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Babies and trees: the moral responsibility to counter-factuals

16 June 2013

In a previous post I raised the issue of what I termed ‘the argument from moral responsibility to counter-factual persons,’ which I called a species of the broader ‘fallacy of responsibility to counter-factuals.’ I also conceded that my objections to this argument can be (indeed, have been) raised as objections to my own environmentalism but as the post in question was about contraception I chose not to delve into that seeming problem in my argument. Here I would like to specifically address this putative problem and hopefully demonstrate that it is not a problem at all.

You may recall that I promised in my nota benae that uncertainty would feature prominently. Well, being as concise as I can, the fundamental relevant difference to this line of argument between contraception and environmentalism is that the children in question are uncertain whether one employs contraception or not. I referred to this distinction in my post on contraception but did not make it’s implications for this question explicit. We cannot be morally responsible to a counter-factual agent whose uncertainty we cannot fundamentally change. Nothing we do will guarantee the coming into being of the counter-factual child and nothing we do will be certain to prevent it. The fundamental contingency of the child, as a result of a potentially conceptive sex act, of course, is beyond our power to affect with contraception.

The relevant distinction is that the concerns of environmentalists relate to counter-factuals whose truth is certain. Not certain in the absolute sense but pragmatically (and I do mean this in the sense of philosophical pragmatism). The methods of the systems and sub-systems of knowledge upon which environmental concerns (and for the moment I am addressing the concerns rather than the responses) are based have been proven more or less effective and therefore to be trusted (within the limits of critical reasoning, of course, no system of knowledge should ever be trusted absolutely). The sciences of ecosystem ecology and climatology (among other relevant fields, certainly) have more or less proven their usefulness and their ability to understand and predict (within a reasonable margin of error) the world’s natural systems. We can, practically speaking, be certain that major environmental changes which stand to harm not only us but the majority of varieties of life on this planet are underway and will only get worse. We can be equally certain that we are to blame for these changes.

The first order assumption of environmentalism, conservationism, and green politics generally, is certain: human-centric climate change is real and its dire effects are not only predictable but observable. From this certainty follows a variety of responses, all built on ground generally less solid than that which supports our understanding of the problem itself. All of these proceed from a justifiably posited moral obligation, however: we are the cause of human-centric climate change (I don’t mean to create a tautology here, just to distinguish between the climate change we cause and that which is a result of, say, the carbon cycle) and we must attempt to undo what damage we have done (if that is possible) and minimise further damage (which is certainly possible). The pros and cons of various green policies and environmentally-conscious activities is not the question at the moment, however. What is relevant is that the moral obligation from which these policies and activities proceed is a legitimate one, whereas a moral responsibility to counter-factual children which might make contraception morally untenable is not. Because of their unalterably uncertainty, those counter-factual children are not even a moral consideration. Because of it’s undeniable contingency upon our actions, the future habitability of the planet certainly is.

Certainly my demonstration rests upon arguable grounds. One might choose to reject my pragmatic model of truth and/or the reliability of scientific knowledge itself. The former possibility is certainly valid and I invite responses along those lines. Given that you are reading my opinions on a computer over the internet, I think the latter a less tenable perspective. One might also choose simply to disregard the scientific consensus on human-centric climate change (we might call this the ‘fallacy of wilful and self-serving blindness’) but, to be honest, I don’t feel the need to respond to that particular standpoint. That being said, I think I have adequately demonstrated why my objection to anti-contraception arguments that rely on an argument from moral responsibility to counter-factual children is not a problem relevant to my commitment to a moral responsibility to environmentalism.

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