Friday, March 28, 2014

Why I Offset, Part II

Recently, I discussed why I purchase carbon offsets and why I believe they are not just sufficiently effective but highly so. Today, I would like to address what I perceive as the primary counter argument, which is that by purchasing offsets, one may feel they have paid for their “indulgences” and is therefore free to pollute.

First, the word “indulgence” is obviously a loaded term, and it is not particularly relevant anyway, as while most pollution (particular carbon) is completely fungible, while most sins are not. Nature doesn’t give a whit if I add a ton of CO2 here today and remove one there tomorrow. In contrast, I don’t get a free pass to steal from someone because I happened to return someone else’s lost purse. The idea that one can pay for immoral behavior with moral behavior is silly; the idea that you can clean up your messes is not. While there may be some borderline cases, this isn’t one of them, as the fungibility of carbon emissions is complete.

The crux of the matter, however, is the question as to what effects have on the purchaser’s emissions. One could argue that this is actually irrelevant, if the purchaser is honestly offsetting all their emissions. But even ignoring that point, do emissions actually increase for a typical purchaser? At least in my case, I strongly doubt it and in fact expect the reverse is true. There are in fact four mechanisms by which my emissions decrease when I purchase offsets:

1: The $100-200 I spend on offsets annually is $100-200 less I have to spend on anything else. Since there are few things I possibly could spend the money on that didn’t involve emissions, my emissions are almost certainly reduced. This represents a couple tenths of a percent of my income and likely decreases my total emissions by a similar amount.

2: Supply and demand. Knowing I have to purchase offsets causes me to perceive a higher price for any carbon-intensive activity and thus discourages me marginally from doing it

3: Guilt. In fact, this is so strong that just about every offset purchase I have ever made has been coupled with either donations to environmental organizations or volunteering with them

4: Direct action. Similar to above, my offset purchases usually spur me to act directly to reduce my emissions. They are like a big alarm clock that reminds me to check my tire pressure, fix that leaky window, or finally ditch that old, inefficient appliance.

Environmentalists who reject offsets do so essentially entirely two claims – that offsets don’t work, which I addressed last time, and that they cause the purchaser’s emissions to rise. Yet for the latter to be the case, the logic of indulgence – which just about anyone purchasing offsets would reject on principle – has to trump all four of the emission-decreasing effects listed above, two of which are rooted in very basic economic principles. Not only do I find this implausible, I am utterly certain in my own case that the balance lies heavily in the other direction, and that my offset purchases cause my emissions to drop substantially. Additionally, as I noted earlier, this is all likely irrelevant anyway because I am more-than-honestly offsetting all my emissions in the first place.

It goes even further than this. Even if one was only successfully offsetting a fraction of one’s emissions, the environment would likely come out ahead. If someone was emitting 10 tons a year before offsets, but post-offset emits 12 and offsets 8, there is still a net 60% reduction in carbon. I would hazard a guess that offset purchasers whose emissions increase by more than their successful offset purchases are close to non-existent. For example, if a typical purchaser successfully offsets half their emissions (failing in the other half due to either underestimating their emissions that need to offset, or buying offsets of insufficient quality), then their emissions would have to double in order to have a net negative impact. Barring a huge salary increase, a typical person would have to go out of their way to double their emissions, literally finding ways to burn fossil fuels with most of their spare cash. No one is going to do that. Even if there is a bump in people's emissions, which I doubt, it is unlikely to be anything more than a modest 10-20%, which in turn is almost certainly less than what they are offsetting. I simply see no plausible route for offset purchases to increase emissions.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Utility of Utilitarianism

This is a modified version of my first essay for Peter Singer's Practical Ethics course at Coursera.


There are a number of objections to utilitarian theory that one can raise: that it conflicts with individual rights(1), that it is difficult or impossible to convert disparate ideas such as rights, the sanctity of rules or the law, and peoples’ lives and preferences into a common currency(2), that it is too demanding(3), that it results in morality being partially dependent on luck(4), and that peoples’ preferences are inconsistent and malleable. Of these, I find the third objection (that utilitarianism is too demanding) and to a lesser degree the second (the common currency objection) to be the most compelling. Particularly when combined, these two objections lead to a broader problem with utilitarianism, which is that it just isn’t all that useful in one’s day-to-day life. In other words, utilitarianism lacks utility.

The “too demanding” objection arises from the highly counter-intuitive and essentially impossible to achieve requirements on personal behavior that a fully committed utilitarian would have to practice. Such a person would consider his or her own preferences no more important than anyone else’s, and thus be trapped in a life of endless sacrifice, as there would always be someone poorer than the utilitarian that the utilitarian could help. Indeed, such a “Utilitarian Martyr” would almost always answer the question of “What should I do right now in this situation?” with “Forsake my family and friends, work as hard as possible so that I can maximize my income, live like a penurious monk, and donate whatever is left over to high-quality charities”. This arises because the cost for such a charity to save a life is on the order of $1,000(5,6). Given the average per-capita income in the US was $42,693 in 2012(7), subtracting off $20,000 for a monk’s lifestyle and taxes leaves the typical American with enough resources to save over twenty lives per year, and the typical Princeton student far more. From a pure utilitarian perspective, which demands that we do whatever brings about the most good, becoming a Utilitarian Martyr is clearly the appropriate thing to do(8).

However, it is obvious that no one, even utilitarianism's proponents or anyone short of the mythical version of Jesus Christ himself, comes anywhere near abiding by such standards. Given that no one is going to reach such perfection, what we need in practice is not an abstract theory that tells us what is the absolute best thing to do (which is almost always to become a Utilitarian Martyr) but a practical theory that answers the two questions we regularly face: Which behaviors of my own are good enough, and which minimal standards of behavior am I willing to enforce unto others via the law? Unfortunately, utilitarianism fails this task. While it does provide a mechanism for ranking potential choices, doesn’t set useful criteria for placing either of these bars.

Worse yet, even this ranking mechanism can be highly suspect, due to the aforementioned “common currency” problem. The in-class example - McCloskey’s hypothetical about the sheriff accusing one man of rape in order to prevent five others from being lynched – is a perfect example of this issue. In this example, the sheriff can save five net lives, but only at the price of egregiously violating the law, the public trust, and justice,  thus potentially undermining the public good for years to come.

While a utilitarian can certainly point out and consider this trade-off, it is difficult to imagine any reliable mechanism for comparing such wildly differing concepts such as human lives on one side and the long-term public good on the other. If one were to lock ten professed utilitarians in separate rooms and individually ask them how many lives saved represent the break-even point in this hypothetical, you’d probably get ten different answers. Thus, when it comes to crunch time in situations that are close calls, utilitarianism generally fails to provide much clarity precisely because of its inability to accurately measure in a common currency items on either side of the scale.

Combining these objections, I find utilitarianism to not be all that useful and unable to answer either my day-to-day questions or many hypothetical ones. Should I buy carbon offsets to mitigate the pollution I caused on my recent vacation in Australia? Of course not. A Utilitarian Martyr would never waste money on such a trip, and only gives money to the poorest of the poor. How should I pay my friend back for the nice bottle of Zinfandel he gave me? I shouldn’t. In fact, I should have sold the wine and donated the proceeds. What should I buy my wife for her birthday? Nothing. In fact, I should divorce her immediately as I earn more than her and she has a claim on half of my income and assets that I could be giving to the poor. Should I push the fat man in front of the trolley in order to prevent it from careening off the tracks and thus saving a bunch of lives? Almost certainly not, as getting arrested would dramatically reduce my future income even if I were later found innocent. And then there are the legal fees…

Despite the intent of a "Practical Ethics" course, I find that utilitarianism alone just ain’t all that practical, give its inability to resolve real-life ethical questions.


1: Sandel, Michael.   Justice   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 37-41
2: Sandel, Michael.   Justice   New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. 41-48
3: Corbett, B., Moral Obligations to Distant Others
4: Nagel, Thomas.   Moral Luck   Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993. 57-71
6: Singer, Peter.   The Life You Can Save    New York: Random House 2009
8: Singer, Peter.   “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”  Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3) 229-243

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Dear TSA...

I would like to suggest that your agency spend more of its time cross-checking passenger lists with databases of stolen passports, and less time stealing my shampoo.

That is all. Have a nice day and thank you for your time.

A concerned American citizen