Bertrand Russell said: “People are zealous for a cause when they are not quite positive that it is true.” I think this false and even scurrilous. The zealous are nothing if not convinced and in passionate love.
Take the case of two academics, Michael P. Nelson, who styles himself after a piece of furniture (the Ruth H. Spaniol Endowed “Chair” in Natural Resources), and Kathleen Dean Moore, the “distinguished” Professor of Philosophy at OSU. I put distinguished in quotes because, after reading her editorial in Oregon Live, it’s not certain this word takes its plain English meaning at OSU.
Their piece is ostensibly a logic exercise showing how climate “deniers” err. They begin “Any argument reaching a conclusion about what we ought to do will have two premises.” Here is their first:
The first premise lays out the implications of scientific research: Unchecked anthropogenic climate change will profoundly harm the chances of future generations, undermining the necessary conditions for human life and liberty.
And here is the second:
The second premise lays out the values at stake, a culture’s collective moral wisdom about what is just and good: It’s wrong to violate human rights, condemning all future people to struggle and misery.
From which they claim to derive this conclusion:
When you combine these facts and these values, the conclusion is inescapable: We are obligated to act quickly to avert anthropogenic climate change.
Since this is an exercise in logic, the premises of the argument need not have any bearing on real life, as these do not. We can for example, in illustrating logical principles, like Dr Dodgson, use premises which assume cats understand French. Thus there is no fault in Nelson and Moore’s employing their obviously false first premise: just as we don’t expect our cats to sidle up to us and whisper Je T’aime (this includes you, Charlie), there is scant and unreliable evidence that future weather will “profoundly harm” future generations. Nevertheless, accept that it is true. Similarly, arguendo, swallow the minor premise.
Then the conclusion “We are obligated to act quickly to avert anthropogenic climate change” does not follow: it is escapable.
There is nothing in either premise to support the notion that we must act “quickly”. This is a silly mistake for so “distinguished” a philosopher to make. It could be that it is best to act slowly, or after waiting a long period of time. In order for “quickly” to be valid the premises must support immediate action, but there is not one word for or against timeliness in them.
Second comes the blush-inducing blunder. It does not follow, even if it is true that mankind is poisoning the air and it is morally wrong to “condemn” future generations, that there exist actions we can take that would let our ancestors live struggle-free.
It might be true that the future, because of our prior actions, is already doomed: that is it too late to save them, no matter what we do. It might be true that the best we could do is to slow or postpone doomsday. It might be true that the bare conditions necessary for minimal human life are such that our grandchildren will die horribly if we live in this minimal fashion: but if so, the choice is between us dying and them, and I choose them (they’ll at least have some life).
It might also be true that our knowledge of the effects of our fixes is so incomplete that any intervention worsens future conditions.
Doubtless you could derive more of these easily, all assuming the first and second premises are true. Russell was wrong: in their their zeal to condemn mankind for its sins against Mother Nature, these elementary objections did not occur to Nelson or Moore.
And then the first premise is false, as stated. So it’s natural to ask how Nelson and Moore came to believe it. Probably Moore believed because she desired it true. Or maybe she merely read an opinion of an “expert” and accepted his word as an expert. Worse errors have been made.
We have no evidence that Nelson cherishes the first premise because his very livelihood depends on people believing it: he may, as I think he does, truly believe it. Still, one wonders how far his zeal would take him were he to lose funding.