Homo sapiens is a social species, a language-using species, and a culture-transmitting species, and these three (roughly layered) properties have all contributed to our evolutionary success. One aspect of our various cultures is ethics or morality, which can be seen as an attempt to align the actions of individuals with the good of the larger society.

“Consequentialism” is the view that the prime, or only, determiner of what is ethical is the consequences that flow from an action. There are other theories of ethics, but in practice all theories give some weight to consequences, explicitly or implicitly.

So, is our burning of fossil carbon strictly ethical? Can we be ethically satisfied with our behavior in the face of the knowledge that the consequences of business-as-usual in this realm will include extinction for many millions of species (which is already happening) and widespread human suffering in the future?

The mechanisms that help us behave ethically in many situations are largely inoperative here, because the consequences operate at the level of the planet, and on a scale of centuries; our evolution has not given us good preparation to confront such problems.

Turn21 suggests that every university should  be offering an interdisciplinary seminar, perhaps in the philosophy department but with contributions from ecologists and economists, to confront these issues. Participants would seek to understand where we are and where we are going, and go on to consider how to bring about a course correction for the species, toward a truly sustainable future.

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