04.01.2013 1

Is Ethics Only About Ethics?

By Victor Morawski

While my paper is not primarily intended to target professionals in this field, I should perhaps mention at the outset that there is an area of Ethics called “Metaethics” which focuses on the field of Ethics itself as its area of study.  It deals with foundational considerations like arriving at proper definitions for the most basic concepts used within the subject and whether there might in fact be a single correct method for approaching and answering Ethical questions.  As Metaethics centers only on Ethics, for this area of the subject the answer to my question is I’m afraid, a trivial and rather uninteresting “Yes.”

If we, however, shift the ground from talking about whether there is a single correct method for answering Ethical questions—and not everyone believes that there is—and move on instead to actually using such a method ourselves then we are out of the area of the merely abstract and theoretical and on to the practical, down-to-earth turf of Applied Ethics, where you and I live when we make our moral decisions on a daily basis.  And it is in the area of Applied Ethics that we will dwell for most of the remainder of this paper.  But first a brief Metaethical discussion on method is in order as it relates to our central question.

Without doubt, the most longstanding and entrenched method used for approaching Ethical questions and reasoning through them to an answer concerning what we ought to do dates all the way back to ancient Greece and employs a form of reasoning the philosopher Aristotle called a “practical syllogism.”  Considered by many contemporary Ethicists to be as relevant today as it was then, it is a pattern of reasoning you have probably used many times yourself without knowing it.  In its essentials, it looks like this:

Premise: General Moral Rule

Premise(s): Particular Fact(s)

Conclusion: Action Morally Required

This pattern of moral reasoning shows us clearly that Applied Ethics is not only about Ethics.  The conclusion about what we ought to do describes our Ethical obligations and the rule we use as a premise in our argument clearly relates to a moral standard, but tying together this abstract moral standard with our concluded moral obligation in a specific, concrete situation are particular relevant facts relating to the situation in question, facts not themselves specifically part of Ethics proper.

Contemporary Ethicist William Frankena illustrated Aristotle’s practical syllogism with the reasoning process Socrates used to decide whether he should accept his friends’ offer to facilitate his escape from prison into exile, thus enabling him to avoid the death sentence which had been meted out to him by the Athenian courts.  Effectively using several practical syllogisms, Socrates mulls over issues like whether he has a moral obligation to keep his agreements, whether we should obey our parents and whether we should return harm for harm in retaliation if wronged unjustly.  It is important to him that he now do the right thing, not just the prudent thing, because he sincerely believes that harming his soul ethically will have negative repercussions for him not only in this life but in the next.  It would literally be a fate worse than the imminent death he now faces.

To illustrate the practical syllogism in action, one of his arguments might be summarized as follows:

General Moral Rule: We ought to keep our agreements.

Particular Fact: As a citizen, I have an understood agreement with Athens to obey its laws and respect its courts’ verdicts.

Particular Fact: By escaping into exile I would in effect be overturning the court verdict which sentenced me to death.

Conclusion: I should not escape.

And using similar reasoning, he concludes by bringing in additional factual considerations such as that the City has indeed been like a parent to him and would in fact be harmed by his escape, as laws so essential to a City’s very existence would be broken by this course of action, that he should stay and face his sentence—that he is morally obligated not to escape.

Whether we agree with Socrates’ reasoning or his ultimate moral choice is here not the point.  The point is that the most time-honored method for addressing an ethical issue and for reasoning oneself through it to a course of action on a moral question brings into play not only abstract ethical considerations but concrete, particular facts about the world.  Part of the process of answering an ethical question by the use of a practical syllogism therefore is not just one of figuring out what abstract moral principles might relate to a given situation, but is also one of getting one’s facts straight.   It is the facts relating to a specific situation that determine whether a general moral rule even applies to it.

Yet it would seem that the process of getting our facts straight should be the easiest part of resolving a moral quandary.  After all it is facts that are observable and intersubjectively verifiable using empirical methods, abstract considerations of taste and values are not.  Mary and her college roommate can easily agree on the color of the dress Mary just bought for their big double-date this weekend, but they may strongly disagree on whether or not the dress is beautiful.  Historically, some philosophers have argued that matters of moral value are like matters of taste, not settleable observationally.  Now, while many, if not most, contemporary Ethicists have long-ago abandoned the stark moral relativism and contempt for moral reasoning that this observation implies (Can I really convince you with abstract reasoning that you should prefer chocolate ice cream to butter-pecan?  Is rational debate even possible on such matters of taste?  And if not on them, then why on moral matters?) and maintain a confidence that it is indeed possible to seek reasoned solutions to moral problems, that this issue was ever raised at all, clearly indicates that, on the face of it, facts seem a lot easier to confirm than values.

The remainder of my paper will be taken up with challenging this initially plausible assumption by focusing at some length on the elusiveness of facts in the current moral debate over climate change.  At this point someone is undoubtedly saying to herself: “Debate over climate change?  I thought that the debate over climate change is now over, a consensus on the issue now existing among reputable scientists in the field.” Al Gore notwithstanding, I can assure you that this is decidedly not the case and that, as Mark Twain might have put it, “the death of the climate change debate has been greatly exaggerated.”

First of all, I want to underscore the importance and centrality of the practical syllogism to the climate change debate through brief reference to a recent study published in the Journal for Activism in Science & Technology Education in which the authors examined approximately fifty science lessons with a view toward developing recommendations for incorporating ways to integrate more moral reasoning into the climate change curriculum.  Citing an anthology Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril and agreeing with its editors’ claim, “that society has not acted to avert the harms of climate change because the affirmation of moral responsibilities has been missing from public discourse” they follow these editors’ adoption of the practical syllogism as the paradigm for the moral reasoning that will enable us to deduce those moral responsibilities.

In their study, they reproduce the anthology editors’ example:

The factual premise    If we do not act soon, anthropogenic environmental changes will bring serious harms to the future.

The moral premise      We have a moral obligation to avert harms to the future, so as to leave a world as rich in life and possibility as the world we inherited.

The conclusion            Therefore, we have a moral obligation to act and act now. Dauer et al. (2011). Journal for Activism in Science & Technology Education, 3(1), p. 132

A few pages later, authors of the study reinforce their adoption and recommendation of the practical syllogism as the best model for ethical argumentation on climate change by offering one of their own:

The factual premise    Carbon dioxide emissions worsen the effects of climate change on future generations (or people in low-elevation communities, or species that depend on icy habits to survive).

The moral premise      We have a moral obligation not to do things that will harm future generations (or people in low-elevation communities or species that depend on icy habitats to survive).

The conclusion            Therefore, we have a moral obligation to reduce our carbon emissions. Dauer et al. (2011). Journal for Activism in Science & Technology Education, 3(1), p. 135

Readers should easily see that, except for the order of the premises, this is the same form of argument I presented earlier.

A good central starting point for our discussion of the debate and one from which we can branch out in other directions, is a little piece penned a few years ago by renowned Meteorologist Joe Bastardi.  While making it clear that he is speaking for himself and not his long-time employer Accuweather, he laments the fact that defenders of Anthropogenic [Man-Caused] Global Warming have tried to stifle debate on the issue and have reached wrong conclusions by failing to get their facts straight in two principle ways:  (1) they have ignored well-documented and observationally confirmed facts from the past (especially those concerning ocean regime changes and their clear effect on the weather) and (2) they have too often treated the projections of computer models as fact.

If we take into account the “cold, hard facts” obtained from observation, he contends that we have more reason to conclude that the world is in for a 15-20 year period of global cooling, not global warming, as signaled by the similarity of the 2007 La Nina to one which occurred in 1950-1951 and reversed a 30 year warming trend to a cooling period which extended throughout most of the 1960s.  There are climate cycles and the facts tell us that, “what is occurring now has occurred before. This first colder than normal year worldwide is one of the signs that we are getting ready to go back to a colder cycle, on the order of 15-20 years.”

They show us “that in the end, it is nature, not man, that will have its way with the weather.”  Other research bears Bastardi out on this.  A 2007 article entitled A new dynamical mechanism for major climate shifts, contends that ocean oscillations could alone account for most of the earth’s warming and cooling over the past fifty years.  But rather than taking into account the observational evidence, Bastardi claims that defenders of anthropogenic global warming would rather discard or ignore facts of the past relating to recurring climate patterns and instead place their faith in future projections made by computer models.  Evidencing some of the shortcomings of these models to account for ocean regime changes, he cites their predictive failures relating to then recent La Nina/El Nino patterns.  On these changes the models are, to put it in his own words, “clueless.”

A far more extensive and technical analysis of the shortcomings of computer models for making climate predictions, especially for those relied on extensively by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has been offered by Christopher Monckton in the Newsletter of the Forum on Physics & Society.  While the technical details of his landmark 2007 challenge to the veracity of IPCC modeled projections lie well beyond the scope of this paper, I think we can understand the main point he makes which is that:

The IPCC’s methodology relies unduly – indeed, almost exclusively – upon numerical analysis, even where the outputs of the models upon which it so heavily relies are manifestly and significantly at variance with theory or observation or both. Modeled projections such as those upon which the IPCC’s entire case rests have long been proven impossible when applied to mathematically-chaotic objects, such as the climate, whose initial state can never be determined to a sufficient precision.

Specifically, where does Monckton think that the IPCC projections have gone wrong due to their overly-optimistic reliance on computer models inadequate to the task of making long-range climate projections for such a complex and mathematically-chaotic object?

The central question in the scientific debate over whether and to what extent, if any, human beings have warmed the climate since the start of the industrial revolution, notes Monckton, revolves around the notion of “climate sensitivity” which is “the magnitude of the change in Ts [the GLOBALLY-AVERAGED land and sea surface absolute temperature] after doubling CO2 concentration from the pre-industrial 278 parts per million to ~550ppm.”

It is precisely in predicting this temperature change accurately that IPCC computer models have fallen far short of actual observed values.  The then most current comprehensive statement from the IPCC on this was contained in its Fourth  Assessment Report  which estimated the likely rise in Ts in response to sustained industrial CO2 Levels of 550ppm at 2-4.5° C.  The IPCC contention is that human activity, especially that productive of CO2 emissions, has been responsible for more than half of this projected temperature rise and will continue to contribute to a similar level of temperature rise in the future, with serious negative effects, unless significant steps are taken through policies and agreements to mitigate the situation by curtailing worldwide CO2 emissions.

But the factual premise supporting the moral argument for immediate and, perhaps drastic action, worldwide to attempt to head off the supposed dire consequences of climate change rests on the veracity of the models.  As partial evidence supporting the deep flaws in their projections, Monckton at the time cited the following diagram [His Figure 2] representing an early 1988 attempt to predict the effects of CO2 emissions on the rise of Ts through the year 2020. While not itself generated by the IPCC, it pretty much concurred with that report’s findings (See D):

Figure 2

Global temperature projections and outturns, 1988-2020


Hansen (1988) projected that global temperature would stabilize (A) if global carbon dioxide concentration were controlled from 1988 and static from 2000: otherwise temperature would rise rapidly (B-C). IPCC (1990) agreed (D). However, these projections proved well above the National Climate Data Center’s outturn (E-F), which, in contrast to the Hadley Center and UAH records (Fig. 1), show a modest rise in temperature from 1998-2007. If McKitrick (2007) (G,H) is correct that temperature since 1980 has risen at only half of the observed rate, outturn tracks Hansen’s CO2 stabilization case (A), although emissions have risen rapidly since 1988.

Hansen, its author, presented this chart before Congress, using it to underscore his case for urgent action to prevent the projected temperature rise represented in lines (B-C) above and the IPCC,  based on its own modeled projections,  was right there as well as seen from (D).  His contention then was that decisive global action on curbing CO2 concentrations could stabilize the situation at a much lower level (A), avoiding the projected temperature rise with its attendant negative consequences.  But the bottom-line factual point illustrated by the above graph is that the actual global temperature rise based on observational evidence through 2007 (E) was by contrast much lower and indeed closer to the stabilized figure Hansen hoped to achieve only if significant reductions in CO2 emissions were attained, all taking place during a period of rapid rise in CO2 emissions.  The much feared projected warming just was not happening.

We need not be content, however, with looking at quarter century old charts to see the flaws in the IPCC,s modeled projections; with the benefit of hindsight we can make the same case from the most recent data available out of its own publications.  Actual observations since 2007, as we shall see, have continued to undermine the veracity of its modeled projections of significant warming.

First of all, though, a 2012 look back at the Hansen NASA model continues to show its predictive failures as warming has continued only modestly much on the same line observed by Monckton in 2007:


 Actual data, in contrast to what Hansen predicted with his NASA model not only has not shown the significant warming he projected but has actually shown a slight cooling trend, a fall in Ts in recent years.  Compare this model’s predictive failure with that of a similar one used by the IPCC whose parallel projections of significant warming have also not materialized, as discerned from actual observational data:


Note how much lower are the actual observed temperatures from those projected by the IPCC’s Models.

Another chart of RSS satellite global temperature measurements confirms that there has been a cooling trend worldwide since 1997, that is we have since then 184 months of cooling, not warming as predicted by NASA and IPCC Models:


And this has happened in the face of steadily rising Atmospheric CO2 Levels [Black line.].  Interestingly, after presenting this graph, the author as we have done, takes pains to point out explicitly that, “This slight cooling trend is opposite of what the IPCC (and NASA’s James Hansen) predicted for global temperatures.”  As well, he presents in some detail the main factual premise in the moral argument over climate change as an hypothesis which needs support from modeled projections which clearly have now failed:

The IPCC prediction of rapid global warming is based on the hypothesis that human CO2 emissions would increase atmospheric CO2 greenhouse gas levels; the increase of greenhouse gases would allow more radiated heat to be retained; the retained heat would warm the atmosphere; and, the atmosphere would then warm the world’s oceans and land surfaces. Such predicted warming would set in motion a “runaway tipping point” that would produce catastrophic climate disasters and a doomsday for civilization.

Compare this with the factual premises we looked at earlier:

If we do not act soon, anthropogenic environmental changes will bring serious harms to the future.


Carbon dioxide emissions worsen the effects of climate change on future generations


That is, the main factual premise in the moral argument for dramatic and urgent action on climate change becomes an hypothesis whose main support, coming from computer model projections, has been undermined by observational evidence.

Curiously, NASA’s Hansen has made recent news with a moral argument whose factual premise is essentially the second one listed above.  Arguing, “that current generations have an over-riding moral duty to their children and grandchildren to take immediate action” to curb the supposed dire consequences of human induced climate change he calls this “an issue of inter-generational justice on a par with ending slavery.”

But we have just seen that as empirical evidence shows that the global temperature rises predicted by his model will not follow, then neither will the destructive consequences he thinks we will bring on future generations through our greenhouse gas emissions.  Hence, the crusade he wants to start for the adoption of a carbon tax worldwide to effect a 6% reduction in CO2 emissions seems as a consequence to lack his claimed moral foundation.  If there is no such emergency, then there is no legitimate moral argument supporting such dire emergency measures, the factual premise of any such argument being false.

Some of the more diplomatic defenders of the modeled projections and the clear variance of their predictions with observational data have described the unexpected stasis in warming over the past fifteen years or so as simply a period in which global warming is at a “standstill” obviously leaving open the door that it may resume again at any time.  This of course raises the specter of whether this attempt to save their hypotheses from falsification by observational data is not in fact akin to that of Ptolemaic Astronomers’ attempts to save their own view of the heavens from falsification by observational evidence through the use of the artificial device of epicycles to explain the retrograde motion of some planets (something which should not be happening if they were really out there stuck on Crystalline Spheres)—that is, a hedge which in the end will fail to do its job.

Victor Morawski, professor at Coppin State University, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer.

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