Every day, we are literally “bombarded” by media, politicians, experts and activists who teach us how to behave “morally” and what we must do to fight societal problems, such as climate change and poverty. These “moral campaigns” are often centrally planned and informed by social movements and pressure groups. One recent example is “The Last Generation”, an international network of climate change activists formed in 2021 who aim to raise awareness for climate change and environmental issues by blocking roads, interrupting sport events, gluing themselves to artworks, and other similar acts.
Unfortunately, this normativity – in philosophy, the act to categorize behaviors, actions or institutions as desirable or not in relation to the preservation of something deemed as morally good – hampers the implementation of policies and the attempts to coordinate actions among citizens to fight societal problems.
Why moral approaches do not work
Why are moral approaches ineffective? First, normative statements are not always supported by verifiable or verified facts. For instance, Greta Thunberg on June 21st, 2018 tweeted that “A top climate scientist is warning that climate change will wipe out all of humanity unless we stop using fossil fuels over the next five years.” – and then she removed it. There were several interpretations of that tweet, but in general it seems quite an apocalyptic, non-scientifically grounded statement. Normative overstatements not supported by facts like the tweet above either create anxiety, especially among children, or polarize people. Those overstatements typically recommend a radical change in current behaviors and a reduction of our welfare – some pundits would say “our privilege” – via, for instance, less consumption of resources. While wealthy people can easily reduce their welfare and sometimes pursue public praise by engaging in well-advertised charity actions, those who suffer from poor life conditions like job displacement, unemployment, or poverty, may even end up denying those very problems because fighting them could lead to a worsening of their condition. In Daniel Kahneman’s words, this reaction may be “automatic”, i.e. driven by emotions and instinct, and not by logics.
Moreover, some normative statements might be perceived as the representation of a Leviathan who sets and ranks societal priorities for all people, identifies the causes of those societal problems, and calls “immoral” those who do not agree with such ranking and causes. A clear example is provided by the recent proposals to discourage people from having children because they harm the planet Earth. These proposals draw on a study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, who calculated the CO2-equivalent emissions relating to one child in developed countries and claimed that having fewer children would be the most effective way to save the planet. Of course, they identify overpopulation as the main cause of climate change and neglect to consider that technology and environmental awareness would allow a more efficient use of resources.
The proposed approach
Leaving aside the philosophical debate about the meaningfulness and objectivity of normative statements, a possible paradoxical solution to address societal challenges is to rely on the innate egoism of people. I call the solution “paradoxical” because the common wisdom is that altruism is a crucial element to solve societal issues. However, recent scientific evidence found that altruism is not sufficient to fight climate change.
What does this mean in practice? Egoism can be defined as a rational human action that contributes to individual utility. Even though individuals often take actions under conditions of limited information, standard theories of statistical decision-making explain that a greater amount of information leads to more precision in decisions and actions. Thus, scientifically grounded statements – i.e. statements supported by verifiable or verified facts, projections or scenarios – are more likely to help people reason on why the focal societal problem is also a problem for themselves. Let’s consider inequality. The typical normative approach is that inequality is bad because all of us deserve to be equal. The fact that some earn more, are more successful or are more skilled in executing a certain job than others, only relates to genetics or to the different environment in which the individuals grew up. Hence, this “immoral” imbalance must be equalized via taxes or expropriation. I think that a large part of what we are and what we have is due to luck. However, to make people reason on why inequality may harm their individual wellbeing, statements should not focus on the moral aspects of inequality but rather on informing people about the possible costs associated to inequality such as social anger and envy, which ultimately lead to social conflicts, more crime and less individual safety. Another example is climate change. Statements should not state that fighting climate change is morally right per se; instead, the key message should focus on why climate change is dangerous for our own lives and those of our children and descendants – what I call a form of egoism “shifted in time”.
In sum, rather than calling for radical changes in current behaviors on the grounds of morality, statements should explain, on the one hand, how those behavioral changes affect our own lives, and, on the other hand, what world leaders are doing to help us navigating those changes – for instance by investing in efficient technologies and solutions that can help us reducing our consumption of resources while maintaining our wellbeing.
Some final considerations are in order. The approach proposed here is not in contrast with the “longtermism” proposed by William MacAskill in his book “What we owe the future”. The key difference is that while MacAskill uses a pure moral philosophical approach arguing that the correct thing to do for each individual is to sacrifice “everything possible” for the greater good, my approach argues that the rational thing for an individual is to decide on the basis of reliable facts to which extent one should sacrifices for her own utility and her heirs’ future welfare. Moreover, the approach proposed also works with genuinely altruistic people because it calls for statements based on facts, rather than on moral principles. Finally, the approach targets all people and not only wealthy people like in my interpretation of MacAskill’s.
Photo by Markus Spiske