Irena Janus was preparing her presentation on the impact of flying on global warming. She would tell her audience that commercial flights pump more of the major greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in one year than all of Africa does. She would tell them how one long-haul flight is more polluting than twelve months of car travel. If we want to save the Earth, she would conclude, we must do more to reduce the number of flights we take and encourage people to either travel less or use other forms of transport.
Just as she was imagining the rapturous reception her talk would receive, she was interrupted by the air stewardess offering her some wine. Hypocrisy? Not as Janus saw it. For she also knew full well that the impact of her own flights on the environment was negligible. If she refused to fly, global warming would not be delayed by as much as a second. What was needed was mass change and policy change. Her work, which involved flying around the world advocating this, could thus be part of the solution. Refusing to fly would simply be a hollow gesture.
And with that she switched on the in-flight movie: The Day After Tomorrow.
Baggini, J., The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 2005, p. 178.
To make the intent behind this perfectly clear, here is part of Baggini's discussion of this story:
"It is true that collectively our fondness for flying is harmful: all the little emissions add up. It is also true that individual flights have a negligible impact: no individual little emission matters. But it is also true that if we advocate a policy of reducing emissions, we cannot make exceptions for ourselves. Janus should not be criticised for destroying the planet but for not following the advice she gives others. Unless, of course, do as I say and not as I do is a perfectly reasonable request."
I don't actually think Baggini personally supports this position, but the smugness dripping off that last sentence from people who do utter it is as ridiculous as it is disingenuous. It's a common tactic, however, coming from strict deontological moralists—those who think rules for behaviour are the way morals must be prescribed. This is a typical belief in Judeo-Christian-Islamic countries where rules like the Ten Commandments (or at best four-and-a-half of them) sit at the root of many an ethical system. But we regularly see that rules for behaviour by themselves are not enough to define morality since clever philosophers can always find situational exceptions to these rules, which undermine their ultimate authority. Even "Thou shalt not kill" is allowed to be disobeyed according to church dogma on just wars. Yet that doesn't mean the leaders of the church are hypocrites (for this), or that it's okay to kill other people. Why is that?
It's because deontological moral rules are not sufficient. Consequentialism shows that results matter too. And virtue ethics says intentions also count. Together, these three schools of thought make up the three main camps of moral philosophy. However, as is often the case with thorny philosophical issues, the best position on morality isn't an "either/or" decision from among these three choices, it's an "all/and" decision which considers the three of them. For any morally considered human behaviour, there is an intention, an action, and a result. That's the way an event is described prior to, during, and after it occurs. It's the way the past, present, and future are bound together by causality yet allowed to be looked at separately across time. Virtue ethics concerns itself with the intention. Deontology focuses on the action. Consequentialism focuses on the result. But all three may be evaluated individually for moral purposes. For example, if I intend to shoot an aggressive attacker, but miss and kill a bystander, but that bystander is Hitler and I prevent the holocaust, how is that situation to be judged? Depending on the details, that could be a case of good intention, bad action, good consequence. What if I meant to shoot an innocent demonstrator, missed and killed Hitler, but did so in a way and at a time in history that made him a revered martyr? Then that might be a bad intention, bad action, and bad long-term consequence. We can hold all three of these judgments in our head at the same time and use them to guide future decisions accordingly with respect to blame, praise, imitation, or change.
Of course, all of these judgments still require an objective arbiter to help us determine what is good and what is bad. Deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics must be subsumed into something above them all, for we cannot find a universal and objective arbiter by looking only at intentions, actions, or results alone. I have argued that we must judge each of these by whether or not they lead to an overarching goal. And I have defined that good goal as that which leads to the long-term survival of life. That is how I believe morality based on an evolutionary philosophy ought to work.
So, with those general descriptions of morality made clear, let's turn our attention to the specifics of this week's thought experiment. If you think Ms. Janus is only spreading the deontological rule, "Thou shalt not fly," then of course you think she is being a hypocrite. If you consider only the narrow consequences of her individual flights, you might also think she is doing negligible but real harm to the environment that she says she wants to protect. But once you take a bigger and longer-term perspective on it all, it's quite easy to see how her fairly insignificant contribution to the problem might be offset both directly by the purchase of carbon offsets as well as indirectly by influencing others who hear her message and choose other forms of travel in the future. And although Ms. Janus' individual flights are not virtuous by her own account, if she generally chooses staycations and greener forms of transportation whenever otherwise possible, she could still be considered a virtuous person who keeps to her "fly less" message. In the case of the destruction of the environment by modern society, one cannot realistically expect to influence that society without engaging in some modern actions. Ms. Janus probably does much more good flying around and spreading her message than she ever could by withdrawing into the state of an ascetic hermit for fear of emitting any carbon at all. It's only people who see the world in black and white rules who fail to see the fuller, greener options that are out there.