Friday, 8 January 2016

Kant, Chips and Future Generations


The confession with which I wish to begin the year is: I eat meat.

Not only that.  When I cannot be arsed to meet my own usual standards (organic, free-range, locally-sourced, well-read etc) I occasionally indulge in a burger. Ready cooked.  From a high street provider.

On one such recent occasion I happed upon Steers, a brand previously unknown to me.   Their advertising was enticing; and the burger was good.  So were the chips.

The chips came in a cardboard envelope, the front of which explained just how good the chips were, the back of which encouraged me as follows:

“Please do not litter and help save the planet
so that future generations will also be able
to enjoy our flame-grilled burgers”

Leaving aside the ambiguous grammar (am I being asked not to save the planet?) we are confronted here by a very interesting piece of irony.  It is clearly expected that I already know that I should be behaving in an environmentally-friendly fashion; and, further, that I know the reason why I should be behaving this way.  But why should I really care about these future generations?  I, after all, will not be around.  And the answer?  So that they can enjoy one of these burgers!  Just as I have!  Marvellous!

It’s possible, of course, that no irony is intended, and that Steers really does believe that its customers are more likely to dispose of the waste cardboard envelope in a responsible fashion if they conjure, for a moment, a vision of a future burger-eating human.

Either way, the question is firmly on the table: what is the best way of motivating the typical Steers customer – or, indeed, anyone else in the act of eating some food – to act responsibly?

The ironies multiply.  As my opening confession reminds us, eating meat is itself difficult to justify on environmental grounds.  The most environmentally responsible choice would in fact be not to have eaten the burger at all, in which case I would not have been exposed to the motivational message in the first place.  Less of an irony, more of a paradox akin to the old chestnut ‘The statement on the other side of this card is true/The statement on the other side of this card is false’.

No matter.  The question remains.  Why should we bother with any of this stuff?

The mainstream response, as the Steers encomium acknowledges, is that we have some sort of responsibility to the future.  Normally this is expressed in terms of our, or the, children.  Most parents have a bit of a soft spot for their children, so the assumption is that an appeal to the welfare of our children will motivate us to act.

Hmm.  The evidence suggests that, whilst we may have good intentions when it comes to our children, we’re not so good when it comes to the follow up: just look at how fat they’re all getting! It’s too straightforward to make the easy decision today and leave the tricky action stuff until tomorrow.  (Economics does this all the time.  Why should we pay to stop climate change, when future generations will be much richer than us and will be able to afford to clear up the mess much more easily than we can?)

The appeal to future generations is simply a way of shifting the responsibility.  It’s not our problem, it’s theirs.  It lets us off the hook.

So, what sort of reason would be enough?

One sort of answer would be, pace Cameron, that it’s ‘the right thing to do’.  This is obviously inadequate.  Cameron’s automated utterance, crafted as it has been by that recently knighted Sly Bony Corn, is utterly bereft of content and is in reality an opportunity to repeat the word ‘right’ so as to subliminally reassure the relevant political wing.  (It also, heinously, traduces Spike Lee’sDo the Right Thing’.)  The notion of ‘right’ is entirely subjective, possibly even arbitrary.  My definition of right might well include eating thousands of burgers and throwing many tonnes of cardboard on the planet’s funeral pyre.

The subjectivity issue here is, of course, the very stuff of ethics, about which a very great deal has been written and only a small fraction of which has ever been read.  I am in no position to summarise even the vanishingly small portion of that small fraction with which I am familiar, so will hazard instead some possible one-liners:

The golden rule – we could rely on the maxim that we should treat others as we ourselves expect to be treated.  This is obviously classy in general terms, but I don’t immediately see the connection to an empty bag of chips; and when I think about it for a bit longer, I can’t be sure that a future burger eater will mind that much about throwing away an empty chip bag, so probably won’t mind if I do either.

Kant’s categorical imperative – which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, and is again a classy formulation, and would certainly act as a motivation if you understood it, but I’m not convinced the average Steers customer would be too impressed if they discovered it written on the back of the packet.

The Allen Carr model – who, in his classic “The Easy Way to Give Up Smoking” framed smoking as self-evidently bad by posing the question: would you wish it for your children?  It borders on being a universal test: if a behaviour you’re thinking of is one you hope your children would never do, then it’s bad; if it’s something you’d be proud of your children doing, then it’s good.  The weakness, again, is the peril of subjectivity: you and I might be ashamed if our children threw their empty chip packets to the floor, but there may be others who simply don’t give a monkeys.

I wonder, then, if the answer lies in something more cunningly social, of the form:

Is it civilised?

We perhaps don’t have to worry too much about exactly what is meant by ‘civilised’ and can actually exploit the vagueness: the civilised thing to do is clearly that behaviour which respects the fact that we are civilised people living in a civilisation. We don’t have to worry too much about the children or the future, or how my individual action relates to the individual actions of others: throwing an empty packet of chips on the floor is clearly not very civilised. Don’t do it.

Even this formulation is flawed, however.  Is driving a car civilised or uncivilised?  Travelling on an aeroplane?

Maybe we should simply let Cameron and Lee slug it out:

It’s only the right thing to do if you actually do the right thing.