Dec 212009

FAIL Blog recently posted this remarkably honest card from The Green Game (via Kevin Delaney):

In case you can’t read that easily, it says:

Question: Which is greener; being obese and out of shape or slim and healthy?

Answer: Although obese people do consume slightly more energy than slim people, they will not live as long and therefore, will consume less of the earth’s resources.

Most people would likely think that’s some kind of horrible mistake: “Surely, they can’t mean that!” Yet in fact, the card perfectly represents the ideological core of the environmentalist movement, often referred to as “deep ecology.”

As I’ve argued before, most self-described environmentalists are motivated by fundamentally human concerns: they want clean air and clean water; they want “open space” for hiking, camping, and other sports; they want to preserve species for future study and enjoyment. Such people often wrongly suppose that government controls are required to achieve these ends. They are often mistaken about the benefits and dangers of certain products or practices. They err in thinking in terms of intrinsic value of nature. Yet fundamentally, their aims are anthropocentric: they wish to protect and improve human life.

Undoubtedly, the creators of that game are environmentalists of a different sort: they are “deep ecologists.” Here’s the description of deep ecology from Wikipedia (with my emphasis added):

Deep ecology’s core principle is the claim that, like humanity, the living environment as a whole has the same right to live and flourish. Deep ecology describes itself as “deep” because it persists in asking deeper questions concerning “why” and “how” and thus is concerned with the fundamental philosophical questions about the impacts of human life as one part of the ecosphere, rather than with a narrow view of ecology as a branch of biological science, and aims to avoid merely anthropocentric environmentalism, which is concerned with conservation of the environment only for exploitation by and for humans purposes, which excludes the fundamental philosophy of deep ecology. Deep ecology seeks a more holistic view of the world we live in and seeks to apply to life the understanding that separate parts of the ecosystem (including humans) function as a whole.

Notice that, in addition to its metaphysical collectivism, deep ecology specifically rejects anthropocentrism, i.e. man-centered environmentalism. Ultimately, that’s why it promotes human suffering and death as a positive good. To understand the why and the how, we need to draw some parallels to altruism — particularly to utilitarianism and impartialism.

The moral perspective of deep ecology is similar to that of utilitarianism — or, more broadly, impartialism. Utilitarianism demands that we always act so as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Utilitarianism is hedonistic: happiness is understood to be nothing more than pleasure, whether physical or emotional. Today, the widely-accepted variant of utilitarianism is the non-hedonistic doctrine of impartialism.

Impartialism abstracts away from the hedonism of utilitarianism: it is neutral about the nature of the good. Impartialism speaks in terms of “interests,” yet that can mean just about anything: pleasure, wealth, happiness, health — or even obedience to duty or submission to God’s will. However, impartialism is still decidedly collectivistic: the good is neutral between persons. So whatever the standard for the good is, we must promote that good for everyone, not merely ourselves. We must be impartial in our decisions: we ought not concern ourselves with whether something is good for me or my loved ones — or good for a stranger and his loved ones. All that matters is that something is good. (Kant’s ethics of duty shares the same detached view of the good: that’s why I think of impartialism as the distilled essence of both utilitarianism and deontology.)

Technically, impartialism permits each person to consider his own interests when acting. Yet the desires, goals, and welfare of one person must always be deemed inconsequential in comparison to the interests of the other billions of people in the world.

For example, you might think that your choice to buy a latte is your own private business, perhaps just concerning you and the owner of the coffee shop. You aren’t harming anyone by buying the coffee. In fact, you and the coffee shop owner are better off after the transaction. Sounds good, right? No! That’s far too narrow a perspective for impartialism: you must consider the impact of that transaction on everyone else, including the billions of total strangers in the world. Impartialism demands that you consider everything else that you might have done with those few dollars. Clearly, you could be feeding the poor, rather than indulging your desire for luxury. You have no moral right to a cup of coffee while someone in the world lacks bread. (For that argument, see Peter Singer’s classic essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality.)

The fact that the needs of the one are always swamped by the needs of the many is why impartialism is properly regarded as a form of altruism. In practice, you must always do for others, never for yourself. Unless you are the worst-off person in the world, you have no moral right to your own life or happiness.

That sounds awful, but it gets even worse.

(I’ll speak of altruism from here on, as the rest of my analysis is not specific to impartialism.)

Impartialism and other forms of altruism cannot rejoice in the fact that people’s interests are often in harmony. That only creates epistemic problems when attempting to judge people morally. How so?

Sometimes, a person might act for the sake of his own interests, yet by so doing, he happens to benefit others. In such cases, the person deserves no moral praise or credit — even when the benefits provided to others are tremendous, like when neurosurgeon saves the live of a beloved child. Such a person is motivated by his own selfish concerns — perhaps by the expected payment for the surgery or even his enjoyment of the work — not purely by selfless concern for others.

Thus, when a person benefits from his actions in some way, we must wonder about his motives. He might be a secret egoist! As Kant observes in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, even the person himself might be deluded, thinking that he was motivated by duty when instead he was motivated by self-love. The result? A person can only be safely praised by altruistic standards when he receives no benefit whatsoever from his actions — and better yet, when he suffers deeply for them. Only in such cases — when the person clearly and deliberately inflicts harm on himself for the benefit of others — can he be judged moral by altruistic standards.

Moreover, the person praiseworthy by altruistic standards need not really benefit other people much, if at all. A person’s noble plans might go awry for all kinds of reasons beyond his control. Or perhaps a person lacks the resources or power to accomplish much. The critical question is whether the person decided on his course of action using the proper impartial or altruistic principle — or “maxim,” to use Kant’s term. That’s all that this morality demands.

So what does that mean? Altruism demands that people help others, yet shrinks from measuring moral worth by that standard. Instead, a person’s moral worth is determined by his private motives or maxims: he must act for the sake of others, not for his own sake. He clearly demonstrates that only by his choice to suffer for others. Thus, self-inflicted suffering is the measure of a person’s moral worth according to altruism.

Sadly, that’s not some far-fetched, stretched interpretation of the meaning of altruism. It’s exactly what the most consistent altruists have preached as the good throughout history — Kant most explicitly.

Recall that the highest moral ideal of Christianity is that of Jesus, a god who willingly allowed himself to be brutally murdered for the sake of sinners. Jesus didn’t die in a fight against injustice — as might the leader of a slave rebellion. He didn’t die in defense of anything of personal value to him — like a friend, lover, or child. He died for the sake of all humanity, wicked and sinful as we are. He died for the sake of the very people who rejected him.

Moreover, that mythology of Jesus’ death was based on the same altruistic principles he preached during his life, most clearly exemplified by the story of the Widow’s Mite.

[Jesus] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Notice that the widow is not morally superior to those who donated large sums because she provided a greater benefit to the poor. She didn’t. Instead, she’s morally superior because she sacrificed more. She will suffer greatly for her donation, as now she has nothing to live on. That’s what makes her virtuous: her deliberate suffering.

So what does all of that have to do with deep ecology? What does it have to do with the suggestion that we die sooner for the sake of the environment?

Deep ecology is deep impartialism: the interests of everything in the natural world must be considered on a par with human interests. After all, why should mankind be so selfish as to only consider its own interests? Shouldn’t we consider the interests of cows, moles, robins, turtles, worms, maples, lichen, and amoebas too? And more: even rivers and rocks have interests that we ought to consider, as well as the planet as a whole! For deep ecology, any form of anthropocentrism — including traditional utilitarianism — is really just another form of selfish egoism.

In practice, just as the interests of one person are totally swamped by the interests of billions of other people in human-focused impartialism, so human interests are totally swamped by the interests of living organisms, ecosystems, and natural objects in deep ecology. Consequently, humans will always be obliged to sacrifice themselves for nature. Just by sheer numbers, we’re always going to lose.

As with altruism, the test of moral virtue for deep ecology is not any benefit done to the natural world but rather the depth of human sacrifices. Otherwise, we might just be pretending concern for nature, while actually secretly pursuing our own selfish ends. We can only prove our morality by eschewing anything that might benefit ourselves. That’s why the morality of deep ecology demands human destruction.

These various moral theories — utilitarianism, impartialism, altruism, and deep ecology — are similar for a reason. The morality of egoism is the morality of life and happiness. To reject egoism as immoral requires adopting suffering and death as the moral standard — whether for a single individual or all of humanity. The form of that ideal differs, as does its window dressing. Yet if you dig a bit, you’ll find suffering and death at its core.

Sometimes, as with the card from “The Green Game,” that’s just a bit more apparent than usual.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha