Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Dale Jamieson joined the NYU faculty in Spring, 2004, from Carleton rnCollege, where he was Henry R. Luce Professor in Human Dimensions of rnGlobal Change. Previously he was Professor of[…]

The philosopher says individual ethical stances are ill-equipped to face today’s global challenges.

Question: Is American individualism compatible with today’s global challenges?


Dale Jamieson: We tend to have very quick and often misleading associations with words like ethics and values and so on and so forth. And it reminds me of a story, many years ago when I worked at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1980, the first years of Reagan regime, we were interested in founding a center that would study social policy questions but would really be concerned with the kind of moral and ethical issues that really separate people when it comes to public decision making.

And so we started something that was called The Center for Values and Social Policy which seemed to us to be a completely apt description of the work that we wanted to do. Well, it turned out that almost everyone hated the name of the center and we were completely flummoxed by it and being a little slow in the uptake, we only later realized it was because Center, okay, for Values, well, that’s a right wing buzz term, right? It’s people on the political right who are concerned with Values, and Social Policy, Social Policy, that’s a buzz word that’s associated with the political left, the people who want to reengineer society and all that.

So almost no one could relate to a center that was interested in values and social policy. So going back to your question about ethics, it’s true that when we think about ethical behavior and moral behavior in American society, a kind of individualist bias immediately creeps in, we think of people as being individually responsible for doing the right thing, we even associate ideas of ethics and morality with, I think, questions of purity. Not to be smirched with wrong doing and so on and so forth but when we live in highly complex interconnected societies that are in some way have some reasonable semblance of democratic governance, often our moral obligations are political obligations and policy obligations and obligations to act.

If you’re interested in doing something about climate change as we all should be, all of us who care about future people and creatures that will inhabit this world. Then buying a Prius is a good thing but an even better thing would be to be on the streets demanding urgent action from the United States’ Congress.


Question: Can individual moral stances solve the challenges we face?


Dale Jamieson: So when to come to issues like not lying, not cheating, not betraying your friends, these really are questions of individual moral action and individual moral integrity and so on. All of your obligations can be taken up with how you, as an individual act towards other people. When you get into more complex issues like environmental issues, for example, individual action is not going to solve those problems. The United States, the world, are not going to stop emitting greenhouse gases because every individual person makes a moral commitment not to do that, people have children, they have jobs, they have other kinds of obligations, we are all implicated in a kind of economic and social structure that require these kinds of emissions, no matter how well-meaning we maybe.

So, much of the point of individual action is really to communicate with other people and with political leaders and to demonstrate to them that we are willing to live lives which are less dependent on fossil fuels and we’ll show you that now by changing our individual life to some extent but we want you to take action, political leaders, so that we aren’t living in a society in which we’re dependent on poisoning the future in order to maintain present lifestyles.

So I see a lot of individual action when it comes to environmental questions really as a form of politics as a way of communicating with political leaders, much in the same way that acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights’ movement were really acts of political communication, trying to get laws changed rather than based on the thought that the individual action would really change the practices of segregation.

Now, I think when it comes to climate change, the single most important thing in the world is for the United States’ Congress to pass an effective bill that will put a price in carbon because if it starts costing something to emit carbon, this will provide an incentive, people do act on the basis to some extent of economic incentives to emit fewer greenhouse gases. And the only way that’s going to happen, the only way, is if there is a very strong, very active popular movement that demands it and such a movement would be unparalleled because it would be a popular movement that says, “Raise our taxes so that we change our behavior.”

Now, the taxes can be refunded to people and other ways, there are ways of trying to take some of the sting out of it but it does require people to say that these issues about the future are so important to us, we’re willing to change it at present and we want those changes supported by political and legal changes.

Question: Are American ethical norms behind the times?

Dale Jamieson: Well, I think that our moral systems and to some extent our legal systems evolved when we lived in relatively low population, low density societies in which you could be a perfectly moral person as long as you didn’t go stealing your neighbor’s wife or clubbing your neighbor in the head with an axe or stealing her property or something like this, moral obligations, very simple, very straightforward and very individual and much of the law is really centered on those kinds of very simple biotic kinds of relationships but we now live in a very high density society in which we have technologies that actually increase our reach around the globe.

So if I drive my car to the store, those carbon molecules that are emitted actually get into the atmosphere circulation systems and affect climate in a global basis. This is shocking, this is amazing! No one in the 18th Century would have believed that anything like this were at all possible and I don’t think we have, as part of our common sense, morality, norms and values that are really responsive to those kinds of issues, to the kind of power that we now are able to exert over the future and over people who live very far from us.

And in a way, I think the challenge of climate change in particular is the challenge for us to create and produce new norms for a new kind of world. And that’s why I think as important as the issue of climate change is, it’s even more important than it seems because if we can’t evolve very quickly, new norms to deal with issues like climate change, we’re not going to be able to survive in the kind of world we’ve created. So I think, really, the whole nature of democracy, of governance, of global community and of solving the kinds of problems of the 21st Century are really at stake.