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Modern Moral Problems: Climate Change

American University, Philosophy 525

Spring 2014

SYNOPSIS: Philosophy 525 is designed to introduce students to an ethical issue that is of contemporary significance, along the way developing a deeper understanding of applied ethics as a field and establishing expertise in a particular application of moral philosophy.

In terms of the moral problems we face today, few loom as large as does climate change: our consumptive practices, economic policies, and technological capacities have massive, predictable harmful effects on persons, animals, and ecosystems. Public discourse increasingly treats climate change as a problem, but it is not actually one problem that can be solved in some particular way. Rather, climate change is a nexus of problems—economic, ecological, and political—that raise a host of complicated questions for individuals and communities, states and societies.

Despite the fact that public figures like Al Gore and the Dalai Lama have asserted the moral character of climate politics since at least the mid-1990s, scholarship on climate ethics remains an emerging field. Before a watershed essay in the journal Ethics in 2004, only a few dozen philosophers had written explicitly about climate ethics and much of that early work was drawn from parallel areas of philosophical inquiry with more established literatures (e.g. international ethics, intergenerational ethics, etc.). In this course, we will examine the recent contributions of philosophy to public discussions about climate and employ the tools of philosophical reason as useful instruments for wrestling with the moral dimensions of the problem.

The course is structured around four focused units. The first establishes a body of knowledge about climate change common to all students in the course, capturing the chief scientific issues, international political frameworks, and socio-cultural challenges. The second unit focuses on the various broad-scale ethical questions raised by climate change, including issues of international and intergenerational justice, tensions between collective and individual forms of moral responsibility, and the challenges of distributed and diffuse harms. The third unit will look at a series of more specific moral issues that have received less attention from social or political philosophers to date: geoengineering, the future status of sinking island nations, and climate-related national security issues. The fourth and final unit will examine a range of broad-scale theories of climate ethics (theological, human rights, and post-modern).