Monday, July 26, 2010

Throwing Precaution to the Wind? An Ethics Perspective

Skip to m'loo! 

I just love it when someone smarter and more educated and higher up the ladder than I says something that confirms what I've been preaching all along!

This month, I've used two posts to advocate for the precautionary principle over a "wait for certainty" approach, here, and here.  Today, in my email box, I got wind of another such argument, made through the lense of ethics, by environmental philosopher Donald Brown, Professor of Environmental Ethics and Law at Penn State.

I've mentioned here before that the primary ethical lense through which our policy-making apparatus is viewed is teleological, or consequentialist.  We ask, what are the benefits of a policy proposal, and what are the costs?   We're all familiar with the "cost/benefit" analysis.

I've also pointed out that this is just one of the possible ethical lenses, and does not give us anything like a full ethical picture. 

Cost/benefit analysis is written into administrative procedures acts at all levels of government, and so proposed legislation almost never makes it through the process without that perspective.  Conversely, the alternative ethical frames have rarely been ensconsed into our policy-making structure.  Not just a shame, but a crime, really, because many harms could be identified and mitigated against by methodically reviewing the multiple ethical ramifications of policy decisions before finalizing them. 

That is not to say that the other ethical perspectives are never a part of the discussion, but since we're not trained to pursue them methodically, alternatives are brought into the discussion only when one side thinks to use, for example, a particular principle as an argument for or against an idea.  Without a methodological approach, there's no apparatus to ensure that competing alternative principles are considered, or that someone "checks the logic" of the principle offered.

It would come as no surprise to my students that I believe our administrative procedures system is ethically inadequate

Quickly, what are the four primary western ethical lenses?

1.  Teleological:  What decision will lead to the greatest happiness?  Of what use is an idea?  What will the long- and short-term, direct and indirect consequences a particular action be?  What will be the consequences of failing to take action?

2.  Deontological:  What principles should be applied here?  Are any of the principles conflicting?  Would we apply the selected principle in another like situation?  Would we apply it universally?   Would we apply it if we personally stood to lose something, or to gain something?  Would we apply it if we knew the impacted parties?   If we did not know the impacted parties?

3.  Virtue:  What would a person of good character do?  What would taking a particular action do to or for the reputation of the actor or the sponsoring organization?  What precedent would this action create?  What message would it send to others?

4.  Intuition:  What does your gut say about the action in question?  Yes or no?  Good or bad?  Embrace or run?  This is not so much an analysis, but more of a first, visceral reaction.

Why am I bringing all this up now?

Ethics professor Donald Brown says that by asking ourselves the typical teleological cost/benefit questions - in identifying the harms to plug into that analysis - we've limited ourselves to asking to the wrong question, e.g. what are the known scientific impacts? 

When we ask that question, we are confronted both with what we know, and with a great number of uncertainties.  If we tend to make policy based on this simple cost/benefit analysis, then a large amount of uncertainty will impede action until we are more clear on the costs.  This is particularly true when we know the benefits - all the economic and material benefits that flow from allowing green house emissions to continue at present levels.

Instead, says Professor. Brown:

"This post argues that for over thirty years the public climate change debate has focused on the wrong scientific questions compared to those that ethics would ask of climate science. Since the mid-1960s opponents of climate change policies have demanded to know from science what are the known climate change impacts; yet ethics would ask: (a) What are the scientifically plausible climate change harms?, (b) Would these harms happen if we wait to all uncertainties are resolved and the consensus view turns out to be correct?, and (c) Have the potential victims of climate change consented to be put at risk while uncertainties have been resolved?

 # # #

This post argues the misplaced focus on the scientifically known, rather than the scientifically plausible climate change impacts and subsequent ethical implications that come from scientific notice that we are doing something dangerous is partly responsible for over thirty years of delay in adopting climate change policies."

Professor Brown's questions take us beyond a simple teleologic cost/benefit analysis into a deontological - or duty - analysis.  It asks, when uncertainty makes a cost/benefit analysis premature, do you have a duty to look at plausible harms instead?  And do you have a duty to include the potential victims of those plausible harms in the discussion?

Just to demonstrate how important Dr. Brown's lense is, what if someone had applied Dr. Brown's questions before permitting deep drilling in the Gulf?  We now know that BP lacked a lot of geological, technical and mechanical information about the way the oil field and their own equipment would behave in case of emergency, and about potential harms to the gulf ecosystem, and to the human society that relies upon the ecosystem for sustainance and economic well-being.  What if the regulatory agency had required BP to analyze "all plausible harms," and to bring the information to all the possible victims and their representatives for comment - from fishermen to wildlife scientists to seafood purveyors - as part of the permitting process?   Would we be where we are today?

If you are interested in reading Professor Brown's discussion about the ethics of decision-making about climate change, why the right ethical question is what harms are plausible, rather than which harms are definite, and who should be involved in making these decisions, the link for the article is here:

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