Department of Philosophy
Environmental ethics

Climate Change and Asian Philosophy: A Dialogue in Environmental Ethics

This conference will bring together experts in the fields of climate ethics, Buddhist ethics, and environmental philosophy in an effort to foster dialogue between non-Western philosophical traditions and contemporary climate ethics.

Zen stone path in a Japanese Garden
Illustration photo

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In recent years, climate ethics has burgeoned into a dynamic philosophical subfield that aims to address some of the most perplexing ethical challenges presented by climate change. At the same time, there's been a growth in philosophical interest in the connection between Asian philosophy – particularly Buddhist ethics – and environmental ethics generally. However, little work has been done regarding what non-Western philosophy might have to contribute to our understanding of the ethics of climate change. How can non-Western ethical and ontological systems inform issues such as historical responsibility, individual responsibility, intergenerational ethics, and the non-identity problem?

This conference will bring together experts in the fields of climate ethics, Buddhist ethics, and environmental philosophy in an effort to foster dialogue between non-Western philosophical traditions and contemporary climate ethics. This dialogue promises to offer valuable ethical resources for addressing the global problem of anthropogenic climate change.

Program Friday, October 4th 

09:00 - 09:15: Coffee

09:15 - 10:30: Session 1 - Simon James (Durham University) “Climate Justice: Some Challenges for Buddhist Ethics”

10:45 - 11:45: Session 2 - Matthew Coffay (University of Bergen) “Climate Change, the Non-Identity Problem, and Buddhist Virtue Ethics”

12:00 - 13:00: Lunch

13:00 - 14:00: Session 3 - Yumi Suzuki (University of Bern, East China Normal University) “‘Climate Crisis’ and Political Responsibility in Early Confucianism”

14:15 - 15:15 Session 4 - Anna Deplazes-Zemp (University of Zurich) “Relational Values as a New Concept in Environmental Ethics”

15:30 - 16:45: Session 5 - Elizabeth Cripps (Via Skype) (University of Edinburgh) “‘No kids please, we’re environmentalists!’ Is there an individual climate justice duty to have only a small family?”

19:00 - 22:00: Dinner at TBD

Program Saturday, October 5th 

09:00 - 09:15: Coffee

09:15 - 10:30: Session 1 - Catriona McKinnon (University of Exeter) “Geoengineering: Fantasies of Control”

10:45 - 12:00: Session 2 - Stephen Gardiner (University of Washington)“The Paradoxical Virtues of the Anthropocene”

12:00 - 13:00: Lunch

13:00 - 14:15: Session 3 - David Cooper (Durham University) “Should Buddhists Be Concerned with Climate Change?”

14:30 - 15:30: Session 4 - Colin Hickey (Utrecht University) “Climate Change, Moral Education, and Social Transformation”

15:45 - 16:45: Session 5 - Katie Javanaud (Oxford University) “If Everything is Empty, Can Nature Have Intrinsic Worth?”



Simon James: “Climate Justice: Some Challenges for Buddhist Ethics”

It is often argued that looking to Buddhism can help us to meet the moral challenges posed by climate change. In this talk, by contrast, I address some challenges the topic of climate justice presents for Buddhist ethics. I begin by presenting two reasons for thinking that the Buddhist teachings are incompatible with calls for climate justice. After rejecting both, I move on to consider what place concerns with climate justice could occupy in Buddhist ethics. I argue that they could not occupy anything other than a subsidiary place – subordinate, that is, to the paramount concern with overcoming suffering.


Matthew Coffay: "Climate Change, the Non-Identity Problem, and Buddhist Virtue Ethics"

Climate change presents us with significant ethical challenges, both in practical and theoretical terms. I consider the ramifications of the Non-Identity Problem (NIP) for climate change, and conclude that consequentialist moral reasoning is inadequate for dealing with such a temporally protracted problem. On the one hand, the NIP appears to conflict with our ethical intuitions about how we ought to approach climate change. At the same time, the NIP creates problems for an otherwise accurate characterization of what makes climate change so challenging to deal with -- namely, Stephen Gardiner's Pure Intergenerational Problem. I argue that rather than attempting to 'solve' the NIP along consequentialist lines (as various philosophers have attempted to do), we should simply consider the NIP as indicative of a need to incorporate other types of ethical thinking into how we approach a problem like climate change. In particular, I consider what Buddhist ethics might have to offer. Following the work of David Cooper and Simon James, I interpret Buddhist ethics in terms of a virtue theoretical framework and delineate between "self-regarding" and "other-regarding" virtues. Finally, I argue that the self-regarding virtue of "self-mastery" and the other-regarding virtue of "compassion," considered as components of "self-transformation" and "solicitude" respectively, may be the most relevant Buddhist virtues when it comes to climate change.


Yumi Suzuki: "'Climate Crisis’ and Political Responsibility in Early Confucianism"

Unlike Daoist authors, whose ideals of zì rán (自然) (self-so) and wú wéi (無為) (non-doing) are generally thought to be consistent with contemporary environmental ethics, early Confucian followers are often thought to be anti-naturalistic, or at least to have never thought of the natural environment as an important subject requiring their serious attention. Both Kongzi’s agnostic attitude towards heavenly events (Lunyu 5/13, 11/12) and Xunzi’s accounts of hierarchical relations between humans, animals, and plants (Xunzi 9/39/9-10) typically represent their limited focusses on social and political affairs. Nevertheless, strong interests in human nature (xìng 性) found in the Mengzi and the Xunzi indicate a view that both Confucian moral values such as rén (仁) and yì (義) and ideal political institutes are considered to be natural creations, inevitable and indispensable for human life. This paper demonstrates that Xunzi’s political philosophy originates in his deep insights into heavenly nature (tiān 天), viz. rotating stars, four seasons, climate changes, weather, natural disasters like flood and drought, as well as human behaviour. Xunzi maintains that yāo 妖 (ominous events) such as famine and diseases as caused by political deficiency, but not by natural or supernatural forces (17/81/10-82/4). The virtue (dé 德) of the ruler accordingly lies in his ‘ecological responsibilities’ of properly responding to natural revolutions to succeed in various domestic enterprises completed at proper times and effectively coping with the natural crises (17/79/16-21), as well as satisfying and regulating the nature of the people, since humans intrinsically do not differ from other animals (23/113/3 ff.). I suggest that his endeavour is not to integrate nature into his anthropocentric political system, but on the contrary to align the political system with its own natural state and surroundings, thus can be rather considered nature-centred.


Anna Deplazes-Zemp: "Relational Values as a New Concept in Environmental Ethics"

Climate change can be seen as the result of an overly exploitative and shortsighted dealing with our natural environment. Traditionally, intrinsic values have been invoked in the environmental ethics as well as environmental policy discourse to highlight that nature has not purely instrumental value. However, the concept of’ intrinsic value’ has been too abstract and philosophically too loaded to be generally convincing. Recently, the notion of ‘relational environmental values’ has been suggested as a concept that captures how people actually relate to nature and value it beyond its instrumental use, particularly also in non-Western cultures (Chan 2016, Pasqual 2017, COES, 2018). Relational values refer to the meaning and significance that non-human nature has for people. In this talk, I will discuss the concept of ‘relational values’ from an analytic environmental philosophy point of view. I will argue that relational values combine elements of intrinsic and instrumental valuing, because relational value contribute to human well-being (as it is the case for instrumental values) and at the same time they involve genuine appreciation of the valued item (as known from intrinsic values). The presentation will raise suggestions and questions for a discussion of: First, how reference to relational environmental values could be useful in the discourse of climate change; and second, whether there are notions in Buddhist environmental ethics that overlap with the concept of relational values.


Elizabeth Cripps: "'No kids please, we’re environmentalists!' Is there an individual climate justice duty to have only a small family?"

For most of us, having a child is the biggest decision we make in terms of greenhouse gas emissions (Murtaugh and Schlax 2009; Wynes and Nicholas 2017) . This paper assesses the implications for individual climate justice duties. Is there a moral duty to have no biological children, or only a small family? If not, why not? How else must parents acknowledge the environmental impact of procreation? One set of arguments would deny one’s ‘reproductive carbon legacy’ any moral significance in individual decision-making. These are discussed as the Inefficacy Objection (‘individual decisions make no perceptible difference’) and the False Equivalence Objection (‘parents aren’t responsible for their children’s carbon footprints’). Both are rejected. A further objection to the paper’s line of argument is also set aside: the claim that having children does more good than harm overall. Various ‘Small Family’ duties are considered, from a duty to have no biological children through to a duty to have only one or two (stronger version) or seriously to consider a smaller family than one would otherwise have had (weaker version). The former is rejected; some version of the latter is provisionally upheld. Finally, two further duties are outlined: to bring one’s children up climate conscious and to promote collective climate action.


Catriona McKinnon: "Geoengineering: Fantasies of Control"

Many advocates of research into solar radiation management (SRM) have unwarranted confidence that research programmes can be controlled in ways that minimise the risks of unacceptable damage as a result of SRM deployment. In this talk, I will explore two 'fantasies of control' indulged in by the geoclique. The first fantasy involves ignoring the ways in which SRM research programmes can lock-in to deployment, or to ethically unpalatable versions of SRM. The second fantasy involves heroically optimistic assumptions about how some of the worst risks can be minimised in a deployment scenario. 


Stephen Gardiner: "The Paradoxical Virtues of the Anthropocene"

Some believe that the onset of the Anthropocene – a new geological era marked by the dominance of humanity on the history of the planet – forces us to look anew at human virtues. In this paper, I discuss how to think about whether the evolving influence of humanity on the Earth’s environment really does call for new virtues, and how such virtues may be seen as contributing to human flourishing. I defend three controversial claims: (a) that it is not the Anthropocene as such that should concern us; (b) that nevertheless genuinely new virtues may be involved; but (c) that these may be virtues to which we should not aspire (now, or perhaps ever).


David Cooper: "Should Buddhists Be Concerned with Climate Change?"

In a number of recent declarations and statements by Buddhist leaders and teachers it is claimed that Buddhism may both inspire and guide radical efforts to prevent or mitigate anthropogenic global warming and its harmful effects. It is noticeable that absent from such declarations are references to Buddhist doctrines, like those of rebirth, karma and cosmic cycles, that tend to offend against either modern science or Western moral convictions, or both. In this talk it is argued that when such doctrines are ignored it is not obvious that Buddhism can make a distinctive contribution to making a case for and guiding environmental activism. More importantly, it is also argued that when these doctrines - together with the pessimistic and quietist tendencies of traditional Buddhism - are taken into account, it is unclear that Buddhists can even regard climate change as ‘a bad thing’, let alone endorse collective movements like ‘Extinction Rebellion’ that aim to prevent it. It is concluded that the distinctive contribution of Buddhism to environmental ethics is not to efforts to ‘save the Earth’, but to reflection on what wisdom and the virtues imply by way of a person’s appropriate relationship to the natural world.


Colin Hickey: "Climate Change, Moral Education, and Social Transformation"

In this paper, I begin to develop a unified theory of moral education and improvement with a theory of the socio-political revolution required to address climate change. In order to clarify the main questions, lay a groundwork, and develop some resources and methodological strategies, I mine two traditions that may seem unlikely companions. On one hand, unsurprisingly perhaps, I investigate the literature on activist and resistance movements. I distill questions, debates, and lessons about the moral psychology of moral failure and “holding responsible” at the fringes of our conception of individual responsibility. I discuss the requirements of participation in resistance movements and overcoming barriers to entry. I also look at debates about the balance between seeking so-called “moral conversion” and using mere exercises of (non-violent) power to achieve one’s aims, as well as how the new media environment informs these issues. On the other hand, I look to the Confucian tradition and its interlocutors. As a plausibly virtue-theoretic view, an important element of the Confucian tradition involves determining the virtues of social life and how to best cultivate them. This is evidenced in enlightening debates with the Mohists about the importance of exemplars, imitation, and emulation in moral improvement and the role of rational persuasion. The tradition also contains robust accounts of the moral psychology of moral education, motivation, and what that means for self-cultivation, “growing virtue.” The clash between Mengzi and Xunzi is instructive, as they debate how much we need to nurture “sprouts” of virtue that already exist versus fundamentally “grind” and reshape our natures. Xunzi’s understanding of the relation between self-cultivation and public institutions, is particularly insightful in discussing the role of socially constructed habits, rituals, and re-enforced practices to reshape our individual and collective moral lives in response to specific needs and contexts, like climate change.


Katie Javanaud: If Everything is Empty, Can Nature Have Intrinsic Worth?'

The Madhyamaka Buddhist teaching of universal emptiness (śūnyatā) stipulates that all phenomena lack essence, identity, and intrinsic nature (svabhāva). Though a seemingly abstruse metaphysical teaching, Buddhists often invoke the theory of emptiness when promoting ethical values such as compassion and equanimity. In this presentation I will explore the implications of this teaching for Buddhist environmental  ethics. In particular, I will focus on the question of whether Buddhism can accommodate the idea that nature is intrinsically valuable. I will argue that commitment to emptiness precludes the possibility of ascribing intrinsic value to nature but that this need not impede Buddhist efforts to articulate or pursue an environmentalist agenda. On the contrary, since the counterpart of emptiness is inter- dependency (pratītyasamutpāda), Buddhist philosophy supports ecological insights into the fragility and  connectedness of ecosystems. Ecologists, environmental ethicists, and engaged Buddhists all agree that recognizing such inter- ependency is crucial if we are serious about halting and reversing our environmental impact. Finally, I will challenge the suitability of the intrinsic/ instrumental distinction in the Buddhist context. Far from undermining the value of nature, Buddhists see the teaching of emptiness as inspiring a new ethical reorientation towards the world and as challenging the selfish tendencies that lie behind so much of today’s environmental degradation. 

Program and abstracts