Morality aside

by Greg Davies’15

During the most recent Democratic presidential debate, Senator Bernie Sanders described anthropogenic climate change as a moral issue. A variety of religious leaders and groups, notably Pope Francis with his environmental encyclical, have described both protection of the earth itself and the consequent protection of people as moral obligations. Whenever a leader, whether religious or secular, references the moral implications of climate change, some voices immediately protest casting environmental protection in terms of moral obligations. They articulate their reasons differently: some say that speaking in moral terms becomes an attack on those who feel otherwise; some say morals are relative or even imaginary; some say we need to stick to practical arguments and justifications. All of the arguments ultimately come back to the idea that morality should be kept intangible, either in church or in the classroom, but problems like global climate change require “real” solutions.

Too often, especially in scientific circles, we earnestly go looking for what is “real” and discard anything that does not fit our definition. The range of ideas labeled as unreal varies from person to person. For some, nothing but the purest hard science is real; the moment any hint of values or bias becomes inevitable, it is not real. The so-called hard sciences fit neatly into such a definition of the real, as do mathematics. The softer sciences, like psychology, are not empirically absolute, and so are not real. Others hold that psychology is an extension of the hard sciences, and at least has the potential to be an unbiased true science.

Even the most accommodating individuals, however, have a tendency to balk at the transition from science to the broadly defined humanities. The humanities, especially for people of scientific minds, often cannot have a place in the discussion of “real” issues. Because the humanities deal with opinion and belief, they are not scientific. Thus, a scientific problem like anthropogenic climate change requires a scientific solution, drawing on empirical facts instead of vague opinions or unverifiable beliefs.

Avoiding opinions has legitimate rationale. Especially with an issue like climate change, opinions can significantly hinder efforts to educate the public and work towards solutions. Opinions mistaken for facts lead to embarrassing misunderstandings. We cannot ever hope to have a universal consensus of beliefs and opinions; therefore, we tend to forgo considering morality in favor of whatever we can agree is purely empirical. In order to justify a complete disregard for the relative, we jump to the argument that beliefs, though sometimes interesting, have no place in discussions of real issues. However, misuse of opinions and beliefs does not justify rejecting them outright.

Even people who do not object to discussions of morality, at least as an intellectual exercise, often resist allowing relative beliefs into scientific issues like climate change. Beyond the damage caused by opinions treated as facts, they point out that morality is not a universal appeal: some people consider environmental protection a moral imperative, while others do not. Working in a realm of consensus building and policy compromises, introducing arguments that reach only certain people wastes valuable time and resources. Unprovable morality becomes a distraction when mixed into the provable scientific arguments behind anthropogenic climate change. One must use real arguments to address real issues, and leave morality for free time.

We lose a critical opportunity for engagement when we insist that only certain ways of thinking are real enough to address climate change. Scientific inquiry teaches us how human activities change the climate, as well as how we might slow or reverse those changes. Science alone, however, cannot tell us why we should address climate change. Ultimately, we do not worry about increasing terrestrial heat because we dislike heat; we worry instead about the consequences of a warming planet. Climate change means many things, from unstable food supplies to rising sea levels to loss of biodiversity, all of which negatively affect our fellow creatures, human and otherwise. Morality tells us to act, science tells us how.