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Bioethics Forum Essay

Catastrophe Ethics and Charitable Giving

How can we live a morally decent life in a time of massive, structural threats that seem to implicate us at every turn? Climate change is the paradigm example here, as it poses devastating risk to current and future people, and virtually everything we do contributes to it through the emission of greenhouse gases. So, if I’m trying to carve out a justifiable life, how should I respond? Am I permitted to fly? Should I buy an electric car? Go vegan?

These are the central questions of my new book, Catastrophe Ethics: How to Choose Well in a World of Tough Choices. Of course, none of my little individual actions will have a meaningful impact on the climate. Even the choice to take a flight—which is one of the more environmentally expensive things many of us will do—contributes an infinitesimal fraction to the trillions of tons of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere and raising the global temperature. So, is it not a bit precious to worry about each thing I do? This tension between feeling implicated in massive structural harms and being largely incapable of making an impact on those harms is what I call The Puzzle of individual ethics in an era of collective catastrophe.

Although the idea for the book was born out of climate angst, one of the central hooks is that our modern world is so massive and complex that the structure of The Puzzle replicates in many areas of our lives. Many of our purchases make us participants in exploitation. Our electronics likely rely on modern day slavery overseas, and our favorite brands may use sweatshop labor or support union-busting.

In writing the book, I was surprised to discover that charitable giving is also part of the broad discussion of how to live well in such complicated times. As Judith Lichtenberg notes in her discussion of “The New Harms,” the way in which our participation in massive harms quickly becomes overwhelming and can feel intensely demanding parallels the now-old debate about how much we are obligated to give to charity in an effort to relieve suffering. In my terminology: the ethics of charitable giving feels a bit like catastrophe ethics.

This led to an experiment of sorts. Since I was writing a trade book, for which I would earn royalties by thinking about catastrophe ethics, I decided to donate some of my proceeds to a charitable organization. But which one? Could the work I was doing help me to choose?

I decided to find out.

Lessons from Catastrophe Ethics

Among my key findings, the first, perhaps most crucial, one is the following: Because our individual contributions to massive, structural harms don’t make a meaningful difference to reducing those harms, philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong are correct to note that we therefore are not obligated to refrain from making those contributions. But it would be wrong to infer that, as a result, nothing we do matters morally. Not everything that is morally permissible is good or recommended; I may do something that is within my rights, but that is nonetheless some flavor of bad, vicious, or otherwise crappy.

I characterize this first lesson as the insight that we have reasons to respond to catastrophes, even if we aren’t duty-bound to do so.

Second, then, and especially important for our discussion of charitable giving: The threat of catastrophe gives us reason to respond in different ways. There are negative reasons—that is, reasons not to be part of the problem and therefore to avoid doing things that contribute to it. And there are positive reasons—reasons to be part of the solution, like advocating for social reform, getting involved in political solutions, and giving our resources (time and money) to efforts to generate change. Indeed, activists like Mary Annaise Heglar argue that the positive reasons are in fact more important than the negative ones; despite working in the climate movement, she doesn’t care if you recycle, but she wants you in the climate fight.

This is how charitable giving becomes directly implicated in catastrophe ethics. Some people have more money than time to give to any cause. And if the massive threats of today ground reasons both not to be part of the problem (negative reasons) and reasons to be part of the solution (positive reasons), then, plausibly, many of us have good reason to give money to all sorts of organizations trying to mitigate the harms we face.

Triaging Reasons

How, then, do we organize the mass of reasons grounded in the many catastrophes we face?

In my view, because we do not have a duty to respond to catastrophe in a particular way, we have latitude to determine how to act, and so how to live a life that is justifiable. There is far more to be done than any one of us could ever do, and so I propose a kind of division of moral labor: each of us gets to decide how to respond based on our subjective values, interests, passions, strengths, and privilege.

In addition, I think there are special reasons for some of us to include particular ways to respond, and this is due to our social and economic positions. As a 21st century American, I am not well-positioned to significantly reduce my carbon footprint: I live in a car-based society, our electric grid has not quickly decarbonized, and my job and family require a lot of travel. Thus I, like most Americans, have a relatively high carbon footprint. But any success I enjoy is also due significantly to the massive extractive enterprise of American history: I get to live the life I do because America has emitted, since the Industrial Revolution, more greenhouse gases than any other country. One way to think of this is that I have an enormous amount of climate privilege, and I’m continuing to contribute to climate change in an outsized way.

Thus, while there are some harms I can extract myself from (for instance, I can boycott companies that utilize slave labor), I cannot adequately respond to the negative reasons generated by climate change. And the fact that I’m continuing to benefit from climate change—which is causing and will continue to cause serious harm—makes me a participant not just in harm, but in injustice.

These features together suggest to me that I have especially strong reasons to, as Heglar says, “join the climate fight” by responding to the positive reasons to create change.

The Judgment: Where to Donate

At the end of this reasoning, I came to a few conclusions about my charitable giving. One is perhaps best summarized as a response to the philosophy of effective altruism, which recommends donating as much money as you can to the most effective organizations, so that you do as much good as possible.

While I think there is a lot of moral weight to the idea of “doing as much good as you can,” there is more to the ethics of charitable giving than just that. I have special reason to donate to climate organizations because of my position as a beneficiary of America’s extractive economy. And because of my career and my interests, I know a lot about climate change, and so feel well-positioned to choose organizations that do important work. Finally, because we are allowed latitude in the way we respond to catastrophic threats, each of us can choose according to our values.

Based on this reasoning, I decided to donate a portion of the proceeds from my book to the organization Cool Earth, which protects the rainforest, but does so in a specific way: by investing in Indigenous peoples and local communities. Cool Earth’s efforts not only contribute to environmental conservation, they also address broader issues of social justice, equity, and human rights in the context of climate change. By engaging with local communities, promoting sustainable practices, and advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples, Cool Earth exemplifies a holistic approach that integrates environmental protection with social empowerment and ethical considerations.

Because I believe in wide latitude concerning how each of us responds to catastrophe, I don’t think anyone reading this has an obligation to support Cool Earth. However, I do believe that many people are like me in relevant ways: They would like to respond to climate change; they have benefitted from historical emissions and contribute in an outsized way to ongoing emissions; and they have the means to donate to charity. For such folks, I believe the reasons commend giving to organizations like Cool Earth.

They are in the climate fight, and giving is one way that we can join them.

Travis N. Rieder, PhD, is associate research professor at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, where he directs the Master of Bioethics degree program. He is a Hastings Center fellow. @TNREthx

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  1. Climate change will NOT come under control unless those who benefit most start making decisions that cost them more like NOT driving as much and NOT taking that next flight wether for work or for pleasure. The rationalizations provided are the exact reasons Americans are not doing enough. WE must feel obligated to reduce our carbon footprint and fight back against the car and consumption based society; If you read the environmental literature, you will know it already may be too late…

  2. Very nice article. My mind was filled with examples of important issues with which we seriously and soberly grapple and then the article turned polemic. I just wish you hadn’t settled on climate change as if it’s the most important and then actually named an organization implying it is the most worthy. I guess another wish is that the multitude of charities and “good deed doers” would get together for the sake of effectiveness. The duplication leads to dilution.

  3. Interesting perspective here! One line, however, is ambiguous to me. Following your reflection on charitable giving, you say, “Because our individual contributions to massive, structural harms don’t make a meaningful difference to reducing those harms, philosophers like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong are correct to note that we therefore are not obligated to refrain from making those contributions.” At one point it sounds like you’re referring to remedial contributions, and then in the next, harmful ones. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in fact argues that we are not individually obligated to make *remedial* contributions to anthropogenic climate change; and, similarly, that we are not individually obligated to *refrain* from making *harmful* ones. This seems to be the idea you intended to convey—but I just want to clear this up just in case! Again, thanks for writing on this topic!

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