July 1, 2010

Climate Change and the Ethic of Responsibility

Quote of the day, or perhaps the century?
"We believe we have compromised significantly, and we're prepared to compromise further," [Sen. John] Kerry said.
It's a statement that can be read as either an indictment of the way in which Democrats have pursued their policy agenda in the Obama era, or as a fundamental truth about the way change is made in a democracy. Here would be a good time to invoke Weber's famous lecture, "Politics as a Vocation," which turns on distinguishing between "the ethic of responsibility" and "the ethic of ultimate ends." The latter is familiar among political activists who want their preferred agenda, and only theirs, to prevail, and will not settle for less. Following the former, however, means acting with an awareness of what the likely consequences of one's actions will be, even at the expense of sacrificing one's own agenda. As Weber puts it:
[A] man who believes in an ethic of responsibility takes account of precisely the average deficiencies of people; as Fichte has correctly said, he does not even have the right to presuppose their goodness and perfection. He does not feel in a position to burden others with the results of his own actions so far as he was able to foresee them; he will say: these results are ascribed to my action.
It seems strange to say, given how often liberals groan at Democratic efforts to find "bipartisan" solutions, but I think you have to view how Kerry, Obama, et al have been going about getting a climate and energy bill in this light. Clearly, an energy-only bill, or a utility-only climate bill that's now being considered, is inadequate -- both in terms of reducing our own carbon emissions and in terms of persuading developing countries to take steps to reduce theirs. It's also clear, though perhaps not to the Democratic leadership, that the moderate Democrats and Republicans that are critical to getting a bill past a filibuster haven't been solid and upstanding negotiating partners.1 In spite of all that, I doubt that making some valiant, but unsuccessful, stand on a tough climate bill would necessarily translate into electoral victories for Democrats this year, or a better chance at a climate bill of any sort next year. Even a marginal improvement over the status quo has to be preferred to spinning our wheels on this issue over and over again.

Activists, however, aren't wrong in wanting the President and Congress to go further, or in blasting the equivocations and cowardice of those opposed to any sort of carbon pricing. The ethic of ultimate ends, after all, is just as necessary to a well-functioning democracy as the ethic of responsibility. But the future of this planet will be better served by actual, if imperfect, legislation than perfectly good intentions.

1 Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Lindsey Graham's reversal on the climate bill -- which I feared would happen when he first got involved -- was how predictable it was. Was there anyone who was actually shocked that he bolted from the negotiations at the first sign of conflict?