It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Withdraws from Funded Work due to Climate Ethics

Convenient ethics is no ethics. UT astronomy Professor John Lacy chooses the viability of the planet over funded astronomy, choosing a less convenient path in service of the greater good.

I think he's right in this particular case, but it's easy to make such decisions for others.

Should this show go on?

Generally, when should we make omelettes and when should we refrain from breaking any eggs? That is, how should we judge the importance of activities that have other benefits against environmental impacts? Absolutism won't work; a prescription for misery won't get much traction in practice.

Still, it's worth appreciating that there are still people who put the general interest above their own personal advancement. On a related note, check this out:
The question, in effect, is What are we to make of evidence suggesting that material self-interest is a powerful force in people's lives? The thesis of the article is that this evidence is inherently ambiguous because the ideology of self- interest, widely celebrated in individualistic cultures, functions as a powerful self-fulfilling force. The assumption of self-interest contributes to its own confirmation in at least two ways. First, individualistic cultures structure their social institutions to reflect their belief that people are naturally disposed to pursue their self-interest, which results in these institutions fostering the very behavior their structure presupposes occurs naturally ( Lerner, 1982 ; Schwartz, 1997 ). Second, as argued here, individualistic cultures spawn social norms that induce people to follow their material self-interest rather than their principles or passions, whether the latter be noble or ignoble. Stated more boldly, people act and sound as though they are strongly motivated by their material self-interest because scientific theories and collective representations derived from those theories convince them that it is natural and normal to do so. As Kagan (1989 ) observed, "People treat self-interest as a natural law and because they believe they should not violate a natural law, they try to obey it".

Evidence that material self-interest is powerful, therefore, may speak more to the power of social norms than to the power of innate proclivities. Interpreting the presence of self-interested behavior to suggest that self-interest is inevitable and universal rather than historically and culturally contingent only serves to strengthen the layperson's belief that pursuing self-interest is normatively appropriate, rational, and enlightened. The result of this is a positive feedback loop: The more powerful the norm of self- interest, the more evidence there is for the theory of self- interest, which, in turn, increases the power of the self-interest norm ( Schwartz, 1997 ). None of this is to say that self-interest, even narrowly defined, is an insubstantial force in human affairs. But, however strong the disposition to pursue material self- interest may be, it is likely not as strong as the prevalence of self-interested behavior in everyday life suggests. Homo economicus, it should not be forgotten, inhabits a social world.
This is why it appears bizarre and even rude for me to call into question, in the title of my blog, that I might be operating from some other values in addition to pure self interest. It seems that altruism is something best performed privately and in secrecy. It's simply been out of fashion of late.



EliRabett said...

Eli thinks it is even more complicated because what Lacy has done goes beyond simple abnegation into putting down a very public marker which will reach many more people than his sinmply withdrawing.

Michael Tobis said...

True enough, I suppose, provided the rest of us bang the drum a little bit about it here and there.

Teb said...

I applaud Dr. Lacy for standing up for what he believes.

eco101 said...

That's a beautiful thing that Lacy's done, and I agree with Eli - it's a great symbol.

I don't have any major opposition to the project itself - there are millions more wasteful uses of fossil fuels (short haul flights, and jet holidays, etc) that definitely should be cut before scientific projects should. Even so, every project (scientific or otherwise) should be assessed on it's merits, costs and impacts.