On the New Scientist (which is neither) blog last week, Catherine Brahic, the rag’s online environment reporter was struck by a paper published in the journal Climatic Change. Brahic summarises:
Davidson claims that historical hindsight shows how preposterous the claims made in favour of slavery were. He suggests they bear striking resemblance to claims made against taking any action on climate change by contemporary members of Congress.
Like the mag itself, this argument is neither new nor science. It poses as philosophy. Which is fine. But really it’s just a rehash of the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut. Yet it is still interesting, because, just like the climate-denial-equals-holocaust-denial chestnut, it tells us more about the people making it than it does about its subjects. In spite of being ‘not convinced the comparison is helpful’, Brahic is sufficiently sympathetic to finish her article with the cynical words:
Political decisions are based on money, not morals.
It’s that money argument, again, even though abolition is about as good an example of a political decision based on morality rather than money that you are likely to find. Brahic’s sympathy for Davidson’s thesis appears to be based on the idea that arguments for the continuation of slavery were preposterous, and business-as-usual arguments are preposterous, therefore, denying climate change is as bad as being in favour of slavery. Or something.
The causes of ‘bad science’ in today’s society – such as the rise of alternative therapies, creationism, and new religious movements – are the subject of many a hand-waving thesis. But when that discussion extends to arguments about the role of oil and money in society, people claiming to have science on their side are adding bad politics, bad history and bad philosophy to the mix. And in his paper, Parallels In Reactionary Argumentation In The US Congressional Debates On The Abolition of Slavery And The Kyoto Protocol, Marc D. Davidson certainly claims to have science on his side. In fact, he goes as far as to equate the science of climate with the morality of equality. Well, he has to really, otherwise he wouldn’t have a paper to write. Davidson’s abstract reads:
Today, the United States is as dependent on fossil fuels for its patterns of consumption and production as its South was on slavery in the mid-nineteenth century. That US congressmen tend to rationalise fossil fuel use despite climate risks to future generations just as Southern congressmen rationalised slavery despite ideals of equality is perhaps unsurprising, then. This article explores similarities between the rationalisation of slavery in the abolition debates and the rationalisation of ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases in the US congressional debates on the Kyoto Protocol.
He then makes equivalents of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 1856 13th Amendment to the US constitution, abolishing slavery. The earlier document, states:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
On the UNFCCC agreement, Davidson writes:
Despite this commitment [“to protect the climate system for present and future generations.”], the US Congress has as yet rejected any mandatory regulation of greenhouse gases, including the binding emission targets for the industrialised nations agreed to under the Kyoto Protocol
But how is using slaves the moral equivalent of using oil? The subtitle of the second section of Davidson’s article – ‘Similarities between slavery and the use of fossil fuels’ – promises to answer the question… but doesn’t. Instead Davidson argues that they are similar because (i) abolition of slavery/oil is not in the interests of the electorate – people who had a vote did not have an economic interest in abolishing slavery, or in the later case, oil; (ii) the electorate shifts costs onto those outside of the electorate – the slaves do all the work in the same way that oil does, and the costs of using that oil (as opposed to labour) are borne by future generations, who are not yet part of the electorate; and (iii) arguments against both the slave trade, and efforts to reduce CO2 are similar because they both resist social change.
Davidson’s problem, it seems, is with democracy – that it does not represent the interests of people who do not yet exist; people in the future are excluded from the process because they aren’t alive yet, just as slaves were denied access to the democratic process. But this does not make equivalents of using slaves and using oil. In order to be deprived of ‘rights’ it is necessary to exist. So to grant rights to people who do not exist, or to claim that they are being denied their rights, or to imply that you somehow speak for them are all totally absurd.
And it’s far from clear that using oil does leave a cost for future generations to pay. This claim cannot be tested until such time as such people exist. It is a significant assumption. Davidson defers the argument to the future, in order to escape being challenged. And he admits that reducing CO2 emissions is not without its detrimental effects: after all, he agrees that it’s not in the electorate’s interests. It is democracy itself which creates slaves out of the humans of the future, according to Davidson; democracy is the means by which social progress is thwarted; it cannot transcend self-interest in favour of the interests of people he has conjured from his imagination. The “social progress” (and it is neither) he has in mind (even though he agrees it’s not in people’s interests) is one where people who don’t exist yet are spoken for by anyone who wants to call the precautionary principle, against the interests of people who actually exist.
More interestingly, especially given that he’s a philosopher, Davidson doesn’t even explain why slavery is wrong. Slavery is wrong, of course. But if you want to show that something else is wrong in a similar way, you have to make it clear why it is wrong. Were we to claim that tap-dancing is the moral equivalent of drug-pushing you’d want to know why. If we answered in terms that failed to connect tap-dancing to drug-pushing, you’d close your browser, never to return.
Phillis Wheatley was a slave from Gambia bought by a wealthy Boston Family at the age of just seven in the mid 1700s. Unusually, the family encouraged her to read and write, especially poetry – for which she became famous on merit.
On being brought from Africa to America
`Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
You don’t need to be a Christian to see the message. Wheatley was grateful for being brought to the USA, and for the opportunities she had, but not for being bought and sold as a slave. This is pertinent because no barrel of oil could ever write a poem which expresses such potential. As her poem suggests, the act of buying, selling, or using slaves is immoral because it creates a relationship between people which degrades humanity, when in fact, slaves were in every respect as capable of achieving as much and contributing to civilisation as their white counterparts.
The trouble for Davidson is that were he to state a principled objection to slavery, he would undermine his own argument. It would fall apart because, of course, people are not oil. It is only by dint of similarities in the shape of certain arguments, without historical and political context, superficially sharing some conceptual space, that slavery and oil usage can be seen as moral equivalents. Morality, for Davidson is more like geometry than an expression of humanity. This reveals far more than any resemblance between arguments against abolition and against climate change mitigation.
Davidson goes on to look for more geometrical congruence between arguments made hundreds of years apart, and finds another six arguments used by both Kyoto sceptics and anti-abolitionists: (i) What is deemed bad is in fact good; (ii) The benefits of the proposed policy are uncertain; (iii) Change brings economic ruin; (iv) Solo action will be ineffective and unfair; (v) Sovereignty will be undermined; (vi) Social change will hit other groups.
This is utterly mundane. What political issue is not debated on these lines? What divides camps on any matter, where one sees a thing as a good, and the other bad, with one arguing for either progressive or retrogressive change, the other for the status quo? Davidson might just as well argue that using oil and using slaves are moral equivalents because arguments in favour of their continuation were both constructed using words and marks of punctuation, arranged into sentences. What he is describing are six questions that will likely be at the centre of any political discussion about change. The closer you look at these six points, the sillier they become. In fact we are starting to seriously wonder whether his paper is some sort of clever spoof.
(i) Opposing political ideas will necessarily always differ about what is bad, and what is good. That’s why we have arguments. From some perspectives, a welfare state is bad, while others maintain that it is a good. Environmentalists argue that industrial society is bad, and deep ecologists argue that nature is itself a good. Others see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’. Davidson juxtaposes statements by vice president John Caldwell Calhoun, on February 6, 1837 with bogeyman du jour, Senator James Inhofe:
“the Central African race…had never existed in so comfortable, so respectable, or so civilized a condition as that which it now enjoyed in the Southern States”…Slavery was not “an evil. Not at all. It was a good – a great good.” – John Caldwell Calhoun
“Thus far, no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophic predictions by alarmists. In fact, it appears just the opposite is true, that increases in global temperature have beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” – Sen. James Inhofe.
We know why slavery is wrong. It deprives individuals of their liberty, and the institution limits the development of human society. Meanwhile, Inhofe’s point finds support among among many mainstream climate scientists, such as the Tyndall Centre’s Professor Mike Hulme, who has observed that catastrophe “is not the language of science“. And the idea that climate change might produce benefits – however true or false it is – is not a moral argument. By contrast, the ideas that slavery is either right and good or wrong and bad are not testable, are moral arguments, and more to the point, slavery is an idea which disgusts us today not because of scientific investigation, but because of our understanding of humanity. Yet Davidson uses scientific and moral arguments as though they were interchangable.
(ii) The benefits of any proposed policy are always uncertain to any opponent. How can somebody who doesn’t see the policy as good, ever see the benefits as certain?
(iii) No doubt the end of slavery did bring economic problems, and yes, sceptics do worry about the economic costs of policies to mitigate climate change. But anyone who cites the Stern report in support of immediate mitigation also makes an economic argument. Does that make them the moral equivalent of slave traders, too? And even Davidson agrees that the economic effects of Kyoto would cause economic problems.
Although economic forecasts vary widely, there are few studies predicting that climate policy will benefit employment or economic growth.
(iv) It is precisely the environmentalists who are arguing that solo action will be ineffective and unfair. That is why they – and Davidson – are calling for international frameworks.
(v) Sovereignty is not only a key concept in most political theories, it was also at the heart of the abolitionist argument, for slavery denies personal sovereignty. Davidson contrasts the argument that it is for individual states to decide the legal status of slavery in the 1800s with more recent complaints about supranational organisations (IPCC) creating policy frameworks.
As sincere as this fear of supranational bodies may be, however, the arguments become suspect if they are not accompanied by proposals for unilateral action.
And yet he’s already claimed that the “solo action will be ineffective and unfair” argument is “reactionary”! Only, it seems, if it doesn’t conform to climate orthodoxy. Again, Davidson’s contempt for democracy is palpable.
(vi) All change creates winners and losers. Whether that change is progressive, or retrogressive, is, of course, the point. And as political scientist Harold D. Lasswell explained, “Politics is who gets what, when, and how.” Even Davidson recognises this…
Apart from specific groups like manufacturers of solar cells or windmills, few people have a personal interest in rising energy prices.
For Davidson, Kyoto sceptics are “reactionaries”, but it is Davidson who shows contempt for democracy, and for politics. He is unable to make moral equivalents of slavery and using oil, and so searches for abstract ways to connect them that bear no scrutiny. In doing so, he also shows contempt for humans. The relationship between slave and master is vicious, exploitative, and deliberate. The link between slaves and not-yet-existing-slave-like-people-of-the-future is merely tortured. The only person deliberately exploiting future generations is Davidson. The irony is that it is people in the present who suffer.