On identity, relativism, socio-legal equality, teleology, and religion in society: A critique of “In response to: On non-heterosexuality, religious absurdity, heteronormativity, human dignity, love, and freedom”

A couple weeks ago, my fraternity brother and friend, Blake Rustmann authored a blog titled “On Marriage” articulating his disapproval of non-heterosexuality, dissatisfaction with the state of marriage today, and opposition to U.S. District Judge Terrence Kern’s recent decision to declare Oklahoma’s ban of non-heterosexual marriage—Oklahoma Question 711—unconstitutional. In response, I took it upon myself to counter his claims in support of non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual equality with my own piece, “On non-heterosexuality, religious absurdity, heteronormativity, human dignity, love, and freedom.”

In good form, Rustmann then wrote a response to my response called, “In response to: On non-heterosexuality, religious absurdity, heteronormativity, human dignity, love, and freedom.”

Naturally, the dialectic must continue! Which brings me to my long overdue response to his response to my response.

On the outset I want to express my respect and appreciation for Blake’s conviction, eloquence, attention to detail, and interest in participating in this discussion. I am proud to call him my friend and fraternity brother. He is one of the kindest, most considerate people I know, and, insofar as who he is is the cumulative totality of his conscious actions, qualities, and states, he is among the best of people. He just happens to not be right about the metaphysical, ethical, and socio-legal-normative questions examined here.

To enumerate the contentions at hand and show where we’re going before we get started, our debate centers around at least five fundamental divergences: 1) the nature of the self, action, and responsibility; 2) moral relativism and the goodness of non-heterosexuality; 3) the importance of socio-legal and institutional non-heterosexual equality and equity; 4) the idea of teleology in natural phenomena; and 5) the proper role of religion and religious values in society.

Let’s take each in turn.

1) The nature of the self, action, and responsibility

In his original piece, Rustmann argues that it is coherent and reconciliatory to disapprove of non-heterosexual actions—i.e. non-heterosexuality—while not disapproving of members of the non-heterosexual community themselves. I responded that non-heterosexuality is essential to the identities of non-heterosexuals, and that there is no ethical or socio-legal distinction between the two, especially with regard to the regulatory goals of anti-queer rights advocates. Regulating non-heterosexuality amounts to regulating non-heterosexuals themselves because non-heterosexuality is part of who they are. You can’t ethically and socio-legally condemn non-heterosexuality without simultaneously condemning non-heterosexual people and their identities.

In his response to my response, Rustmann then argues that by eliminating the distinction between non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual identity I am inappropriately exempting the non-heterosexual community “from a distinction that applies to the rest of us.” Quite the contrary. I propose no such exemption. The inseparability of action and the self is as much an ethical and socio-legal claim as it is a metaphysical one about the very nature of identity, which, as such, implies a universal account of what the self—the I, the ego, etc.—is.

What we do is an essential and inseparable part of who and what we are as conscious beings. I am something of a Sartrean about the self. The self, as it were, is a thing that we as conscious beings create. Identity is an invention—an object—of consciousness. At the bottom of every “thing” is consciousness—but consciousness is not itself a thing. It is no thing. Consciousness creates “things” out in the world by distinguishing them, including the ego. In other words, consciousness carves up the world with distinctions. Without conscious distinction, there is only nameless being. Consciousness is fundamental in that it experiences the world—consciousness experiences being—and constructs subjective reality by making distinctions in order to cope with existence. Without consciousness to create distinctions—to differentiate between experiences of being—there could be no distinct things. Consciousness must distinguish them. Consciousness, then, in experiencing and making distinctions about the world, distinguishes the self and in doing so constructs it—the I—out of conscious qualities, states, and actions through the process of reflection and synthesis.

The self is the synthetic transcendent unification of our experiences—the qualities, states, and actions of consciousness. It is an object of conscious awareness—a composition of reflective consciousness—an amalgamation of consciousness as being and as a being—and one from which who we are is inseparable. Most fundamentally we are conscious, but who we are—our essence—selfhood—comes after the fact. Action is indistinguishable from who we are because action does not exist in being—as does consciousness—but as one aspect of the conscious experience and of the self. Who we are is an ever accumulating and changing gestalt of what we do. The self is, in that way, transcendent. Not transcendental, but transcendent in the sense that it consists of an infinite number of accumulating aspects. Through the cumulative process of experiencing conscious action, qualities and states, conscious reflection upon them, and finally synthesis, we construct the self. Reflective consciousness ties our conscious actions, qualities, and states together to create the essence of who we are—our sense of “I.” The human creates its self. “Existence precedes essence.”

If we take Rustmann’s view of identity, who we are exists in a void with its essence predetermined and unchangeable by our actions, qualities, and states; for him, who we are is independent of what we do. Only by fundamentally separating the two can we condemn one without condemning the other. The unsavory moral consequence of this separation, however, is that it dismantles the means by which responsibility for action is attributable to the actor: “Condemn my action, not me. Who I am is not what I have done.”

But actions are not responsible for themselves, people are. The two are metaphysically and socio-legally indistinct.

To draw a fundamental distinction between action and actor amounts to little more than an impotent metaphysical trick to skirt accountability. People are held responsible for their actions because we are what we do. If I kill someone in cold blood, I am imprisoned for the act of murder and because I am responsible for killing. It has become part of who I am—ethically, socio-legally, and metaphysically. And insofar as we cannot change the past, our experiences—our conscious qualities, states, and actions—are, so long as consciousness persists, forever a part of who we are. We cannot escape responsibility for what we do.

Rustmann then raises an example and a question:

“For instance, my writings are an action. Jordan disapproves of the opinions that I wrote. Does that mean he disapproves of me as a person? I hope not.”

Here he wants to bolster the distinction between his writing and his identity by arguing that by my logic, if his writing is inseparable from his identity, and if I believe his writing or perspective is wrong or bad, then I must also think he is a bad person. I do not. I do think his written perspective on non-heterosexuality is wrong—or at least not right. I also think it is inseparable from his identity. But this is only one of an infinite number of aspects of his ever-accumulating identity, the cumulative gestalt of which is, I believe, overwhelmingly admirable and commendable. One bad branch does not mean the whole tree is bad—the bad branch just needs attention.

2) Moral relativism and the judgment of non-heterosexuality

Rustmann also argues that because I disparage moral absolutism, I “obviously” consider “any type of non-relativistic moral ideology as ‘oppressive, exclusionary, and discriminatory.’” Indeed, I do consider the ethical condemnation and socio-legal institutionalization of non-heterosexual inequality and inequity an oppressive, exclusionary, and discriminatory agenda. But I am not the strict moral relativist the author wants to paint.

Indeed, radical cultural relativism, if taken in principle to be absolute, yields another form of unacceptable universalism. The idea that, universally, no action can be judged or evaluated outside of the context of the actor’s culture is itself as dogmatic and absolutist as the position that all people should be held to any religious or secular universalistic moral system. Relativism if taken to its logical extent entails that relativists must be relativistic about even relativism as a universal ethical framework. Relativism contradicts itself in that way.

I, in contrast, contend that some actions are so offensive to moral sense and conscience that they cannot be tolerated—non-heterosexuality just isn’t one of them. Terrorism, holy wars, racism, genocide, female circumcision, slavery, sexism, torture, genderism, the rapacious destruction of the natural world, and institutionalized socio-legal inequality and disenfranchisement: these are among the set of intolerable ethical impermissibilities. A relativist could not make such a claim.

In large part, though not universally, I think J.S. Mills harm principle is a good guide for determining ethical and regulatory permissibility and tolerability. Actions that are wholly self-regarding—i.e. actions that pertain to and affect only the actor—are generally, if not always, permissible and should not be regulated, while actions that are other-regarding—i.e actions that pertain to or affect people other than the actor—should be regulated insofar as such actions compromise the liberty or right to freedom from harm of others. There is no strict relativism here. By rule of the Harm Principle, non-heterosexuality is self-regarding and therefore ethically permissible, and the freedom to socio-legally express non-heterosexuality should not be infringed.

3) The importance of socio-legal institutional equality and equity

The author then, contradicting himself again, argues that while he supports laws making non-heterosexuality illegal—e.g. the Oklahoma ban on same-sex marriage, and presumably the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8—he doesn’t “think the government should make laws criminalizing homosexual behavior, nor h[as] [he] ever proposed that.” In reality, however, to support Question 711 and similar laws that condemn and criminalize non-heterosexual marriage constitutes exactly such a proposition.

Perhaps the confusion stems from what follows. There are really two senses of condemnation at work here: ethical and legal. We must remember, what is ethical is not necessarily legal, what is legal is not necessarily ethical, what is unethical is not necessarily illegal, and what is illegal is not necessarily unethical. This is the intersection of the theoretical and the practical—the overlap of ethics and policy.

There are two dialectics of relevance here: 1) what is ethical and unethical (the ethical dialectic) and 2) what should be legal and illegal (the legal-normative dialectic).

Often the two are conflated and treated simultaneously, but it is important to clarify within which dialectic we are engaged and when because they are fundamentally separate and have radically different implications—and we ought to avoid making category mistakes. The ethical dialectic and any condemnation it might entail is theoretical condemnation and affects moral conscience, social perception, or perhaps the state of one’s soul, while the legal-normative dialectic and any condemnation it might entail is practical condemnation and affects literal social liberty and freedoms—i.e. imprisonment, monetary penalty, or socio-legal limits on self-determination.

The debate over non-heterosexual equality occupies the realm of the legal-normative dialectic, but often converges with the ethical. Still, it is two different things to argue, as Rustmann wants to do simultaneously, that 1) non-heterosexuality is unethical, and 2) non-heterosexuality should be illegal. To clarify, I contend that non-heterosexuality is neither unethical nor should it be illegal. Rustmann, however, in arguing that non-heterosexuality is both unethical and should be illegal, misses an important distinction. It is tolerable (though I think misguided) to believe non-heterosexuality is unethical. But being unethical (the ethical dialectic) doesn’t automatically entail that it should be illegal (the legal-normative dialectic). It is consistent and socially tolerable to hold that non-heterosexuality is unethical, but still believe that it should not be illegal. But Rustmann goes a step further. For him, not only is non-heterosexuality unethical, it should also be illegal. This, I believe, is inconsistent with the Harm Principle and ultimately explains his internal contradiction discussed before. Theoretical ethical condemnation of non-heterosexuality may be unenlightened, but by itself must be tolerated because theoretical condemnation does not necessarily entail socio-legal condemnation. But Rustmann and anti-queer advocates don’t stop at the theoretical. They push for socio-legal condemnation in the form of laws like Question 711, DOMA, and California’s Proposition 8. That is intolerable.

We cannot forget humanity’s multi-millennial legacy of socio-legally oppressing non-heterosexuals. Western religion has condemned non-heterosexuality almost unilaterally since the Old Testament. In 20th century America, rulings like Bowers v. Hardwick judicially institutionalized the legality of imprisoning non-heterosexuals for expressing their love and having sex. It was not, and probably still is not, uncommon for non-heterosexuals to lose work or appointments just for being non-heterosexual. Just recently President Putin signed a law permitting the arrest of “gay propagandists” and threatened its enforcement on LGBT athletes of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Not even a week ago India’s judiciary upheld a law criminalizing non-heterosexuality. And gay men are still put to death in the hyper-religious Middle East for no more than being gay. These are not theories. These are the disturbing realities.

4) Teleology disguised as science

In his response to my response, Rustmann also draws several repugnant comparisons between non-heterosexuality and a shocking list of degenerative diseases—in particular: alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Somehow, it seems to him that ethically and socio-legally condemning non-heterosexuality is equivalent to objecting to an alcoholic friend having another drink. This comparison is asinine.

Comparing non-heterosexuality to alcoholism, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia warrants a dramatic face-palm. It is both an equivocation and a category mistake. Alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are degenerative diseases that cause physiochemical and societal problems if allowed to persist unchecked. To compare them as if they’re equivalent is outrageous. Non-heterosexuality is not a disease, it is not a problem for non-heterosexual individuals, and it does not cause problems for society. Period. Nothing else ought need be said about this point to demonstrate its absurdity.

It is clear that Rustmann and I operate from different values systems. By his judgment, non-heterosexuality is bad, wrong, “disordered,” and contrary to human dignity. For reasons explained below, I obviously disagree.

My disagreement raises a fundamental question: From where does his judgment that non-heterosexuality is bad, wrong, disordered, and contrary to human dignity arise? The answer is two-fold: 1) Judeo-Christian values and ethics, and 2) the conflation of teleology and evolutionary function.

The author purports that his condemnation of non-heterosexuality is supported by the dictates of biology. But his reasoning relies upon a series of unsound scientific premises and an implicit assumption and furtive imposition of religious values. Let’s move through each one individually:

Premise 1: “Biology dictates that ‘natural’ sex occurs between a man and a woman.”

Counter-argument 1:Here he has reversed the logical relationship between “biology” and what is “natural.” Put correctly, everything within the purview of biology is natural, but not everything that is natural is within the purview of biology. In other words, to appeal to biology is to automatically admit and assume that the phenomenon in question—non-heterosexuality—is natural. If he wants to claim that non-heterosexuality is unnatural, he contradicts himself by appealing to biology. Biology does not distinguish between “natural” and “unnatural” sex—only kinds of sex, all of which is inherently “natural” by virtue of being within the realm of biological science.

Premise 2: Non-reproductive sex is “disordered.”

Counter-argument 2: Rustmann first defines “a disorder” as “when the purpose of [a] natural act is interrupted.” This definition is immediately problematic insofar as teleology—the idea of purpose—is inappropriate for discussing or explaining natural phenomena. But we’ll return to this point about teleology when I address Premise 3 below. More to the point: the claim that non-reproductive sex is “disordered” is an Augustinian distinction, not a biological one. Biology makes no such distinction. For biologists, non-reproductive sex is not “disordered.” Non-reproductive sex is just non-reproductive sex. Rustmann’s push to categorize non-reproductive as “disordered” vaults clear over Hume’s fact/value distinction without even realizing what it’s done. What of recreational or pleasure-oriented sex, or sex between the infertile or the elderly? Are these “disordered” as well? “Disordered” implies normative and teleological judgment that biologists, in aiming to remain objective, strictly avoid. In reality, the claim that non-reproductive sex is “disordered” is religious judgment, not biological.

It’s also worth noting that the author then makes another cringe-worthy comparison—this time comparing non-heterosexuality to incest and pedophilia. The very notion of such a comparison is just as inane as his prior juxtapositions to alcoholism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and reminisces of Rick Santorum’s appalling claim that homosexuality is akin to bestiality. Absolutely ludicrous. Let’s move on.

Premise 3: There is only one “purpose of sex” and the only purpose of sex is procreation.

Counter-argument 3: For Rustmann, sex is reserved exclusively for reproduction. Procreation is the only “biological purpose of sex.” First of all, it’s clear that here he has conflated the ideas of purpose and function. Evolutionary theory—to which he subsequently appeals—has fundamentally removed the scholastic basis for teleological speculation about natural phenomena. Natural phenomena—being—do not have natural “final causes” or purpose, but function. Purpose is our perception of function. The two shouldn’t be confused. Purpose doesn’t exist out in the world, only function does. Purpose is a human idea applied to natural phenomena.

So we should talk about the functions of sex, not its purpose—as if there could ever be only one. Sex has many functions–reproduction among them—which include the expression of love or lust; the intensification of emotional, physical and spiritual connection; art; pleasure; etc. Non-reproductive sex does not “side step the primary purpose of sex” because there is no purpose of sex, there is only function, and reproduction is only one function of sex.

Nevertheless, the author continues to argue that non-heterosexuality is contrary to evolutionary function and thus is “disordered.” This is an incorrect and narrow reading of evolutionary function. First of all, that non-heterosexual genotypes exist in perpetuity within in our species all but necessarily entails that non-heterosexuality has been naturally selected for. The germane question is not “What is the purpose of sexuality?” as Rustmann puts it, but “What is the function of non-heterosexuality?”

Non-heterosexuality may have several evolutionary functions. First, it seems relevant to reiterate a basic tenant of ecology—diversity improves resilience. In other words, diversity in sexuality may ultimately make humanity as a species more resilient. On one hand, non-heterosexuality stimulates non-heterosexual social bonds that strengthen communities. On the other hand, as Josh Barrow points out, non-heterosexuals may serve a kin-selection evolutionary function by helping to raise the offspring of other family members—making it more likely that other family members will have children and that more children will survive—or adopted children. Finally, non-heterosexuality may be a natural evolutionary response to human over-population—the ultimate driver of the modern ecological crisis—which constitutes an undeniable threat to the perpetuation and survival of our species.

If the author’s concern truly lies in the wellbeing of children, then his interests are actually in direct alignment with non-heterosexuality and the biological fitness improvements—e.g. contributions to child-rearing, population stabilization—they entail for individuals and our species. In other words, evolutionary theory supports exactly the opposite of the author’s interpretation.

We ought do away with the discriminatory idea of non-heterosexuality as biologically “disordered” altogether. If anything, non-heterosexuality is an astonishing and awe-striking example of nature’s profound capacity to re-order itself as is necessary to maintain stability and homeostasis within its biological systems when chronic perturbations (like human over-population and subsequent anthropogenic pressures on the Earth systems) occur. Heterosexuality and non-heterosexuality may actually be best understood as akin to the black and white daisies of James Lovelock’s Daisyworld, existing in an interdependent and reciprocating dynamic stability.

Rustmann claims that his belief that non-heterosexuality is “disordered” is rooted in science, not theology. But this is an attempt to disguise religious values as scientific. His reading of science is undergirded by blatantly religious values and teleological dogmatism contrary to Darwin’s evolution. In short, his interpretation of science is incorrect. Moreover, he altogether ignores the ought/is distinction, imports religious values onto flawed scientific reading, and conflates the ethical dialectic and the legal-normative dialectics insofar as he claims his objection is an ethical one but then argues that society ought to institutionalize anti-non-heterosexual religious values as law (OK Q711, DOMA, etc.).

5) Religion and religious values in society

Within society, recall, there are—among others—two distinct dialectics of relevance here: the ethical and the legal-normative. Religious values are usually permissible in the ethical dialectic—and moreover, I should be clear, I have no inherent objection to faith in religious mythology. Faith in religious mythology is, after all, an especially resilient vehicle for values and ethics that make life feel meaningful and worth living—perhaps even more so than faith in secular mythology.

But in the legal-normative dialectic of the United States—i.e. what should be legal or illegal in the US—we cannot simply ignore Constitutional Law and permit the entrance of religious value. By the First Amendment, it is unconstitutional to establish religious values as law. Freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to force your religion on others. Legislators “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Banning same-sex marriage on the basis of religious values precisely constitutes an unconstitutional establishment of religion. If marriage is an exclusively Judeo-Christian heterosexual institution, then marriage should not be a legal institution, but a religious one, about which, again, the Constitution forbids the legislative establishment.

The author also says he would be fine with civil unions or something of the sort for non-heterosexual couples. But civil unions as a solution to the marriage discrimination problem don’t go far enough, and are, moreover, unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. Ultimately, civil unions for non-heterosexuals are a mere façade of socio-legal equality. Civil unions to side-step the marriage discrimination problem is no better than a revitalization of Separate But Equal doctrine pertaining to non-heterosexuals. And just as Separate But Equal was wrong regarding race, so too is it wrong regarding sexuality and genderism. If Rustmann wants to reserve “marriage” for heterosexuals, then, legally, as far as the government is concerned, every marriage should be no more than civil union and should be equally available to all adult citizens of any gender or sexuality.

In yet another strange and furrowing turn of argument, the author also contends that non-heterosexuals already are socio-legally equal and that “the definition of marriage should not be changed […] to any other definition.”

“LGBT people do have socio-legal equality,” he argues. “They are perfectly welcome to marry just like any other adult person. However, marriage requires one man and one woman. If they don’t want to be joined with a person of the opposite gender, then they should not get married.”

This sort of exclusionary criterion for legal matrimony is obviously not equal. Marriage equality does not mean the freedom to join with a person of only the opposite gender. It means the freedom to join with a person of your choosing. Limiting that choice to a person of the opposite gender is a blatant, harsh, arbitrary, and capricious limitation of that freedom. Moreover, insofar as the author opposes changing the definition of marriage, laws like Oklahoma’s Question 711, DOMA, and California’s Proposition 8 do exactly that; they change the definition of marriage to explicitly exclude non-heterosexual couples. This is not freedom, and it is not equal.

Freedom is a fundamental value about which Rustmann and I likely both agree. In other words, freedom–the conservation of personal liberty, autonomy, and self-determination—is important. But for him, freedom comes with an asterisk. Freedom with regard to marriage is reserved for heterosexuals—even more so, fertile heterosexuals willing to “on-record declare that they are open to having children.” Excluding non-heterosexuals, the infertile, the elderly, or those uninterested in procreation from the freedom to marry who they love if they so choose is outright antithetical to freedom. It seems all but obvious that, for freedom’s sake, it is important that allies of the non-heterosexual community continue to contest pieces of legislation like Question 711 and those who support them.

Discourse as optimism

As enumerated toward the top, this debate centers on several fundamental divergences about perennial philosophical questions. By definition, perennial philosophical questions are irresolvable in an absolute sense. But discourse is itself reason to be optimistic. We ought regularly and openly subject our views to the scrutiny of others. Only when we can amiably, and with mutual respect, engage in the process of open public dialogue will we be able to ameliorate the tensions and problems of society. Indeed, this responsibility falls to all generations, but I am especially confident that the present rising generation—we Millennials who will soon ascend to seats of power in the world and control, to what extent we the can, the trajectory of humanity—will be able to make a difference. Of course the extent to which we can control the human condition is quite limited, but some social and political aspects of human life are within our purview. And I rest with a hopeful assurance that we as people, if ultimately unified by being human together, are open-minded, thoughtful, discursive, respectful, tolerant, and politically engaged enough to respect and preserve the socio-legal freedom and equality of all people—not despite, but for their differences.

On non-heterosexuality, religious absurdity, heteronormativity, human dignity, love, and freedom

A friend of mine—in reaction to Oklahoma Federal Judge Kern’s overturning a ban on non-heterosexual marriage—recently authored a blog outlining his condemnation of homosexuality and disapproval of the current trajectory of Western marriage culture. Ordinarily I would just shake my head and move on, but this particular instantiation of dogmatic heteronormative religious anti-queer ideology is so utterly rife with contradictions, non-sequiturs, equivocations, conflations, hypocrisy, platitudes, and empty distinctions unconvincingly presented as redeeming or reconciliatory that I simply cannot stomach remaining silent.

His post begins with an especially empty and confused distinction: “We should not disapprove of people as a class. [...] We must always make a distinction between the person and their actions. We disapprove of the actions, not the people.”

This distinction is nonsense. Of course there is an obvious difference between a person and her or his actions—the former is a performer and the latter is a performance—but with regard to the regulatory goals of anti-queer rights advocates, the actor and action are inseparable. Action does not exist in a void. Action presupposes an actor, so to condemn an action concurrently and necessarily condemns the actor. We do not oppress or socio-legally imprison actions, but the people who act. Actions do not have inherent rights to freedom and self-determination, people do. It is not the freedom of an action that anti-queer advocates aim to curtail, but the freedom and agency of, not just one class of people—the queer community is not monolithic—but numerous classes of people; all classes of people except heterosexuals, in fact. There is no practical difference between regulating the action and regulating the actor in this case. You cannot criminalize a person’s natural mode of being and expression of agency without criminalizing the person.

Also, as a writing teacher I feel compelled to point out the lack of grammatical agreement between the singular “the person” and the plural “their actions” in the aforementioned quotation.

The author goes on to say that his disapproval of homosexual actions actually comes from love, and that we “must always love and accept people [original emphasis]. In fact,” he continues, “in order to truly love someone, we have to disapprove of things that hurt them as people. Homosexual actions are contrary to the dignity of the human person and thus we must always disapprove of such actions.”

Contradictions and mistakes abound. Let’s deconstruct each of the three premises individually:

Premise 1: “We must always love and accept people [original emphasis].”

Counter-argument 1: If you “love and accept people,” then you must love and accept them for who they are, not who you want them to be. Otherwise you’re not accepting, but rejecting their identities. And non-heterosexual identity is precisely that: identity. Non-heterosexuality is fundamentally intertwined in the selfhood of non-heterosexuals. You cannot separate the two and purport to love and accept one but not the other. To think otherwise is an error.

Premise 2: “In order to truly love someone, we have to disapprove of things that hurt them as people.” (Note again the lack of grammatical agreement between the singular “someone” and the plural “them as people”).

Counter-argument 2: To begin, the notion of “truly lov[ing] someone” is a loaded and problematic one. By who’s truth should “true” love be judged? Who’s to determine whether one person’s love is more or less true than another’s? Is love even the kind of thing that can be “true” or “false”? False love—should such a thing exist—it seems to me, would not be love at all, but deception. The author suggests that “true love” is contingent upon disapproval of harmful things; in other words, disapproval of harm or hurt is the criterion he proposes for distinguishing “true love.” This is a specious, capricious, and arbitrary criterion. To what measure of hurt does he refer? In what sense is non-heterosexuality hurtful? In no way apparent to me does non-heterosexuality cause harm to individuals or society. If anything it’s the opposite. For non-heterosexuals, non-heterosexuality is not hurtful, but a means of flourishing. Non-heterosexuality and non-heterosexual love are equally natural, beautiful, admirable, defensible, and commendable expressions of the human condition as heterosexuality and heterosexual love. Only in context of intolerant dogmatic archaic religious ideology is this equality contestable. And only in said context is non-heterosexual socio-legal equity contested. The argument that “in order to truly love someone, we have to approve of things that enrich or fulfill them as people” is made just as easily—and I think more convincingly. If anything, the denial of such enrichment or fulfillment constitutes harm or hurt, in which case, by the author’s own logic and criterion, if we truly love all people, then we must disapprove of those who disapprove of non-heterosexuality.

Premise 3: “Homosexual actions are contrary to the dignity of the human person and thus we must always disapprove of such actions.”

Counter-argument 3: I agree that we ought disapprove of actions contrary to human dignity, but homosexuality (& other forms of non-heterosexuality) and homosexual (& non-heterosexual) actions are not contrary to human dignity. Non-heterosexuality may be contrary to fundamentalist Christian doctrine or other anachronistic universalist religious dogma, but it is not contrary to human dignity. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Denying freedom, self-determination, and social equality to human beings because of antiquated mythological religious ideology is contrary to human dignity. Human dignity means being free to live and express one’s natural identity without oppression or discrimination insofar as said lifestyle and expression brings no harm or socio-legal imprisonment to others. The liberty and expression of non-heterosexuality has nothing to say about religion and does nothing to limit the freedom of religious zealots, but the socio-legal institutionalization of uncompromising anti-queer fanaticism moves precisely to limit the freedom of non-heterosexuals. By Mill’s Harm Principle, the former is obviously permissible, and the latter is both impermissible and ethically repugnant.

The author next attempts to hedge or mask his distasteful condemnation of non-heterosexuality by saying that “We need to always treat homosexuals, regardless of their life choices, with charity and love, WITHOUT [original caps] condescension, patronization, or moral arrogance.”

This rhetorical attempt to placate the queer-community and its allies is socially intolerant hypocrisy at its finest. There are several problematic components of the above claim. First, the author makes a category mistake in asserting that being homosexual (and presumable anything other than heterosexual) is the kind of thing about which one chooses. Non-heterosexuality is not a choice, but one of countless natural dimensions of the human condition. Non-heterosexuality is not a “life choice,” it is simply life. Furthermore, to treat non-heterosexuals as pariahs, reject their natural identities, and support the prevention, revocation, or demolition of non-heterosexual socio-legal equality is, in no way, to treat non-heterosexuals with charity or love. And what, on grounds of ancient religious dogma, is advocation for non-heterosexual socio-legal inequality if not moral arrogance? Is it not moral arrogance to arbitrarily claim that non-heterosexuality is contrary to human dignity? Is it not moral arrogance to inexplicably argue that non-heterosexual actions are hurtful or harmful and that, in effect, the religious community knows what’s best for all people—especially non-heterosexuals? Moreover, to reject non-heterosexuality, deny non-heterosexuals socio-legal equality, espouse oppressive, exclusionary, and discriminatory religious myth as if it were simple fact and then call it love is both offensive and antithetical to the very idea of love and smacks with precisely the condescension and patronization which the author argues the anti-queer cause should avoid.

The author then—referencing Judge Kern’s reasoning that the sanctity of marriage and the encouragement of procreation are not valid or logical reasons to ban same-sex marriage—in a profound non-sequitur moves to argue that the rejection of non-heterosexuality somehow entails a narrow teleological prescription about heterosexual marriage; namely, that the purpose of marriage is to have children and that he “would be in favor of limiting marriage to couples who have to say on record that they are at least open [original emphasis] to having children.” This is an absurd—remarkably inane—line of reasoning. What of love? What of commitment? What of legal rights of access and decision-making power that come with marriage? What of inheritance and the social securities that marriage entails? Are these not valid reasons to marry? What of the infertile or the elderly or those uninterested in having children of their own? What of couples who would prefer to raise adopted children while in wedlock? The author now not only wants to preclude the socio-legal equality of non-heterosexuals, but to limit the freedom of all people who do not share his precise ideology. “The stability of our society” depends on it, he argues.”Just a suggestion, America.” I can think of no more appropriate term for this than fascism; for as Sinclair Lewis so aptly stated, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

Marriage is a human institution, not a Christian one. It is a social and civil right of all citizens of age and sound mind, not a privilege of heterosexuals, the devout, or those bent on reproduction. Marriage is a natural human freedom to take the long walk with someone for whom you care deeply and with whom you wish to build a life of mutual devising, together. Freedom is essential to American prosperity, not its curtailment or the institutionalization of discrimination, inequality, inequity, exclusion, and oppression on the basis of outrageous dogmatic ideology rooted in ancient religious mythology. Love, sex, commitment, shared experience, partnership, cooperation, and companionship—these are among the aspects of being human that make life worth living, and in no way are they—nor should they be—reserved for the close-minded, the bigoted, the hyper-religious, or the heteronormative. Life is an opportunity to live together with the people important to us, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, fertility, or religion. That is what’s worth protecting—worth fighting for—and that is what the stability of our society depends upon. Of this I have never been more sure.

Does distance matter?

There is some contention in ethics over the moral relevance of distance—I touched on this to an extent in the ethics of rising sea level (II). In essence, the question “does distance matter?” amounts to asking whether we have greater responsibility to those who are nearer to us than to those who are far away—if we have any such responsibility to those far away at all. In context of catastrophic sea level rise, one might ask: am I obliged to my neighbor who will be affected by rising sea level more so than to someone living in, say, Bangladesh who will likewise be affected?

Some would say, yes—we have some such responsibility to help our neighbors deal with sea level rise, and no such responsibility to help someone in a similar predicament in Bangladesh. Others would contend that we have equal responsibility to both. A third option might be that we have responsibilities to both, but more to one than the other—i.e. we do indeed have responsibilities to sea level rise related climate refugees from Bangladesh, but we have more responsibility to our neighbors. Another might say we have responsibilities to neither, but should assist only if it serves our own interests. The list could go on, but that’s not the point here. The point is to show that it’s not necessarily clear how distance plays into responsibility. It’s not so clear if distance matters.

So let’s construct a thought experiment to clarify things.

Suppose you live in the US and you’re running late for some sort of important engagement—a dinner, perhaps—that requires you wear a shirt. But you had been at the beach (you had accidentally fallen asleep in the Sun) and are utterly shirtless. You have no option except to purchase a shirt, and fast—somewhere on your way to the important dinner you’re running late for. Along your way you come across exactly one place that sells shirts—the only shirt store, in fact. You enter the store and find, to your dismay, that your shirt options here are rather limited. There are exactly two options, no more no less, of exactly the same quality, kind, price, etc. But you notice a key difference, all other things being equal. One was made in an Indonesian sweatshop and the other in a Mexican maquiladora, both of the same deplorable conditions. Your moral sense starts to ache. Whichever you choose, you realize, is an implicit endorsement of the reprehensible labor practices that produced it. You don’t approve of or want to endorse either, but you seem to have no choice about it—suppose you must choose. So you wonder—does distance matter?

If distance matters, then as a person living in the US you have more responsibility to not endorse the closer repugnance. If distance matters, you should buy the Indonesian-made shirt, swallowing the sad endorsement of the unethical practice that’s farther away. But this seems wrong.

If distance doesn’t matter, on the other hand, then you have equal responsibility not to endorse either, and you have come to an impossible choice. The only ethical option, as you see it, is to purchase neither, remain shirtless, and forgo your engagement at whatever sacrifice that entails—because distance doesn’t matter. Neither is morally acceptable.

The thought experiment may seem odd—I’m open to other formulations or suggestions—but perhaps it helps clarify intuition. I think, at least in this case, intuition tells us that endorsing either disturbing labor practice is unethical—that distance doesn’t matter—and that we have equal responsibility to treat people on the other side of the Earth with the same moral considerability as we do those nearby. Of course, an obvious objection stems from the premise “ought implies can.” Distance doesn’t matter only if we are just as capable of treating those nearby and those far away as moral patients. If we literally can’t help those far away—e.g. a drowning person on the other side of the planet—then we aren’t morally responsible for doing so. Ought implies can. We can only be obliged to do that which is possible for us. But insofar as we can help distant people, we should.

The implications of this intuition for how we ought to address global problems like climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, sea level rise, world hunger and dehydration, sociopolitical oppression, ocean acidification, rampant poverty and disease, slavery and human trafficking, etc., are vast. If distance doesn’t matter then we all share a global responsibility to solve these problems, or, in cases that involve global commons, to engage and address them in and on equitable and proportional grounds of complicity and capacity.

Depending on the context of the moral question, distance may or may not matter, more or less. Regarding global climate change, perhaps distance doesn’t matter. But regarding exposure to the risks and harms of natural gas development, where proximity is an obvious important factor, perhaps distance does. To say that distance always does or always doesn’t matter is an over-simplification, so it’s important we rehash this question in various contexts. The more often we ask the question, the more often we may find it appropriate or obligatory to expand our spheres of moral consideration. And such expansion, it seems to me, is of supreme importance if we are to live well in our global community.

Shutdown the meltdown

Who cares about Antarctica? Between failed marine reserves, rogue icebergs, the ratcheting down of federal science funding, and research stalled by the US government shutdown in October, the Antarctic meltdown is something of a hard case. On one hand, the international delegation of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR) has been rumbling about the creation of a massive ocean sanctuary—what would be the largest in the world—which seems like progress. At the very least, the various reserve proposals by the US, New Zealand, Australia, France and others in the EU indicate rising awareness and political salience about “the last intact ocean ecosystem on Earth.” I suppose there’s the chance that underlying motives for its creation could be geopolitical or economic—a move to thwart anti-sovereignty claims or the fishery interests of other nations and bulwark their own competitiveness, but something tells me there’s genuine concern about the ecological pressures and risks to biodiversity at the heart of the marine reserve ideas.

Cape Denison--photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

Cape Denison–photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

On the other hand, the CCALMR has also failed to create the sanctuary three times in the past year because the commission requires unanimity in decision-making. In particular, Russia, Ukraine, (and now China) have repeatedly blocked the proposals to protect their own fishing interests in the Southern Ocean, presented under the guise of concern for legal technicality. Disappointing, to be sure. But it shows that Antarctica is more than just a blip on the political radar, even if the proposed reserve hasn’t managed to pass.

Speaking of radar—we may recall that NASA discovered an 18 mile crack in the Pine Island Glacier in 2011. Upon its discovery, scientists speculated that eventually the crack might cause a glacier to break off. In July of this year, the prediction came true. Images from the TerraSAR-X satellite of the German Space Agency reported that, indeed, a city-sized iceberg had separated from the Pine Island Glacier. At the time, however, it was basically being kept in place by other sea ice.

Pine Island Crack--Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Pine Island Crack–Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

But not anymore.

Similar in size to Manhattan, the separated iceberg has made its way out of its icy entrapments and is floating out to sea. Sounds benign enough, but it’s actually a problem—on top of the disposition shared by many that the slow degradation of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is itself lamentable. The problem at hand, however, is an instrumental one. The iceberg is headed for the space between Antarctica and Cape Horn on the southern-most tip of Chile, which is an especially trafficked international shipping lane.

Pine Island Rift--image courtesy of NASA

CLICK ME FOR ANIMATION! Pine Island Rift–GIF courtesy of the German Aerospace Center

The iceberg could stick around for more than a year before it dissipates, and if it does move through Drake’s Passage and end up in the shipping lane it could cause some serious obstructions to trade and transportation—or at least pose complications. It’s unclear what exactly could be done about the new glaciers other than circumvention, so perhaps the situation is better framed as a condition rather than a problem—but at least it’s a temporary one at that. Nevertheless, now that Antarctica and Antarctic issues are verging into the realm of economics and international trade its relative political importance may elevate. To that effect, a team of UK researchers recently received and emergency grant to track and study the iceberg’s movement.

Drake's Passage--image courtesy of www.worldatlas.com

Drake’s Passage–image courtesy of http://www.worldatlas.com

Which brings me to another point—NSF funding, the government shutdown, and Antarctic research, which are especially relevant here at CU-Boulder since we have a legacy and prospect of research in Antarctica.

I talked about the state of federal funding for academic research at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge. In essence, folks like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are doing their best to restructure and minimize the federal budget for research and allocation priorities. Unless research strictly pertains to national security or will yield demonstrable economic benefit, apparently, by their account, it’s not worth funding. As far as Antarctic research goes, the economic benefits aren’t necessarily obvious, nor does it straightforwardly improve national security—which of course erroneously assumes that better understanding complex ecosystems and ubiquitous issues like the history of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations through ice cores and other paleontological records through programs like the WISSARD drilling project don’t strengthen national security, make us better off through new knowledge, or help us figure out what sorts of adaption measures will be necessary as the climate changes. Hogwash. Be that as it may, by new funding standards, it seems likely that funding for Antarctic research may become harder to come by.

Image courtesy of www.theguardian.com

Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com

What’s more, the partial government shutdown in October didn’t help. Of course the federal shutdown didn’t help anything, but—aside from national parks and furloughed federal workers—of particular relevance here, the budgetary holds ups stifled funding for the US Antarctic Program and its three field stations, to which a team of CU researchers had been planning to travel in late October (the beginning of summer in Antarctica). Perhaps not surprisingly, the research timetable is quite sensitive and so because of the shutdown and lingering budgetary priority questions, much of the Antarctic research planned for this year has been deferred. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the NSF informed hopeful researchers from CU Boulder, UC Santa Cruz, UT Austin, and other institutions alike poised and expecting to head south, that, as they feared, they’d have to wait to embark on their icy adventures. As the NYT put it, the ripples of the government shutdown made it all the way to the end of the Earth. Well done, obstinate, uncompromising, and unreasonable members of Congress who shall here remain nameless—well done. In any case, we should all keep an eye on this. And we should all care about Antarctica.

On top of the world

Antarctica is stunning, to say the least. Though the aesthetics and importance of the Earth’s southern-most continent are easily and often overlooked. I think this is unfair. It’s certainly biased against Antarcticans. But this oversight isn’t necessarily because people think the glaciers, mountains, Archipelagos, lakes, snowy deserts, penguins, whales, and seals aren’t especially beautiful or important. Presumably people think, or at least would think, quite the opposite—charismatic mega-fauna, icy caverns and all.

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Mt. Herschel, Antarctica—photo courtesy of Wikipedia

However, my concern here is more spatial and cartographical. Or, rather, it stems from lingering frustrations related to the assumptions that underlie our spatial and cartographical representations of the Antarctic, and how those assumptions affect our understandings of what Antarctica is and its importance relative to the rest of the world. Indeed, the typical distorted, flattened, elongated pictures of Antarctica we get from North-Atlantic-centric mapsRobinson and Mercator projections alike—are, at best, disappointing and preclude thorough appreciation for the size, shape, place, value, importance, and beauty of the Antarctic continent.

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

Map courtesy of NOAA’s National Geographic Data Center

I mean—really—who are we kidding? Antarctica does not look like that. Obviously, some degree of distortion is inevitable when portraying spherical shapes on a flat surface—but this is exactly my point. Antarctica is rarely seen for what it “actually” looks like, nor in continuity, because of our typical Euro-centric-map-influenced perception of the world. Granted, world maps look like world maps, not like the world. To that effect, globes are more accurate representations of the planet. But even then, Antarctica is usually at the bottom, mercilessly impaled and obscured by the trinket’s axis of rotation.

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Photo courtesy of IrishTimes.com

Among the last of the pristine, unindustrialized, non-instrumentalized regions of the planet, the vast, isolated, solitary nature of the Antarctic wilderness is an awe-inspiring holdout of human non-interference, distinctly absent of permanent human habitation, perched unsuspectingly on top of the world. Wait. On top? Indeed. The idea that north is “up” goes largely unquestioned because our spatial orientation and perspective of planetary positionality has been dictated and subsequently assumed by northern-centric portrayals of the Earth created by sea-faring European explorers, navigators, and cartographers that saw Europe as both on top of and at the center of the world. The result is a historical legacy of Euro-Atlantic-centric maps perpetuated still today.

But this presumed directionality and centricism is ultimately fiction. It would be just as correct to portray the South Pole as upward facing. For that matter, the same holds true of the East, West, and everything in between. After all, the Earth is just a sphere(-ish) object floating in space. There is no up or down in the void.

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection Map—courtesy of transpacificproject.com

For better or for worse, we tend to associate size and relative spatial position—i.e. above and below—with importance. Now, relative spatial orientation—that is, where X  is located in comparison to Y—is certainly relevant, especially with regard to the Antarctic, to establishing our perceptions of importance. Often we assume that being “above” equates to being “better” and that being “below” equates to being “worse.” Poppycock. While socially prevalent, these associations are fallacious; they are more a pernicious matter of habit than of justified belief. Writing from Brisbane, Australia at the moment, the idea of being “down under” seems particularly salient, but in no way should being down under be presumed as or used as a pejorative term. Most would probably contend that Antarctica is “below” North America, and that it’s at the “bottom” of the Earth. But Antarctica is neither above nor below any other continent, Australia and North America alike. We just happen, by instrumental and anthropocentric convention, to portray it that way. In turn, we do Antarctica itself and its inhabitants a serious disservice and minimize the perceived importance of the southern-most continent.

With regard to size and perceptions of importance, we also tend to think that “bigger is better” and that we ought to prefer the large. Growing up in Texas, these were simply tenants of the Good Life. But, again, these are specious premises at best. Gargantuan, obnoxious, unwieldy automobiles in a congested urban landscapes, for example, are far from preferable. Imagine trying to park an H2 in Manhattan. To the same point, if the Sun were any larger than it is, life on Earth probably wouldn’t have developed as it has and all of our human shenanigans would have been physiochemically and energetically precluded. Bigger is not necessarily better.

Indeed, Schmacher’s “Small is Beautiful” profundity has been hailed as revolutionary by localists, anarchists, environmentalists, and environmental economists since being published in the 70s. But sadly, others have noted, the idea is slowly being forgotten in context of global industrialization and an ever-growing human population.

It also seems important to point out that while the United States measures in at 3.794 million square miles and Europe at 3.931 million square miles, the Antarctic continent spans a whopping 5.405 million square miles—a difference in size we probably wouldn’t expect given the misleading flat and stretched portrayal of Antarctica we’re used to. Perhaps Europeans are less guilty of associating size with importance, but Americans tend to especially value the big over the small—so maybe noting Antarctica’s comparative largeness could help motivate a shift in the equivocation of size, value, and importance. If size matters, Antarctica matters more than the US and Europe. The Peter’s Map—an area-accurate projection—speaks to this point.

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Peter’s Map—Courtesy of petersmap.com

Typical Euro-Atlantic-centric projections disproportionately represent the size of the northern hemisphere and portray the continents of the southern hemisphere as much smaller than the comparative reality. The Greenland Problem is a good poster-child for this disproportionality.

In Mercator projections, Greenland looks to be of similar size to Africa. But in reality, Africa is 11.67 million square miles whereas Greenland is only .8363 million square miles; the former is almost 14-times larger than the latter. Granted, the Mercator projection was created for navigation, not necessarily for proportional accuracy, but if maps are supposed to depict reality in shaping our worldviews, then we’ve been living in a Mercator fantasy.

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Mercator projection; the Greenland Problem—courtesy of culturaldectective.com

Regarding the Greenland Problem, the Peter’s Map is certainly an improvement. But it comes with shape distortions of its own, so it’s far from ideal. Moreover, while the Peter’s Map is a more accurate proportional representation of size than the Mercator projection, it still does nothing with regard to the fair treatment of Antarctica. Peter’s Antarctica is still relegated to the bottom of the map, split along its radius, and flattened out.

Ultimately, no map will ever be perfect, nor will every map serve every purpose. Rather than trying to find “the best” map, we might prefer to be cartographic pluralistic relativists and insist that various projections be displayed together, side by side, in every case so that no single worldview is ostensibly portrayed as “better” than any other, and in turn, prevent the disproportionate assignment of value and importance that accompanies visual representation and evaluation of the Earth. Alongside the Mercator, Peter’s, Hobo-Dyer, “south-as-up,” and Robinson projections, so too belongs an Antarctic-centric perspective. If Antarctica is going to get a fair shake in politics, ethics, and the allocation of resources, then we ought also consider and incorporate a worldview where Antarctica is the center of attention. Besides, Antarctic-centricism makes for a beautiful map. And we all know what they say about a picture’s worth in words.

Antarctic-centric map--courtesy of username “Karilyn” of www.forums.xkcd.com

Antarctic-centric map–courtesy of username “Karilyn” of http://www.forums.xkcd.com

Antarctic loss and damage

November 11th marked the beginning of the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—this year held in Warsaw. Six major components generally comprise the UNFCCC agenda, but two main pillars get the most attention: mitigation and adaptation. The focus on mitigation means nations—developed and developing (naturally there is some contention between rich and poor nations here)—reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to curb the intensity of climate change. As part of the Cancun Agreements, countries agreed to target a reduction in GHG emissions sufficient to keep global temperature increases within 2°C. An ambitious goal, perhaps overly so, to say the least. Adaptation, on the other hand, speaks to the idea that some degree of climate change is inevitable at this point and that nations need to make plans to deal with long-term impacts like sea level rise on behalf of vulnerable people and areas.

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw--photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw–photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

Subsumed by the adaptation pillar, the Warsaw Conference has largely centered on the notion of “loss and damage.” In essence, loss and damage related to climate change means losses of life, territory, economic prosperity, climatic stability and predictability, biodiversity etc., and damages related to weather events like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and onset of sea level rise. Some analysts have suggested that loss and damage deserves to be considered a third pillar all its own next to mitigation and adaptation.

In pragmatic terms, discussion of loss and damage ultimately becomes a discussion of culpability, liability, responsibility, and compensation. Sticky territory to be sure. Money politics surrounding loss and damage is contentious at best. No one wants to pay more than their fair share, but few agree on how to determine what shares are “fair.” In large part, the divergence is one between the relative importance of cumulative v. annual GHG emissions, and which should receive more emphasis in establishing financial obligations—basically the same question that stopped the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol. In either case the debate revolves around two major players—the United States (the largest cumulative GHG emitter by far) and China (now the largest annual GHG emitter). Obviously other countries (Europe and the other BRIC nations) have their hands in this issue as well, but the US and China are the big two.

So loss and damage—clearly a salient issue. Climate change means unprecedented losses and damages. When it comes to nations, determining relative interests are somewhat intuitive. Everyone has, albeit varying, national interests in addressing climate change for domestic reasons, and no one wants to pay more than their fair share—no one likes the idea of other countries freeloading on their mitigation efforts. But, clearly, climate change isn’t just a domestic issue. Climate change entails a slew of international losses and damages involving global commons—the oceans and Antarctica, for example—which don’t have straightforward national borders to delineate interest groups and stakeholders. Indeed, Antarctica has plenty to lose and damage to incur, but lacks the domestic interest element, strictly speaking. The Antarctic meltdown has, for the most part, only been discussed indirectly in terms of sea level rise.

Antarctic territory map--photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

Antarctic territory map–photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

But Antarctica has more going on than just melting glaciers, break-away icebergs, and contributions to sea level rise. I’m thinking, for instance, about changes in biodiversity we can expect to see as ecological conditions shift on and around the continent and Southern Ocean. Between rising atmospheric temperatures, ocean acidification, and a warming Southern Ocean, the ~16,000 species known to inhabit Antarctic itself or the waters surrounding it have some notable challenges ahead—but no national  interest, strictly speaking, to represent them at the UNFCCC. In particular, let’s consider some charismatic mega-fauna like the endangered Southern Elephant Seal and the variety of endangered whales that live on and near Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Sealing and whaling (especially whaling) have been—and still are, sadly—problems for these populations, and climate change coupled with habitat loss and changes in ocean temperatures and acidity will only increase their stressors. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, then Southern Elephant Seals lose breeding grounds, and whales and seals alike will need to adapt to changing oceanic conditions. So what’s to be done on their behalf? While Antarctic interests are represented at the UNFCCC by non-governmental organization (NGO) observers, Antarctica doesn’t exactly have its own seat at the table.

Southern Elephant Seal--photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Southern Elephant Seal–photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Luckily, Antarctica will benefit from mitigation efforts regardless of whether it’s afforded explicit attention or not—but ethically speaking, because improvements to Antarctica’s lot are, in a mitigative sense, coincidental or happenstantial, this may be unsatisfying. And few—perhaps with the exception of some researchers and activists—worry about Antarctic adaptation. So, again, what’s to be done to hedge against Antarctic loss and damage?

To this point, aside from UNFCCC action, there was a recent attempt by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—another fantastic acronym for an appropriately instrumentalist name—to create the world’s largest ocean sanctuary around Antarctica, totaling somewhere between 1.6 and 1.9 million square kilometers.

Penguins in the Ross Sea--photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Penguins in the Ross Sea–photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Unfortunately, Russian and Ukranian representatives questioned the authority of the CCAMLR to declare such a sanctuary, and, in turn, blocked its establishment, undermining what political good will may have existed in this context. Disappointing, to be sure, but in a sense this objection is just a business-as-usual exercise of power given the structure of the Antarctic Treaty System, which—we can only assume is to avoid a sort of Aristotelian tyranny of the majority—demands that international decisions pertaining to Antarctica be made unanimously. So we probably won’t see the creation of an Antarctic Marine Reserve any time soon. While the sanctuary may not have been proposed with specific regard to climate change, it would have been progress regarding Antarctic loss and damage nonetheless. But so much for that.

Humpback whale breach--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Humpback whale breach–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Sadly, the failed marine reserve also means a failed way to halt whaling in the Southern Ocean. Historically, whaling near Antarctica has been atrocious. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union (among others) was responsible for the disappearance of more than 180,000 whales. 180 thousand. But as of ~27 years ago commercial whaling was declared illegal by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that the ban put a stop to all whaling. Yes—even in this day and age—there are still whalers out there. What’s even more surprising is that it’s technically  legal. Japan was granted a moratorium from the prohibition in order to do scientific research that involves whaling. Whaling for science! Makes sense, right? Earth First! and Greenpeace eco-activists aren’t the only ones who find this repugnant. Toward protecting against Antarctic biodiversity loss, in 2010 Australia took Japan to court at the Hague—the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands—in order to challenge the validity of Japan’s “scientific research,” which, by Japan’s argument, requires killing whales. Japan has taken more than 10,000 whales from the Southern Ocean since 1988.

Japanese whaling ship--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Japanese whaling ship–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

The Hague should pass down its judgment within the next few months, so at that point we’ll see what justice holds for whaling. Perhaps on the pessimistic side of legal analysis, by Dr. Rowan Hooper’s reading, the Australian case may be emotionally compelling, but Japan may have a stronger legal argument to uphold their exception from the IWC’s prohibition.

Suffice to say, between climate change, habitat loss, warming water, ocean acidification, and whaling—there are plenty reasons to be concerned about Antarctic loss and damage. The question, then, is what should and what will be done about it moving forward. Let’s get it together humans.

The ethics of rising sea level (II)

Rising sea level: Future generations and distant populations

Despite the gravity of the catastrophic sea level rise scenario, we cannot treat it as if it’s here and now when deciding how to act today. In reality, sea level rise involves two kinds of murky ethical distance: temporal and spatial. Sea level rise scenarios pertain to future generations and future generations of distant populations. As if the moral standing of future generations weren’t contentious enough, the “future generations of distant populations” element of the sea level rise makes things even more complicated and difficult to reconcile with the intuition that someone should do something.

Map courtesy of geology.com

The United States with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

Let’s restrict what follows to considering two possible moral agents: the individual US citizen and the US state as a collective entity.

What responsibilities, if any, do individual US citizens have with regard to sea level rise? Are individuals obliged to address sea level rise for future generations’ sake? It seems intuitive that we do indeed have certain individual responsibilities to posterity. The idea of acting in the interest of our children and grandchildren is commonplace. Even Locke seems to endorse the sustainable use of the environment for sake of others and future generations, providing that however we use the environment there should be “enough and as good left in common for others.”

On the other hand, our behavior tells a different story about how we regard the future. In economic terms, humans tend to discount the future—meaning we value the future less than we value the present. This is why we accept conditions like interest rates on loans or fail to adequately save for retirement. Given that we tend to discount even our own futures, the idea of individuals actively affording future generations a non-positive discount rate may verge on absurdity.

Nevertheless, just because we do discount the future doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. In fact, it may be the case that we should not discount the future because it leads to highly counterintuitive conclusions as some have argued. For instance, given a sufficient time differential, positive intergenerational discounting of any amount leads us to conclude that benefits to one life today are worth costs to millions of future lives. By intergenerational discounting logic, the benefit of joyriding your ’67 Corvette down Miami Beach today may be worth putting Miami underwater in the future. Such a counterintuitive conclusion seems clearly wrong and may indicate that the very notion of intergenerational discounting is repugnant to the intuitive responsibility to consider posterity when deciding how to act.

If, assuming individuals do indeed have certain duties to future generations, then do individual duties to future generations also extend to future generations of distant populations—e.g. future Bangladeshis—or stop at future Americans?

And what responsibilities, if any, does the United States as a national entity have to future generations of the American collective? Intuitively, again, the US as a state seems to have certain responsibilities to do right by and protect the interests of its own future generations; an intuition codified by the 2005 amendment to the Coastal Zone Management Act, which recognizes the threat of and need to address rising sea level. After all, the very continued existence of the US state depends upon a flourishing future population and resilient infrastructure. The US state has, if nothing else, a rational interest in acting to hedge against sea level rise risks to its future generations. Assuming, then, that collective duties to future people exist, do they also extend to the future generations of distant states? Does America today have any responsibility to tomorrow’s Bangladesh?

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--map courtesy of geology.com

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–map courtesy of geology.com

These questions stir several competing moral intuitions. For example, we might intuit that future people have moral standing and should be taken into consideration when making decisions in the here and now. In turn, we might then be obliged to alter our individual or collective emissions behavior today in order to address climate change and slow the rising seas tomorrow. On the other hand, future generations don’t yet exist, and so it may make little sense to afford them much significance in our decision-making or to attribute them certain preferences, if any, being that we have little way of telling what they might be.

And what role does distance play? We might have the intuition that distance matters for moral standing; we might suppose that our responsibilities to each other wane as distance between us increases. We may then only have responsibilities to people proximate to ourselves, or in the case of future generations, people who will be proximate to us. If distance does matter, then our duty as individuals or as a nation to address sea level rise may then just be for the sake of future Americans living in coastal areas.

If, alternatively, we have the moral intuition that distance doesn’t matter when establishing moral standing, then we would want to afford equal consideration to proximate future generations and distant future generations. If that’s the case, we should keep space in our moral calculus for future Americans as well as for future Bangladeshis.

But establishing individualistic conceptions of duty toward future generations and distant populations is more difficult than intuition might let on. Individual duty to future individuals runs into issues with the non-identity problem, as well as causal (and perhaps rational) impotence objections. Individual duty to distant individuals is likewise vulnerable to causal impotence, as well as certain epistemic and pragmatic limitations.

Challenges to individual duty

The non-identity problem

The non-identity problem refers to the extreme contingency of people. That is, depending on what we do in the here and now, the set of humans that exists in the future will be different. Contingent upon our choices today, the group of individuals living in the future will be one or another. Provided their existence is understood as a good, future generations affected by sea level rise can’t be said to be worse off than they otherwise would have been because if we had behaved differently, then an entirely different set of people would have been born; that is, they would never exist in the first place.

So, to that effect, suppose individuals decide to do nothing about sea level rise. Because of our actions today, sea level rises dramatically by the end of the century and populations all over the world are displaced. But at least they exist, says the non-identity problem. If we had chosen to behave differently and kept sea level rise more at bay, different individuals would have been born and the people in the catastrophic scenario would never exist to begin with—arguably the worst of bad consequences from their perspective. From the catastrophic-sea-level-rise-generation’s point of view, our non-action on climate change and sea level rise is actually in their best interest because that potential reality is the only one in which they exist. By this logic, individuals shouldn’t do anything about sea level rise for future generations’ sake because the existence of the people for whose sake we’d be acting depends precisely on our non-action today.

Causal and rational impotence

Moreover, individual duty to mitigate sea level rise runs into trouble with causal impotence, and perhaps rational impotence as well. The gist of causal impotence is this: even if you as an individual were to do everything in your power to reduce your contribution to sea level rise, your impact would be so small that, for practical reasons, it would have no recognizable effect. Changing one’s individual behavior may not be capable of causing any significant improvements in the situation—and we can only be held responsible for what can be done. If, as individuals, we can’t mitigate sea level rise, we aren’t morally obliged to do so.

What’s more, the cost of changing one’s behavior in the here and now may be so high that what little effect one could have simply isn’t worth pursuing. If costs to the individual for negligible future gains toward addressing sea level rise are exorbitant, the rational agent may then, justifiably, decide not to change her or his present behavior.

Individual duty to distant populations runs into similar problems with causal impotence. Essentially, we may be more able to affect people who are closer to us than those who are distant. Individually, we may be more capable of providing aid or respect to folks nearby than those on the other side of the Earth. Presuming we can cause noteworthy positive effects for distant people, however, an objector might still respond that we accrue greater benefits for proximate people than for those far away, given an equal amount of cost or effort. Considering nearby populations over and above distant ones may just be a matter of pragmatics or practical reason. To a related epistemic point, it’s also more difficult to know one’s impact on distant people than on proximate people. Unless we can know—i.e. observe or measure—the effects of our decisions on distant populations, it’s tough to say that such effects exist or matter.

As such, individuals may not be obliged to address the melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet or catastrophic sea level rise for the sake of future or distant people. We may have no duty to change our individual behavior with future or distant individuals in mind at all. But this conclusion conflicts with the intuition that we should do something about sea level rise.

In turn, the collective moral agent considered below—the US state—may provide a way out.

A case for collective responsibility to address sea level rise

Collective entities such as nations or institutions are more resilient to the non-identity problem, distance-related concerns, and to causal and rational impotence objections. As a state, the US may indeed have certain duties to future generations and distant populations that oblige us to address Antarctic melting and sea level rise. It seems a less controversial point that the US as a state has certain duties to future Americans regarding inevitable rises in sea level and flooded cities. In as much as future Americans comprise the very collective entity to which those obligations would hold, it follows that, even if only as a function of rational self-interest, the US should act to protect the integrity of its population and territory.

Future generations

With explicit regard to the non-identity problem, it may be true that there are no particular individuals to whom we are obliged because of the extreme contingency of people, but state identities are less contingent, if at all. Barring social collapse, upheaval, or revolution, in coming centuries the United States will still be the United States and Bangladesh will still be Bangladesh. As states have certain responsibilities to one another as autonomous members of the global community, even if only by convention, each is obliged, now and in the future alike, not to harm or be complicit in bringing harm to another. Presuming collective identity is uninterrupted, there is no non-identity problem for states.

Nor is causal impotence a problem for state entities with regard to future generations. The state is, in fact, among the very modes of cooperation and coordination that transports us from being causally impotent to being causally significant. Changing behavior collectively to address melting land ice and sea level rise may indeed put a dent in, or at least stall, looming catastrophe. There are, however, reasons to think that even collective entities may be unwilling or unable to regard future generations with a non-positive discount rate if the short-term benefits of defection are greater than the benefits of cooperation. Future-oriented public policy probably needs to be win-win if we aim to overcome natural human short-sightedness.

In addition, the state may be more willing to assume lower or non-positive discount rates because, for the contiguous identity of collectives, the question pertains to intragenerational discounting rather than intergenerational discounting. Unless the US dissolves and becomes a new state, the US is dealing with its own future in addressing sea level rise. There is good reason to doubt that collective entities are more likely than individuals to assume lower discount rates or non-positive discounting even for their own futures (e.g. the US national debt and deficit), but intragenerational discount rates are typically weaker than intergenerational discounting.

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Moreover, some economic theorists argue that any amount of positive intergenerational discounting is unjustified in most policy cases. That is, public policy should value the future at least as much as the present. Others have argued that it is altogether “ethically indefensible” for governments to discount the future at all, or that society should at least discount the present and future equally. Taken together, there seems to be a strong case for collective—i.e. national—responsibility with regard to future generations and addressing catastrophic sea level rise.

Distant populations

The question of distance in establishing moral standing may be an altogether empty question for states, particularly the US. The international community is, after all, so entangled, interconnected, and co-dependent that the idea of “distance” as an ethical limiting factor may be incoherent. Through the influence of global markets and international politics on domestic affairs, states are, to a certain degree, ubiquitously omnipresent within one another.

The US, in particular, has roots spread so far throughout the world that to argue that spatial distance abridges its moral duty makes little sense. The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the US has military bases in 63 countries and embassies all over the world, companies born in the US have gone on to become globally influential multinational corporations, and US contributions to climate change and the global ecological crisis—catastrophic sea level rise included—are undeniable. The US is everywhere, and thus, so too is the extent of its moral responsibility.

It stands to reason that while individuals may have difficulty establishing responsibilities toward distant and future individuals, there is a stronger case to be made for the duty of states to each other now and with regard to the future. If anyone is responsible for dealing with catastrophic sea level rise, it seems to be states.

Assuming states take it upon themselves to address sea level rise (and that may be assuming too much) the question then is: mitigation or adaptation?

Mitigation and adaptation

Interestingly enough, even if the US, for example, were to act to mitigate sea level rise only for its own sake, the benefits would be distributed globally in as much as sea level is a function of global systems. Bangladesh would still benefit from US mitigation even if the US acted with only its own interest in mind. There’s something to be said for acting for the right reasons, but in this case, motivation may be less of a priority if the result of mitigation is the same regardless of moral reasoning.

Moral reasoning is an issue, however, if the US’s reaction to sea level rise is adaptation rather than mitigation. If the US opts to adapt to rising sea level rather than attempt to mitigate it, then short of providing foreign aid or taking refugees, Bangladesh, its people, and their de facto host countries will shoulder the full burden of a problem they were not complicit in creating. This seems like a problem.

There is a key difference, ethically speaking, between adaptation and mitigation. Mitigation is forward-looking insofar as it aims to prevent or reduce the intensity of future undesirable conditions, whereas adaptation means dealing with present conditions. One cannot adapt, strictly speaking, to conditions that have not manifested yet. In other words, forward-looking adaptation may be more appropriately understood as mitigation. While mitigation questions related to sea level rise pertain to future generations and distant populations, adaptation to sea level rise once the problem is upon us will only be a question of distant populations.

This distinction might help simplify the moral dilemma, or it might not. Once sea level rise is immediately at hand, individuals may not have the non-identity problem blocking an obligation to help distant populations adapt, but they must still answer to causal and rational impotence objections regarding distance. Collective moral agents like states may be more likely candidates for said duty, but this presumes that either distance doesn’t matter, or, as I have argued above, that for states—the US in particular—distance is something of an empty question.

Go back to Part I