Sign over a door at Rudder Center, Texas A&M University. Photo by Vince Cronin.
18-21 March 2019 at the Bolin Centre for Climate Research at Stocholm University, Sweden
Meeting website: connect.agu.org/gss/home
Can We Achieve a Shared Understanding of Some Primacy Principles (Protecting Human Safety and Environmental Health) and Foundational Ethical Concepts (Equal Dignity, Justice, and Truth Within the Limits of Uncertainty) in Both Science and Society?
Each of us is concerned about our security and that of our loved ones. We all need safe food and water, shelter and clothing, affordable health care, sufficient energy (fuel, electricity), safety from physical harm, and ability to engage with other persons. Our wellbeing is also tied to our ability to exercise fundamental human rights, and freedom from the denial or suppression of those rights.
The human population of Earth has tripled in the last ~75 years. More than half of that population lives in urban areas and relies on resources produced by others. We face significant challenges in meeting resource needs while addressing the local and global environmental consequences of human activities.
It is easy to understand the origin of public resentment of the seemingly condescending attitude of some scientists who dictate courses of action without respectful consultation -- actions that might have adverse collateral effects. In antipodal symmetry, many scientists are deeply concerned that their expert advice is ignored in the supposed interest of saving jobs, the economy, or some vestige of the status quo power structure. Society is not well served by this inability to listen, seek understanding, and work with each other for the common good. We have no rational choice but to work together as we face a warming climate, rising seas, potable water shortages, and other looming threats.
Members of the geoscience community should follow a primacy principle in which the safety of other persons and the sustainable health of the environment on which we all depend are our two highest priorities. So while many geoscience students are drawn to professional opportunities in natural-resource extraction because of the economic benefit they will derive from this work (that supports their personal or family's need for security), they must also acknowledge and value their responsibility to protect public safety and environmental health.
The ethical foundations of our work in science are also foundational for society as a whole. Three concepts in particular seem to be necessary for mutual understanding and progress: acceptance of the equality of human dignity, justice, and truth with uncertainty. A shared understanding of these foundational concepts might help society achieve a more healthy and prosperous future.
Dignity is perhaps the most fundamental of these foundational concepts. I agree with George Kateb (2011) that dignity is an existential characteristic that is shared equally by all human persons. The first sentence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that the "recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world." Persons or groups that accept equality of human dignity have a more coherent and constructive basis for making positive contributions to a peaceful and just society.
Justice is fundamentally a matter of fairness, balancing the basic needs and legitimate expectations of others with our own. Legal, environmental, and resource justice are particularly relevant here. Science is an ethical enterprise at its most fundamental level because it is our way of finding reliable information about the natural world. We seek truth with a definable uncertainty, in the sense that Einstein described truth as "that which stands the test of experience." Truth, right, and wrong are essentially ethical ideas.
If we accept equality of human dignity, justice, and the value of truth within the limits of its inherent uncertainty, can any purely economic argument be sufficient to justify inaction when faced with environmental problems that threaten the health, safety, and homelands of other persons, whether they are across the road or across the world?
The poster, which plows a somewhat different row through the same field, is available as a PDF file at full size and resolution at CroninProjects.org/Ethics-AGU-GSS2019/AGU-GSS2019-V3.pdf (83.8 MB, ~121.9 cm x 145.3 cm)
A half-size version of the poster is available at CroninProjects.org/Ethics-AGU-GSS2019/AGU-GSS2019-V3.5.pdf (~47.2 MB)
A page-size version of the poster is available at CroninProjects.org/Ethics-AGU-GSS2019/AGU-GSS2019-page.pdf (~5.7 MB)
Other resources are described in Facilitating a geoscience student's ethical development by Cronin in Gunderson (2017, Scientific Integrity and Ethics in the Geosciences), chapter 14.
Vince Cronin's GeoEthics page: CroninProjects.org/Vince/GeoEthics/index.htm
Other GeoEthics references: CroninProjects.org/Vince/GeoEthics/EthicsRefs.html
This is not a static resource, so please send your suggestions for additional resources to Vince Cronin via Vince_Cronin@baylor.edu.
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