Kant Stop, Won’t Stop: Climate Action and the Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. The idea is that you should consider an action moral only if you could sensibly wish that all people in that situation would act in the same way. In other words, before you make a moral decision, you should ask yourself whether it would make sense for everyone to make the same decision.

This is known as the ‘test of universalisation’. If you can wish that a ‘maxim’ (a rule of conduct) be universalised, then that maxim is moral. If the universalisation of the maxim results in a logical inconsistency, however, that maxim should not be followed. This sounds like a complex idea, but once you start to analyse a few examples it becomes very clear. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Consider the open-and-shut case of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’. So what happens when this maxim is universalised? If everyone who was irritated resorted immediately to murder, society would break down. If irritation were a just cause for murder, I would’ve already killed several people today and I’m sure several people would’ve killed me. This is a society that is in no one’s best interests. More than that, it is the disintegration of society itself. The universalisation of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’, then, is self-defeating, since it results in the breaking-down of the very thing it originally sought to improve; society.

Another example is that of lying. Kant thought that if everyone lied all the time, then truth itself would become meaningless. This generated what he thought of as a logical inconsistency. Usually people lie to gain some sort of advantage over the person they are lying to. If everyone lied all the time, that advantage would disappear and the reason you were lying in the first place would become null and void. A common criticism of Kant is that his rule is too strict and emotionless. People take the categorical imperative to mean that no one can lie at any time for any reason, since lying fails the test of universalisation. I think that this is a misinterpretation of Kant’s views. Consider this example:

Your friend knocks on your door, terrified. They tell you that a murderer is after them and ask for somewhere to hide. You agree. Sure enough, moments later a man wielding an axe shows up at the door and asks if you know where your friend is. People say that according to Kant, it is immoral to lie to the murderer because the categorical imperative forbids it and you must therefore tell the murderer where your friend is. I disagree with this interpretation. For me, the categorical imperative can be more specific than ‘should I lie’ or ‘should I kill’.

Consider the maxim ‘I should lie if it saves my friend’s life from a murderer’. I don’t think Kant would have any problem saying that a sensible person could wish that maxim to be a universal law. If everyone lied all the time, a logical inconsistency would be generated since truth would become meaningless. If everyone lied only to divert murderers from their victims, however, the only result would be a better world. Even if this interpretation misrepresents Kant’s actual views, I see no reason why this simple revision should not silence many of his critics.

Ok, now that we have a basic understanding of Kant’s idea, let’s try to apply it to climate action. Consider the maxim ‘I should drive to work every day’. Let’s universalise that. If everyone drove to work every day, the resulting emissions would have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Climate change would soon reach a tipping point and set off feedback loops that we would be powerless to halt. This would cause the economy to collapse, likely leading to the loss of your job.

As in the case of lying, the universalisation of this maxim defeats the purpose of what the maxim was trying to achieve in the first place. It is not helpful to get to work quickly and hassle-free if your job no longer exists. What’s more, if everyone drove every day then we would soon run out of petrol and then nobody would be able to drive to work at all. Those sound like logical inconsistencies to me.

What about ‘I should eat meat every day’? This falls into the same problem. If everyone ate meat every day, the resources and land required to supply all this meat would most likely exceed the resources and land available on planet earth. Already, one third of all ice-free land is used to raise livestock and we are nowhere near everyone eating meat every day. More than that, the methane emissions from the livestock would greatly accelerate climate change, leading to desertification of land and rising sea-levels, further reducing the land available to raise livestock. The ultimate effect of everyone eating meat every day is that it would quickly become impossible to eat meat every day, thus defeating the original purpose of the maxim.

I think you probably get the point but I’ll do another one anyway. What about the maxim ‘I should leave my lights on when I’m not in the room’? The net result of universalising this maxim is that the resources required to generate the electricity to keep that light on would quickly run out. In addition, the increase in the severity and frequency of natural disasters that would occur would greatly increase the chance that your home would be destroyed by a hurricane or flood, thus rendering your lightbulbs kaput. The effect of everyone leaving their lights on is that pretty soon no one will be able to turn their lights on at all.

You may be thinking at this point that universalising any maxim at all will lead to logical inconsistencies. Not true. If you go back and try to universalise the opposite maxim to the examples above, you will find that none result in such an inconsistency. I can wish that no one drives to work every day, since this would only result in cleaner air, less global warming and ultimately a better world.

Universalising the maxim ‘I should not drive to work every day’ is logically consistent, since the maxim can still be followed in the world brought about by the universalisation. In other words, in a world in which no one drives to work every day, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not drive to work every day’. This does not mean that there can’t be exceptions made for people with disabilities or no other means of transport. As in the case of the murderer at the door, we can simply alter the maxim to be more specific. For example; ‘I should not drive to work every day if a viable alternative is available to me’.

What about the maxim ‘I should not eat meat every day’? If no one ate meat, the planet would be far better for it. We would increase the food available to us, since crop agriculture is far more efficient than animal agriculture when it comes to land and resource use. If you give 100 grams of protein to a cow, the meat that you get back will contain only 10 grams of protein, since the cow will use up the rest by walking, breathing and maintaining its body temperature. In a world in which no one eats meat, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not eat meat’. There is no logical inconsistency there, since the universalisation of the maxim does not cause it to fall apart.

I won’t bother re-analysing the last example, since I’m sure you have the gist by now. I will, however, take this time to head-off an objection that I’m sure people will have. You may argue that it is not the actions of normal people which are causing global warming, but rather the actions of a select few who are producing emissions on an industrial scale. It is true that 70% of all emissions since the industrial revolution have been produced by just 100 companies, but this line of reasoning only gets you so far. Who do you think corporations are producing the emissions for?

Corporations only stand to profit from polluting the earth because we continue to pay them for it. To go back to Kant for a second, if everyone made a conscious effort to reduce their energy usage, then the companies who generate that electricity from fossil fuels would have no reason to continue ramping up their operation. It’s really very simple; supply and demand. So long as the demand for things like electricity and beef remains high, it is still profitable to burn as much fuel and raise as many cattle as you possibly can.

If the demand were to drop by, say, 50%, then the only way to keep the operation profitable is to reduce the supply by 50% too. This is because it is expensive to produce electricity and beef, and there is no financial incentive to make that initial investment if no one is willing to pay for the finished product. So while corporations carry the responsibility for producing the emissions, every individual in the western world has facilitated these crimes against humanity by providing a financial motivation for their continuation. It is for this reason that we cannot simply dismiss the impact of individual actions.

Anyway, my point here is that according to one of the greatest moral philosophers who ever lived, every action which contributes to or accelerates climate change should be considered immoral. To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who drives to work every day, eats meat or leaves their lights on is a terrible person. Necessity, cultural norms and misinformation have created a world in which climate-damaging actions are seen as morally-neutral standard practice. What I am saying is that given some reflection, those people should come to the conclusion that taking the bus, eating plants and turning the lights off would be better moral choices. No one is inherently good or bad. Our moral value is determined not by who we are, but rather by the thousands of tiny choices we make day to day.

People have a tendency to become defensive when it comes to their morality. They are not willing to accept that what they have been doing their whole lives was immoral, since the implication would be that they themselves are an immoral person. Consider the person who does and says blatantly racist things, but recoils in anger and disgust when they are accused of racism. The truth is that there is something wrong with the way we have been living our lives in recent decades, as evidenced by the fact that if we continue on our current path, life will become a daily struggle for survival before you can say ‘drive-thru cheeseburger’. What is needed now is for us to put our pride aside and accept that we fucked up, rather than retreating into a tortoise-shell of denial. Why? Because by the time we finally come out of our shells, it may be too late to change course.

Money for Nothing: The Advantages of Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income (UBI) means that each person is paid (by the government) enough money that they can afford food, shelter and even a carefully budgeted social life without the need for work. The extremely poor would be paid exactly the same weekly wage as the extremely rich. Where would this money come from? A tax on the obscenely rich of course.

The idea that we could pay everyone enough money to live on with no strings attached has been around for hundreds of years. With income inequality and job automation on the rise in recent years, however, the idea has started to make more and more sense.

UBI and Income Inequality

Universal Basic Income (UBI) means that each person is paid (by the government) enough money that they can afford food, shelter and even a carefully budgeted social life without the need for work. The extremely poor would be paid exactly the same weekly wage as the extremely rich. Where would this money come from? A tax on the obscenely rich of course. A 40% tax on Jeff Bezos’ wealth would yield around 61 billion USD, leaving him with a measly $91 billion for himself. The $61 billion that comes from taxing one man could be used to pay someone else $500 dollars a week for 2 million, 346 thousand, 153 years. That’s nearly 12 times longer than our species (homo sapiens) have existed.

Bezos himself would be left with more money than it is possible to spend in a lifetime, even living the most extravagant of lives. What’s more, he would continue to generate huge quantities of wealth through both the profits of Amazon and the monumental interest which accrues when one has $91 billion in one’s pocket. This is not necessarily how UBI would work in practice. Rather than a wealth tax, the money could instead come from taxing the income of the extremely rich. This avoids the problem of trying to tax assets like property and warehouse robots, but the drawback is that it is easier for billionaires to hide their income than it is for them to hide their robots.

Incidentally, working 24/7 with no breaks at the US minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, it would take 2 million, 393 thousand, 324 years to make as much money as Jeff Bezos currently owns. That is also roughly 12 times as long as sapiens have been around (aren’t numbers fun?). The question these figures pose for me is this: What could Jeff Bezos possibly have done in his life that is of equal value to 2 and a half million years of minimum wage work?

The way the system is currently set up necessitates that the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. People working on minimum wage make just enough to get by, leaving them with basically no possibility of saving or investing in education. The super-rich, on the other hand, are actually paid just for being rich (in the form of interest). People who are struggling to make ends meet may be forced to borrow money from the very rich. These loans accrue interest, meaning that the net effect is that money is taken away from the economically disadvantaged people who need the loan and funneled upwards into the bank accounts of the people who could afford to give the loan. These factors, along with automation of jobs and a few others, are why income inequality has been rising and rising and showing no sign of slowing down. Taxing the rich and using the money for UBI would go a long way towards closing that gap.

Many researchers have drawn a negative correlation between income inequality and self-reported happiness. This makes sense in terms of both the numbers and the philosophy. Of course people in more equal societies are happier. Every country has a finite amount of resources, and how fairly those resources are distributed determines how many people are struggling to put food on the table and how many people can comfortably provide for themselves and those who depend on them. Given the link between happiness and inequality, it follows that a system such as UBI which dramatically decreases inequality would also lead to a dramatic increase in happiness.

UBI and Employment

These days, when someone is called a ‘Luddite’, it is typically used to mean that they are opposed to the progress of technology. An example would be someone who refuses to buy a smartphone. However, the word originally referred to a revolutionary group who were active more than 200 years ago. The Luddites were weavers who were famous for smashing spinning jennies, machines that threatened to put them out of work, but they were not necessarily opposed to technology as many people believe. Instead, they were opposed to the obscenely rich upper class who owned the spinning jennies, from which the workers reaped no benefit. Spinning Jennies were not new technology, in fact they were invented 50 years before the first Luddite ever smashed one.

The problem was that when something was woven by hand, the weaver could receive the majority of the profits, whereas if it was woven by a spinning jenny, the majority of the profits would go to whichever wealthy man owned the machine. The Luddites were early trade union activists who protested unfair wages by destroying their employer’s revenue-generating property. This problem has only gotten worse since the protests began in 1811. Many people, like fast food workers or cashiers, make a living by operating machines which belong to extremely rich CEOs who have very little indeed to do with the actual production process. Amazon currently have 45,000 robots operating in its warehouses, generating revenue but paying no tax. A barely related but nonetheless interesting side note is that Amazon’s warehouse robots have accidentally opened multiple cannisters of bear repellent in the last few years, leading to the hospitalisation of dozens of employees.  

About 50% of workers are predicted to lose their jobs to machines by 2050. The number of jobs that are beyond the reach of automation has been shrinking ever since the Luddites banjaxed their first jenny, and the rate at which they are disappearing has become more and more rapid with the passing of time. Before anyone thought to use a dummy, the job of scarecrow was carried out by children, who were paid one penny and a swede for their troubles. For me, it makes perfect sense that jobs like this were lost to time. That is why we build technology; to reduce the amount of work we need to do ourselves. Often the jobs that are taken by machines are ones that we only do because we need the money, not because we find them fulfilling or meaningful. With UBI, we could leave those jobs to technology and focus instead on projects which make the world a better place.

The main issue here, for me, is not that jobs are lost to technology. New jobs are constantly being created to meet new demands. While human scarecrows have gone the way of the dodo, uber drivers and dogwalkers have popped up in their stead. That’s evolution baby. The priority should not be to desperately cling to jobs that we no longer need or want (like coal mining or weapons manufacturing) but rather to provide adequate training to the people doing these jobs so that they may transition to ones which are more useful to society (like building renewable energy infrastructure or vertical farming).

People do not do jobs which harm society because they want to. They do them because it is necessary to put food on the table. By providing food and shelter to everyone, we mitigate the external pressure to work jobs which harm society and encourage people to focus their attention instead on what gives their lives meaning or makes them happy. What they choose to do will be more likely to be in the best interest of society than what they are currently forced to do to survive in a broken system.

Another way that UBI could benefit society is by massively streamlining the welfare process. Right now, huge numbers of people are employed to sign people up to welfare, make sure that people are looking for work and carry out the administration and bureaucracy involved in a system which requires people to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are starving before it will give them something to eat. These administration jobs could largely be done away with under UBI, since welfare would be replaced by the very simple process of giving everyone exactly the same amount of money regardless of their situation. The money we pay to welfare officers and administrators could be used to help fund UBI, and the people who are doing these jobs would be freed up to pursue more fulfilling goals. Hell, one of them may be the next Jimi Hendrix but they never had the time or resources to pick up a guitar before.

What about the claim that if everyone is paid to do nothing, then no one will do anything? This, in my view, is simply false. People have an innate drive to make something of themselves. I doubt you would last more than a week doing absolutely nothing before you decided to get up out of bed and make your name mean something. In addition, UBI does not mean that there is no reason to get a paying job. Your weekly wage as an unemployed person would be enough to live on, yes, but it would not be enough for a particularly comfortable life. Most people would still work a few days a week to make money for holidays, luxury items and projects which enrich their lives. This idea is supported by preliminary evidence from the most complete pilot study ever carried out in relation to UBI.

From 2017-2018, 2,000 people were randomly selected in Finland to receive €560 per month with no strings attached. Researchers then compared those who participated in the study to a control group of 173,000 people with respect to several factors including employment rates and life satisfaction. For all of 2017, the test group earned, on average, just €21 less than the control group from employment. This extremely small difference tentatively suggests that UBI will not lead to a significant reduction in employment, if any. The difference in trust and life satisfaction between the two groups, however, was far more significant. Basic income recipients reported much higher levels of trust in other people, the legal system and politicians. They also reported much higher confidence in their future, financial situation and ability to influence societal matters. In addition, 54.8% of basic income recipients self-assessed their health as being ‘good’ or ‘very good’, compared to just 46.2% of the control group. The study only ended in December of 2018, so the full report has not yet been released, but the preliminary evidence suggests that under a UBI system, employment rates would stay about the same, whereas happiness, trust and health would benefit hugely. The full report is scheduled for release at the end of 2019.

UBI and Society

To say that UBI is unrealistic because the rich will not allow it to happen is to succumb to a form of brainwashing. There, I said it. There are more of us than there are of them, and yet somehow they have convinced us that they will always have all the money and we will always have none. The most important tool in their arsenal is your belief that they are too powerful to oppose. By arguing that they will not allow it to happen and therefore we should not even try, you are playing right into their hands. If you think that UBI would be good for society (as I do) then you should fight to make it happen. I am not saying that we will not come up against any resistance from the financial elite. We very much will. What I am saying is that one of the ways in which they have resisted change already is by convincing you that they are so firmly in control that nothing can be done.

UBI would give us the freedom to do what we want to do with our lives. It would provide the foundation for an equal society, in which those who were born with nothing can make something of themselves and those who were born with everything get a smaller slice of the global pie. The Luddites thought that it was unfair that people who had inherited enough money to buy spinning jennies were taking all the profits while the people working their fingers to the bone operating those machines were making a pittance. I wholeheartedly agree. The private ownership of revenue-generating technology like tills, deep-fat-fryers and warehouse robots has been a significant factor in the long-term trend toward a top-heavy and unjust society in which some people have mansions to themselves while others share tiny flats or worse, sleep on cold and unforgiving streets.

Automation, inheritance, interest, loans, tax loopholes and unfair wages have created a society in which some people have everything and everyone else has nothing. There are things we can do to alleviate this problem like raising the minimum wage or corporate tax, but none do more to solve the problem than UBI. The disadvantaged majority have always fought for equality and the advantaged minority have always resisted to maintain their advantage. Enough is enough. We are more connected now than ever before in human history, making it easier than ever before to organise ourselves against those in power. We need to elect people who are not afraid to push back against corporations and sign into law measures that will help the 99% and hurt the 1%. For too long the discourse has been controlled by people who benefit from things staying exactly as they are. The new generation has shown time and time again that we want change and it is only a matter of time before that wish is granted. Do not believe for one second that they have all the power. If we do that, they have won. We have the power. We can force change.

As White as Coal: The Subjectivity of Colour Perceptions

We will always be confined to our own perception of the world and our own alone. This sensory isolation requires that we can never know the quality of someone else’s experience.

First Published in UCD College Tribune  

Imagine two young children are being taught the names of the primary colours. They are each presented with a tomato. One child sees a blue object and the other sees a yellow object. Both, however, are told that tomatoes are red. Once the children have internalised this label, if you present them with a series of objects of different colours, they will both be able to pick out which objects are red, even if they don’t see the same thing.

So how do you know that the red you see is the same as the red I see? This is an old philosophical question. Descartes, the ‘father of modern philosophy’, denied that colours were objective qualities of objects. He thought that when we perceive an object as being red, we are not given evidence that the object is red, but only that it produces a particular sensation in us. This is by no means just a question for dead philosophers. To this day, scientists are still attempting to find an answer.

Broadly speaking, the scientific view of colour perception relies on three key factors: the wavelength of light reflected, the apparatus whereby we gather a signal from light, and the processing of that signal by the brain. Different wavelengths of light are said to correspond to different colours. At the high energy end of the spectrum we have red light (short wavelength) and at the low energy end, we have blue light (long wavelength). This, of course, is not the full electromagnetic spectrum but only the tiny section that we can see. Different objects appear to be different colours because their surfaces reflect different wavelengths of light into our eyes. However, this does not tell us how our bodies perceive these differences.

Rods and cones have long been known to affect how we see colour. Each cone contains a different photopigment, proteins which change shape in response to light, triggering chemical reactions which send a signal to the brain. Humans have three different types of cones which pick up red, green and blue light. Rods allow us to see in low-light but since there is only one type, we cannot distinguish between colours as easily when it is dark. This is why we see in ‘black and white’ at night but in glorious technicolour during the day.

The final stage of colour perception is the processing of information sent by rods and cones to the brain. Since our cones can only pick up three colours of light, the brain must do most of the work when it comes to distinguishing between colours. When we perceive something as yellow, for example, it is because our cones have picked up red and green light simultaneously and our brain has processed this information to give us the sensation of perceiving yellow.

Colour blindness occurs either when there is a fault in one of the cones or in the pathway to the brain itself. The most common form is a fault in the ‘red’ cone, which leaves sufferers unable to effectively distinguish between red and green. On the other end of the spectrum are ‘tetrachromats’ who have four different types of cone. Birds are tetrachromats. They are sensitive to ultraviolet light which is invisible to the human eye. Some studies have suggested that up to 3% of women are tetrachromats, with their fourth type of cone cell allowing them to differentiate between red and green better than the rest of us. The reason there are more tetrachromat women than men is that the cone cell genes are carried on the X chromosome.

Male squirrel monkeys lack a cone containing red photopigments, meaning that they can’t see red light. In 2009, however, researchers at the University of Washington experimented with using gene therapy to imbue existing cones in the eyes of two monkeys with red photopigment. After the therapy, the monkeys were able to see red, showing how versatile colour perception is, and how crucial our individual biology is to how we see the world.

Now that we’ve had a brief run-through of the mechanisms which allow us to see colour difference, we can begin to ask how the scientific view helps us to answer our original question: how can I know that my red is the same as your red? The short answer, in my view, is that science provides little help in this regard. It can confirm that we all consistently identify the same objects with the same labels, but we knew this already. Though science describes and explains the physical process which allows colour perception to take place, it does not tell us anything about what it feels like to perceive colour. If I show you a tomato, you will tell me that it is red because the colour you see is the colour you call red. I will call it red because the colour I see is the colour that I call red. Even if the colour we see is completely different, this won’t cause us confusion when identifying objects. All that matters is that we use the same label.

It seems to me that we are likely never to find an empirical answer to this question. No amount of science can allow us to see through someone else’s eyes. We will always be confined to our own perception of the world and our own alone. This sensory isolation requires that we can never know the quality of someone else’s experience. Even if a scientist could hook someone’s perceptions up to a computer screen, the colours seen by the scientist on the screen would be processed by the scientist’s eyes and brain in a way that could be radically different to the way the subject is processing them. The only way we could truly know if people perceive colours the same way is if we could become someone else. Unfortunately, outside of Freaky Friday and Quantum Leap, this is not an option.