The Pyroholic Brethren II: Kant and the fine print

My earlier post with a sermon on five steps to carbon sobriety fell flat and attracted no comments. I promised a wonkish follow-up on the underlying principles. A small ethical problem: is a promise made to the empty air still binding? Bentham would no doubt have said no, Kant yes. I’ve written the thing anyway, so, any gentle readers, here it is.

I won’t defend the particular numbers I gave; they are only relevant to my family’s particular circumstances.

I A collective action problem – but what sort?

Carbon reduction is usually discussed here as a collective-action problem.

Let me see if I get this idea. It helps to distinguish between strong and weak versions. (The distinction has nothing to do with size.) In the strong form, you can’t get anywhere at all without cooperants. Imagine the team of trainee commandos with their piles of poles and ropes and a stream to cross. Organizing a spelling bee is the same thing on the micro scale; building moon rockets and aircraft carriers, on the scale of nations. Half an aircraft carrier or bridge is just a waste of good wood or steel.

Great_Wave_off_Kanagawa2The weaker form is that of Hokusai’s boatmen facing the tsunami wave. (It may be based on a tidal bore, but Hokusai made it bigger and scarier than any such). No individual can solve the problem entirely without cooperation. However, one rower increases his or her chances of survival by effort plus example. The best chance of each is if everybody rows; there are high externalities. But the individual cost of rowing as against wailing is small. So they do. A micro example is a littered beach. One volunteer can’t clear it, but a few square yards are worth having. On the largest scale, climate disruption has this structure. Every little helps; me, you, Costa Rica, China. Postponing the deluge by a day is worth doing, and the cost is low.

In this case, it’s so low that unlike the case of the boatmen, free riding can look a good deal for optimists. The price of solar panels and car batteries, you say, will fall so low that the energy transition will come about purely by market forces: the invisible lifebuoy. Maybe so, but it’s far from certain. Will the transition happen unaided in time, given the powerful vested interests fighting hard to delay it? Ethically, free riding is indefensible. Its existence leads to the prospect that some coercion will be necessary, as with Obama’s EPA regulations on coal generation, or Mike’s ideal carbon charge. The less state coercion the better: and the more voluntary action there is, the less need for it. Most of the public policy we need is simply rigging a set of incentives that will make it pay for self-interested agents to do the right thing. Nothing forces us as individuals or in our working organizations to wait until these incentives fall into our lap.

II Utility

The most common ethical frame for public policy is utilitarian. How does my 5-Step Programme measure up against this test? The actions described will reduce my and Lu’s carbon footprint by 10 tonnes or so a year. They will also have a very small effect on others by example. These are positive outcomes, so far so good. But measured against the dimensions of the problem, by themselves they will make next to no difference to the outcome. They don’t look worthwhile unless many others join in. It’s a collective action problem. The framing encourages us to think, of the strong type. Separately, we are helpless.

Utilitarianism pushes us towards framing many issues as Prisoners’ Dilemmas. Their solution is political; we need an improbable rex ex machina to put the world to rights, like Louis XIV in Molière’s Tartuffe , or my fantasy benevolent global autocrat Bentham Khan. So basically, we’re all screwed.

I can’t see any solution to the meta-paradox that encouraging people to be individual utilitarians has bad consequences in Prisoners’ Dilemmas like this. The theory also fails to answer the “how much” question. Assuming it’s any good at all, is my target of a 50% reduction in 15 years adequate or not? I suggest we look to another ethical tradition for guidance.

III The Golden Rule

The other ethical tradition available to us is the Biblical and Kantian Golden Rule: love your neighbour as yourself (Leviticus, Hillel, Jesus), do as you would be done by (Kingsley), act according to rules which you wish others would follow (Kant). Individuals should break the dilemma by doing the right thing. Because.

Does this therefore mean forgetting about the consequences? Pace radical deontologists, IMHO there is invariably a consequential dimension to moral action. Almost always, we face a non-zero chance any action will incite reciprocity or emulation, and a larger reciprocal chance it won’t. The numbers depend on the facts of the context. Locked in a cellar by the secret police, resisting blackmail to betray your friends will most likely just get you shot. But in the case in point, there are already a large number of green activists and my action joins me to them. Together we can build a movement, in which individual change and political action support each other. Religions, AA and political movements operate by such a social dynamic, with reasonable and occasionally dramatic success. Tous les gagnants ont tenté leur chance, as a French advert for the national lottery puts it: a clear fallacy to rational man, but true to our actual flawed thinking natures.

The essence of the Golden Rule is being a first or early mover towards virtue. But nitpickers inquiring minds also need a definition of the particular rule it could endorse here. We want to avoid formulae that are actually impossible if they were by a miracle followed universally. Jesus’ advice to the rich young man “give all your money to the poor” falls into this category. We must interpret it partly as situational shock therapy for a troubled mind; the associated general ethical principle it implies has to be more nuanced. “Go carbon neutral tomorrow” would be similarly infeasible as a categorical imperative. This is a technical drafting problem, not one of principle.

Let’s start with the fairly uncontroversial:

Take what individual action you reasonably can to reduce your carbon footprint.

“Reasonable” is a weasel word, and leaves the formula too vague for outdoor use. The context is one of some existing collective action to the same end, but sluggish and inadequate. Let’s try to make it more precise:

Reduce your personal carbon footprint at least at a rate that would be on target for carbon neutrality at a date recommended as safe by James Hansen and other credible climate scientists. Pick a firm personal target and adjust it. Encourage others to follow this rule by example and persuasion, and agitate in the political sphere for strong policies for sustainability.

This rule self-adjusts to different rates of success with second movers, and to changes in scientific understanding.

Does it support my 5-Step Programme? I think it does. Let me now anticipate a few more or less serious difficulties.

The price of solar panels would shoot up if everybody tried to install them at once.
So qualify the step by adding “at current prices or lower”. In the horizon I gave, supply of any manufactured product is pretty elastic. This objection is an example of a cheap shot objection to the Golden Rule. As Kant understood, you need to put real effort into the formulation of your operational maxim to avoid absurd results. Do not expect your first draft to be problem-free.

If everybody installed solar panels, there would be excess supply of electricity at noon, much would be thrown away, and you would not get all the carbon savings you are banking on.
Sure, eventually something like this will happen – when solar panels are much cheaper than they are today. Germany met 75% of its electricity demand at 1400 h on August 18th, so excess supply of renewables is not far off there. But it will only emerge gradually as a common problem, and the impact on usable annual production will stay modest for a long time. Possible responses being considered in Germany include large-scale catalysis of hydrogen or methane, stored in the existing gas grid. So the scenario slightly reduces the bankable carbon savings, no more. Since my Plan is adjustable and incomplete, that is quite acceptable for now.

Offsetting flights would be impossible for everybody.
Would it? I don’t know. The total area of forests cleared in recent decades is enormous. We should also consider that the problem of aviation emissions is time-limited. With good public policy and reasonable technical progress, the industry can shift to sustainable biofuels or catalysed synfuels, and (more speculatively) electric propulsion. The major constructors of aircraft and jet engines, plus the Pentagon, are taking the transition seriously, partly because the oil industry is supplying them with kerosene of declining quality from sludgy sources of crude like tar sands. Anyway, I don’t expect to run out of offset opportunities before I stop flying, so it’s your problem more than mine.

Again, we can if necessary tinker with the formulation of Step 3 and add a qualification “as long as offsets are affordable”, but I think it goes without saying.

Finally a theoretical objection:
Your alleged Golden Rule principle is a fraud because you tweak it to fit probabilities of actual scenarios, so it’s really consequentialism in a dog-collar.
Deontology without consideration of consequences is nutty, so they have to be worked in anyway. Any credible ethical principle has to provide for summing over a range of future scenarios of varying probability, which is never going to be simple. Where the deontologist differs is in not simply trying to maximise the value of the oveall expected outcome, which will – for private action – often have a very large variance, or be unknowable. Classical Golden Rule ethics proposes simply taking the very unlikely outcome of (a) everybody else joining you, and maximising the value of that. I don’t see why we shouldn’t add check conditions: will the rule still have a good effect if (b) nobody else joins in? And if (c) a significant minority of other people join in, or I am joining such a minority?

The likeliest scenario is almost always (c). If you propose a neo-Pythagorean taboo on eating beans, you will be alone. Your isolation should worry you; there is quite likely something wrong with the scheme. If you are signing up to an existing movement or current of opinion, there is a much larger probability of achieving success, either by convincing everybody else (gay rights) or by gaining power through a political majority or coalition, or converting an autocrat (rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, abolition of slavery, US right-to-lifers). You go from one-in-a million odds to one-in-ten. It’s a fallacy to think in terms of a binary opposition between “just me in a fallen world” and “everybody in a perfect world”.

Not surprisingly, acute ethical dilemmas and conflicts arise within value-driven movements, since effective action requires many compromises by members over important details of their objectives. Any worked-out Golden Rule maxim must allow for such compromises, and for red lines. In early 1807 the bill to abolish the slave trade passed the Lords by a working but not overwhelming majority and then came up for a vote in an enthusiastic Commons. Wilberforce spoke IIRC against an amendment also to abolish slavery itself. This would have required a return to the Lords, and the inevitable failure of a great but partial reform. Slaves in British colonies had to wait another 26 years for their freedom, and many of those alive in 1807 never saw it. Wilberforce himself died three days after the passage of the final abolition act.

The kind of fudge manoeuvre I’ve engaged in is therefore commonsense, and not objectionable in principle. Object to the details of the case if you like.

Would you still follow your 5-Step Programme if it imposed large costs on you, as opposed to the trivial ones you identified?
I decline to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me.


  1. NCGatSmFcts says


    I think I did try to comment, but the system ate it. (It happened a couple times with Mark's posts too. Unless he just didn't like them.) Oh well.

    Shared you on FB too. And I don't even like FB most of the time.

  2. Doug r says


    With solar panel installation and generation more than doubling every year, we’re reaching a point where we will get to saturation in a few years. The cost per kilowatt is plummeting and places like Tesla and Panasonic are ensuring the batteries prices will plummet as well- there goes your oversupply problem. I’m still not optimistic that we will turn things around before the temperature goes up 2C but we’ll get there.

    • JamesWimberley says


      Quibble: the 10-year global CAGR is 44% not 100%, which means doubling every 2 years. There was a considerable hiccup in 2012, and you will find few trade forecasts as high as the historic trend. Still, it's very rapid growth anyway, and spreading to more and more countries like Mexico and Turkey. India have just torn up their old targets and will set much higher ones.

  3. NCGatSmFcts says


    Oh boy. This is why I'm glad you also pointed me at those other sources earlier (sites at which someone other than me figures out whether panels are actually green when you consider the lifecycle costs … and yes, there are people who say they aren't … intelligent, good people I know … and it is like me trying to say how Earth isn't flat … frankly, I "know" it isn't, but I don't know the math myself. Same with CC itself, btw. I could probably get there if I put the time in, but the flesh is weak.)

    I will restate my belief that our rampant income inequality is part of this problem. Most people don't *feel* that they have extra dollars. Our chances of success would be higher if we made this stuff cost neutral for ordinary folk. Does this make me a monster? Fortunately on this point too, I lack the attention span to do the math today.

    But, I like this post too, and will share it. My tiny circle is all the fame I can lend you. I have major issues with FB.

  4. Keith_Humphreys says


    James —

    Very intriguing post with as usual well-chosen graphics. I liked this example particularly: A micro example is a littered beach. One volunteer can’t clear it, but a few square yards are worth having.

    Two comments:

    1 I don't understand your very first sentence. Did you mean a carbon-neutral society or a carbon-free society or is there some meaning to a "carbon society"

    2 I would not set things up as a choice between mean old state coercion and unfettered voluntarily choice. Yes, glibertarians tend to see life that way, but if one assumes that all "free" choices are made under some constraint no matter what the state does, it's a less stark contrast between the state pressuring us to change behavior to stop us from destroying the planet and individuals making changes in their behavior "voluntarily" because they feel pressured by the fact that the planet is being destroyed. People are not going to be giving up carbon-heavy options for the joy of it.

    • JamesWimberley says


      1: I wrote "carbon sobriety". A nod to your and Mark's expertise, using the AA conceit.

      2. Quite agree. Did I really come across as a glibertarian Manichee? In both posts I stressed the idea of a social movement of the like-minded, which links individual to collective action. There's a continuum between within-group peer pressures, out-group social pressures, and political action. The Kochs are not persuadable and won't shut down their petcoke operation without a gun or carbon tax or regulation to their heads. In the Bay Area, purely cultural pressures have already enlightened Google and Facebook and the Stanford investment committee to their true self-interest.

      • Keith_Humphreys says


        1. Aaahh, somehow I didn't not catch that — well done.

        2. Only in that one spot, I know that you are older than 18 and hence not in that camp. You explained the movement aspects well.

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