Why is it Wrong to Wreck the World?

Even today, with personal opinions holding sway over the most clear and logical opposition, we have to approach the global issue of climate change in a morally-upstanding and inclusive manner.

By Kathleen Dean Moore

October 2016

Heart drawn in sand

Morality should no longer be equated with pontificating personal beliefs, but rather return to the idea that some issues are no more or less than our obligation to address.

Photo by Fotolia/adisa

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With mediums for conversation like the Internet, where fact and reason are non-necessities when it comes to defending outrageous claims, how do we have logical and impactful discussions? How can we come to solutions in an age where opinion is valued more highly than moral discourse? In Great Tide Rising (Counterpoint Press, 2016), Kathleen Dean Moore addresses this exact question through the lens of global climate change. She speaks of our ethical responsibility to our planet, and how we can return to a place where clear thinking and moral courage can solve even the biggest issue we face. Climate change isn’t just something that’s happening; it’s something we have an obligation to act on. And this book presents the problem in the ethical light in which it should be seen.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

My neighbor is a practical man. “Look,” he says to me, “if you want to call people to action on climate change, talk to them about what moves people to action — self-interest, money, and fear. Don’t tell them it’s wrong to wreck the world. Tell them it’s stupid or expensive or dangerous. Tell them that unless this nation moves faster on solar energy, the Chinese are going to eat our lunch. Tell them that climate change will make the cost of California lettuce go through the roof. Scare the shit out of them if you have to: Tell them that the most likely way that global warming will end is when nuclear winter seizes the world — a long, cold night for the human prospect when nations drop atomic bombs in battles over water and food. But don’t talk to people about morality. People don’t like to be preached at. Ethics never changed anything, and it’s a waste of time when time is short.”

At that point, I really have my back up. I want to tell him what moral discourse is. I want to describe the power of moral affirmation to change history. It’s true that morality has had a bad reputation lately. Blame it on TV preachers, if you want, shouting about sin. Blame it on the confusion of ethics with religion. Blame it on the effect of a press that would rather expose the titillating horror shows of private lives than engage in a discourse about what is right and what is good. Blame it on the viral pathology of this non sequitur: that because I have a right to believe whatever I want, whatever I believe is right. Poor ethics, struggling to be truly seen, when it has been so terribly disfigured.

First, let us distinguish between the morality of prohibition and the morality of affirmation. True, there’s something repellent about an ethic based on prohibitions — thou shalt not, and if you do, which of course you will, you are bad, which of course you are. The morality of affirmation, on the other hand, is a soaring invitation to affirm what you believe is good and just and beautiful and right, and to align your life to those values. When my colleagues and I do public events about climate ethics, we gather people in small groups and ask them to address these questions: “What do you care about most? What would you die for? What would you be willing to spend your whole life taking care of?” Then we ask, “What follows from the fact that you hold these values? Values have consequences in the real world. If you value this more than anything else, what will you do — or never do? How might you make that value evident and real and powerful in your life?” That’s the morality of affirmation.

Distinguish also between moralizing and moral reasoning. Nobody likes moralizing. But the civilized world depends on moral reasoning. The distinction is tricky. Moralizing is foisting your beliefs onto others, without offering any good reasons: “You should believe X. Period.” Pontificating is similar. It’s foisting your beliefs onto others, while offering a very bad reason — namely, your own assumed authority: “You should believe X because I believe X and I’m a moral savant.” Both of them are very different from witnessing (“I believe X”).

All of these are different from moral reasoning, which is an essential social and logical skill that this nation seems to have lost in all the shouting and piety. Moral reasoning is discourse in which people affirm what they think is true or good or right and then, the crucial step, back their claims with reasons. This is an invitation to respectful dialogue, to listening, and even to changing your mind. This is civil discourse, with its power to test beliefs against experience, your own and others’, and revise and improve them.

Think of the eighteenth-century conversations about basic principles of the “rights of man” that flew through the streets and meeting halls of Europe. Think of the debates about life, liberty, and the moral responsibilities of revolution that took place in Philadelphia, even as they were taking place in the country towns. This was moral discourse, on every corner. Moral reasoning is that kind of conversation. “We can do this,” I tell my neighbor. “We can talk reasonably about ethics.”

And this claim that ethics never changed anything? I think that is a misreading of history. When you look at the times in American history when our society has turned on a dime, making huge social change, you’ll find it was motivated by a great rising tide of affirmation of a strongly held moral principle.

No one says that moral affirmation is a sufficient condition for change, but I believe it is a necessary one. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” — a moral principle if there ever was one, and the old monarchies fell like dominoes from Europe across the Atlantic. “All persons held as slaves within any state ... shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free” — a moral affirmation of the equality of all people, and the direction of history changed its flow. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” — and the troopers and the growling dogs fell back. The nation is constantly involved in moral discourse, reasonable or not. So the question is not whether we should have a public discourse about ethics. The question is whether we can stop the ruin of Earth’s ecosystems without the same affirmation of a widely held moral principle: “All beings have intrinsic value, and so have a right to a healthy and life-sustaining planet. And this right overrides the presumed right of the few to plunder the common heritage and destabilize the Earth’s future without restraint.”

And one more thing, I tell my neighbor: Ethics is a trump card, so it has a strong strategic value in social change — a value higher than that of the economic-gain card. “We can make a lot of money by enslaving our neighbor’s children,” one might say. The sentence that is sure to end that conversation is this: “But it would be wrong.”

Reprinted with permission from Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change by Kathleen Dean Moore, published by Counterpoint Press, 2016.