Ethics and impending disaster

In Musings

The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former.

Simone Weil1

In 1972 Christopher Stone, a legal scholar, put a stake in the ground supporting the idea that elements of the environment could be legally protected by a system of rights.2 Rivers and lakes, forests and prairies, are each provided with legal rights that allow for damages to be paid, or some other reparation, if they are threatened in some way.

Stone shows that rights become acceptable when there are enough people, judges and politicians who think they are acceptable. There are no absolute rights. Even a generic right to food may be overwritten or ignored if the general opinion says so. The conclusion, then, is that rights strong enough to address the current and future state of the globe need to come from people that recognise the problem. People who know that the globe is a system, and that we are only a part of it.

How many people need to think this way? Simone Weil knew well enough that a whole culture was needed, and that rights would not work if the obligations were not understood first. Hence her focus on being rooted. For her, this was easy. In her context of trying to recover France after the 2nd World War the obvious candidate was the pre-war state.

There are three concerns with rights or obligations that seem relevant here. The first is that they can be too specific. Protecting a river becomes problematical if climate change induced drought is drying it up. Stone argues that rights can be sufficiently open to allow for unforeseen circumstances, but even then he still asks for broader rights.

This reminds me of Donella Meadows' concept of leverage points.3 Fixing small bits of an institutional system only gets us so far. The best approach is a paradigm shift.

Next, it seems that rights need to be valued in some way. If something is damaged, and needs repair, how much would it cost to repair, and how does that relate to the value of that something. How we interpret these numbers, how they can be used to limit the actual work done, is partly down to Ronald Coase. His work on social cost covers a number of human-human interactions where money can be used to manage an outcome.4 This always struck me as wrong, in the sense that the work was entirely economics focused, ignoring what people actually thought and what they might have planned and hoped for before the situation arose. This gets worse when looking at the eco-system, because we simply don't know enough about our world. We have no idea how breaking one element of the system contributes to breaking other elements, or how long such an impact might take to become clear. What is more, it is sheer arrogance to think that how we value a forest, an ant, or an ocean has any meaning at all. We are not in charge.

So the last of the three is that rights and obligations, whether fixing bits or attempting a paradigm shift, raise the question "what's in it for me". People brought up with the idea that humans are in charge of everything will object to having this particular assumption tweaked. The position could be made more palatable if some reasonable alternatives can be presented, and one way of starting this process is to rephrase the question - "how do I best live while satisfying obligations".

And ... we're straight in to Aristotelian virtues. Alisdair MacIntyre comes into play here. He defines virtues as characteristics that an individual must have if they are to undertake some particular practice in a satisfactory way. They need to recognise that others came before, that there are other ideas, focused effort is required, nothing happens immediately, and so on. The gains from acting in this way are personal satisfaction coming from a job well done.5

This seems too much like self denial, but really it is more like self control. Aristotle takes the example of learning to play the flute. One needs determination to learn and practice, and patience to accept that fingers and brain take time to get things right. One also needs self awareness to recognise the progress so far, to be satisfied that the progress is good, and to be aware that there is still more to do. It is still possible to have a good laugh with friends.

Defining virtues in this way is a good basis, but it seems to create problems when we think about global collapse. Aristotle recognised awareness of civic duty as a virtue but this seems rather weak. There's a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on this and Willis Jenkins comes to the conclusion that we need some form of species level of virtue - something like respect for the resilient capacity of the earth.6 By building on that understanding, and internalising it, it becomes a characteristic. This can then form the basis for developing practices where people can cooperate to mitigate and adapt.

Jenkins' conclusion there sounds solid, but it leaves things hanging. He leaves it open as the function of "ethics" to take advantage of this virtue. Perhaps MacIntyre has a useful word here - the set of virtues, and their actual interpretation, is culture dependent. We are now back to the same problem that Stone had: how do we inculcate the awareness of the global system and the connectedness of the whole. And then, how do we proceed.

The choice of virtue as a starting point seems reasonable, if only because we know that cultures are made up of individuals, and virtues are a way for people to manage their approach to the good life (however that is defined). We also know that, within a culture, choices of what to do are influenced by that culture. It wouldn't be a culture otherwise. Equally, a single population might have many cultural threads running through it, different religions, different technical specialisations (blacksmiths, medical professionals, parents, musicians ...), class upbringing and so on. These threads each have a history and MacIntyre calls them traditions. Within each tradition there is conflict, or should be, between interpretations of meaning and goals. Any tradition that does not have such conflicts is decaying. Lively traditions can develop in directions that depend on the interpretations of the outside world through the various virtues.

Within an individual's life there may be conficts, places where two or more paths conflict, in the sense that it is possible to take either path and satisfy a general goal of a good life, while it is not possible to take both paths at once. This is often the source of tragedy in ancient Greek plays - loyalty to kinship clashes with loyalty to city. Not every conflict is a tragedy, and we need to understand a process of practical reasoning to make decisions about either reconciliation or choice. This process needs wisdom and the freedom to redefine interpretations. It is not s legal matter - judges are restricted by written (or possibly unwritten) law and do not have the flexibility.7

The virtue concept has two uses. One is to provide explicit adjustments to people's virtue repertoire. Creating a virtue that covers an appropriate relationship with the rest of the globe is one interesting idea. However, we already have some virtues that simply need reinforcement. The use of humility, for one, where people can understand that humans are only a part of the world and not masters of it all. These things might be seen as some kind of control over the citizens, and would not be popular. If imposition was tried it would need to be by some body with authority or influence. could we trust such a body to take us in the right direction?

The other is to provide a system of analysis of what is going on. It should work very well for this, and, as any analytical method should, it provides clues about what to do. Using it to describe the attitude that home owners have to changes in inheritance law is perfectly possible, and the related actions can be published and used as part of a national, or global, conversation.

The thing is, though, there is already a body of work telling us what the problems are.8 Do we need another approach?

  1. This is the opening sentence to Weil's proposals for the recovery of France after the 2nd world war.

    Simone Weil. 1952 The Need for Roots - Prelude to a declaration of duties towards mankind. Translated by: A. F. Wills. Routledge and Kegal Paul. ISBN 0 7100 8854 x. l'Enracinement, 1949. 

  2. Christopher D. Stone. 1972 Should Trees have Standing: towards legal rights for natural objects. Southern California Law Review, pages 450–501. ISEE - Internaional Society for Environmental Ethics Also See Gleeson-White 2020 pp171 et seq. URL:

  3. Donella H. Meadows. 1999 Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Donna Meadows Project. URL: (accessed28/2/2022). 

  4. R. H. Coase. October 1960 The Problem of Social Cost. Journal of Law and Economics, 3:1–44. URL:

  5. Alasdair MacIntyre. 2007 After Virtue. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978 0 7156 3640 4. 

  6. Willis Jenkins. 2016 The Turn to Virtue in Climate Ethics: Wickedness and Goodness in the Anthropocene. Environmental Ethics, 38:77–96. URL:

  7. Finding such wisdom in a European context could be a challenge, but pre-colonisation people from America, Africa, Australia and so on may be a good start. 

  8. My bookshelves are groaning, each book on a different aspect. Suggesting any particular one requires a specific question!