Before I get started, I’d like to express my deep gratitude to CK for giving my thoughts this wonderful venue. His blog is superb, its readers are among my very favorite commenters on the Web, and the topic he wants to discuss is fascinating. So, onward!
I loved CK’s recent post on ecologism (defined, perhaps, as “the position that the non-human world is worthy of moral consideration, and that this should be taken into account in social, economic, and political systems”). Especially interesting is his claim that pro-market forces are right to be scared of carbon taxes because their rationale seems to logically point to self-totalized industrial policy. It reminds me a lot of (right-libertarian) Walter Block’s article in which he argues that everything (including the decision to wear socks) can be characterized as an externality, and therefore there’s no inherent limiting principle to externality-based arguments for regulation:
There are any number of external economies, neighborhood effects, spill-overs, benefits to third parties, which flow from the purchase and use of supposedly private goods. Take, for example, the paradigm case of a private good, socks. First, there is a health question. People who do not wear socks are liable to colds, sore feet, blisters, and possibly pneumonia. And sickness means lost days of work and lost production; it means possible contagion (as in the diphtheria case); it may result in rising doctor bills and increased health insurance premiums for other policyholders. Increased demand for doctors’ time and energy will result in reduced medical attention for others. There is, in addition, an aesthetic problem: many people take umbrage at socklessness. Restaurants often forbid bare feet, presumably in the interests of retaining their more sensitive customers. Not wearing socks is also interpreted by some as a disturbing political statement, like flag or draft-card burning. Many mothers — a third party, if ever there was one — rejoice when their “hip” sons finally don footwear. That benefits of sock-wearing “spill over” to these mothers cannot be denied.
The problem is by no means limited to the socks example, for all so-called private goods affect second or third parties in some way. The reader is challenged to think of any item the use and purchase of which is not affected with a public interest, i.e., which does not similarly have spill-over effects on other people.
I think there’s something to Block’s argument that orthodox market liberals are inconsistent on this measure, as I don’t see how they can draw a hard conceptual distinction between carbon permits and more intrusive environmental measures. However, I also think Block should have extended his insight further by reasoning that if everything can be considered an externality, then there are no entirely self-regarding actions in the first place, and this therefore undermines a main libertarian justification of using violence to defend property rights. It seems communitarians (including many conservatives) are more perceptive than the libertarians on this score.
Perhaps the more important take-away from ecologism and Walter Block is that the Western conception of the self (or at least the Anglo-world conception) is impoverished. This isn’t news to anyone who’s ever had a Buddhism kick in high school, but I think it maps well to the “problem of ecologism,” which might be properly conceived as a non-theistic form of spirituality.
The problem of ecologism can be conceived as a kind of spirituality because it hinges on the self. The Grand Mandate of Ecology is this: Attempts to change the natural world to one’s liking are ultimately counterproductive, and the prescription is to recognize that the self is dependent on an Earth-economy that is too complex to be willed into submission. It’s hard for me to not see strains of Christianity in this (or Buddhism or Islam, but I’m compelled to stick with what I’m most familiar), and indeed many Christian primitivists equate industrialization with original sin.
I’m sympathetic to this idea of industrialization-as-original-sin. For all the evo-psych talk of “the savannah,” we upright apes started in the rainforest: a god-given Garden where our bodies and culture evolved to fit things like fig morphology, Gabon Nut amino acid ratios, extreme humidity, West African microbes… and who knows what else. This last category is the most important for ecologism’s purposes, because the entire history of science suggests our knowledge of the natural world requires a type of ritualistic revision: No matter how well your empirics match your models, the Duhem-Quine thesis always lurks in the background. Agricultural science has never devised anything as life-enriching as a fig or a Gabon Nut — so though our brains get larger, they must forever bow before the bittersweet mysteries of That Which Is Prior To Oneself.
I may be accused of committing the naturalistic fallacy here. But it’s not clear why it should be a fallacy, at least as long as it’s not presented deductively. It’s true the heritage of processes and phenomena are not absolute proof of their validity or utility. But they’re nevertheless very good evidence. For example, a biologist claiming to have found a better way than millennia of Nature’s own groping form of science must first be able to replicate it. But because no mortal has succeeded in this, science is always an aborted apotheosis — there’s always something the model fails to accommodate into its schema. The self strives, slips from false grace, and from that puny vista realizes its place at the right hand of a greater Self.
Relatedly, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg have critically reviewed Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, which claims that naturalistic Darwinism lacks solid epistemic footing. While I agree that Nagel’s thesis is wrong (or at least their characterization if it — I have yet to read the book), the critics’ arguments are dubious. They rely heavily on a pragmatist defense of naturalistic science in concluding that it’s superior to Aristotelian teleological inquiry:
[Physics, biology, and chemistry] are successful precisely in the way that Aristotelian science was not: they enable us to navigate the world around us, to predict its happenings and control some of them.
First, it’s not even clear that naturalistic Darwinism is in opposition to Aristotelian teleology. Biologists notoriously have a hard time talking about evolutionary adaptations without also talking about “purpose”, because even if we stipulate that there is no Creator, the idea that biological features are probably “for” something has been a remarkably fruitful vein of inquiry. Interestingly, this is the exact function that Darwinism has played: Karl Popper said Darwinism is primarily valuable as a “metaphysical research program”. So there appears to be precious little difference between the value of Darwinism and teleology, which if we’re to consistently apply the critics’ pragmatism, puts the two on comparable epistemic footing.
Second, I believe Nagel’s critics have fixated on the apparent powers of science while ignoring ecologism’s doubts about the enterprise. Leiter and Weisberg extol the benefits of physics, chemistry, and biology, but are silent about nuclear weapons, toxic waste, and antibiotics-bred superbugs. The critics have ignored the Grand Mandate of Ecology: The power to control the Earth is also the power to destroy it, and thus it’s premature to assume we were wise to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.