A Moral Revolution

As to climate change, this essay gets to the heart of the problem.  Facts and information, by themselves, do not change people’s minds nor the practices of corporations or governments.  If it were a simple matter of education or knowing the facts, we wouldn’t even be in this mess.  Education, the facts, information, and the knowledge has been there and is certainly there now.  We know there is climate change, we know why (to a large degree if not exhaustively) there is climate change, and we know the damage it is now causing and will eventually cause.  We know this.  More “knowing” is not going to help.  Something has to happen morally.  And, therein lies the problem for western secular liberal democracies.
While I might quibble with some of the writer’s and the author he cites points and conclusions, I agree wholeheartedly we need something more than information to change people’s minds and actions.  Whether it was “Keynesian social democracy” or “neoliberalism” neither leaves room for an objective morality rooted in something beyond an imagined neutral reason, the state, law, or patriotism.  The only way western liberal democracy has been able to maintain its power is because it arose out of a Judeo-Christian narrative and moral vision.  But since it needed to privatize that vision and not allow it any public legitimacy, because it must appear to be neutral, Liberal democracy, the secular space, cannot sustain an objective moral vision over time, other than the one that keeps it in power and reduces to power.  And a morality that reduces to power is not a morality—it is simply a pretense to do what one wants regardless of, and in spite of, a morality.  So, at the least, this is not lost on the writer or Klein. 
“At this point Klein asks an interesting question. Are there any examples in history where a social movement has succeeded in forcing elites to forgo substantial economic self-interest? Klein acknowledges that the great emancipatory movements of our era – concerning race and gender – have been primarily legal and cultural, rather than economic. However, she finds a precedent in the nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement for what must now occur. According to one estimate, the southern plantation owners in the United States lost an asset worth the equivalent of $10 trillion when required to free their slaves.”
Two points.  First, neither neoliberalism nor liberal democracy now has the moral resources for such a revolution.  At one time liberal democracy had such resources simply because the Judeo-Christian narrative was still just under the surface of any supposed or imagined neutrality.  It was still close enough to the surface to act as a north star of sorts even if in an unofficial and informal way.  After 2000 years, it was the air we breathed.  But that is mostly gone now.  It has been buried too deep at this point.  All neoliberalism and liberal democracy can do now is exhort everyone to be good consumers, be patriotic (support the troops), and promise to protect everyone’s individual right to do whatever the hell they want.  Second, as an aside, here is another example of asking- what is the narrative I inhabit capable of changing culturally?  And to what end?  Even the writer and leftist Klein recognize the anti-slavery revolution and the moral vision that sustain it.  Well, that moral vision was produced by a certain narrative and not just any narrative.  We cannot assume that just any narrative would have done the same.  These sorts of questions, as I’ve noted many times, are the better questions to ask when trying to ascertain the “truthfulness” of a narrative including, of course, one’s own.  If one does not inhabit a narrative they think can sustain the type of moral revolution talked about here, whether the anti-slavery revolution or the one that will be needed for climate change, then such is a great time to re-evaluate what they really believe to be true.  After all, if truth (being true) doesn’t mean being capable of such, then who, frankly, cares about any other “truth” it may contain.  If that’s the case, if one’s “truth” is incapable of changing one’s self or the culture for better (where “better” actually means something objectively and is not just code for “what I want”), then one can have his “truth” and is welcome to it.  In fact, please keep it.

Finally: Think about that—think about $10 Trillion.  If anyone out there is naive enough to think that people are going to just give up $10 Trillion or the equivalent, based upon receiving more information (even though the present information is enough) and without a moral (non-violent) revolution, well God bless them—aren’t they just cute.  Oh, and I have bridge I’d like to sell them too. 
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6 Responses to A Moral Revolution

  1. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Great topic- whatever it takes to get ourselves moving on climate change, that is important to do.

    Let me make a couple of points, however. The leading voices on climate change have been secular. Al Gore, change.org, the Sierra Club- all are making a secular case, and promote just the policies that are needed, like a carbon tax, ending coal, etc. It is the more secular states in the US that are leading public efforts as well- California, Massachusetts. Here is a long list and map. This goes for countries as well, as the more secular countries (read northern Europe) are way ahead on climate change.

    So the moral resources seem to be there, religion or not.

    On the other hand, what are the more religious cultural currents in the US doing? Well, as you can tell from the map above, it is the red states, the more religious states, which are doing nothing. The more religious party in the US, the Republican party, is not only doing nothing, but is denying the need to do anything, and blocking any action it can. This same party is heavily allied with the incumbent powers of fossil fuel whose interest is so corrupt and corrupting on this issue. Loud religiousity does not seem to conflict with this position.

    So the moral change that is needed is not one of non-religion to religion, but one of bad religion to good religion. In the last year, the Catholic church has at long last issued a strong statement supporting the moral need to address climate change. That will have a very beneficial effect (while quibbling about the Catholic complicity in overpopulation, etc.). That is the template for what is needed- to have major religious traditions care about and explicitly address an issue that up till now they did not seem to care about. How about Islam? My sense is that Islam, on a global, institutional basis, is completely uninterested in the climate change issue, even though the core Muslim lands are being heavily affected already. The core countries of Saudi Arabia, Iran, et al. care about little more than how much oil they can sell.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “Let me make a couple of points, however. The leading voices on climate change have been secular.”

    But that misses the point. The problem is that these secular voices think education is enough—that if people just have enough facts or knowledge—they will change their views and actions. Clearly, such is not the case—this is not working. Facts, by themselves, are not moral resources. A moral resource helps us to “see” how facts should be understood/interpreted and what actions “should” be taken or not taken.

    The problem is that these secular voices cannot tell us what we “should” do in any objective sense. These voices cannot on the one hand tell us there are no objective morals/values, but, by the way, you “should” do what we tell you to do. That just will not work and is not working—thus, the point of the essay. We need a moral revolution and those who constantly tell us that morality is really just about who has the biggest gun can hardly be the ones to lead or give voice to a non-violent moral revolution.

    Those who led the anti-slavery moral revolution and the civil rights movement led by MLK had no power and such is the only type persuasion (power) secular voices have available to them. What MLK and those others did have was a moral vision that did not reduce to power or their own personal opinions or feelings. They were able to appeal to something greater than themselves, their feelings, greater than the state, greater than the biggest bank account, and greater than the biggest gun. Secular voices do not have the resources to do that and in fact undercut the very possibility by being locked into a worldview that allows no appeal to anything beyond feelings, the state, money, or guns (power).

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  3. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    How is it that Al Gore, the Sierra Club et al. are not telling us what we “should” be doing? They are doing so, incessantly, and put it all into a very explicit secular narrative (we are otherwise going to be screwed…. etc.). To claim otherwise is to be blind. Whether you regard their “shoulds” as objective or not is hardly the point, and never the point of moral argument anyhow. No one regards your “shoulds” as objective either.. they and the narrative they are based on are fundamentally subjective, and seen otherwise only by believers. Do you regard their (the Sierra Club et al.) case and narrative as compelling? They lay out the facts and predictions as they are known, and that seems plenty scary for the normal, caring person to take action.

    But you are right that motivation seems to be lacking. It is a huge commons problem, which are notorious for being hard to solve. We all have to act to get the job done. A big player is our corporate culture. Corporations are seen from the right, I believe, as fundamentally moral institutions, while they are seen as immoral on the left. This is a problem, as they are amoral, and the climate issue, as you rightly say, is fundamentally moral. We should never be taking our guidance from corporations on this, but as money talks, they have had the primary influence on our common policy.

    I am not sure, really, how different the Sierra club case and the Pope's case are on this front. Both see dangers ahead, and both advocate for public policy action. The Pope uses some extra words about care for the planet, perhaps, but the extra motivation is not the words, but the fact that he as the leader of a billion people deems this issue important enough to speak about and urge action on. That is a huge change from the indifference which we have seen to date. Religions can help most not by dressing this up a some narrative like … “otherwise an apocalypse will happen and Jesus will return” … but simply to state that the case, as put forth by the Sierra Club et al. is correct and deserves everyone's active support.

    So I think you are barking up the wrong tree to say that the moral case has not been made by the Sierra Club, or not been made correctly, or not made in a moral way. It has been made, but the number of people in those groups is small. Bigger groups need to get on board. I would characterize such bigger groups as people who put religious authority over other types of authority, and thus do not take the Sierra Club as seriously about the future of the planet as they take, say, the Pope. It seems a little weird to me, but whatever it takes…

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  4. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “How is it that Al Gore, the Sierra Club et al. are not telling us what we “should” be doing? They are doing so, incessantly, and put it all into a very explicit secular narrative (we are otherwise going to be screwed…. etc.).”

    The difference, I believe, is they are telling us what we should do based upon information and facts, but they are not using a moral language or vision based upon anything other than survival. People smoke, become addicted to drugs, over-eat, are violent, and are very prone to risky behavior—all the sorts of things that put their survival (and those around them) at risk. They know they are screwed. They know that. They have all the information. They have all the facts. For many, something else needs to happen for them to change course and historically that something is a moral/internal re-alignment (the religious word is “repentance”). That is the point the writer is getting to. Secular voices are inherently incapable of pointing people in that direction.

    “Corporations are seen from the right, I believe, as fundamentally moral institutions, while they are seen as immoral on the left. This is a problem, as they are amoral, and the climate issue, as you rightly say, is fundamentally moral.”

    The above statement is the problem anyone who thinks morals are subjective or reduce to power has and is the very reason secular voices cannot address the problem where it needs to be addressed. If morality is subjective, without any objective referent, and based upon emotions/power then one cannot say that corporations are amoral while this other issue is moral. That is illogical based upon the premises. What one can say is that it is all amoral, but I just happen to emote more or differently for the environment than I do for corporations, but to each his own, because such is only my subjective opinion/emoting. And that sort of confusion is exactly why the secular will never lead a moral revolution.

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  5. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    I think you are confusing morality with drama. Morality is not so complicated.. our recognition and acceptance of duties and interests of beings other than ourselves. Say, the current and future population of the planet. And even non-human beings as well. The interests on both sides are subjective, but that doesn't mean that as a social and thinking species, we can ignore them.

    Motivating people to recognize such moral duties is quite another matter. Hollywood has tried, but I think its attempts at climate disaster films have not been terribly successful- a bit overblown for their own good. Whether the passion of Christ will somehow bring people to reduce carbon usage … well, again, whatever works!

    I take your point about corporate im/a-morality. Corporations do immoral things. But the point is that as we have constructed them, corporations have no moral duties, merely the duty to follow the law. Which is made (supposedly) by us as citizens outside the zone of corporate interests, rather consulting our best moral judgements and far-sighted intelligence. That is the role we need to take back, as it has been severely compromised.

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  6. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “I think you are confusing morality with drama.”

    Or maybe you are confusing my use of the word “emoting” with drama. I do not mean getting hysterical. I mean that if there is no objective good or evil, then all we are talking about are differing emotions or feelings. The problem is that no one can say their emotions are more valid or reasonable than the other’s. Even if one is asserting their position calmly and quietly, they are appealing to nothing more than their personal preference, which I assume does not cause them to be emotionally upset, and thus is primary. An objective morality is something than can pull a person out of themselves, out of their emotion, out of their preferences, out of their self-interest, and toward something that is right, or good, or ethical, or moral, even if that goes against their emotion, preference, and self-interest as it did the slave owner and as it would those who profit while producing climate change.

    “Morality is not so complicated…”

    Anyone who would start a statement off that way has not thought things through…to say the least! Morality may be (is?) one of the most complicated areas of existence. To think otherwise is not to have given it much thought at all.

    “I take your point about corporate im/a-morality.”

    Well, my point was that if morality is subjective, then both corporations and concern for the environment are equally amoral because everything is amoral. By definition, there is no such thing as good or bad—there are only personal emotional preferences. If someone believes morality is subjective personal preference only, then one thing cannot be immoral but this other thing is moral. The person who believes such can only say I feel one way about this thing but feel another way about this other thing. This is why I believe secular voices cannot lead a moral revolution—they can appeal to nothing beyond survival, or patriotism, or consumer individuality, and as we know, that is simply not enough. That is not working.

    But look, I am happy to see you think this a moral issue and not just an information or “fact” issue. While I don’t think the narrative you inhabit gives any logical support to your marking it as “moral”, who cares at this point. We need all hands on deck. This is too important.

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