The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)
I have been reluctant to write about the BP Oil Spill.
The first reason is because I am opposed to – and I think we have many and strong reasons to condemn – the practice of determining legal (and moral) guilt based on a few email articles. I believe that a morally responsible person has an obligation to put some effort into determining what the facts of the matter are before they pass judgment.
Remember the e-mail scam regarding climate change a while back? Emails from the University of East Anglia’s climatic research unit were stolen and produced to the public. Comments from a few of the emails were taken out of context to give the appearance that the climate scientists were involved in a conspiracy to promote the idea that there is global warming where, in fact, none exists.
These news articles likely convinced a great many people not to believe the claims on global warming and raised doubts for others. The misinterpretations of the emails were national news. It was in all the papers. However, the fact that the investigations provided no evidence wrongdoing – that the emails in their proper context were simply the statements of human scientists chatting with each other about their profession in a jargon other scientists easily understand – was not so widely reported.
That particular news item is quite likely going to have serious costs in terms of human lives and human well-being. The emails were leaked in the days just before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Denmark – an attempt to form an international response to climate change. No such agreement has been reached. In fact, I am quite convinced that no agreement will be reached and future generations will not only have to suffer the huge burdens of our massive public debt, but also the global destruction that will result from sea levels rising, ultimately, by 200 to 250 feet.
But, I digress. My point is to illustrate the cost, and thus the reasons for action that exist, to condemn the practice of jumping to conclusions based on too little evidence. There are countless smaller, personal examples that can be given as well – people whose interests have been sacrificed by others who jumped to the wrong conclusion based on hear-say, innuendo, and the lies and distortions people put out for various reasons.
So, I am not inclined to jump to the conclusion that somebody at BP must necessarily be culpable for Gulf oil spill.
Furthermore, I hold that a person has a moral right to be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. By that I mean that a virtuous person will want to believe that another person is innocent, and will hold to that opinion in the absence of evidence, requiring good evidence before he will concede that the individual is, in fact, guilty. I would prefer it if it were the case that this was an unfortunate and unforeseeable accident that nobody could have predicted, than that somebody is blameworthy.
However, even if this were an unforeseeable accident, BP would be substantially responsible to compensate others for the harms done. It was, after all, their accident. They created the situation in which the accident took place. Furthermore, BP engaged in these actions in the full knowledge that such an accident was possible. Or, at least, any intellectually responsible agent would have known that such an accident was possible. There have been debates over the potential costs of an off-shore accident for years.
This causes me to ask the question: Why is it not the case that BP had a plan set up to deal with just such a possibility? Why did they not ask and answer the question, “What is our plan of last resort if we absolutely have to stop an open offshore well at the source?”
There seems to be sufficient evidence to indict BP executives on the charge of moral negligence.
An indictment, in this sense, is not an assumption of guilt. It is a claim that there is enough prima facie evidence available to hold a formal investigation. It says that we have reason to look for and collect the evidence that would go into determining whether such an accusation is true.
The issue of negligence happens to be the subject that distinguishes desirism from traditional motive-based theories of moral value.
Among professional philosophers, motive-based theories of moral value have been dead for over 100 years. In the 1800s, philosopher James Martineau defended a motive-based theory of ethics in which he argued that moral value is not to be found in actions themselves, but in the motives that give rise to those actions.1
A contemporary critic of Martineau, Henry Sidgwick, devoted a chapter of his book, Methods of Ethics, to refuting Martineau’s theory. Sidgwick argued that motive-based theories of value cannot account for the moral crime of negligence.
A negligent person, according to Sidgwick, is not a person who acts out of maliciousness or from any interest other than interests that we accept every day. The drunk driver is not out to kill the children he kills when he runs his car up onto the sidewalk. All he wants to do is to get home – a perfectly normal and perfectly legitimate motive for action. According to Sidgwick, a classical utilitarian philosopher, the wrongness of negligence is not found in the bad intentions of the agent. They are found in the consequences of the action.
Classical act utilitaranism has its own problems in that we often are not held morally responsible for the bad consequences of our actions. A police officer encounters somebody who points a gun at him. The officer shoots the individual, only to discover that the gun was a prop and the person pointing it thought that he was an actor who thought he was rehearsing a scene for a movie. The cop is not blamed for the bad consequences of his actions, seemingly because he lacked any type of evil intention.
Desirism answers these challenges by denying Martineau’s claim that an action obtains its moral value from the desires that give rise to it. An immoral action does not require evil intentions. An immoral action can also arise from the absence of good intentions. That is to say, people cannot only be condemned for the desires (motives) that they have, but also for the desires (motives) that they do not have, or for the fact that are not as strong as people generally have reason to cause them to be.
The problem with the drunk driver is not that he has a desire to get home, but that he lacks sufficient aversion to doing harm to others that he is willing to put them at risk in order to get home. People generally have many and strong reason to promote such an aversion to harming others that people take extra precautions when their actions create a risk for others. If we do not see them taking the precautions that would prevent or minimize risk, then we have reason to conclude that they do not have the level of concern for others that they should have. We then bring the social tool of condemnation to bear to promote a stronger level of concern.
There is enough evidence to at least indite the executives of BP on the charge of moral negligence – of demonstrating an insufficient level of concern for the welfare of others. There is more than enough evidence to get somebody involved in collecting evidence on this matter. If guilty, then this would be reason to believe that the executives are guilty of a moral transgression that is orders of magnitude worse than that of any drunk driver.
And we throw drunk drivers in jail as a way of expressing our condemnation, and to help the message of condemnation better sink into the brains of others who might also lack a sufficiently strong concern for the public welfare.
Remember those climate-change emails I wrote about at the beginning of this posting? Using them in such a way so as to put future generations at risk of suffering significant harm speaks to the same type of evil – speaks to the same absence of concern for the welfare of others.
Desires are persistent – and so is the absence of certain desires. Those who lacked sufficient concern for the welfare of others to secure them from the ill effects of a massive oil spill also are likely to lack sufficient concern for the welfare of others to protect them from the harms of climate change.
If we keep up this line of investigation, we might start to see a pattern.
- Alonzo Fyfe
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