we should limit our greenhouse gas emissions and try to clean up the mess we’ve made rather than pursuing geoengineering strategies that threaten to produce ever more mess.

Critics of dis-enhancement argue that we should adopt the same standard of responsibility when it comes to cruelty to animals. Instead of finding ways to engage in cruel behavior without causing pain, we should simply stop engaging in cruel behavior. Treating animals in the way that we do is an exhibition of vicious character. Even if it has little effect on the animals because they have been dis-enhanced and don’t feel pain, the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s observations may be useful here. He says that we “must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” If we behave callously toward dis-enhanced sentient animals because they don’t experience pain, the consequence may be that we are increasingly callous and cruel toward the beings that do.

The question of dis-enhancement is ultimately a question of how we should view the relationship between human beings and the natural world. Should it be a conqueror’s relationship to the conquered? Are we so depraved as a species that it would be naïve for us ever to expect broad scale changes? Or is there hope that we can someday view ourselves as empathetic fellow participants in biotic communities?

Collective Action and Climate Change: Consumption, Defection, and Motivation

photograph of dry, cracked earth with grass growing on a few individual pieces

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Last month, the United Nations held talks regarding international climate agreements in hopes to abate and adapt to the changes to our global environment due to the industrialization and emissions by humans. With the president of the United States vocally skeptical about the moral imperative to action, other countries have been considering defection from previous joint commitments. If the United States continues to consume resources at its current rate, the United Nations’ climate goals will not be possible. This is a feature of climate change agreements: they impact nations differently, irrespective of any country’s particular contribution to the problem. Thus, tied up with the responsibility to commit to taking action is the question of whether there should be different burdens depending on the level of industrialization and development (i.e., consumption) of the nation in question.

Environmental ethicist Martino Traxler distinguishes between two approaches in assigning the duties and burdens for responding to climate change. The first approach would be “just”, in that it takes into consideration the historical context in which we now find ourselves, as well as the power/structure dynamics at play. For instance, placing identical duties on all countries to reduce energy consumption equally doesn’t attend to countries’ differing ability to pay, varying causal contributions to the current state of things, and the extent to which various countries have unequally benefited from previous policies and activities that were environmentally damaging. For instance, some developing nations are improving economically by taking advantage of some less-clean technologies, and it is arguably hypocritical for developed nations with a history of colonialism, imperialism, or military interference/manipulation to intervene at this stage and charge the developing nations with the responsibility to reduce their pollution. Such a policy would slow the progress toward leveling the international playing field. Countries that are developing now and changing the shape of their economies in order to grow out of poverty may have greater claim to use resources that have damaging effects on the environment than countries that have put the globe in a place of climate crisis while at the same time creating conditions for global poverty that allowing the use of environment-damaging resources would go some distance to alleviate.

Thus, some examples just approaches to alleviating the impact of climate change would be to make:

  1. Benefiters pay (in proportion to benefits)
  2. Polluters pay (in proportion to responsibility)
  3. Richest pay (in proportion to their ability)

This would distribute burdens unevenly internationally, and typically nations that have more industrialized infrastructure would bear heavier burdens than those nations that are in the process of building their economies. This can be concerning for the most-developed nations and the nations that have experienced the most power and privilege historically. For nations that already have systems of infrastructure that involve emitting greenhouse gases, for instance, committing to being more environmentally responsible according to the just approach can amount to committing to a strikingly different way of life. Some still may recall George H. W. Bush’s declaration at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” In 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, delegates noted that a child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times as much water as one born in the developing world, emphasizing the different relations to resource consumption depending on the ways of life established in one’s society.

These features highlight how a “just” approach to burden sharing may disincentivize the richest, most internationally powerful nations from agreeing to combating climate change. The alternative approach style is a “fair” model of burden allocation, which has each nation share evenly in the responsibility to remain in a safe zone of resource consumption and emission standards. The fair approach presents a clean slate and looks forward, rather than backward at the contextual perspective of the just approach. The approach is fair in the sense that there is even distribution of responsibility, but most find the just approach more appropriate. Are there reasons why we might find the fair model appealing? The breakdown at the UN last month suggests several reasons why.

When we face an issue like climate change, nations need to determine how to act together. It’s difficult enough to determine the path for a single country or nation, but collective action like this requires agreement and commitment that structurally resembles classic dilemmas from game theory and economics. Traxler argues that because of these structural similarities, we should opt for fair rather than just allocations. In short, because the cost of the rich countries deferring is so great, we need to construct agreements that don’t over-burden them. As we see this year with countries like China and India hesitating to make commitments to change if the U.S. isn’t on board, Traxler may be onto something. In modeling climate change agreements in terms of incentivizing the related parties to not defer, Traxler is suggesting that we face an international Prisoner’s Dilemma.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic problem in game theory. The puzzle arises when what is in the best interest of a collective diverges from what is in the interest of an individual. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is set up as follows: two burglars (or criminals of some sort) are arrested and separated so they cannot coordinate. The authorities are attempting to get a confession from at least one of the burglars to aid in their investigation and conviction. If both burglars remain silent, they will each receive a sentence of 1 year. The authorities are attempting to incentivize cooperating with them because they would get information and successful convictions. However, the information will be most useful if one burglar cooperates and turns on the other, allowing the authorities to “throw the book” at one of them. Therefore, if one of the burglars betrays their comrade and gives information to the authorities while the other remains silent, this would result in the betrayer going free and the silent conspirator getting a 3 year sentence. If both burglars attempt to achieve this end (confessing in hopes that the other remains silent), the authorities have information on both of them and neither can go free. Instead, both will serve 2 years. Each burglar thus faces the decision of whether to cooperate with their conspirator or betray them and confess to the authorities. The possible combinations and outcomes are displayed in the table below.

The reason this poses a game theoretic dilemma is that the ideal outcome for each burglar is to exploit the cooperation of the other (i.e., to betray while the other stays silent). This creates a scenario where what is in the individual’s best interest is at odds with what is in their collective interest; if we consider the burglars together as a group and evaluate what would get the best outcome overall, then they should both remain silent. If, however, the individual aims for his or her best individual outcome, then there is great pressure to defect so as to potentially receive the best individual outcome (go free) and always avoid the worst (3 years).

As individual nations, it is in our best interest to over-consume and hope that the rest of the international community behaves responsibly and attempts to save the planet. That way we enjoy the benefits of our consumption of resources AND the benefits of the rest of the international community’s conservation efforts. BUT! If everyone in the international community behaves this way (parallel to both burglar’s betraying their partnership), we end up in a bad scenario. What is in the interest of the collective is for everyone to cooperate, but individual interests encourages us to over-consume.

The structure of the Prisoner’s Dilemma arises in a few areas of public life, not just among police bargaining with alleged criminals. The key to the dilemma is that what is collectively rational comes apart at times from what is individually rational. This is also the tension in Tragedy of the Commons cases. The Tragedy of the Commons describes cases in economics or scenarios in shared-resources situations where the best thing to do from an individual level is to consume more than others, but this focus on immediate use leads to a situation such that our shared ability to use the resource over time is undermined.

Described by William Forster Lloyd in the 19th century, we could imagine a case of the Tragedy as a river by a village that sustains an ecosystem containing fish. If the village fishes in the river some reasonable amount over time, the river is sufficient to replenish itself and feed the village. So, collectively speaking, it’s rational for the village to maintain fishing levels at this restrained rate. However, at an individual level, each villager is in a position where they have access to a resource that is potential income, and though it undermines the future use of the river and the other villagers’ potential use of the resource, overfishing to get more food and more resources is in the individual’s best interest. Thus in a similar way that the burglars have conflicting strategies in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in shared-resource scenarios, there is tension between individual and collective interests.

In order to avoid countries defecting and not living up to the commitment to abate climate change, we may need to “sweeten the deal” a bit, according to Traxler and not go with the just approach that would perhaps be too burdensome to the richest, most industrialized nations. This would give them fewer reasons to over-consume and ignore the agreements. However, it would also perhaps produce less pressure for the richest and most able countries to aggressively researching “cleaner” alternatives to the technology so that they may continue something like their current ways of life.

Procreative Autonomy and Climate Change

photograph of father walking with daughter in the water on the beach

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

From record-setting wildfires raging the Amazon to rising sea levels and melting ice caps, the devastating effects of climate change are becoming ever more apparent. Scientific data maintains that much of the rise in average global temperature is a direct result of human activities that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The effects of climate change that we are currently facing are a consequence of a one-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature when compared to pre-industrial times. At this rate, we will experience up to a 4°C increase in average warming by 2100, which will only exacerbate and magnify the already rampant environmental degradation.

Fortunately, this future is avoidable as long as mitigating measures are rapidly implemented at the individual, community, and national levels. Recent analysis suggests that if immediate changes to halt climate change are made, carbon emissions can be lessened within 12 years, which will keep the rise in average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Given that our actions now are crucial to the future of the biosphere and consequently the future of all people, climate-conscious individuals recognize the urgent need for change.

Even though scientific consensus asserts the existence of climate change, to global warming and climate change skeptics, this is still a point of contention. But to the rest, the numerous impacts of climate change can raise valid concerns over the sustainability of natural resources, and the kind of dystopian reality future generations will be grappling with in their lifetime if we do not act now.

A contentious resolution that has been proposed is factoring in climate change when deciding whether or not to have children and how many, if at all. Climate change has forced people to contemplate the ethics of having children in a consistently warming and thereby deteriorating world. Curtailing the population means the environment will suffer a reduced impact due to human activities, which will translate to a higher standard of living for the remaining population in terms of an increase in per capita availability of natural resources. Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism from conservatives following her Instagram live stream in which she pondered, “Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

For BirthStrikers, the answer is decidedly tough but evident. UK-based environmental activist Blythe Pepino set up BirthStrike, a voluntary organization for people who have made the decision to not have children given the inevitable environmental deterioration looming in the future. Pepino maintains that BirthStrike does not aim to dissuade people from bearing children but to instead spotlight the exigency of the ecological crisis. BirthStrikers are a part of a growing movement of people who have made this decision and the movement continues to gain momentum as conversations regarding the ethics of bearing children are fostered in groups of climate-conscious people.

On the other hand, some are quick to dismiss the notion of limiting procreation due to climate change as absurd, such as Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah who in March, stated that the solution to climate change is having more babies. On the Senate floor, Lee shared his solution in a presentation, declaring that, “More babies will mean forward-looking adults, the sort we need to tackle long-term large-scale problems.”

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University echoes Lee’s thoughts on climate change and bearing children. Cowen argues that having more children and increasing the population of a nation would also increase the chances of nation coming up with innovative solutions to climate change. Cowen states, “If progress on climate change is at all possible, someone will need to contribute to it,” and goes on to explain that the most promising people who will do so is our potential children, especially if we are climate-conscious.

However, Lee and Cowen’s reasoning does not account for the series of carbon footprints our descendants will be producing which will collectively continue to add to the problem we are aiming to solve. Lee and Cowen also fail to address scientific data that deals with decisions made at the individual level, with recent research pointing to having children being detrimental to the environment given its already fragile state. Researchers calculated that having one less child would result in a family in an industrialized nation conserving 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is much more efficient than other proposed solutions to limiting carbon dioxide production such as giving up cars (saving 2.4 tons) and flying (saving 1.6 tons per transatlantic flight).

Discussing the prospect of not having children as a legitimate solution to climate change gives rise to other ethical concerns such as our right to bear children and the innate value of procreation. Procreative autonomy is one of many forms of autonomy people can employ to govern their lives and an extension of one’s right to liberty. In the context of human reproduction, exercising procreative autonomy means having total freedom in their choices regarding bearing children and, ultimately, retaining dominion over one’s body. Implementing policies to curb procreation interferes with individual procreative autonomy. While this value is of great significance, we might wonder whether whatever right we might have to it is absolute. If every individual possesses an inherent right to bear children, does this right also mean that an individual should have as many children as they want without any regard for the environmental consequences of their decision?

The instinct theory of human procreation states that all animals including humans have an inherent and fundamental desire to procreate, which is why almost all animals reproduce. This theory goes on to explain that if humans do not procreate, having left their purpose unfulfilled, will be unhappy. This theory is not without its flaws – the notion of an intrinsic desire for progeny lacks supporting empirical data. The urge to procreate is not universal amongst humans – people have and still choose not to experience parenthood simply because that is not what they want. In this light, the procreation-instinct theory comes across as an oversimplification of human nature.

If population growth is to be regulated to resolve climate change, can governmental restrictions on the number of children one can bear ever be justified? Sarah Conley, a philosophy professor at Bowdoin College argues it can indeed be justified in her 2005 journal article, The Right to Procreation: Merits and Demerits. Conley explains that if procreative autonomy is considered a right or an extension of the freedom to live life on our own terms, then restricting the number of children one can have would be an encroachment of this right. But Conley also notes that, “Imposing one’s children on an overpopulated world is also a kind of interference […] in the lives of others in that world. Whose desire should trump?” Comparing the significance of different people’s rights, Conley points out how one person’s right to something can outweigh another person’s right to something else, and how the more basic a right is, the more difficult it would be to supersede. Even though it would be repressive for a government to regulate the number of children one can bear, it may be even more repressive to rob others of the right to basic needs of life by contributing to overpopulation, which would deplete finite natural resources. Hence, Conley believes that governmental restrictions on childbearing is ethically admissible because unlimited procreation would impinge on others’ fundamental rights even more so than governmental limitations on procreation would interfere with one’s procreative autonomy.

Regardless of where one stands on this issue, decisions about bearing children remain deeply personal. While all people have the right to bear children, the fact is that overpopulation and the resulting increase in human activities are contributing to climate change. Whether you regard the climate impact of having a child an important consideration or not, taking action to remedy climate change is becoming ever more pressing and contemplating the ethical concerns climate change presents can serve as a driver to help us arrive at an equitable solution.

The Amazon Fires: Responsibility, Obligation, and the Limitations of the State

satellite image of amazon fires

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil refused to accept proposed aid from members of the G7 for the Amazon fires, in part because of a personal feud with President Emmanuel Macron of France about the respective leaders’ wives. Yet the Amazon rainforest continues to burn. Another concern of the Brazilian government is the implication that accepting foreign aid has for the country’s sovereignty. President Bolsonaro alleged that the French president “disguises his intentions behind the idea of an ‘alliance’ of the G7 countries to ‘save’ the Amazon, as if we were a colony or a no-man’s land.” But should President Bolsonaro’s refusal for aid continue and the burning of the Amazon continue, what is the next step? Who, if anyone, has an obligation to put out the fires? When is it justified to defy national sovereignty?

To violate a country’s sovereignty is a dramatic move; the cause would have to be of great importance. In 1999, the then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan defined the modern state as “instruments at the service of their people.” Failure of the state to deliver services to its people would warrant external aid. The UN Charter states that member states should refrain from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” 

But the definition of the modern state and Purposes of the UN speak only to human concerns; nowhere is there an acknowledgement of environmental concerns. Even though conventions have been devised, the impasse regarding aid for the fires reveals a hole in the recommendations of international organizations. Even the recommendations about natural disasters do not apply given that the fires were apparently ignited by farmers clearing land for agriculture.

While the United Nations is not an authority on ethics in international relations, its charter is a useful touchstone given that its prescriptions often advise the international community’s response to global events. The burning of the Amazon, however, presents a non-standard case. Violating national sovereignty is often justified by protecting the lives of humans. But how should the international community respond to threats to non-human life?

Celebrities, NGOs, and political leaders alike have called the Amazon “the lungs of the world” given the amount of oxygen it produces. For that reason alone, it would appear that this fire is directly affecting the livelihood of humanity; thus, falling under the umbrella of justifications of acceptable international intervention. But some individuals have cast doubt on the claims about the rainforest’s contribution to the planet’s oxygen. 

“The Amazon produces about 6 percent of the oxygen currently being made by photosynthetic organisms alive on the planet today,” writes Peter Brannen. “[F]rom a broader Earth-system perspective, in which the biosphere not only creates but also consumes free oxygen, the Amazon’s contribution to our planet’s unusual abundance of the stuff is more or less zero.” Speaking to Forbes, Dr. Dan Nepstad of the Earth Innovation Institute called the popular descriptor of lungs “bullshit”, saying that the Amazon uses as much oxygen as it produces through respiration. The significance of the photosynthetic production of air and the Amazon’s instrumental value may be exaggerated. 

Even so, the Amazon basin contains incredible biodiversity, housing a staggering 10% of the known species on Earth despite occupying only 1% of the planet’s surface area. The rainforest is the largest of its kind in the world. The river that slices through the rainforest is the longest in the world. By any measure, the Amazon is a natural wonder, irrespective of its relationship with humans. And some argue that it possesses its own intrinsic value. 

Writing on one view of the intrinsic value of nature, Professor Ronald Sandler states: “[N]atural entities, including species and some ecosystems, have intrinsic value in virtue of their independence from human design and control and their connection to human-independent evolutionary processes.” Proponents of this view would argue that the Amazon ought to be protected not because of its value to us–be that in the form of oxygen or bewonderment–but because it has value without us.

Suppose then that the Amazon has intrinsic value and is, thus, worthy of protecting: is anyone obligated to protect it when the government in which it is in is failing to do so? Some may reference the dictum that those with the means to help are obligated to help. But the ethical expectations for individuals may not seamlessly apply to the ethical obligations of organizations. The discussion becomes more complex when considering non-state actors, such as NGOs, which do not operate under the same responsibilities.

NGOs whose cause it is to protect and encourage the biodiversity of different natural environments may see the perceived inaction of the Brazilian government as moral permission to intervene and provide aid. In some cases, non-governmental intervention occurs without any controversy, such as when an NGO delivers assistance to a developing country that is unable to provide clean water to its people. These organizations are likely in a better position to avoid the claims of sovereignty violation that have hampered the acceptance of foreign state aid simply because they are not pursuing a national state agenda. 

Yet while NGOs are able to help, there are some disadvantages to having them do so. They lack the democratic accountability of a state actor; they are not responsible for anything but pursuing their cause. Because of that they could feasibly maintain a presence in the country past the point that it is necessary and undermine the government’s ability to act. 

States, however, do not suffer from the same disadvantages and are constrained by international norms.  But if they are indeed “instruments at the service of their people,” states would appear to be obligated only to serving their people. It is not clear that states have the obligation to intervene in the destruction of a natural environment in another country. Furthermore, it is not clear if it would even be permissible to do so. International agreement on the notion that nature has intrinsic value may prove elusive, leaving the question of who should put out the fires unanswered, even if everyone agrees the fires should be put out. Perhaps the burning of the Amazon illustrates the growing obsolescence of our modern definition of the state.

Discussing Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

close-up photograph of dried lakebed

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Concerns about the climate are becoming more pronounced in politics and policy discussions with each year. In the recent E.U. election, Green parties witnessed a marked increase in support. In Canada, the Green Party recently doubled their national caucus and managed to come second in a recent provincial election. In the U.S., there is hope of a Green New Deal. However, the federal administration in the U.S. has issued new directives to various national agencies to strip references to climate change or to omit worst-case emission scenarios. Public debates and media coverage emphasize the near universal consensus of climate scientists, but, on specific issues, this level of consensus simply does not exist. The nature of scientific consensus on the issue of climate change makes public discussion difficult, and this has ethical implications for how the public should be educated on matters of science. 

Studies show that the American public tends to believe that the consensus on climate change is around 72%, while many in the media (John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight being a good example) focus on the point that 97% of climate scientists agree on the issue of human-caused climate change. Getting the public to understand the degree of scientific consensus is important; it allows the public to be better able to address the dangers of climate change and assess the merits of various policy proposals. However, an important issue that is often not discussed is what exactly is meant by “scientific agreement.” The degree of scientific consensus isn’t constant given different questions and projections. While there may be a risk in underemphasizing the degree of current consensus, there may also be a risk in overemphasizing it as well. Is it worth it to potentially muddy the waters and attempt a more complex and nuanced public discussion about the nature of this consensus and the implication of climate change? 

Consensus on reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is often considered important. However, a 2007 paper by Oppenheimer et al. warn policymakers about the extreme possibilities of climate change that are downplayed or excluded for the sake of consensus. It notes that the report tends to minimize uncertainty by excluding less understood processes. Because of this, various models may be subject to a “premature consensus.” 

Similarly, a 2010 paper by Dennis Bray discusses surveys of climate scientists and found even amongst IPCC participants there is not uniform consensus. On topics ranging from future changes to precipitation, only 54% of IPCC respondents state that the IPCC report reflects a consensus view. Bray’s paper also mentions a 2008 survey which examined participant agreement with official IPCC projections on extreme event projections of climate change, almost 50% indicated that they disagreed or strongly disagreed.  

As the papers suggest, the issue of scientific consensus is more complicated than it is often described in public discussion. While there is broad agreement between climate scientists, that consensus evaporates when considering the finer details. Given the seriousness of global climate change, it is obviously beneficial that the public takes the threat seriously and that they are confident in what scientists are telling us. No doubt this is why the “97% consensus” point is so compelling. 

But emphasizing consensus at the expense of considered disagreement and uncertainty comes with risks. This is important knowledge for policy debates; the public has a vested interest in knowing if official projections are under- or overestimating the potential harm. This may be especially important at the local and regional level since, for example, coastal regions are likely to be disproportionately affected by the effects of climate change. Vigorous public input in these regions may be both desirable and necessary. 

Appreciation of scientific consensus is important for depoliticizing the facts around climate change. But the more the details and limitations of this consensus are discussed, the greater the risk that the facts become politicized by a public who may not have the time or expertise necessary to process the information. Is it worth it then to have the public be informed about disagreement when there is concern that the consensus view may underestimate projections about extreme events? More specifically, is it worth it if the result is that in the public eye scientific consensus is weaker than originally thought and ultimately less is done about climate change overall? Even if there is broad consensus on the notion of human-caused climate change, climate change deniers would likely use the opportunity to use reports on disagreement on specifics to undermine the broad consensus that climate change is human caused. 

Deliberately not covering cases of climate scientists diverging from the consensus view can make for a less informed public and we generally consider this a bad thing.  It can undermine public trust in science and in the public’s ability to make well informed democratic decisions. However, if there is greater coverage of scientific disagreement the facts could become twisted. If public confidence in scientific consensus falls then the public may be more inclined to be skeptical of climate change and thus such actions may result in an even less informed public overall. 

These questions pose a moral problem for both those who report on scientific findings as well as  members of the public who may have a moral obligation to be as informed as possible. Perhaps the long-term answer is to focus on science education, but that can take time. Plato’s Republic advocated for a “noble lie” in order to ensure social cohesion and harmony. Reporting only on consensus and glossing over areas of disagreement may constitute a lie of omission, but is it noble to do so?

Fixing What We’ve Broken: Geoengineering in Response to Climate Change

underwater photograph of reef

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Extending over 1,200 miles, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef system on the planet. It is the only system of living beings visible from space and is one of the seven wonders of the natural world. The reef is home to countless living beings, many of which live nowhere else on the planet.

The Great Barrier Reef is valuable in a number of ways. It has tremendous instrumental value for the living beings that enjoy its unique features, from the creatures who call it home to the human beings that travel in large numbers to experience its breathtaking beauty. One also may think that functioning ecosystems have intrinsic value. This is the position taken by notable 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold in his work Sand County Almanac. Leopold claims that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community; it is wrong when it tends otherwise.” The idea here is that the ecosystem itself is valuable, and ought to be preserved for its own sake.  

When something has value, then, all things being equal, we ought to preserve and protect that value. Unfortunately, if we have an obligation to protect the Great Barrier Reef, we are failing miserably. The culprit: anthropogenic climate change. As David Attenborough points out in his interactive series Great Barrier Reef, “The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger. The twin perils brought by climate change – an increase in the temperature of the ocean and in its acidity – threaten its very existence.” One result of this process is what is known as “coral bleaching.” Coral has a symbiotic relationship with algae. Changes in ocean temperatures disrupt this relationship, causing coral to expel algae. When it does so, the coral becomes completely white. This is more than simply an aesthetic problem. The algae is a significant source of energy for the coral, and most of the time, coral does not survive bleaching. Devastatingly, this isn’t just a problem for the Great Barrier Reef — it’s a global problem.

One general category of approach to this problem is geoengineering, which involves using technology to fundamentally change the structure of the natural world. So, as it pertains specifically to the case of coral bleaching, geoengineering as a solution would involve using technology to either cool the water, lower the acidity levels, or both. For example, one such approach to rising ocean temperatures is to pump cooler water up from the bottom of the ocean to reduce surface temperatures. To deal with acidity, one suggestion is that we use our knowledge of chemistry to alter the chemical composition of ocean water.

Geoengineering has been proposed for a broader range of environmental issues. For example, some have suggested that we send a giant mirror, or a cluster of smaller mirrors, into space to deflect sunlight and reduce warming. Others have suggested that we inject sulfuric acid into the lower stratosphere, where it will be dispersed by wind patterns across the globe and will contribute to the planet’s reflective power.

Advocates of geoengineering often argue that technology got us into this problem, and technology can get us out. On this view, climate change is just another puzzle to be solved by the human intellect and our general propensity for using tools. Once we direct the unique skills of our species toward the problem, it will be solvable. What’s more, they commonly argue, we have an obligation to future generations to develop the technology that will give future people the tools they need to combat these problems. Preventing climate change from happening in the first place requires behavioral changes from too many agents to be realistic. Geoengineering requires actions only from reliable scientists and entrepreneurs.

Critics raise a host of problems for the geoengineering approach. One of the problems typically raised concerns the development of new technologies in general, but is perhaps particularly pressing in this case: How much must we know about the consequences of implementing a technology before we are morally justified in developing that technology? The continued successful function of each aspect of an ecosystem depends in vital ways on the successful function of the other aspects of that ecosystem. There is much that we don’t know about those relationships.  In the past, we’ve developed technologies under similar conditions of uncertainty; we tried to control the number of insects in our spaces through the use of pesticides to devastating and deadly affect. We don’t have a great track record with this kind of thing (as the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change itself demonstrates). There is potential for good here, but also the potential for great and unexpected harm.

Another problem has to do with which parties should be responsible for implementing geoengineered approaches. Who should get to decide whether these approaches are implemented? All life on earth will be affected by the decisions that we make here. Should such decisions be made through a mechanism that is procedurally just, like some form of a democratic process? If so, representative governments might be the appropriate actors to implement geoengineered strategies. That may seem intuitively appealing, but we must remember that our actions here have consequences for global citizens. Why should decisions made by, say, citizens of the United States have such substantive consequences for citizens of countries that, for either geographic or economic reasons, are more hard hit by the effects of climate change? What about the sovereignty of nations?  

An alternative approach is that entrepreneurs could pursue these developments. Often the most impressive innovations are motivated by the competitive nature of markets. This approach faces some of the same challenges faced by the governmental approach—it is counterintuitive that people who have primarily financial motivations should direct something as critical as the future of the biosphere.

Finally, critics argue that the geoengineering approach is misguided in its focus. What is needed is a paradigm shift in the way that we think about the planet. The geoengineering approach encourages us to continue to think about biosphere as a collection of resources for human beings to collect and manipulate any way that we see fit. A more appropriate approach, some argue, is for human beings to make fundamental changes to their lifestyles. They must stop thinking of themselves as the only important characters in the narrative of the planet. Instead of focusing on fixing what we break, we should be focusing on avoiding breaking things in the first place. Toward this end, they argue, our primary focus should be on reducing carbon emissions.

Passing the Mirror Test and the Wrong of Pain

Photograph of a striped fish called a cleaner wrasse in front of coral with another different species of fish in view behind

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In mid-February, scientists announced progress in developing an understanding of consciousness. An international team collaborating in four countries discovered patterns of brain activity that coincide with awareness. Consciousness has long been a mystery, and there are many reasons to explore and figure it out. It seems like creatures who have some form of consciousness make up a special club, experiencing the world with more layers, perhaps with more complex agency, perhaps uniquely making up the moral community.

These potential steps forward in understanding our brain-based and embodied consciousness come alongside a purported broadening of the group of animals that scientists claim pass the mirror-test for self-awareness. As we try to put our fingers on what it means to be conscious, in the last century Western philosophers have become open to the idea that there is a rich arena of animal perspectives alongside our own. The variety of ways that we can imagine experiencing the world has grown with our study of human and non-human animal experiences. This has interesting implications for who we include in our understanding of our moral community and how we understand the ways we can harm these members.

Though it is pretty intuitive that causing harm is bad, explaining why can be notoriously difficult. One route is appealing to the negative experience of harm – primarily how bad experiencing pain is. This focus unites human and non-human animals that can feel pain into one morally relevant domain. If what is bad about causing harm is that it brings about this negative experience of pain, then we need to identify the sorts of creatures that experience pain and avoid bringing about those states without outweighing reasons. Thus, consciousness will be morally relevant insofar as it delineates those creatures that are in some way aware of their experiences.

There are two responses to this line of thinking. One direction argues that this grounding of the badness of causing harm is too narrow: there are harms that we don’t experience, so this understanding misses morally relevant behaviors. Another direction claims that this line of thinking is too broad: not all pain is morally relevant.

Consider the (false) common conception of the perspective of a goldfish, where their understanding of the world resets every 10 seconds. Would causing pain to a creature who would very quickly have no memory of it have the same moral relevance as causing pain to something that would incorporate it into its understanding of the world indefinitely? Take the faux-goldfish example to its conceptual extreme and imagine a creature that has the experience of pleasure and pain, but only has instantaneous experiences – it lacks memory. Presumably, it wouldn’t matter to the creature a moment after it felt pain that it felt pain a moment ago because it had no residual impact from the experience (unless prolonged damage was done). If you share this intuition, then something more than the mere experience of pain is involved in the morality of causing harm.  

The way to make pain morally relevant is to focus on the perspective of the creature experiencing the pain – that there is such a perspective extended in time that experiencing the pain will impact. We can imagine the fear of a non-human animal in unfamiliar circumstances and consider the anxiety that may develop over time if it is continuously exposed to such circumstances. Such creatures have a sort of “self,” in the sense that their experience of the world develops their mode of interacting with the world and understanding of the world over time.

There is an even more advanced way of being a creature in the world beyond stringing experiences together in order to have a perspective extended in time: a creature can be aware that it has such a perspective by being aware that it is a self.

A key experiment to check the development of a self-concept is the mirror-test, where an animal has a mark placed on their body that they cannot see by moving their eyes. If, when they see the mark on a body in a mirror, they come to the conclusion that their own body has the mark, then they “pass” the mirror test because in order to come to such a conclusion the animal must use an implicit premise that they are a creature that could be so marked. The mirror-test is thus meant to indicate that an animal has self-awareness. It relies on a variety of competencies (vision and figuring out how mirrors work, for instance), but has long been thought to be sufficient for indicating that a creature is aware that it exists in the world.

Humans don’t pass the mirror test until they are toddlers, and only some primates also are able to pass the test, along with sundry birds and other mammals. However, this past year a tiny fish – the cleaner wrasse – seemed to pass the test. It is a social animal, considered to be relatively cognitively advanced, but the scientists who advocated for the results of the mirror-test suggest that while yes, this is a smart and advanced fish, this may not mean that it is self-aware. The success of the small fish has raised issues in how we test for morally relevant milestones in non-human animals.

One interesting facet of the mirror test is that animals that perform well are social, which is often a morally relevant trait. If morality is a matter of treated others with the sort of deference they are due, then a sort of sociality for members of the moral domain makes some sense.

In defining our moral community, most theorists include some non-human animals, and most consider it relevant to identify the way creatures experience the world. These latest advances in mapping consciousness and advancing our interpretation of self-awareness tests will help us understand the spectrum of relationships possible in the animal world. 

Climate Change and the Philosophical Pitfalls of Grounding Duty to Future Generations

Two young women in the foreground of a protest march, with signs behind them saying "our future our choice"

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Reports of mass extinction, extreme weather events, speedily melting ice caps and the inundation of low-lying islands by rising seas suggest that the environmental disaster scientists and activists have been warning about for several decades, has now begun.  

On the face of it, there isn’t really a good argument to be made against a moral imperative to fight climate change. Those who voice opposition to, and those who lobby against, climate action generally deny climate change is real rather than argue against an obligation to do something about it.

Governments across the world are nowhere near where they need to be on acting to prevent worst-case scenario outcomes, even where climate change is grudgingly acknowledged by the powers that be and even as its effects start to become difficult to ignore.

In January this year, David Attenborough told a cohort of business and government leaders, diplomats and influential celebrities at the Davos World Economic Forum that “What we do now, and in the next few years, will profoundly affect the next few thousand years,” and “Unless we sort ourselves out in the next decade or so we are dooming our children and our grandchildren to an appalling future.”

Few would now disagree that there is urgency about the issue of climate change; however, the question of our moral relation to future generations is philosophically complex. Does it make sense to claim that we have moral duties to persons who do not exist?  Do future persons, not already alive, have rights? How are the rights of future persons connected with moral duties that we have now?

There are some meta-ethical issues at play here (issues about what we take ethics to be centrally concerned with). A common foundation for morality is how the behavior of persons affects other persons (and sometimes other creatures/entities). The ‘moral community’ is that group to whom we owe moral consideration; whose well-being makes moral claims on us, or whose interests, or rights, provide imperatives and checks on our actions.

On one level, using a simple example given by Derek Parfit, we can see how, straightforwardly, the actions of someone now can harm an unknown, hypothetical person in the future. Parfit points out that, if I leave some broken glass in the undergrowth of a wood, which a hundred years later wounds a child, my act harms this child. This is of course familiar and quite intuitive reasoning; it forms the basis of things we tell our children every day, of the ilk: “don’t leave that there, someone could trip over it.”

Is it morally significant how far in the future that harm occurs? On one view it is not, as there is a direct causal relation between action of burying the glass and the child’s being cut by it. When I tell my child not to do something as it may harm someone, I am likely not to be thinking that far into the future as Parfit’s example, but this seems to be a result of the psychology, rather than the morality, of temporal distance.

However, it could be argued that moral accountability is weakened by temporal distance, because part of what it means to be in a moral community is that there is moral accountability, by virtue of reciprocity, between members – so that there is an in-principle possibility of the wronged party holding the other to account.

In response to Parfit’s example it should also be noted the person burying the glass is only causing a future harm as long as the child (or someone else) is later cut by it. That outcome is highly contingent. If the lack of reciprocity between individuals who are not one another’s contemporary, together with the contingency involved in any particular outcome, are problematic then it may be even more difficult to make decisions about the behaviour of a current population’s effect on a future population.

The question about how current people’s actions harm, or directly impact, future people encounters a paradox: because each person born is the product of so many and such complex contingencies, and all future persons are a product of actions taken in the present, a different set of actions (even one different variable) will produce a different human being.

Imagine two possible scenarios. In the first, no action is taken and climate change produces a disastrous future for all people on the planet. In the second, massive effort is undertaken, now with the outcome that disaster is averted and future generations are able to pursue happiness and have the opportunity to flourish.

Because of this paradox, it isn’t quite right to say that particular future persons will be better off if action is taken, since particular future persons who come into existence in the first scenario, if action is not taken, would not have existed in the second scenario. Can the people of the future in the first scenario really blame us, since had we made different choices they would not exist?

This line of thinking may appear to yield the conclusion that even if we do not conserve the environment for future generations of people, it cannot consistently be said that we have wronged them. But can we cogently argue that they cannot complain since in any other set of circumstances they would never have existed?

This is a difficult moral question – borne out in other problems or areas of practical ethics, such as whether to choose to have a disabled child. It opens up issues of how we value existence, what type of existence we value, and what level of difficulty we would be prepared to accept for the sake of existence itself. I shall not try to resolve this problem here – but it is not necessarily agreed that such future persons, in unbearable hardship, have no right to complain of the actions of their forebears that led to that hardship.

This paradox seems to arise in part where morality is taken to be centrally concerned with how actions of certain individuals affect other individuals – the problem here is that there is too much focus on particular individuals.  (Parfit himself thought that we should rescind the principle of morality being centrally concerned with individuals and employ a more impartial principle to ground morality in actions which produce the most wellbeing.)

But this solution creates another problem, which is encountered in consequentialist ethics of a utilitarian persuasion. Since utilitarianism is based on a principle of maximising happiness or wellbeing, it functions as a calculation of total possible happiness. This produces the counterintuitive outcome that a very large number of people who were borderline miserable would be preferable to a very small number of very happy people. Obviously this system cannot provide a foundation for a reasonable, binding, moral relation to future generations.

An argument from the notion of rights appears to fare better. If we acknowledge universal and inalienable human rights such as a right to life, liberty and security then, by virtue of their universality, we could extend them to future persons by including them in the moral community of holders of rights.

It has been noted by some philosophers, however, that the concept of rights is in some sense morally inadequate – it can fail to capture the moral seriousness of a situation. Imagine having to answer to future persons living with the devastation of our failure to act when we had the means and opportunity. It would not go all the way to the heart (so to speak) of their moral grievance to simply note that their right to live a full human life was violated – in the same way that the moral terribleness of murder is not adequately captured by noting that the murdered person’s right to life has been violated.

A still better grounding might be in a notion of moral duty as suggested by Immanuel Kant in the principle of universalisation: that we discover our moral duty by asking if we could will any action to be a universal law. Applying this principle our moral duty to future generations becomes clear when we simply ask what we would have endorsed were we to find ourselves in the same situation.

The window, we are being told by scientists, is closing fast. We may have little more than a decade to avoid unstoppable climate catastrophe. This means that the future is arriving. In a sense, the future is already here. Children born in this decade may be alive at the end of the century, and will be directly affected by our current actions or failure to act. Those future generations that appear in the abstract in the philosophical discussions of the past twenty to thirty years are already here. There are some hopeful signs; the new generation is starting to demand action as high-profile strikes by schoolchildren across the world put pressure on those in power to act to rescue the future they will inherit.

Facing the Synthetic Age with Christopher Preston

We’re in an age known as the Anthropocene, an era in which humans have been the dominant force on earth. We’ve impacted the climate, we’ve shaped the land and in recent years, we’ve made changes on the atomic and genetic levels. On this podcast, the philosopher Christopher Preston shares insights from his book The Synthetic Age, which explores the ethics of technologies that have the potential to radically reshape the world. We’re attempting to cool the surface of the earth by brightening clouds. We can introduce traits into wild species through gene drives and create entirely new organisms in the lab. While these new technologies are interesting and in many cases, potentially helpful, Christopher writes that we need to see them for what they are: a “deliberate shaping” of the earth and the organisms in it. He wants us to think carefully about what it might mean for humans to live in a world that they have intentionally manipulated.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show


  1. Christopher Preston, The Synthetic Age
  2. Explaining the Anthropocene
  3. “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe”
  4. Synthetic biology at the Venter Institute
  5. Malaria is a public health crisis
  6. Gene drives, mosquitoes and malaria
  7. More on living in a post-wild world
  8. 2015 fatality at Yellowstone National Park
  9. “Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions”
  10. Joel Reynolds


Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions

Soothe” by Blue Dot Sessions

A Certain Lightness” by Blue Dot Sessions

Heliotrope” by Blue Dot Sessions

Clean Energy Infrastructure, Environmental Justice, and the Ethics of NIMBY

Photograph of a field with wind turbines in the background

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

From DAPL to cancer-alley, sympathy to the opposition to industrial infrastructure and its harms are a cornerstone of the modern environmental movement. An important component of the movement has been the unified resistance of marginalized groups against powerful interest groups seeking to exploit the environment around them. Organized resistance to environmentally destructive projects are often no longer opposed under the guise of the environment’s inherent value alone, but also the rights of people to a healthy and safe environment. Prioritizing the interests of local citizens and the grassroots over special interests is not only fundamental to environmental justice but also to NIMBY-ism. NIMBY-ism, or “Not in my backyard”-ism, is an argument used commonly in disputes between citizen and government, or citizen and corporation, over the use of space on and around a person’s property. NIMBY-ism usually connotes negatively, as those who oppose the development often do so on the basis that it affects them personally, and not that the development is wrong in itself.

One striking example of NIMBYism used to oppose environmentally friendly infrastructure is that of wind farms in Indiana. Recently, Renewable Energy Systems pulled their development plan for large wind farms spanning across Cass and Miami counties due to technical difficulties. Many in the local community were pleased by this decision, with some even describing it as “fabulous news.” The project was estimated to generate 600 megawatts of electricity by establishing 150-225 turbines between the two counties. The project generated a great deal of controversy, with the local paper, the Pharos-Tribune claiming, “The debate and disagreements over placing wind turbines in Cass County had turned family members against one another and neighbor against neighbor.” And such opposition and controversy is not unique to Cass and Miami county. “Indiana Wind Watch” is an organization recently formed to “protect every Hoosier from the unfortunate fate of living near irresponsibly-sited industrial wind turbines.” The organization was founded in 2018, claims to be grassroots, and aims to provide resources to communities and individuals opposing wind farm developments. The reason Indiana Wind Watch opposes wind energy projects is because Indiana is “too populated.” Regardless of whether or not any of the information on Indiana Wind Watch is correct, the movement organized in Cass and Miami county demonstrates NIMBY-ism perfectly.

One could argue that if the opposition is based on false information, it should not be taken as true opposition. However, do members of Cass and Miami county truly need a reason to oppose development on and around their county by an international corporation?  This case parallels other environmental justice projects in that it centers around energy development and infrastructure. However, unlike cases such as Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, this case involves building infrastructure that is positive for the environment. So would it be fair to call the opposition to wind farms in Cass and Miami county an environmental justice movement? According to the EPA, environmental justice “is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” According to this definition, opposition to clean energy infrastructure could still constitute as environmental justice, which may seem somewhat counterintuitive. Though wind farms do have negative environmental impacts, such as killing birds and bats and low level noise, their impact is by and large less harmful than that of pipelines and energy plants.

However, it seems that though the citizens who opposed this project organized an environmental justice movement, the well-being of the environment did not seem to be a central motivator within the opposition. Much of the opposition to the turbines centered around concern about property rights and safety. Opposers argued that Harvest Wind Energy LLC’s plans for the placement of the turbines endangered those living near them and could potentially infringe on their property rights. Another potential concern about the project is that it was organized by a multi-national corporation, which might not have the best interests of small rural Indiana communities in mind. The Indiana Wind Watch emphasizes this concern in their opposition to wind development, and even described the situation in Cass County as “a truly David and Goliath battle for the protection of their county and homes.” Much of this rhetoric directly mirrors that of other environmental movements, particularly within the battle against “Big Oil” and fossil fuel interests. These types of arguments focus on the justice aspect of energy development and are critical of the difference in power between every day citizens and large corporate interests.

Even if a movement involves justice and the environment, is it necessarily an environmental justice movement, especially when its consequences lead to environmental degradation? If we reserve the right to withhold the distinction of environmental justice to movements that only have outcomes we deem as environmentally favorable, the way in which the environment is defined may become a force for exclusion and oppression.

It seems as though a level of NIMBYism is required in environmental justice, but perhaps it’s not only Not in My Backyard, but rather Not in Anybody’s Backyard. Moving toward a clean energy future will require totally new infrastructure and development, and as long as this infrastructure displaces people, it probably will not pass without controversy. The real question is how environmentalists should approach this issue, and whether they should critically reflect on the meaning of environmental justice.

Rethinking Modification of the Natural World

Photograph of people touring glass biospheres

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

Aristotle famously pointed out that humans stand out from other living beings because humans are rational.  To live a flourishing human life is to live in accordance with the dictates of reason. Much of the philosophical thought about the essence of man going forward was heavily influenced by what Aristotle had to say on this point.  It is hard to deny the importance of rationality for the survival of the human species. Because we can reason, we can use language, make plans, satisfy obligations, know things about the world, and, importantly, we can change the world as we see fit to meet our needs.  It would be an understatement to say that we took full advantage of that last part. It is important that we ask ourselves: Are there any constraints on how far we should take our ability to modify the world around us? Continue reading “Rethinking Modification of the Natural World”

Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility

Photograph of two iced Starbucks drinks with a wrapped straw in between them

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In 2015 a video of a sea turtle took the internet by storm and set into action the public outrage over pollution caused by plastic straws. Since then, videos and articles including facts about plastic waste in the world’s oceans have been circulating the internet, and plastic pollution has been the topic of more than a few TED Talks. Many anti-plastic advocates made moral appeals to consumers to cut down on their straw usage, and these appeals have steadily grown into an anti-straw environmental movement. On July 9th, coffee mogul Starbucks announced they would be phasing out plastic straws in their cafes nationwide, eliminating plastic straws completely by 2020. However, it did not take long for the blowback to come. New videos and articles began circling social media, this time depicting people with disabilities explaining how the plastic straw ban in businesses, and cities like Seattle and San Francisco makes them feel unwelcome. Is banning plastic straws, like Starbucks did, really an ethical environmental choice? Should the responsibility be on companies or consumers to reduce plastic usage? And do appeals to morality through social media campaigns and public outrage truly effectuate positive change? Continue reading “Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility”

Ethical Concepts in the Age of the Anthropocene

photograph of floating ice in Antartica

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

We all know, more or less, that Planet Earth is in trouble, that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that an environmental catastrophe systemic, complex, and more and more irreversible is already underway.

We are facing an unprecedented concatenation of changes to the Earth. Global warming from fossil fuel pollution is causing ice caps to melt and oceans to rise, threatening to inundate many coastal habitats within decades. Climate change is causing more frequent and more extreme weather events in the form of violent storms and severe droughts. Destruction of ecological systems is leading to the collapse of insect and bird populations which are necessary for the pollination of plants including human food crops. Oceans are filling up with plastic waste, and toxic synthetic substances can now be found in every part of the world. A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades shows that the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway and it is more severe than previously feared, according to new research.

Continue reading “Ethical Concepts in the Age of the Anthropocene”

Layered Landscapes with Marion Hourdequin and David Havlick

What is a layered landscape? How should we restore places with complex social and cultural legacies? Producer Christiane Wisehart traveled to Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge in Madison, Indiana to explore how the former military site was restored into a landscape that is now home to many endangered species. She unpacks the concept of “layered landscapes” with philosopher Marion Hourdequin and geographer David Havlick, editors of Restoring Layered Landscapes. This idea is helping to re-shape how restorationists ought to approach their work.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge Orientation and Safety Briefing
  2. Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge
  3. Jefferson Proving Ground
  4. Restoring Layered Landscapes edited by Marion Hourdequin and David Havlick
  5. Marion Hourdequin
  6. David Havlick
  7. Ecological restoration
  8. Military to wildlife (M2W)
  9. Crawfish frog
  10. Rocky Mountain Arsenal
  11. Michael Slote, From Enlightenment to Receptivity
  12. Henslow’s Sparrow
  13. Kyle Whyte
  14. Little River Band Ottawa Indians — Sturgeon restoration


Special thanks to Joe Robb and the staff at Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge for giving us their time and allowing us to record in the refuge. Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Swing 39” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

A Catalog of Seasons” by Blue Dot Sessions

Hungaria” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Thread of Clouds” by Blue Dot Sessions

Climate Justice with Kyle Whyte

Many people think of climate change as something that will affect all of the world equally sometime in the distant future. But that’s not true. Some communities are already experiencing the effects of climate change. And many more communities will disproportionately suffer from a warming world. Join special guest host and philosopher Jen Everett and producers Christiane Wisehart and Sandra Bertin as we learn how to challenge our thinking about the environment with indigenous philosopher and climate justice scholar Kyle Whyte.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Kyle Whyte, Timnick Chair in the Humanities and Associate Professor of Philosophy & Community Sustainability at Michigan State University
  2. “Food Sovereignty, Justice and Indigenous Peoples: An Essay on Settler Colonialism and Collective Continuance” by Kyle Whyte
  3. Ethics of Caring in Environmental Ethics: Indigenous and Feminist Philosophies” by Kyle Whyte and Chris Cuomo
  4. Citizen Potawatami Nation
  5. Jennifer Everett, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the Environmental Fellows Program at DePauw University
  6. Criticism of Disney’s Pocahontas
  7. Jainism
  8. Feminist Perspectives on Power
  9. Aristotle


Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Badlands” by Cory Gray from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

A Certain Lightness” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Heather” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Planting Flags” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

One Quiet Conversation” by Blue Dot Sessions from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 4.0

Big Because (Instrumental)” by Minden from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Can Animals Be Moral? with Mark Rowlands

Is it possible for animals to be moral? Philosopher Mark Rowlands challenges the idea that animals have no capacity for morality. He argues that not only do animals have emotions, those emotions can motivate them to make moral decisions.

For the episode transcript, download a copy or read it below.

Contact us at examiningethics@gmail.com

Links to people and ideas mentioned in the show

  1. Can Animals Be Moral? by Mark Rowlands
  2. Interview with Rowlands regarding his wolf-dog
  3. Dog Risks Life in Rescue” (YouTube, CBS)
  4. “Leopard Saves Baby Baboon” (YouTube)
  5. The Criminal Prosecution and Punishment of Animals by E. P. Evans (1906)


Thanks to Evelyn Brosius for our logo. Music featured in the show:

Badlands” by Cory Gray from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Hungaria” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

Floating in Space” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

“Spy Glass” by Kevin MacLeod from incompetech.com. CC BY 3.0

Serenity” by Podington Bear from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC 3.0

Songe D’Automne” by Latché Swing from the Free Music Archive. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 FR

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