Thursday, July 21, 2016

What the Casual Impotence Argument Shows Us

From guest blogger, Rei. 

The argument adapted to recycling is as follows:
1.) If we are morally obligated to perform actions, then it follows that we must be able to perform them.
2.) Individuals ought to recycle to improve environmental conditions, yet their decision to recycle has negligible impact (cannot improve environmental conditions).
3.) Individuals are not morally obligated to recycle.
From an incentive perspective it appears that recycling is flawed. Since a person who chooses to recycle has to endure the inconvenience of sorting one’s trash, while one who does not can ignore such categorization and dispose of garbage in a more convenient matter. Recycling is objectively a good thing, because the environmental benefits that come out of such a simple act are obvious, yet there are so many of us that are unencouraged to do so. This argument can be applied to many other concepts such as giving money to the poorest, most destitute people. This has a negligible impact on poverty as a whole, costs you money and yet is clearly an objectively good thing to do.

The argument demonstrates the self-centered nature of human moral decision-making. If there was some negative consequence such as a short term of community service attributed to not recycling or giving money to the poor, we would recycle or give money to the poor (to an extent). If we were rewarded, by x amount of health benefits or tax exemption, we would recycle or give money to the poor. Yet, because of a tiny inconvenience or monetary burden we are un-incentivized. Our scope is so small that the immense benefits that can be attained if society as a whole enacted such behavior are disregarded.

Perhaps our self-centered nature can be attributed to concepts of American Culture such as the American Dream, or the capitalistic society in which we live. Perhaps our self-centered nature can simply be attributed to the fact that we spend every waking minute of our time with ourselves and thus, our interest carries more weight (a very rational reason in my opinion). Either way it is fascinating that such pursuit of self-enjoyment can sway people away from making objectively good choices.


Jesse Steinberg said...

I think the argument needs to be clarified and restated. Should it be something like the following?

1) If we are morally obligated to perform an action, then we must be able to perform that action.
2) I cannot reduce environmental harms by recycling.
3) Therefore, I'm not morally obligated to reduce environmental harms by recycling.

Interestingly, maybe there are still powerful reasons to recycle even if you can't make a (very substantial) difference by directly reducing environmental harms. You might, for example, inspire others to recycle too or you might at least behave in line with your moral commitments. Consider the person who speaks out against racism and refuses to behave in a racist manner. This person obviously doesn't do much to end racism on her own and the harms of racism might persist no matter what she does. But, of course, she still might be obligated to not be (or behave like) a racist. It's important to note that these are things which we can do even if we can't end racism on our own. So this example seems to illustrate the argument doesn't do much work in showing that we don't bear an obligation not to recycle. If anything, it might show that we don't bear an obligation to end all environmental harms associated with recycling on our own. But I don't know anyone who thinks we bear that sort of obligation. We should just do what is within our capacities. Of course, this might turn out to be quite a lot.

Liam Perkins said...

Hi Rei,
I consider myself pro-recycling but I also know that my actions alone will make no difference to our global trash situation. I know that recycling helps the environment and I want to help the environment but that's not my biggest reason for recycling. My biggest reason for recycling is to avoid guilt. I feel guilty if I feel like I am part of the problem and not part of the solution. I don't live completely "green" but my yearning to avoid guilt drives me significantly. So, for me, my pursuit of self-purification sways me to make objectively good choices. I think we are probably driven more by self-enjoyment than self-purification but it's important to realize the effect guilt-avoidance can have.

Bethany Vanderhoof said...

Although our individual actions may not have a large impact, that does not necessarily make them morally permissible. I think that it is important to focus more on what we can control than what we cannot control. While we cannot control if everyone recycles, we can do our part and hold true to our own moral principles that it is wrong to not recycle. This is fundamentally a utilitarian viewpoint; by not recycling, we will be causing future generations suffering. It does not matter if we can change the system. The most important thing is controlling our own moral actions and making sure that we are acting in an ethical manner.