So a little while ago I had an interesting thought which I had to cut short because it was late and I needed to sleep. The idea was that perhaps dispossession is an emergent problem. I haven't posted yet on the idea of an emergent problem, and so I figure this would be as good a time as any.
The inspiration for this idea came from page 13 of an article by George Reisman in which he said, "If global warming or ozone depletion or whatever really are consequences of the actions of the human race considered collectively, but not of the actions of any given individual, including any given individual private business firm, then the proper way to regard them is as the equivalent of acts of nature. Not being caused by the actions of individual human beings, they are equivalent to actions not morally caused by human beings at all, that is to say, to acts of nature."
When I read this, my first reaction was that Reisman's conclusion was just about as wrong as a conclusion could possibly be. But why is he wrong? I'm going to use the terminology of global warming to discuss what Reisman says, but the same basic ideas should apply to other problems substantially similar to it in the way Reisman is describing.
Reisman's core claim is that climate change is not caused by the actions of individual human beings, but only by the actions of human beings in general. What he means is a little clearer in light of something he says on page 12: "...I, as one individual, am utterly incapable of causing any of the effects alleged; and the same, of course, is true, mutatis mutandis, for each and every other individual." Reisman seems to be relying on the idea of a counterfactual: If I couldn't have prevented climate change by not acting, then I cannot be held responsible for causing it. Given Reisman's later focus on business firms, it seems like he would want to refine that counterfactual to say: If one individual, or a group of individuals composing a coherent analog to a single agent, could not have prevented climate change by not acting, then no one can be held responsible for causing it.
I discussed this articule in an e-mail conversation with Dr. Walter Block of Loyola University, New Orleans, where he made an analogy to the "death of a thousand cuts." For those who aren't aware, the death of a thousand cuts tells the story of a person who is attacked by a thousand different people, each cutting the victim with a small knife. As a result of the cuts, the victim bleeds to death. Critically, no single cut would have been capable of killing the man, and the man would not have been saved if any of the cuts had been prevented. The example is supposed to show that even though no individual caused or could have prevented the murder of the victim, it would be ludicrous to say that "no one" had murdered the victim. Clearly, the attackers all contributed to the murder, and therefore were all somehow responsible for it.
At first glance, this does seem to be a good analogy for climate change. But Reisman could coherently accuse us of smuggling in an idea which begs the question. In the death by a thousand cuts example, the victim's death occurs as a result of knife attacks. And there is no question that knife attacks represent violations of the victim's rights. But individual CO2 emissions do not harm anyone. In the quantities emitted by individual actors, CO2 is not toxic or bothersome in any way. Therefore, Reisman could lean on Nozick's claim that any move from a just state which involves only just steps is itself just. If individual emissions of CO2 violate no rights, then climate change would seem to represent the outcome of just steps. And so, as Reisman contends, we would have to say that it is just.
But again, I am skeptical. Reisman's view seems to simply declare out of existence the very notion that climate change could be objectionable. The only proof he gives is an assertion that the "proper" way to think about climate change is as an act of nature. However, climate change is, I think, clearly not an act of nature. It's the result of intentional human actions. And if it produces objectionable consequences, then I think that the people who contributed to those consequences should bear the burden of the blame.
I propose to call scenarios like this "Emergent Problems." I've taken the name from Nozick's claim on page 90 (and elsewhere) in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that "...no new rights "emerge" at the group level...individuals in combination cannot create new rights which are not the sum of preexisting ones." I don't wish to discuss this claim of Nozick's; I just want to point out why I use the word "Emergent": it implies that new problems are created which are not simply the sum of the individual actions which bring them about. The death of a thousand cuts does seem like it's an emergent problem (though each of the actions which cause it is also unjust on its own), while climate change also seems like it's an emergent problem (each of its contributing actions is perfectly acceptable on its own).
If we accept that Emergent Problems exist, then Reisman is in trouble. His assertion that climate change should be thought of as being morally uncaused by human beings seems obviously questionable, and in my opinion clearly false. What does this mean for Nozick's claim that whatever arises from a just state, through just steps, is itself just? I don't want to get ahead of myself, but...