Monday, January 7, 2008

Emergent Problems

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 " 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...


Kevin K. Biomech said...

I have not read the article you criticize in regards to the environment and the moral question of whether anyone can be held responsible for it. So I'm basing this solely on the arguments presented in your argument, and I think that you have reached an erroneous conclusion in regards to the moral agency of human caused climate change.

I also think that acknowledging this error would go a long way towards ameliorating, proving, or disproving the actual problem. I am unconvinced that humans have contributed significantly to either global warming or cooling. Human actions have certainly affected it, to some degree, as do all living and a number of nonliving things. But I digress. My objection to your conclusion is philosophical, and contains within it the seeds of a novel approach in resovling the issue, or at least improving the dialog.

Mr. Reisman states that because no single human actor is responsible for global climate change, that it is essentially an act of nature and not a MORAL issue.

I agree. This does not in any way state that the issue is unimportant. Rather, it states that the problem is outside of moral bounds, and therefore subject to general inquiry.

To illustrate, current physical theory holds that the speed of light is a constant in the normal universe. Some dispute this, myself among them, for reasons that are not important to this discussion. The question is actually very important, as it has the potential to significantly alter our understanding of the physical universe, which has very large implications to the possible actions and possibilities that humans might explore.

But as important as the question is, even given that if C is found to NOT be the universal constant that it will change some of the things that are the very underpinning of our technology and have an effect on every human being that is or will be, it is NOT a moral issue. It's a technical problem.

The same is true of climate change. The simple truth to a complex problem is that we don't know. Complexity/chaos theory came out of attempts to predict the weather. We DO NOT fully understand any of the mechanisms that determine both local and global climate. Given this, the whole of the problem, whatever stance you take, is lack of proper understanding.

Viewed in this context, it has no moral dimension, but remains terribly important. Without the moral dimension, there is no call for the finger pointing, posturing, ballyhooing, misleading and false information presented as fact (both sides do it), and generally pointless feuding that currently characterizes the debate. It becomes a research and engineering discussion. When given a problem to solve, with no moral dimension to it, humans have historically performed very well. When it becomes some sort of moral imperative, it generally becomes dogmatic and counterproductive.

Yet many of the people on all sides of this issue, perhaps even the majority, DO think it's a problem that needsd solving. It is in the general best interests of every human to make sure we don't destroy or severely impair our biosphere. It's not a moral issue, but it IS a survival issue. That's what we need to focus on, because unless we accept that individuals are NOT important, and that everyone can be compelled to act in a specific way even in the absence of belief, then no individual or even group of individuals is in a position morally or physically to affect the outcome. But given time and research, it has long been the contention of the scientific mind that there is no such thing as "beyond understanding", but rather, "not understood yet.
We can solve the riddle. In the absence of the hype, sober men with the interest and education to do so, will probably in time figure out everything there is to know about weather. We likely don't even have to go that far to figure out if and to what extent we are having a significant impact on the climate, and what courses of action might ameliorate it.

Short form: It's not a moral problem, it's an engineering problem.

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree that uncertainty is very significant in discussing climate change, especially given the chaotic nature of the climate system and our lack of a complete understanding of how it works. But Reisman's argument is not based on scientific understanding or uncertainty; it would apply even if we had perfect knowledge of climate change. It seems that you agree with his argument and reject mine, but as far as I can tell, you didn't actually provide a reason why.

So let me try to restate my case here. You are correct to say that Reisman's view is that climate change is akin to an act of nature because no single actor could cause or prevent climate change. My argument is that climate change will impose costs on some individuals who did not contribute to causing it, and those costs should be paid by the people who did cause it. This goes down to the Responsibility Principle and the right not to be harmed. So I think it is a moral issue.

For more on this, you might be interested in another one of my posts:

(I see that you've commented to a number of my other posts, and I want to respond to all of them, but it might be a few days since I'm graduating this weekend and my family is in town. Thanks for all your interest!)

doduff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
doduff said...

It actually is a moral problem. The question is: "what is the proper and acceptable action to take with regard to climate change?". If humans are not responsible for any aspect of climate change, then to facilitate the survival of the species, proper change in human behavior necessary to mitigate said climate change may involve some new technology. If humans are responsible for causing climate change(assuming this change is harmful), then it is a question of proper action to right this human caused wrong(it is wrong because it is detrimental to the species). So regardless of what actually causes climate change. If the climate change is harmful to humans, it is a moral problem to address the issue. Of course, the basis of this argument is that proper action(moral action) is that which is positive in it's self serving aspect (promoting species survival), and immoral action is that which is detrimental e.g. doing nothing when we are capable of beneficial action.

I can see how restating it as not being a question of morality may be beneficial to getting it solved, but the fact remains that it is a question of what the proper code of conduct in the matter is. Which by nature, is a question of morality(or ethics).

Unrestrained consumption of alcohol is detrimental to one's health. Is it not a moral question as to whether or not one should consumed alcohol in an unrestrained manner? Self destruction is indeed immoral, at least on the self-preserving biological level. One might argue that it is beneficial to get rid of individuals who are detrimental to the species as a whole, as self-harming individuals may very well be. But again, it is a question of what the right course of action is, which is pretty much the definition of morality.

Is it right to do nothing to prevent catastrophic climate change, if we are indeed capable of doing so? Hm... that sure does sound like a question of morality.

Danny said...

Hi doduff; thanks for stopping by! Since I wrote this post, I did a lot more work on climate change-related issues; I'm actually having a paper published on the subject relatively soon. If you're interested in reading some of my slightly more mature ruminations on the issue, shoot me an e-mail at dcshahar at gmail dot com.

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