Robbie Andrew

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What's my responsibility?

First published: 23 May 2018

Recently I was quoted as saying that exporting fossil fuels was like "selling arms to a country that's at war and committing atrocities". The article didn't give much space to my thoughts, so I thought I'd expand on them a little here in a self-interview.

Why do you think it's appropriate to compare exporting fossil fuels with selling arms to countries that commit atrocities?

I don't. That's why I prefaced that comment with "I struggle to find a good analogy...".

So you don't think it's the same?

Of course not, it's an analogy, intended to provoke some consideration, but the problem with it is that it's extreme. Because it's extreme, because it's an imperfect analogy, people don't tend to consider its merits, but simply react to the obvious problems. Clearly the moral equivalence is very weak between selling oil and selling weapons that are used in atrocities. That was precisely what I meant by "I struggle to find a good analogy". The art of a good analogy is that it takes the listener sideways enough into a new perspective where they learn something that can be applied to the original situation, without that shift being so great that you're swamped by all the reasons the analogy is not equivalent. But when it sounds like I'm comparing car drivers to soldiers brutally killing civilians, then of course people will take offence, and that's one reason it was a poor analogy.

Then why did you use that analogy??

Um, as I said, because I struggle to find a better one. But let's look a bit more closely. What's wrong with the analogy? There are a three complaints, or counterarguments: (1) "If we didn't sell them the weapon, someone else would", (2) "I cannot take responsibility for someone else's actions: if they didn't pull the trigger then the atrocity wouldn't occur, so it's their moral responsibility, not mine", (3) "fossil fuels lead to only marginal harm, which can't be compared with genocidal wars."

I don't see any problem with any of those counterarguments.

Right, on the face of it each seems reasonable and compelling. But there are some pretty significant problems with accepting them. First of all, notice that the first two arguments aren't against the analogy itself: they apply to both the original and the analogous situation. The first argument, "if not me, then another", is founded in consequentialism, also called teleological ethics: the idea that it is the eventual outcome of your action or inaction that determines whether it is moral or immoral. This seems quite logical, and is the basis for the way many economists see the world, for example. It is a key component of utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. If I use this very logic, then I can say that the victim will die anyway, whether I sell the weapons or someone else, so it makes no difference if I kill them myself. The outcome is the same regardless. Do we still think that consequentialism is a good test of morality?

It feels wrong...

Precisely. Consequentialism is extremely attractive to the human mind, because it tells us we can ignore our guts, the guilty feelings that hold us back from progress. It says that guilt, an unpleasant feeling, can be ignored because it serves no purpose. The problem really comes from the fact that morals didn't arise in logic. They are something that evolved with us, they are the grease that keeps small societies functioning well, groups and tribes operating harmoniously. If individuals in the group feel it is wrong to harm others in the group, whether or not they're related, then the group can function better: the whole can be more than the sum of the parts, and this helps that group get ahead. So it is a strong and debatable choice when you redefine morality based on logic alone.

Does that form of morality also have a fancy name?

Yep, it's called deontological ethics. There's a quiz at the end. There's nothing wrong with applying logic to morality, but consequentialism is an extreme removal from the origins of morality, from what individuals actually feel. You see that in the protests in some countries against arms exports. Consequentialists dismiss such protests as ignorant because they're based on feelings and not logic. While that's true, it doesn't mean the protesters are wrong. What's important here is that by selling arms (or fossil fuels) I have some responsibility for the consequences. Not full responsibility, but some.

So maybe half each?

No. Morality doesn't add up like that. This is called overdetermination, which is a fancy way of saying that multiple parties have responsibility for the same thing, and that there's no single, obvious way to divide up that responsibility. This runs counter to the general requirements of international responsibility accounting, and makes management hard: if multiple parties have responsibility, then who should do something about it? This is why some might wrongly assume I'm advocating dumping polluter responsibility and replacing it entirely with exporter responsibility. Interestingly, if unsurprisingly, the problem of overdetermination has been discussed in international law for many years.

OK, I think I follow, some. What about the second counterargument?

The second counterargument is that it's not my fault if I didn't pull the trigger. Notice that this is effectively the direct opposite of the first argument: It implies that consequentialism has no place in morality, that the only immoral act is that which directly causes harm. Beware anyone who tries to use both of these arguments simultaneously!

I see. But then it sounds like you've argued for this point?

No. Morality is not black and white like that. We shouldn't be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Consequentialism must not be used as the only perspective on morality, but it is nevertheless valid as a component. It is still important what the consequences of my actions are, whether I pull the trigger or someone else does. This second counter-argument denies consequentialism entirely. Arguing either for one or the other reminds me of the Socratic method, where you can be led by logical argument into agreeing strongly with one perspective, and then led by a different logical argument into agreeing with the polar opposite. This points to problems in the logic. For more practical thought experiments, I recommend reading about trolleyology, or watching Michael Sandel's lecture on the topic.

OK, so what about the third counter-argument? The equivalence of climate change with genocide?

The science tells us that climate change will most likely lead to a very significant increase in mortality around the world, much more than we've had from genocides (and moreover, not just humans). But the equivalency point is that the actions of a single genocidal army general lead to large numbers of deaths, while the marginal effect of your own car's emissions will certainly not in themselves lead to anyone's death. So that comparison is a fairly natural response, but I'm not comparing the actions of individuals. And then you might come back and say that all of Norway's exports still are tiny and can't compare to the genocidal general. I might at that point suggest we look at the numbers, but the greater point is that we must avoid the temptation of subdividing until there is no effect. If you looked at the neighbourhood level in China, you might find none that have any contribution to global climate change worth bothering about, but everyone would agree that China's contribution as a whole is important. Each neighbourhood in China has some responsibility, whether or not its emissions are important on the global level, and the same applies everywhere else in the world, including Norway.

But what about the idea that genocide is straight out bad, while fossil fuels have lots of benefits?

First, the general thinks that genocide is pretty handy. While that is crudely flippant, there's still a point: different people weigh the pros and cons of fossil fuels differently. Second, and more importantly, yes, obviously we have benefited and continue to benefit significantly from the use of fossil fuels, so there is clearly good associated with them, but one cannot argue that there is no bad simply because there is some good. Again with the black and white thinking!


No worries. My main point here is to argue that we shouldn't deny that fossil-fuel exporters have moral responsibility. They do. That doesn't automatically mean they should all stop exporting. But it does mean they should (in a strongly normative sense) do something in response to and in recognition of that responsibility. Yes, we should focus on our own direct responsibilities first and foremost, but we should not deny our indirect responsibilities, whether it be exporting fossil fuels or buying goods whose production led to emissions somewhere else.

OK, gosh, lots to chew over there, but thank you for your time.

You're welcome. Sorry if I got a bit testy at times.

Postscript 22 June 2018

Ten Norwegian economics and sustainability experts have just released a report saying that global emissions would decline if Norway were to reduce oil production, and that this would be one of the cheapest options for Norway to reduce global emissions.

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