Climate and Character


Character and Religion in Climate Engineering

In “Character and Religion in Climate Engineering” (Issues, Fall 2017), Forrest Clingerman, Kevin J. O’Brien, and Thomas P. Ackerman make a strong case that religion, particularly virtue ethics, can substantially contribute to the debate about whether and how to conduct geoengineering research. They argue that focusing on character, particularly virtues such as responsibility, humility, and justice, can help guide such decision-making. I agree that more attention to character evaluation and development is needed in American political life in general and in the assessment of geoengineering in particular. Yet I am concerned that the individualism of American culture will hinder the implementation of their suggestions unless even more attention is paid to the virtues of institutions and communities alongside those of individuals.

Discussions of character in American popular discourse focus almost entirely on virtuous individuals. Whether as part of famous moral exemplars (Martin Luther King Jr., Lois Gibbs) or news stories about whistle blowers, individuals rather than institutions or communities receive the attention. Certainly, individuals are important agents of change, but overemphasizing them can hinder ethical decision-making and action. It is too easy to see the virtuous person as a saint or superhero rather than as someone in whose footsteps we regular people can follow. It is tempting to wait for the as-yet-unidentified virtuous leader to rescue us rather than figure out how we can act more virtuously ourselves. Though Clingerman and his colleagues do not advocate this extreme individualism, I worry that readers may go down that path.

To counter this possibility, we can look to two other features of religions. First, they are practicing communities in which, at their best, they offer moral support and training, both informal and institutional, in the development of their members’ virtues. Individuals are not virtuous on their own. Thus, while an individual may provide insight about geoengineering, we should not wait for such a moral exemplar, but should foster the virtues together so that we might support each other in this difficult decision-making.

Religious communities also develop a collective character in which they work to uphold virtues as a group. Similarly, decision-making bodies about geoengineering should develop both policies and a culture that uphold virtuous decision-making and action. Focusing on those virtues discussed by Clingerman and colleagues, we can ask whether organizations focused on research, policy-making, or implementation of geoengineering are willing to take responsibility for the potential and actual effects of their actions. Do they create a culture in which everyone can rise to the occasion, creatively identifying and solving problems, or do they encourage buck-passing, micromanaging, or dictatorial style decision-making that erodes responsibility? Are they humble about the limits of their knowledge and power as an organization? Do they strive for justice within and outside of their organization? Developing methods of cultivating organizational virtues is outside the scope of this short response. Looking to the theory and practice of religions as well as that of businesses, governments, and nonprofits can enhance the virtues necessary for making decisions about geoengineering.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Ethics
University of Chicago Divinity School

Cite this Article

“Climate and Character.” Issues in Science and Technology 34, no. 3 (Spring 2018).

Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Spring 2018