Shane Cannon Coolbaugh
Professor Darren Gardner
May 6, 2022
Practice What You Preach: Climate Activists Must Use Mass Transit or Teleconferencing
Thanks to advances in technology, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, and society’s extraordinary ability to adapt as needed, we can go anywhere virtually. Teleconferencing was once considered a last resort but can now be a suitable, normative alternative. Because of these changes in our culture, climate activists must use mass transit or communicate their message via teleconferencing to remain morally consistent with their utilitarian, collective action mission.
This paper will argue that climate activism appears to be rooted in utilitarianism. As the climate activist believes that climate change is an immediate threat to human welfare, all their actions should maximize the good—preventing climate change. This paper will explain consequentialism, define utilitarianism, and weigh the faults in these views pertaining to our scenario. I will then consider Kantianism, a deontological opposing theory to consequentialism.
Furthermore, I will briefly define collective action and explain how this also links to the climate activist travel situation. Because climate activism is also rooted in the collective action approach, it is morally impermissible for any environmentalist to travel via airplane because of its damaging effects on our environment. Doing so contradicts what they are asking of others. I will consider information from John Broome’s article Against Denialism to aid my closing argument. Because of the normalcy of meeting virtually, there is no reason any climate activist could morally justify continuing to travel by airplane when that’s not an act that will maximize human welfare and contradicts their collective action approach.
Explaining Consequentialism & Defining Utilitarianism
We must first understand the structure of consequentialism, as it is a family of theories. Consequentialists focus on doing all the good they can through acts they believe are optimific and believe that “acts are morally right just because they maximize the amount of goodness in the world.” The most popular belief—act utilitarianism, or simply utilitarianism—holds that “well-being is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable and faring poorly is the only intrinsically bad thing” (Schafer-Landau, 124-127).
With this information in mind, we must consider actual versus expected results. We can’t predict the future, so we can’t always be sure that our actions will produce a good outcome for us all. Some measures with the likelihood of good can turn out to be disastrous. The utilitarian argues that we must maximize overall well-being. The method for measuring whether an action is morally required is first to add up all the benefits it produces. Second, we add up all the harm it causes. Third, we determine the balance. Lastly, we see whether the ratio is more significant than any other available action (Schafer-Landau, 143).
There are several challenges to utilitarianism. For example, it predicts that one should continually deliberate the consequences of potential actions, which is too demanding, and most people don’t have the time to spare for such activities. Second, as we learn in the Argument from Value Measurement, there is no such precise unit of measurement that can determine the value of an action’s result. Utilitarianism’s focus on impartiality and counting everyone’s well-being equally leaves the door open to argue that there is no intrinsic wrongness or rightness. What is best for a more significant number of people prevails. In a world where that is true, the majority could enact policy to oppress a minority group of people and feel morally justified. The moral flexibility of this theory is a strength and weakness (Schafer-Landau, 145-153).
Rule consequentialism is another form of consequentialism which helps address many objections to consequentialism. Rule consequentialism states that an act is morally right because an optimific social rule requires it. The criteria to be considered an optimific social power is the belief that nearly everyone in society would accept it. Our text gives an example that rule consequentialism would probably require a professor to give students the grades they deserve rather than the ones they want. Rule consequentialism operates by an ideal moral code that promotes the best consequences (Schafer-Landau, 159-161).
Peter Railton introduces us to subjective consequentialism and objective consequentialism. Subjective consequentialism is the view that whenever one faces a choice of actions, one should attempt to determine which act of those available would promote the most good. Objective consequentialism is the view that the criterion of the rightness of an act or course of action is whether it would boost the interest of those acts available to the agent (Railton, 449).
Linking Climate Activism to Utilitarianism
Now that we understand utilitarianism, we can see how it appears intrinsically linked to the mindset of a climate activist. The mission of an environmentalist is to prevent global warming through their activism, whether it be speaking directly to their peers about the impact of carbon emissions on our environment or protesting the continued use of fossil fuels. Climate activists do this because they perceive global climate change as something that will cause human suffering. Environmentalists view their activism to maximize the good, which is the collective action of society combating global climate change. With all of this in mind, no true climate activist can morally justify using air travel as their means of transportation. Doing so would counter their overarching mission and appear hypocritical to those they are trying to convince to join their cause, and it wouldn’t aid them in making a sound argument for activism.
Although I am arguing that climate activism is ultimately rooted in a utilitarian perspective, we must consider Kantianism. Immanuel Kant’s opposing philosophy breaks down to two tests of morality: What if everyone did that? Followed by, how would you like it if I did that to you? Many know the latter as the golden rule. Kant also gives us the principle of universalizability, which states that “an act is morally acceptable if, and only if, its maxim is universalizable. A maxim is “the principle of action you give yourself when you are about to do something” (Schafer-Landau, 171).
To determine whether a maxim is universalizable, you must first clearly formulate your maxim, stating what you intend to do and why you plan to do it. Next, imagine a world where everyone supports and acts on your maxim. Finally, then ask, can the goal of my action be achieved in such a world? (Schafer-Landau, 172).
Evaluating our climate activist travel scenario from a Kantian point-of-view leads us to a similar conclusion. A true climate activist would always forgo any travel method counter to their cause. Following the Kantian line of thinking, what if everyone did that? The climate activist would not like that to be the case, as they’re trying to prevent excessive air travel, not encourage it. Kantians believe you act unfairly when you make an exception for yourself (Schafer-Landau, 172).
Lara Denis asserts that “Kant’s formula of the end in itself commands that one treat humanity in oneself and others always as an end and never merely as a means.” In our climate activist scenario, one could argue that if the climate activist were to travel by airplane, they would be using the cause as a means and not an end. To justify their actions morally, a true climate activist would have to be looking at the situation from a detached perspective (Denis, 245).
Railton’s Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality
Next, we must consider the writing of Peter Railton. He points out that always viewing things from a moral point of view can lead to a sense of alienation and an uncomfortable feeling of mere moral obligation. He makes his point through a fictional scenario involving a married couple, John and Helen. The story starts with John conversing with his friend, who points out the kindness of the particular care John gives to his wife Helen’s needs. John responds by pointing out that it’s his moral obligation, and he knows Helen better than anyone else. He begs the question, “how awful marriage would be or life itself if people didn’t take special care of their loved ones.” John’s point out his moral obligation gives his remarks a consequentialist tone that would likely leave most with an unsettling feeling of detachment and mere obligation without feeling (Railton, 441-443).
Suppose we apply Railton’s fictional story to our current scenario in question. Imagine that instead, we are listening to a climate activist speak with a peer. Their peer says that it is admirable of them to forgo flying when doing their activist work. The climate activist responds by objectively pointing back to their moral obligation. I imagine this would sound rather strange as activism usually goes together with enthusiasm for the cause. In this case, that is decreasing carbon emissions. All this in mind, is it ever morally permissible for a climate activist, someone advocating to reduce carbon emissions, to travel by airplane to spread their message? We find ourselves in quite the juxtaposition.
Collective Action & Climate Activism
We can only solve collection action problems through an organized community effort. For example, in Nefsky’s paper, the scenario applies to animals. Nefsky examines the instrumental and non-instrumental reasons not to eat meat. Nefsky introduces us to the concept of s flexible vegetarian and a strict vegetarian. As the name would indicate, a flexible vegetarian eats meat when they know it’ll otherwise go to waste. A strict vegetarian always refrains from eating meat (Nefksy, 5).
There shouldn’t be a strict or flexible environmentalist regarding the climate activist. It’s not comparable to eating leftover meat, and there isn’t extra non-polluted air to spare. A true climate activist wouldn’t be able to use this comparison to validate air travel for their activist work.
Considering John Broome’s Article Against Denialism
John Broom dubs philosophers who deny a person’s greenhouse gas emissions do any harm as “individual denialists.” His argument is convincing because it is succinct, and the premises are logical. Our emissions cause expected damage, so it’s illogical to participate in activities that contribute to expected harm. Boome cites what economists call “the social cost of carbon” (SCC), a monetary measure of the damage done around the world by carbon dioxide emissions. The Obama administration’s figure for the SCC was about $40 per tonne. Any climate activist contributing to the expected penalty of more carbon emissions is not operating logically or ethically (Broome, 110-113).
In conclusion, I argued that climate activism is rooted in the utilitarian perspective because of the fundamental belief that they must pursue a good outcome, a greener planet for us all. However, even when considering our scenario from a Kantian perspective, we come to the same conclusion. Whatever moral framework the climate activist operates under, they’re going to find themselves unable to defend themselves using airplanes as a travel method when it’s a clear expected harm to their cause.
Furthermore, I incorporated the applicable collective action framework in this discussion, as climate activism is also intrinsically linked to the concept of promoting a coordinated action, the reduction in carbon emissions. I then wrapped up my overarching argument by tying in the article Against Denialism by John Broome, who coins the term “individual denialist” for philosophers who choose to ignore the harm that their emissions of greenhouse gases cause.
Once you have considered all components of my argument, it becomes indisputable that remaining morally compliant for the climate activist includes practicing what they preach.
Broome, John. “Against Denialism.” The Monist, vol. 102, no. 1, 2019, pp. 110-129.
Denis, Lara. “Kant’s Formula of the End in itself: Some Recent Debates.” Philosophy Compass, vol. 2, no. 2, 2007, pp. 244-257.
Nefsky, Julia. “Consumer choice and collective impact.” The Oxford handbook of food ethics 2018 (2018): pp 1-29.
Railton, Peter. “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality.” Ethical Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition. Edited by Russ Schafer-Landau. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013, pp 441-457.
Shafer-Landau, Russ. The Fundamentals of Ethics. Oxford UP, 2021. pp. 124-200.