By Jelle Floris Kooij
I am going to tell you a true story. All you have to do is determine which year the story takes place.
A young student studying at an elite western university sees a world in chaos. One country, in particular, is getting the news media’s attention – Pakistan. Having experienced extensive floods in several parts of the country, western media is shining its bright lenses on the developing country, capturing the tragedy for western eyes. The young student is encapsulated by progressive ideology like many young people were at the time. Protests of all kinds happened all over the western world demanding social change. But this particular student focuses only on the lack of action in helping Pakistan. The young student writes an essay calling for people to be more empathic about others’ situations in life and help out where they can.
What results from this essay is one of the most influential thought experiments in Western philosophy, but first can you tell what year I am describing in this story? If you think this story describes recent events of the past year, it means we have learned nothing from the insights of the young student 50 years ago.
The influential thought experiment was the brainchild of Peter Singer in the 1970s. It goes as follows [I have adapted the story but the premise is the same];
Imagine you are walking past a pond in the city. You have walked past this point every time you are on your way to work – you have even seen city workers clean the pond and know the water level goes up to their chest. On this particular day, you notice a child screaming for help. It is obvious to you that if you do nothing the child will drown. You have two options – you can continue walking to work or you can jump in and save the child. What should you do? Any reasonable person will say that you should jump in and save the child. You have the ability to do so without bringing any harm to yourself. The only thing that would happen to you is getting wet.
The moral judgement you are making here is that the life of a child is more important than staying dry. Most people would agree that you have made the right choice by jumping in to save the child.
But now imagine that you had just gotten a new suit custom-made to your measurements. It cost a pretty penny and you are excited to show it off to your coworkers. On your usual walk to work, you see the child drowning in the pond. What should you do now? Again any reasonable person would say that the life of a child is more valuable than anything you spend on your new suit. Most people would agree with you.
In this thought experiment, two things become clear. The first is the value of human life. As Peter Singer would point out, if you have the ability to make someone better off without making yourself comparatively worse off then you should do so. In other words, the value of your suit does not equal the value of human life. The second is that the context of suffering does not negate it is the call to action to us. This second insight is more challenging to understand. Peter Singer in his essay remarked that most people can easily agree on the first insight, however, it would be amoral for us not to also recognise the second. Thus when people are suffering in other countries and if I, in the relative luxury of the Western world, choose not to help, my actions are equally amoral as someone who is causing suffering.
Peter Singer’s essay in the 1970s has become a flagpole for the start of the effective altruism movement. Effective altruism very simply can be described as a philosophy which teaches that one is morally obligated to give away that which one has in abundance to people that lack the basic utilities for life. In Western universities academics have been studying, preaching, and practising effective altruism for 50 years – but what do we have to show for it?
Once again the world is not a stable utopia. Countries are suffering from natural disasters, civil and interstate war, or trying their best to prepare themselves for the effects of climate change. Since the 1970s, climate change in particular has become an ever more present issue in the minds of young people. Never before have we had the knowledge of the ongoing significant change to human life on earth, whilst possessing the skills and technology to change the course of the climate trajectory. Climate change is, therefore, becoming a moral question — if it is not already one.
We can learn from the thought experiment of Peter Singer and change it to frame climate change in two very simple statements.
1. If we possess the tools, skills, and know-how to change the climate trajectory, we are obligated to do so.
2. If we hold the first statement to be true, then our own personal context is not a condition on which we can deceive our responsibility.
In a recent podcast for the Dutch newspaper NRC, public thinker and historian Rutger Bregman challenges the notion that climate change solutions are a systems problem as opposed to an individual agency problem. Bregman argues that it is a combination of both factors. Bregman means by this to say that individual habits (mainly consumption in the western world) are an equal part of the solution to climate change as effective public policy and decarbonization of major polluting industries.
Individual Agency X Systemic Change = Climate change solutions
Returning to the framework of Peter Singer’s thought experiment. Most people agree that systemic change is needed for any chance at changing the climate trajectory. It is easy to point the finger at the fossil fuel industry, industrialized farming, or the airline industry. If effective government policy reduced the combined pollution of these industries then we would be a long way to the goal of reducing climate change. In the last 50 years, the international community has become more focused on changing public policy to reflect the need for systemic change. Yet, this is not the lesson that Singer tried to teach us 50 years ago. Western hypocrisy lies in the belief that systemic change both in the developed and developing world is enough to be an effective solution for climate change.
Effective altruism does not just preach, its participants are also called upon to act. Whilst I cannot defend all the beliefs of Singer and other effective altruists, one key takeaway from their writing is this – individuals are not exempt from action until they have to give up something of morally comparable value.
Understanding all the philosophical argumentation of abstract moral judgements does not convince most people. Therefore, let me point to some examples of individual agency where Western societies are hypocritical. I focus on the Netherlands as most students who will read this article are students at Leiden University. Let me start with a background example.
On the sixth of November 2021, tens of thousands gathered on the Dam Square in Amsterdam to march against climate inaction by governments during the COP26 conference. Apart from Malieveld in The Hague, there are few more prominent places in the Netherlands for people to gather to protest. Dutch people are Calvinist conservative by nature therefore, large-scale protests of this magnitude are a rare occurrence. The stage had thus been set for a political battle to take place. Politicians needed to make a choice – support the people or that of business interest. In the oldest capitalist society in the world, this is not as easy of a decision to make as it is to write down on paper. However, climate protests like this one are directed towards systemic change.
But as I have told you this is only one part of the equation. It is in this that the hypocrisy of those protesters lies. These protesters are not a small group of radicals who live a fringe lifestyle. No, this protest and others like it brought together the “average” person. But does the “average” Dutch person practice what they are preaching to others? I will argue the “average” Dutch person has a large negative impact on the climate through simple habits and are hypocritical for only pointing the finger at large cooperations. To substantiate my point of view I point to two habits of the Dutch population – consumption of stuff and vacations.
In any capitalist society consumption of goods and services is not only seen as a need but also a right. Yet, in recent years, ethical consumption has become a more important topic of conversation. The link between climate change and our consumption patterns has been clearly established in academic literature. I will freely admit that this article is written on a laptop, the components of which are made from resources around the world and assembled by someone whose life I would rather not have. But the average Dutch person does not seem to be so concerned with ethical or sustainable consumption. An average of 35% of people reported caring about where their products came from and which company produced them – compared with a global average of 54%. Moreover, 90% of Dutch consumers shop online, the effects of which are clear, Online shopping is more environmentally destructive than brick-and-mortar alternatives.
The consumption habits were even more evident after the climate protest in February 2019. After the main march for climate action had concluded in The Hague, several protesters were interviewed by journalists at a McDonald’s. Just steps away from Parliament young people, the very generation whose futures will be most affected by climate change, concluded that “we as citizens can have very little impact on the climate… we also have to eat.”
At this point, an effective altruist would return to the abstract to present the moral evaluation of each person. For this, we have to alternate the characters of Singer’s thought experiment.
Imagine you are sitting in the park alone on a sunny afternoon, there is no one else in the park so you decide to smoke a cigarette. You know that cigarettes are bad for your health and the health of others but since no one else is around you figure it is alright because you are not harming anyone directly around you. A few moments later you notice a teenager walking up to you. They as ask you if they can have one of your cigarettes. Knowing what you know about cigarettes, you do not offer the teenager any and lecture them instead about the dangers of smoking. Feeling good about yourself for preventing the teenager from getting addicted, you take a drag from your still-lit cigarette before wishing the teenager a pleasant day as they walk away in defeat. Did you do the right thing by not giving the teenager a cigarette and lecturing them instead?
Any reasonable person would say that the lecture had no meaning because the teenager still received second-hand smoke from your own cigarette – in other words no, you did not do the right thing. The lesson to be learned from this story is quite simple. By not putting out the cigarette it is clear that we are causing harm to another. Whilst the intention was well-founded, the impact of your non-action still caused the suffering of another. Dutch consumer behaviour can be seen in the same light.
Another habit of the Dutch which stands directly in opposition to climate solutions is vacation. During the summer vacation period, the Dutch news media focused on one place in the country – Schiphol. Much of the attention was on systemic problems. Staff shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the wages of airport workers, and travel restrictions. But what interested me was that no one was asking a glaringly obvious question. Why do we all feel the need to go on vacation twice a year (summer and late autumn break)? For a country connected by train networks to the most popular destinations, 49% of people still choose to take a plane. Let me be clear – this is a choice.
An important lesson that Peter Singer and effective altruists like him have thought is that just because a choice makes our lives more difficult does not mean we should opt for the easier option. Singer would go as far as to say that if you had an alternative and you did not take it – knowing it would have been the better option – you are amoral.
Calls for climate action seem to be directed towards one aspect of society – systems. Yet the effective altruism movement which Peter Singer set in motion 50 years ago does not recognize such actions as making any significant impact. It is true that around 100 companies are responsible for the largest share of the global emissions of pollutants. Yet we forget to consider the role that the individual plays in upholding the profits – and thereby the existence of — these companies. Western standards of living are idealized as the most developed in the world. Yet, it is Western consumption or rather over-consumption which has largely contributed to ensuring the long-term success of unsustainable companies.
My point is not to make to say you should not go on vacation or even stop consuming altogether. But, we should ask ourselves the important question, is systemic change possible if we don’t first recognize our own role in upholding the system? If everyone lived like the “average” Dutch person we would need 3.6 Earths. So while it is true that systemic changes need to happen. We are morally required to take an introspective approach and consider our individual agency. I am not saying we need to be saints, for even saints were created by man. But we, as Western societies, are in no place to lecture the world on what society should look like without first changing our own lifestyles.