Intuitions Wanted

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PROMPT: Consider the following hypothetical situation:

If everyone (or even just nearly everyone) makes the significant
sacrifices required to drastically reduce their carbon footprints, then
the climate disaster that will otherwise ensue in the next century will
be averted. Unfortunately, no one is making, nor is anyone going to
make, these sacrifices.* Moreover, each individual has control over only
her own actions. Thus, regardless of what any individual does, climate
disaster is going to ensue. Indeed, let’s assume that no individual can
make the slightest difference to the likelihood that the disaster will
occur, to when it will occur, or to how morally bad it will be if it
occurs.** But individuals can make a significant difference as to how
well their own families will fare over the next century by not
pointlessly making the sacrifices required to drastically reduce their
own carbon footprints.

*Assume that it is causally determined that no one else is going to make
these sacrifices.

**Assume that there is no precise boundary between suffering more and
not suffering more just as there is no precise boundary between being
balding and not being balding. And assume that just as the addition or
subtraction of single strand of hair from a man’s head cannot make a
difference as to whether or not he is balding, the addition or
subtraction of a single person’s efforts to reduce his or her carbon
footprint (because the relevant particulates will be so widely dispersed
over the Earth’s atmosphere) cannot make a difference as to whether or
not any person suffers more. Thus, assume, for the sake of answering
this question, that there are vague and morally relevant boundaries of
the sort that I’m presupposing here.

QUESTION 1:
Do you think that, if you were in this situation, you would have most
reason, all things considered, to REFRAIN from making the significant
sacrifices required to drastically reduce your carbon footprint?

QUESTION 2:
Do you think that, if you were in this situation, you would morally
obligated to MAKE the significant sacrifices required to drastically
reduce your carbon footprint?

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UPDATE: And this one too: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/MF5WX2Y

9 Replies to “Intuitions Wanted

  1. Warning for those who haven’t taken the survey yet: This comment has substantive content.
    I really wanted an “I’m not sure” or “It depends” option, at least for the first question. Suppose I care about environmental issues to a great extent. The expressive value of making the relevant sacrifices might outweigh the reasons provided by the negative effects on my family. (As a rough analogue: You might think it is permissible to vote for a democrat in an overwhelmingly red state even if you knew that your family would be ostracized.)

  2. Hi David,
    Fair enough. But I suppose that how you should answer just depends on whether you think that the reasons stemming from whatever expressive value you think that making such sacrifices has outweighs the reasons that you have to ensure that you and your family fares well.

  3. I think I was reading the “you” as “one,” which is why I wanted the “It depends.” If the “you” is actually ME, then “I’m not sure.” Either way, this is obviously a small point; I suspect non-philosophers won’t have the same difficulty answering this kind of question. I can’t wait to see the results!

  4. It would be helpful to have a clear understanding of what constitutes a “significant sacrifice” in this context. Does it require selling you car and biking everywhere, refraining from airline travel, quitting a job if it requires extensive airline travel, eating vegetarian (since it leaves a smaller carbon footprint than eating meat), or avoiding the use of hot water heaters and other high-power consuming electric appliances? I suspect that just how much is required to make sufficiently drastic reductions may alter some peoples’ reactions to the case.
    Also, are we to assume that we have a family in the case (i.e., a spouse and children)? If not, then single folks are likely to give less moral weight to the future welfare of their families.

  5. Dear Doug,
    What “intuitions” are you trying to tease out with these questions? Secondly, you are aware that there is an awful lot of psychological studies in these kind of collective action problems performed by social psychologists with lots of experience how to construct questionaires and experiments? What does this add to what those folk have figured out about how our intuitions work?

  6. In interpreting the results, it may also be important to recognize that some responses will reflect ‘convictions’ rather than ‘intuitions’. My opinions on this particular matter are not so much the product of gut-level hunches as entailed by the ethical theory I subscribe to.

  7. Would it make a difference to the results if we’re told that the subject knows/doesn’t know about the unfortunately determined outcome?

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