13 January 2008

Moralizing unhelpful? What a silly idea!

This week's NY Times Magazine cover story is a thoughtful exploration of the emerging scientific understanding of human morality. It covers a lot of the same ground as one of my favorite RadioLab episodes (including an interview about trolley car ethics with Joshua Greene), but goes beyond the simple biology to ask whether there is a universal human grammar of morality, and consider what insights that hypothesis could lend to modern hot-button ethical issues like global warming. The concluding suggestion is that moralizing an issue might actually be counterproductive:
In many discussions, the cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere), and the solution is temperance (conservation) and expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling . . . [effective measures against climate change] will have to be morally boring, like a carbon tax and new energy technologies, or even taboo, like nuclear power and deliberate manipulation of the ocean and atmosphere.

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