Moral philosophy, casuistry and the ethics of organ donation (crosspost from CT)

As Harry Brighouse mentioned at CT, I’m sceptical of the value of artificial “thought experiments” in moral philosophy, without having a fully coherent basis for this scepticism. One thing I don’t like about the term “thought experiment” is the implication that the results of such thought experiments constitute data, and therefore that an ethical theory is more satisfactory if it fits such data than if it does not. The way I’d prefer to approach such problems involves an iterative loop, with repeated stages of (i) consider reasonable general principles (ii) compare to intuitions about specific cases (iii) where appropriate, adjust judgements on specific cases (iv) revise general principles to give a better fit to adjusted intuitions. That is, I don’t think either general principles or specific intuitions are trumps.

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My response to Monckton’s conspiracy theory

As we’ve been discussing, my invitation to debate Lord Monckton was withdrawn before I could make a decision on it. But, for those interested, my column in yesterday’s Fin presents my thoughts on Monckton’s key claim: that the scientific literature on climate change is a gigantic fraud, cooked up in the service of a conspiracy to inaugurate a communist world government at Copenhagen.

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The circuit breaker

The Greens have proposed a carbon tax as an interim measure to begin cutting carbon emissions. Although there are strong reasons to favor an emissions trading scheme over a carbon tax in the long run, I think it’s time to look seriously at this option. Here a few points in no particular order.

* since the price of carbon is initially capped under the CPRS, it’s just like a carbon tax in the short run
* the way to dispel public fear of a new tax is to bring it in. Look at capital gains tax and GST, both the subjects of highly successful election scare campaigns (in 1980 and 1993 resp) and both now uncontroversial.
* the capture of the political right by delusionism is now irreversible, as can be seen from the embrace of the obviously loony Lord Monckton. There’s no chance, now or in the foreseeable future of a deal with these guys. In particular, the version of the CPRS negotiated with Turnbull and briefly supported by the majority of Coalition members is unsalvageable in every respect. There’s no way the deal can be modified enough to get Liberal support now, and on the other hand it’s too much of a dog’s breakfast to take to a double dissolution.
* The Greens will almost certainly regain the balance of power in the Senate after the next election. Much as the government dislikes it, they are going to have to rely primarily on deals with the Greens to get legislation through in future. They might as well start dealing now.

In general terms, the government lost control of the debate with the defeat of the Turnbull compromise ETS last year, and has done nothing to regain it. Turning up with the same discredited compromise in February makes no sense at all. This is a time for firm action, not more delay.

An interesting reversal

Janet Albrechtsen, who previously endorsed Lord Monckton’s conspiracy theory that the draft Copenhagen agreement were designed to bring in a world government has backed away, admitting that his rants about Hitler Youth and similar make it unsurprising that neither Kevin Rudd nor Tony Abbbott would see him during his Australian tour (I delayed in responding to my invitation, and it was pulled).

Albrechtsen has previously shown more willingness to admit error than the average pundit, and this piece counts in her favour. Still, it’s disappointing to see her continuing to suggest that the utterly unqualified and ludicrously wrong Viscount is “powerful” when he talks about the science. She quotes him confronting an activist, and asking

whether she is aware that there has been no statistically significant change in temperatures for 15 years. No, she is not. Whether she is aware that there has in fact been global cooling in the past nine years? No, she is not. Whether she is aware that there has been virtually no change to the amount of sea ice? No, she does not.

Perhaps the activist does not know these things because none of them are true, at least not in the sense that is implied. For example, as predicted by climate models, the dramatic reduction in Arctic sea ice has not not been mirrored in the Antarctic, so with a little ‘virtual’ fudge Monckton’s claim is, kind of, true. The point about statistical significance may be restated as saying that the variability of temperature about the upward trend is sufficiently great that 15 observations is not quite enough to reject the null hypothesis of no change with 95 per cent confidence (when I did stats, the standard number for a decent-sized sample was 30 observatons, but the trend in temperatures is strong enough that we don’t need so many). And the claim about global cooling is typical cherry picking, now out of date. 2009 was warmer than either 2000 or 2001, but Monckton was presumably using the relatively cool 2008 as his endpoint, or maybe the exceptionally warm El Nino year in 1998 as his starting point.

Albrechtsen is no more qualified than Monckton on these points. But she ought to ask herself whether it makes sense to rely on the statistical judgement of a former political advisor (to climate arch-conspirator Margaret Thatcher no less) whose political judgement is so obviously flaky.