Sunday, July 23, 2006

Sin and carbon emissions

It is a sin to fly says the church. "Making selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car are a symptom of sin. Sin is not just a restricted list of moral mistakes. It is living a life turned in on itself where people ignore the consequences of their actions."

This has attracted a lot of ridicule from people who'd rather not know. Iain Dale, and some of the responses pile on the ridicule. Sin to fly? Ridiculous! I like flying!

Tim Worstall finds the idea is so absurd, he doesn't even need to comment.

Here's the thing. I agree that flying and driving are not sins, and that it would be counterproductive if we really did treat them as sins. But for reasons that should be explained, not just because I don't want to know.

The church's argument is, presumably, that carbon emissions cause global warming, and that this will, to the best of our knowledge, cause considerable harm to a great many people. The moral principle to be applied is "don't do harm to other people". So far so good.

Now I would argue that choosing not to fly or not to drive is superogatory, that is, it a morally good choice above and beyond one's duty. Emitting carbon is not the best moral choice, but is not so bad as to be morally prohibited.

Emitting carbon is one of those things that does some harm, but not so much harm that we would be better off doing without carbon-based energy altogether. Furthermore we are not in a position to judge whether other people's uses of carbon are going to do more harm, in general, than good, largely to them. Doubtless there are sacrifices that, if everybody made them, the net effect would be good. But make the sacrifices bigger, and the net effect will be bad - people will lose out more than they gain from a cooler world. (The right policy, of course, is to correct the externalised cost of carbon emissions with a carbon levy. Then we wouldn't, as individuals, have to worry about carbon emissions.)

Central control (whether by force, or by convincing moral injunction) can serve single specific objectives reasonably well, such as winning a war, or perhaps tackling global warming. The freer economy does much better at fulfilling the enormous diversity of needs that exist in reality - food, shelter, medical research, school trips, etc. This is like capitalism versus communism all over again. One day, perhaps, global warming will be the only significant challenge we face. Today it is merely a biggie among many, and we should still be wary of tackling it in such a way as to do more harm in other areas.

These are not the arguments we hear. Instead it is the spurious "I am supporting the tourist economy of ..." So what? Whatever you spend your money on, you will support some economy of some sort. Leave it in the bank and it gets borrowed and spent, or possibly invested. Put it under the floorboards and it is effectively a free loan to the state. It is hard to do "economic" wrong with your money.

So why has the church hit carbon with the S-word? Is it that the language of morality doesn't always have room for the idea that people are the best judges of their own needs and desires? And not just religious morality: Kant's categorical imperative - "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law" - seems also to underpin a lot of environmental moral argument, and suffers from a similar flaw. We aren't all the same, we don't all have the same needs and desires, and it would be quite awful if we all did the same things.

Is it that the church is uncomfortable with a capitalist rationale for relaxing? Modern capitalism was largely invented in the protestant world. Previously restrictions on usury, theories of fair prices and so on were among the factors holding it back. But I am reminded of historian RH Tawney's comment that it was not initally a difference of doctrine that allowed this, so much as reduced influence on civil authorities resulting from the schism.

After finding that link to Tawney on Wikipedia, I read it, and found a second relevant point of his. That "...such an attitude [equating the invisible hand with God's plan] precluded a critical examination of institutions, and left as the sphere of Christian charity only those parts of life which could be reserved for philanthropy, precisely because they fell outside that larger area of normal human relations, in which the promptings of self-interest provided an all-sufficient motive and rule of conduct."

I agree with Tawney again. No institutions should be exempt from critical examination. Compartmentalisation leads to ignorance. By failing to reconcile your moral framework with good progress achieved, errors in the framework can go unnoticed. Does the church's error in deeming carbon emissions sinful result from this failure to critically examine and accept capitalism?

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