Given the occasional inability of environmentalists to resist the temptation of equating those who challenge the political orthodoxy on climate change with those who opposed the end of slavery, it was only a matter of time before someone would liken the reduction of carbon emissions to the Abolition. That Someone, it turns out, is Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who wants to de-carbonise the world entirely. Weeeeeeeell, it can’t do any harm can it? But more than that, it would be a positive kick up the arse for the economy, apparently. After all, says RFK, the industrial revolution, and all the benefits that brought for humankind, was only possible because of the Abolition. The Business and Media Institute reports:
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wants to ‘abolish’ carbon usage and sees a direct comparison to the end of slavery … According to Kennedy, “industry and government warnings” about avoiding “economic ruin” should not be heeded because abolishing slavery did not cripple the British economy as was predicted “Instead of collapsing, as slavery’s proponents had predicted, Britain’s economy accelerated,” he argued.
OK, so the Business and Media Institute is hardly likely to be a bastion of objective, detached journalism, and you are welcome to make your own minds about how low Kennedy was actually stooping with his analogy, by reading his piece for Vanity Fair on which the above report reports.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a crap analogy. Slavery, carbon. Carbon, slavery. If carbon reduction were expected to damage the economy, would it be not worth saving the planet after all? Should we regret ending slavery had the Abolition led to economic problems? Are those who merely want to reduce CO2 emissions – James Hansen, say – akin to those who argued for having fewer slaves?
And even if you give Kennedy the benefit of the doubt on his intentions, his wider argument is preposterous. He might as well be advocating that we go around throwing bricks through windows on the basis that the economy would be stimulated by all the extra work it created for glaziers. Sorry Mr Kennedy, but the Abolition was the right thing to do purely and solely because slavery is immoral. And anyway, wasn’t the industrial revolution well under way before slavery was prohibited?
It’s funny how this whole climate change debate thing seems so contemporary. And yet denialism, scepticism, certainty, doubt and liberty, and the tensions between them, were hot topics well over a century ago, as the following passage from Mill’s essay On Liberty shows. Of course, warmers might argue that the urgency demanded by the danger posed by climate change means that we need to revise our understanding of liberty. But weren’t opponents of Mill also arguing the case for a less liberal sort of liberty? Warmers who read this blog might also observe the short shrift we’ve given to casual claims of geometrical congruence between immoral arguments of the past and climate change scepticism, and decide that we are hypocrites. But our point is simply that debates of the past really can inform contemporary ones. And not in a “you disagree with how we want to change things, just like those horrible slave-traders disagreed with how the Abolitionists wanted to change things, therefore you’re as bad as they were” sort of way.
Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being “pushed to an extreme;” not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.
In the present age — which has been described as “destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism,” — in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them — the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments, to act on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions. But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself. There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true? In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful: and can you prevent such men from urging that plea, when they are charged with culpability for denying some doctrine which they are told is useful, but which they believe to be false? Those who are on the side of received opinions, never fail to take all possible advantage of this plea; you do not find them handling the question of utility as if it could be completely abstracted from that of truth: on the contrary, it is, above all, because their doctrine is “the truth,” that the knowledge or the belief of it is held to be so indispensable. There can be no fair discussion of the question of usefulness, when an argument so vital may be employed on one side, but not on the other. And in point of fact, when law or public feeling do not permit the truth of an opinion to be disputed, they are just as little tolerant of a denial of its usefulness. The utmost they allow is an extenuation of its absolute necessity, or of the positi
guilt of rejecting it.
In order more fully to illustrate the mischief of denying a hearing to opinions because we, in our own judgment, have condemned them, it will be desirable to fix down the discussion to a concrete case; and I choose, by preference, the cases which are least favorable to me — in which the argument against freedom of opinion, both on the score of truth and on that of utility, is considered the strongest. Let the opinions impugned be the belief in a God and in a future state, or any of the commonly received doctrines of morality. To fight the battle on such ground, gives a great advantage to an unfair antagonist; since he will be sure to say (and many who have no desire to be unfair will say it internally), Are these the doctrines which you do not deem sufficiently certain to be taken under the protection of law? Is the belief in a God one of the opinions, to feel sure of which, you hold to be assuming infallibility? But I must be permitted to observe, that it is not the feeling sure of a doctrine (be it what it may) which I call an as sumption of infallibility. It is the undertaking to decide that question for others, without allowing them to hear what can be said on the contrary side. And I denounce and reprobate this pretension not the less, if put forth on the side of my most solemn convictions. How ever positive any one’s persuasion may be, not only of the falsity, but of the pernicious consequences — not only of the pernicious consequences, but (to adopt expressions which I altogether condemn) the immorality and impiety of an opinion; yet if, in pursuance of that private judgment, though backed by the public judgment of his country or his cotemporaries, he prevents the opinion from being heard in its defence, he assumes infallibility. And so far from the assumption being less objectionable or less dangerous because the opinion is called immoral or impious, this is the case of all others in which it is most fatal. These are exactly the occasions on which the men of one generation commit those dreadful mistakes, which excite the astonishment and horror of posterity. It is among such that we find the instances memorable in history, when the arm of the law has been employed to root out the best men and the noblest doctrines; with deplorable success as to the men, though some of the doctrines have survived to be (as if in mockery) invoked, in defence of similar conduct towards those who dissent from them, or from their received interpretation.
Now we come to think of it, this post could have been addressed to Paul LaClair. Because Matthew needs to be able to recognise a good argument when he sees one; not to pick factual holes in arguments he already disagrees with because his parents do.