Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering

Virtuous Climate Making? Towards a Virtue-Theoretic Approach to Geoengineering

Work in progress – Please do not cite, quote or summarise or circulate without permission.

Abstract for Uehiro Seminar in Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Along with mitigation and adaptation, geoengineering, i.e. “the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change” has become increasingly visible as a third option in response to anthropogenic climate change. Yet, it has also been widely acknowledged that geoengineering – whether its research and development (R&D) or implementation – will raise serious ethical, socio-political and legal issues. Instead of examining specific ethical issues in the ethics of geoengineering, I shall argue for a specific approach to ethics of geoengineering. Drawing from the latest developments in philosophy and ethics of technology and science and technology studies (STS), I outline a post-humanist virtue ethics, which, I believe, offers an alternative way to analyse ethical issues raised by geoengineering.

My argument is based on the view that geoengineering should be understood as large technical systems (LTSs), i.e. large infrastructural and production systems. If such an understanding of geoengineering as LTS is correct, then it immediately raises two problems with the ethical analyses that focus on the decisions about (or, decision-making procedures for) and/or outcomes of geoengineering: firstly, the high degree of uncertainty with respect to the outcomes from LTSs, which is especially true in the case of geoengineering, has challenged the ethical analyses which based their judgments on the outcomes from LTSs. Secondly, as Susan Leigh Star notes, “[b]ecause infrastructure is big, layered, and complex, and because it means different things locally, it is never changed from above. Changes take time and negotiation, and adjustment with other aspects of the systems are involved. Nobody is really in charge of infrastructure”; Star’s remark highlights the insignificance of individuals’ decisions (and intentions) in the context of LTSs. Against this background, Brad Allenby proposes “macroethics” as a different level of ethics that takes systems as the unit of ethical reflection, and focus on the process in LTS’s R&D and implementation. Allenby’s call for a macroethics, I think, echoes on one hand with a recent shift towards a more distributed sense of morality, and on the other hand a shift towards ethics of design.

Here, I argue that virtue ethics provide the best theoretical and normative underpinning of macroethics. Epitomised by the question “how should we live?” – instead of “what is the right decisions and/or actions?” or “what is the best consequence?”, virtue ethics is particularly fitting as an ethics for processes. The obstacle for adopting virtue ethics in ethical analyses of geoengineering (or, any LTS), however, is that virtue ethics is largely humanist, and therefore it seems to be inapplicable to LTS such as geoengineering. Yet, I argue that an extension of agency to nonhuman entities in recent research in philosophy and ethics of technology (e.g. Luciano Floridi and Peter-Paul Verbeek) and STS (e.g. Bruno Latour) provides us a valuable opportunity to reconceptualise virtue ethics and develop a virtue-theoretical approach to geoengineering