Responding to global warming ethical dimensions
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Responding to Global Warming: Ethical Dimensions. Sean McAleer, Ph.D. Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies UW - Eau Claire 27 March 2013 ECON 268. Topics. Basic Concepts The Tragedy of the Commons 3.Justice 4.Pascal ’ s Wager and Global Warming. 1. Basic Concepts.

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Responding to Global Warming: Ethical Dimensions

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Responding to Global Warming: Ethical Dimensions

Sean McAleer, Ph.D.

Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies

UW - Eau Claire

27 March 2013

ECON 268


  • Basic Concepts

  • The Tragedy of the Commons


    4.Pascal’s Wager and Global Warming

1. Basic Concepts

a.Moral Agency: the capacity to act on/for moral reasons

b.Moral Standing: who/what counts morally

[i.e., whose interests ought a moral agent consider]

c.Moral Significance: how much something counts morally[i.e., how much weight ought a moral agent give x’s interests?]

  • A criterion: x has moral standing iff …

    … x is rational?

    … x is sentient?

    … x is alive?

2. Tragedy of the Commons

Suppose a grazing pasture is a commons, regulated only by voluntary self-restraint; what will happen?

Carrying capacity

What is individually rational may be collectively irrational.

How might the tragedy be avoided?

– Central authority

– Privatization

Is the atmosphere a commons?

Problems of collective action/agency

The Prisoner’s Dilemma


ConfessDon’t Confess

Confess< 5, 5 >< 1, 10 >

YouDon’t Confess< 10, 1 >< 3, 3 >

What should you do, acting in your own interest?

Iftheotherconfessesthen you should ……… ?

Iftheotherdoesn’t confess then you should ………?

The otherwill either confess or not confess.

Therefore, you. should ……… ?

The Prisoner’s Dilemma


ConfessDon’t Confess

Confess< 5, 5 >< 1, 10 >

YouDon’t Confess< 10, 1 >< 3, 3 >

Won’t the other do the same, if she’s rational?

How do you both end up, acting from self-interest?

Suppose you can confer before entering your plea -- what deal should you make?

What should you say, when you’re asked for your plea?

A less artificial example



EgoistDog-eat-dogKing of the world


What should you be, acting in your own interest?

If the other is rational, what will the outcome be?

Even if you’ve made a deal, do you have an incentive to free-ride?

3. Justice

a.Distributive Justice:How should access to a finite resource be allocated?

Justice and equality?

Think of the atmosphere as a sink into which we dump our waste gasses.

b.Compensatory Justice:How much does A owe B for harming B?

3a.Distributive Justice

i.Time-slice principles (e.g., Rawls’ egalitarianism)

ii.Historical principles (e.g., Nozick’s voluntarism)

Access-allocation is just if …

Equal Share: … every country has equal per capita access to the sink

Benefit the Worst-off: … it is to the benefit of the worst off countries

Economic Activity Principle: … every country has equal per unit of economic activity access to the sink

Economic Efficiency Principle: … every country’s access is proportional to its economic efficiency

Utilitarianism: … it leads to the greatest net happiness for all

Voluntarism: … it is the result of voluntary exchange

Choosing principles of distributive justice

Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance procedure:

  • Imagine that you are ignorant of various material facts that might make you select principles that would benefit only you or members of your group(s) – e.g., race, sex, education level, ethnicity, religious affiliation, nationality, etc.

  • Assume rational self-interest.

  • Choose principles of distributive justice that will further your interests.

    Rawls: Principles chosen from this original position of equality would be fair (because they would secure unanimous consent).

    No reasonable, self-interested person would choose a principle benefiting white men, for example, since from behind the veil of ignorance you don’t know whether you’re white or a man.

    Relevance to global warming?

Rawls’ Difference Principle(s)

Rawls thinks that from behind the veil of ignorance you’d choose the following principle:

Goods are to be distributed equally …

unless an unequal distribution would

(a) benefit everyone OR

(b) benefit the least well-off

Nozick’s Argument Against Time-Slice Principles

Suppose some time-slice principle allocates x. How could subsequent voluntary exchanges of x fail to be just, even if the subsequent distribution violates the time-slice principle?

Conditions on voluntariness:

  • mental competence;

  • adequate information;

  • absence of fraud;

  • absence of coercion.

4. Global Warming, Pascal’s Wager, and the Precautionary Principle

a.Examples of the PP

b.Structure of the PP

c.Pascal’s Wager

  • Precaution and paralysis?

4a. Examples

Rio Declaration (1992):

Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

4a. Examples

The Wingspread version (1998):

Where an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public bears the burden of proof.

4a. Examples

UNESCO (2005):

When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

Morally unacceptable harm refers to harm to humans or the environment that is

  • threatening to human life or health, or

  • serious and effectively irreversible, or

  • inequitable to present or future generations, or

  • imposed without adequate consideration of the human rights of those affected.

4b. PP: Structure

4c. The PP & Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s wager gives a prudential reason for theism, not an epistemic reason.

4c. The PP & Pascal’s Wager

4c. The PP & Pascal’s Wager

4c. The PP & Pascal’s Wager

What happens if we apply the to the remedy PP suggests?

Many Gods objection to Pascal’s Wager.

4d. Precaution and Paralysis

The worry: as commonsensical as it sounds, strong versions of the PP lead to paralysis

  • the remedy the PP proposes might itself be potentially catastrophic

  • not adopting the potentially catastrophic remedy might itself be potentially catastrophic

What are the odds of dying?

one yearlifetime

… in a motor-vehicle accident1 / 6,5841 / 85

… from a fall involving furniture1 / 329,3191 / 4,238

… from falling out of a building1/ 475,1001 / 6,115

… by accidentally drowning1 / 83,3651 / 1,073

… from exposure to smoke, fire, flames1 / 95, 9681 / 1,235

… ignition or melting of nightwear1 / 59,672,5951 / 767,987

… from exposure to natural cold1 / 574,8801 / 7,399

… being struck by lightning1 / 6,348,1481 / 81,701

… suicide1 / 8,9601 / 115

… assault by firearm1 / 23,3261 / 300

… legal execution1 / 6,215,8951 / 79,999

… alcohol poisoning1 / 847,6221 / 10,909

Source: The National Safety Council <>

Some Resources

Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (Yale University Press, 2004).

Neil Manson, “Formulating the Precautionary Principle.”Environmental Ethics 24 (2002): 263-74.

Stephen Gardiner, “Ethics and Global Climate Change.”Ethics 114 (2004): 555-600.

Dale Jamieson, Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Stephen Gardiner et al., eds., Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Cass Sunstein, Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Jonathan Westphal, ed., Justice (Hackett, 1996).

Andrew Brennan, “Environmental Ethics.”Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

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