Catastrophe ethics How to choose well in a world of tough choices

Travis N. Rieder

Book - 2024

"A warm, personal guide to building a strong ethical and moral compass in the midst of today's confusing, scary, global problems. The moral challenges of today are unfamiliar in the history of philosophy. Climate change is the paradigm example of what Travis Rieder calls "The Puzzle" in the way your choices can seem at odds with what the planet urgently needs. How do we decide the right thing to do in the face of a massive collective challenge? Should you drink water from a plastic bottle or not? Drive a Tesla? Or is that just what Elon and all the other corporations want you to think? What makes individual ethics difficult to think about in the case of catastrophic climate change makes ethics difficult to think about in... many other contexts as well. The Puzzle, as he explains, is everywhere now. The chapters include a lively, meaningful tour of traditional moral reasoning looking at the contributions of Plato, Hegel, and Kant among others. But they could not grasp The Puzzle we now face. Old fashioned exercises like trolley problems involving sacrificing one person on this track for a bunch of people on the other don't address the huge consequential and complex crises our global community faces today. The tools most of us unthinkingly rely on when we try to do the right thing don't help when it comes to reasoning about individual responsibility for large collective problems. Expanding our suite of ethical concepts is now urgently required. Rieder defines exactly how to change our thinking, addressing mundane issues like bottled water to the biggies like whether to have children. This is a way to live a morally decent life in the scary, always complicated world we and our children live in. It's how to build your own Catastrophe Ethics"--

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Self-help publications
[New York] : Dutton [2024]
Main Author
Travis N. Rieder (author)
Physical Description
321 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 277-310) and index.
  • It's Hard to Be Good. And It's Getting Harder.
  • Part I. The Puzzle
  • Chapter 1. The Climate Case
  • Chapter 2. I Don't Make a Difference
  • Chapter 3. The Puzzle Is Everywhere
  • Part II. Ethics Starter Kit
  • Chapter 4. How We Try (and Often Fail) to Justify Our Actions
  • Chapter 5. Trap #1: The Right Action Is the One Commanded by God
  • Chapter 6. Trap #2: The Right Action Is Relative
  • Chapter 7. Moral Theory as Methodology?
  • Chapter 8. Trap #3: The Right Action Is Spit Out by My Preferred Moral Theory
  • Part III. Solving the Puzzle
  • Chapter 9. Trying to Solve the Puzzle with Old Tools
  • Chapter 10. The Wonderful Variety of Ethical Concepts
  • Chapter 11. (Dis)Solving the Puzzle with New Tools
  • Part IV. Catastrophe Ethics
  • Chapter 12. Everyday Ethics: Rules for the Twenty-First Century
  • Chapter 13. Monumental Ethics: The Case of Having Kids
  • Chapter 14. Being a Moral Participant
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

This consideration of making moral decisions in our current reality of catastrophic climate change starts out promisingly, with Rieder establishing himself as a regular guy who lives in the suburbs and agonizes over environmentally conscious decisions like what kind of milk to buy. As he explores the multiple puzzle pieces that need to be included in any serious consideration of contemporary ethical behavior, though, his narrative descends into despair ("Our actions will determine the amount of suffering for years to come"). He argues that conventional determinants (religious ethics, moral codes) will be insufficient, citing everyone from Socrates to the Big Lebowski. His narrative presumably runs like the lectures he delivers to his undergraduate bioethics students: relatable anecdotes followed by challenging, open-ended questions and academic theoretical musings. Rieder does not offer any concrete solutions but does encourage new ways of thinking and determining priorities in matters small (eating meat vs. not) and large (procreating vs. adopting). He concludes that individuals must determine personally gratifying ways to mitigate climate change and thus create meaning in their own lives.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Rieder (In Pain), an associate research professor at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, investigates in this thought-provoking treatise how to live a "morally decent life" amid an accelerating climate crisis. Finding shortcomings with a variety of philosophical frameworks, including religion, nihilism, and Socratic reasoning, Rieder champions an "ethic of conscientiousness" that asks individuals to "live a better, more justifiable life" while giving them "latitude" in how they "participate in the global structures that benefit and harm." In the book's most stimulating section, Rieder applies that ethic to such moral quandaries as eating meat, driving gas-powered cars, and having children in a resource-starved world. (He lands somewhere in the middle on the latter question, acknowledging the ills of overpopulation while challenging "Schopenhauer-style" arguments that bringing a child into existence means inherently causing them harm.) Noting that today's "massive, structural problems" are unprecedented, Rieder wisely avoids settling on any one philosophical system, and instead models the value of "switch our moral cameras over into manual mode" to pick and choose elements from each. It's an excellent resource for the environmentally conscious weighing their life's choices. Agent: Jane Von Mehren, Aevitas Creative. (Mar.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

An informed, careful investigation of the connection between individual choices and large, complex problems. The problem of how to lead a good, unselfish life is timeless, and Rieder, an academic specializing in bioethics and author of In Pain: A Bioethicist's Personal Struggle With Opioids, argues that the question has become even more important in the era of climate change, resource depletion, and other world-changing issues. "What is each of us to do?" he asks as he examines various historical approaches. "How do we live a morally decent life when we can't even get our arms around the problems?" Rieder doesn't have much time for those who apparently hate to see anyone enjoying themselves, and even less for those who simply deny the challenges. Individual actions--such as reducing resource use and recycling--are important, but every action can generate new dilemmas. For example, does driving a Tesla mean supporting the exploitation of African cobalt miners? Must we calculate our environmental footprint on a daily basis? These kinds of inquiries can entirely consume one's energies and lead to a dismal, over-audited life. There is an obligation to do the right thing, but you don't have to be a miserable bully about it. In the closing sections, Rieder proposes some solutions. Do what you can with the resources and skills you have; push for major policy changes where possible; act rather than merely talk; and accept responsibilities small and large. In this multifaceted way, "we rescue our moral agency from the threat of nihilism" and "build a meaningful life." This approach might disappoint readers who wanted a rousing to-the-barricades ending, but upon reflection, it might be the best advice possible. With an open mind and a firm grasp of the issues, Rieder brings the question of living a decent life into the modern era. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 The Climate Case It is worse, much worse, than you think. -David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth I'd love to retire in Cyprus. It's as close to paradise as anywhere I've ever been, with long stretches of largely unspoiled beaches, warm Mediterranean water, mild winters, friendly people, and amazing food. My partner, Sadiye, is Turkish Cypriot (from the northern half of the island), and so we have a home there, full of people who love us. I love the Turkish language and the culture, and every time we go home, we wonder how long it will be until we can just stay there. Unfortunately, I don't think we'll retire in Cyprus. Not year-round, anyway. It'll just be too hot. Since it's an island sitting at the intersection of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Africa, you might expect it to be a warm climate. And that's how it used to be. But it's going from reasonably warm to unbearable in the summer months. Among the hundreds of Cypriots I've met since my first visit in 2003, I've never encountered climate denialism there. There's not much room for doubt when the older generations have seen the environment go from hospitable, though warm, to downright hostile for two to three months of the year. Indeed, my in-laws regularly tell me about how much change they've seen in their lifetimes. Even when Sadiye was growing up, families largely didn't invest in expensive air-conditioning units (which use very expensive energy). She and her brother grew up sweating at night during the summer because it was at least possible to get away with forgoing A/C units in the children's rooms. Not anymore. Every Cypriot home I go to now has A/C units in every bedroom, and most have the (prohibitively expensive) large units in their living space to get them through the worst of the summer months. By the time Sadiye and I intend to retire-somewhere around the midcentury mark-I don't think we'll want to be in Cyprus for a good chunk of the summer. Of course, many Cypriot people will still live on the island, but it will be getting more uncomfortable to do so (and they will likely have increased the already prevalent tendency to simply go on holiday in August to escape the heat). My family and friends already have modified work schedules during the heat of the summer, which encourage people to stay indoors and find air conditioning during the hottest part of the afternoon. Construction and other manual labor slows down or stops. Those without air conditioning or who can't afford to run it constantly struggle to stay not only comfortable but healthy. In fall 2021, it was announced that August of that year had been the hottest month ever recorded in Cyprus. High temperatures averaged 39.8 degrees Celsius (103.6 degrees Fahrenheit), with a single-day high temperature of 44.3 degrees Celsius (111.74 degrees Fahrenheit). To see how quickly things are changing, consider that the average high temperature in August from 1981 to 2010 was 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). And warming trends are only speeding up. Every Cypriot I have spoken to about climate change is deeply concerned about the future, as anyone my age or older has viscerally felt the dramatic change over their lifetimes. When I was growing up and first learned of climate change, the wisdom of the day was that it occurred on a time scale too slow to notice. That was part of the challenge, in fact, that we needed to address a threat that one couldn't actually see over the course of a lifetime. But we've now come to realize that's simply not true, and we're already seeing the changes. People like me who spend our lives thinking about this issue will tell you: we make very practical decisions based on the future that climate change is ushering in. Cypriot summer during my sunset years isn't the only time and place I'm avoiding. During the summer of 2020, it seemed like the entire West Coast of the United States was ablaze. Residents of California couldn't go outside due to air-quality warnings, and pictures of the San Francisco Bay Bridge were all over the internet, standing against a threatening, apocalyptic-looking orange sky. Fire season is spreading dramatically in California, both in duration and intensity. There is much that Sadiye and I love about the Bay Area: the weather; a strong biotech presence for her (she's an industry scientist); a thick network of universities for me. But my climate angst won't let us entertain the idea of moving there. Unsurprisingly, another restriction on our future plans is that we avoid moving too close to the ocean. Living on the East Coast, moving somewhere along the eastern shoreline of the United States seems almost attainable. But the increasing number and intensity of tropical storms, along with sea-level rise, has me acutely aware of the ever-increasing costs (both financial and anxiety-related) of those beautiful water views. Iconic beach destinations like the Outer Banks in North Carolina are slowly being lost to the Atlantic Ocean, with beachfront homes now regularly falling into the rising waters and the only highway into the area constantly requiring protective adaptation (and a section of it being converted into a bridge, for a price tag of $155 million). Miami-Dade County is perhaps in an even more dire circumstance, sitting on porous limestone on the low-lying southern tip of Florida. There, the phenomenon of "sunny-day flooding," which is flooding just from high tide, has become a standard nuisance, forcing the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in an attempt to prolong its life. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the same story is playing out in coastal communities around the world. But adaptation efforts like seawalls, beach nourishment, building houses on stilts, and converting roads to bridges are Band-Aids. Low-lying coastal areas will eventually be overtaken by rising waters while being ever more routinely battered by ferocious storms. If you're wondering whether it's a bummer to live with someone who spends their days thinking about climate change, Sadiye is probably too nice to say yes but too honest to say no. Of course, much of this caution is based on predictions. Yes, Cyprus is already hotter, and yes, Miami has a "King Tide" season. But my worry that it will continue to worsen to a degree that should make most of us want to stay away is based on projections. So couldn't I be wrong? After all, we're hearing all the time about climate summits, new policies and pledges made by various countries, and green technologies that are supposed to revolutionize our future. Perhaps, then, I'm just being pessimistic. Humanity is going to figure this out, right? After all, the Netherlands figured out how to protect itself against the sea. When we realized that our collective actions were causing a hole to appear in the ozone, we moved quickly to adopt policies and change behaviors in a way that solved the problem. Surely we'll eventually pull off something similar when it comes to climate change. Right? I want to tell you yes. I want to say that there's still hope that we will avoid the sort of future I fear. But while there's a technical sense in which we could, it's not realistic. Serious harms are already here, many more are coming, and we avoid talking about them at our peril. For hundreds of thousands of years, the atmosphere was relatively stable in an important respect: the proportion of greenhouse gases (GHGs) such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) remained within a certain range. That's important because these gases are very efficient at trapping heat, so when the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere goes up, less heat is able to escape from Earth out into space and so the global average temperature increases. The atmosphere is like a blanket that keeps the Earth warm (this is good up to a point, since without it, the planet would be an icy, lifeless rock), and we can add insulation to that blanket by emitting more heat-trapping gases into it. Although all GHGs contribute to climate change, CO2 gets the most attention, as it is the primary GHG emitted by humans; in the United States, it constituted 79 percent of all GHG emissions in 2020. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was around 280 parts per million (ppm), but the development of the world's postindustrial economies resulted in two changes in human behavior that had profound effects on the climate. First, it massively increased the amount of CO2 we spew into the air (primarily through the burning of fossil fuels). And second, it reduced the planet's resources for dealing with that excess by engaging in practices like clear-cutting forests, destroying peatlands for agricultural or other purposes, and generally going about stripping the natural world and replacing it with a built one. These forests and peatlands that we've eliminated make up some of the world's most important "carbon sinks," which is one of the ways in which carbon is removed from the atmosphere. So we've both filled the air with CO2 and limited the planet's ability to regulate atmospheric concentrations. The result is that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has been steadily climbing since the Industrial Revolution, with mean global temperatures right behind it. Although the science of climate change has been recognized for hundreds of years, the severity of the situation began to come to public attention in the late twentieth century, with the fundamental question being: How warm can we allow the planet to get before it causes serious, irreversible harm? And the important follow-up: How much CO2 can we release into the atmosphere and stay below whatever that threshold is? Although many took that first question to be a scientific one (involving predictions about the effects of warming on human populations), it's actually a moral one. We needed to know what the costs of warming were, and to whom, so that we could draw a line at some point and say that it would be wrong to let a certain amount of damage happen. The answer that evolved and began to gain consensus at the end of the twentieth century was that we must keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (global average). This number first appeared in a publication by Yale economist William Nordhaus in 1975, and slowly seeped into the scientific and political reasoning over the following two decades. In 1996, a limit of 2 degrees was cemented in policy aspirations by the European Council of Environment Ministers, which stated, "Global average temperatures should not exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial level." The answer to the second question took longer to answer. What must the human population do in order to prevent 2 degrees of warming? There is significant uncertainty here, but it looks like we can do that by keeping atmospheric CO2 below 450ppm. Using this number, scientists were able to calculate an all-time, anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon budget. That is to say, there is a certain amount of carbon that we can emit if we want to stay below that 450ppm threshold, thus avoiding 2 degrees of warming. That number? One trillion tons of carbon, or approximately 3.67 trillion tons of CO2. A trillion metric tons. The number 1 with twelve zeros after it. An unbelievably large amount of something unimaginably small. That's the budget humanity was given. Despite the sheer magnitude of that number, we were quickly approaching it. Already in 2009 when the budget was first proposed, it was calculated that humanity had used more than half of it, and global emissions were still speeding up. Worse was the fact that 2 degrees' warming was not a goal that we should want to hit. Scientists and politicians drew a line in the sand at 2 degrees warming, claiming that we should never cross that threshold; but that does not mean that it would be a good place to land. Two degrees' warming is not what we can allow without causing harm; it's what we can allow without causing massive harm at a magnitude that is essentially irreversible on a human time scale. As a result, some scientists and activists began claiming that we had answered the moral question incorrectly: 2 degrees' warming is too lax; we should have aimed to prevent warming from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius. No one thought that limiting warming to 2 degrees would prevent harm, so we should look at who would be harmed if the planet were allowed to warm 2 degrees. And the answer, unsurprisingly, was that the world's poorest and most marginalized would be hit first and worst, with the globally privileged citizens largely able to protect themselves from such warming. So 2 degrees might be manageable by the most economically developed nations (though, to be clear, it would not be without real costs); but it would be devastating to low-lying Pacific Island nations and coastal regions, as well as some of the hottest areas, like the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia and South America. As climate activists recalibrated their goals and began to bring more visibility to the risks of allowing 2 degrees of warming, the Paris Accords-which 196 nations adopted in December 2015-pledged to keep warming under 2 degrees while acknowledging that it would be better to keep warming under 1.5 degrees. If we want to make that new, more ambitious target, we must limit carbon not to 450ppm but 430ppm, which drastically cuts the time we have in which to respond. How close to that limit are we now? In 2022, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii recorded a CO2 concentration above 420ppm for the first time, and it's going up-fast. Over the last decade, the annual increase of CO2 concentration has been more than 2ppm, which means that we're on pace to hit 430ppm CO2 around the end of the decade, locking in 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. So why all the optimistic talk by politicians, at climate summits, and on the news? Does a treaty like the Paris Accords indicate that we still have a chance at avoiding dangerous global warming? Here's where the answer is technically yes, but not in a way that will make you feel any better. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, is the international body of the world's leading scientists which, every several years, puts out a new assessment report detailing the state of climate science, predictions about the future, and policy proposals that could change those predictions. In short, they tell us how bad things are and what we can do about it. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, the IPCC put out its Sixth Assessment Report, which continued the trend of the previous five reports getting more alarming with each edition. The science is getting more mature, our predictions are getting more accurate, and the picture presented by that science and those predictions is getting scarier. Excerpted from Catastrophe Ethics: How to Choose Well in a World of Tough Choices by Travis Rieder All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.