I have been reading Michael Sandel’s recent book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Sandel is currently hot property on the centre left in the UK. He gave the prestigious Reith Lectures in 2009, and his argument for a ‘politics of the common good’ has hit a chord amongst politicians like Ed Miliband.
At the heart of Sandel’s philosophy is the rejection of two foundations for politics – utilitarianism (do the thing that produces the maximum happiness) and liberalism (do the thing that allows people to do what they want). Sandell argues that instead, politics should be moral in nature (building on the principle of Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’) and that they should be about the ultimate purpose of institutions (building on Aristotle).
Here I am interested particularly in the implications of a Kantian perspective. Kant says that politics should be built on moral arguments. We should do things because they are right, according to rules that are consistent when applied to everyone, and built on a notion of human dignity and rationality. Equally, we should not do things that are morally wrong. Crucially, this means that what matters is not outcomes (i.e. happiness or freedom), but motives.
What does this approach say about the politics of climate change? First of all, a moral foundation may be helpful simply because the alternatives are problematic. The utilitarian case for tackling climate change (for example, the Stern Review’s argument that it will cost us less to do something than to do nothing) is weakened in practice by the fact that the costs of doing something need to be borne today and in the North, whereas the benefits will be largest in the future and in the South.
If the utilitarian argument for climate action is weak in practice, the liberal argument is positively unhelpful, since positive freedoms (I should be allowed to drive my car whenever I like) always tend in practice to drown out negative freedoms (I should be allowed to live free from the threat of flooding, drought etc).
However, the moral basis for action on climate change is not without its complications. This is partly because when we emit carbon, we are not doing something wrong in Kant’s terms. Our motive is not to harm others. Even Jeremy Clarkson is not suggesting you drive a large, fast car for the express purposes of damaging humanity – he is a classic libertarian and just wants to have his idea of fun. So there is a problem with an environmentalism (or humanism) that says our current actions are morally wrong – probably one reason why people tend to react strongly against such suggestions.
On the other hand, wanting to cut your emissions because it is the right thing to do (as opposed to feeling good about yourself, or even because it will benefit others) is a consistent moral position. So why don’t more people do it? Why, for example, don’t more people give up eating meat, which would cut emissions but requires no major action by governments? When Nick Stern suggested this last year he was ridiculed.
This is where Sandel’s political argument comes in. He is saying that politics (especially Democratic politics in the US and by extension New Labour politics here) has in the past relied too much on utilitarian or liberal arguments. The Left needs to learn from the Right, which since the 1970s has grounded politics in morality (it is interesting that there are even some on the Right who urge climate action on moral grounds, usually expressed in terms of religious morality). Politicians who believe in tackling climate change need to start speaking up for doing the right thing.
This is an interesting and appealling argument. However, it faces the major challenge, especially in the US but even to some extent in the UK, of the growth of a libertarian populism – the emergence of what Mark Lilla calls anti-political Jacobins, who distrust not only governments but all public institutions and intellectuals like Stern, while believing firmly in themselves. If Lilla is right, the essential problem for politicians (or environmental leaders) seeking to make a moral argument for cutting emissions is getting a hearing in the first place.