A Moral Ground

Cover of Kathleen Dean Moore's book, A Moral Ground While the scientific and economic evidence for combating environmental destruction may give us compelling reasons for acting, Kathleen Dean Moore argues that there are also powerful moral reasons to act – reasons based on justice, compassion, and care for future generations.

More than 80 global leaders writing on the moral obligation to act to mitigate climate change have contributed to “Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril.” The new collection of essays is edited by Moore, an Oregon State University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, and Michael P. Nelson of Michigan State University. It was released Sept. 7.

We recently had the chance to speak with Moore about the project and what she hopes it will accomplish. Moore will speak about the moral challenges of ecological emergencies at 4 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 18, in the Journey Room of the Memorial Union on campus.  Moore will also be doing an event with Powell’s on Jan 6th as part of Powell’s Philosophy cafe in Portland.

Can you describe the Moral Ground project and how it came about?

For the Moral Ground project we asked 100 of the world’s moral leaders to respond to this question: “Do we have a moral obligation to the future to leave a world as rich in possibilities as our own?” We got back from every corner of the earth this resounding, “Yes we have an obligation. Yes, for the sake of the children. Yes, for the sake of justice. Yes, because compassion calls us to care.” Not only do we have a scientific consensus on climate change – it’s real, it’s dangerous, it’s upon us. But we have a moral consensus to match that. We have an obligation to take action.

We’d been watching the national discourse about climate change with some despair and discouragement, because even though  scientists are doing a heroic job telling us that climate change is real, people don’t seem to be listening. Scientists responded by speaking more loudly, in a more unanimous voice, but that didn’t seem to be changing people’s behavior. What’s missing, I believe, is the moral imperative to act. A groundswell of moral affirmation has moved society to act in the past, and it can move us to act on climate change.

Did anything about the process of getting contributors surprise you?

One of the things that surprised me was how eager people were to contribute to the book. We were asking people to contribute who are very, very busy and who aren’t used to giving their work away for free. But almost without exception people said, “Yes, I will write for this book.” And  they gave us their work gratis.

Tell us about the reaction to Moral Ground so far.

We have had unanimously enthusiastic reaction to it so far. It’s  likely that’s a sampling error and we wouldn’t hear about it if people didn’t like it. But people are buying it in dozens and giving it to their friends. They’re buying it by the box and handing it out to people on their staffs. They’re really trying to get the word out. I think people are telling us that this is what we’ve been missing. This is what we need.

I have a sense from the feedback that the project is really on target, and that people see it as meeting a need that hasn’t been met before.

What are some of the essays you particularly feel convey the strongest message in the book?

There are a number of them. We have 83 contributors, and more on our website. Let me talk about the Dalai Lama, who surprised us all by saying, “Yes, we have an obligation to take action to avert the worst effects of climate change, because the survival of humankind depends on it.” We expected that argument from the scientists. We didn’t necessarily expect it from a Buddhist leader.

Another writer, Daniel Quinn, offered a very important analogy – it’s as if we live at the top of a 100-story penthouse, and every day we send workers down to the lower levels to take out bricks that we bring up to make our penthouse more beautiful, more comfortable. We can do this for maybe a year or two years or 30 years, but at some point we will have introduced channels of emptiness into this structure and the whole edifice will collapse. And our position on top of that edifice will not save us.

What do you hope that Moral Ground accomplishes?

I would like Moral Ground to stimulate a moral conversation as part of the national discussion about climate change. So we’re not simply talking about technological solutions – cap and trade and changing out our lightbulbs, – although all these things are important.

I would like people to talk about the ways in which human decisions created this crisis, and the ways that human decisions can bring us through, asking what kinds of actions are worthy of us as moral beings. Until we engage it on that level,  there’s no real calling to make a change.

Why do you think that hasn’t happened yet? Why do you think morality has not come into the discussion?

It’s easy for us to talk about facts. We’re trained in empirical scientific reasoning. But we don’t have the same kind of ease about having conversations about values, particularly when they differ, so we relegate those sorts of discussions to others – to the churches or talk radio.

But actual, rational discourse about what we value the most seems to have gone missing from our political discourse. Maybe politicians  disrespect the electorate’s ability to engage in that kind of conversation. Maybe it’s that we simply don’t know how to bring reasons to bear to justify what we think is true about what we ought to do. It’s difficult.

Why do you think it’s important to hold climate change town halls? What do you hope they accomplish?

These public meetings are a sort of community seminar in ethics. My coeditor Michael Nelson and I are going all across the country – everywhere from Anchorage to Atlanta, and we’re inviting people to town hall meetings where we will ask them in small groups and in larger groups as well, to explore the question that the writers have addressed: “Do we have a moral obligation to the future to leave a world as rich in possibilities as our own?” It’s not enough to have 100 global leaders weigh in.  Meeting the environmental emergencies is going to require the greatest exercise of the moral imagination this world has ever seen.  We need everybody thinking about the hard questions of justice and compassion. What do we most deeply value?  How, then, shall we live?

We’d like for them to be able to talk about that among themselves. We’d like that to be the kind of conversation people have on street corners. Let’s practice rational discourse about ethics. We don’t have to shout at each other.  We don’t have to abdicate our moral decisions to advertisers or haters. We need to learn how to bring moral reasons to bear on the decisions we make as individuals and communities.

We’re hoping that if a lot of people come to these town hall meetings, and a lot of people hear about them, that maybe these ways of reasoning will help us think more clearly about what we ought to do.

Listen to Kathleen Dean Moore talk about the Moral Ground project

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