Posted by: ericgrimsrud | February 11, 2016

Why so little ethical guidance from academia

In my previous post entitled “The tyranny of the contemporary”, an analysis of the ethics involved in global climate change by Stephen Gardiner was presented. His leading three sentences were:

“Climate change presents a severe ethical challenge, forcing us to confront difficult questions as individual moral agents, and even more so as members of larger political systems. It is genuinely global and seriously intergenerational, and crosses species boundaries. It also takes place in a setting where existing institutions and theories are weak, providing little ethical guidance.”

In this post, I would like to focus on the last of those sentences. Is it really true that existing institutions are providing weak ethical guidance and, if so, why is that?

In a previous post on this website (in May 2015), I used as an example of an “existing institution” my own collegiate alma mater – which is a liberal arts college firmly grounded on the ethical traditions of Christianity and its associated dedication to the service to mankind. I had chosen to focus on my own alma mater because I am relatively familiar with that institution and suspect that it’s attitudes concerning climate change are as pro-active and well-informed as those of most American colleges and universities. Two specific issues I have raised in previous posts concern high carbon footprint studies abroad programs and the divestment of endowment funds in fossil fuel industries. There are many other issues that could also be raised with academic institutions, of course, such as that monstrous tail that wags all of our universities having Division I athletic programs. I know something about those large universities because I spent 39 years working in them and raised numerous questions with the leaders of those institutions whenever the opportunity arose.

So concerning the question posed here – are our colleges and universities providing “little ethical guidance?” – my answer is an emphatic “yes”, they are definitely providing far too little ethical guidance on the issue of climate change. And I would include in this assessment even the liberal arts colleges of our country that claim to have a very strong moral/ethical component to the educations they provide. While our educational institutions are generally able to report on many good things they are doing on their campuses to increase the efficient production and use of energy, they simultaneously do not seem to recognize that some of their highest profile programs are leaving a very large carbon footprint, the costs of which are not being paid for by the users and, instead, are being deferred to future generations.

For example, most colleges today encourage special travel programs that require a great deal of fossil-fuel driven transport of their students, alumni and fans to all corners of our nation and even the entire world. While there are undeniable benefits to these programs, there are also real and significant environmental costs that can no longer be afforded today given the present state of our man-caused climate problem. The world is now a very different and much more fragile place than it was when those programs were initiated several decades ago.

In addition, very few colleges and universities have chosen to divest themselves from the fossil-fuel-intensive industries. And colleges with large endowments typically have so many layers of investment advisement that the point of primary responsibility can even be difficult to identify. All of this causes me to wonder whether or not such educational institutions have their own departments of science and ethics that might help them understand their own connection to the issue of climate change. Do they not realize that the continuation of their carbon intensive programs contributes to an intergenerational crime of major proportions and sets a poor example to society? Since I suspect that these colleges and universities do have such science and ethics departments, I am left with no commendable explanations for their behaviors.

We all know something about hypocrisy committed for the sake of short term interests, however, so let’s just assume for the moment that’s all there is to it and move on to the next question: why do we allow ourselves to be so hypocritical on this most important of all issues. Sure, the most detrimental effects of global warming will probably not be experienced by the present set of American adults now living on this planet, but surely we also care a great deal about our grandchildren and their future families. In addition, I am sure that most of our university and college leaders think they possess high moral standards. Thus, the best answer to this riddle I can think is that provided by Gardiner when he says

“there is a temptation to prefer framings of the climate problem that obscure the ethical questions. Consider, for instance, those who reject any moral lens, arguing that climate policy should be driven solely by national self-interest, usually understood in terms of domestic economic growth”.

Yes, I also think that is the big cop out that explains why we see inadequate ethical leadership on the issue of climate change coming from the CEO’s and Boards of Regents of our colleges and universities. The words typically used by the college representatives I have spoken with are different but mean essentially the same thing: words such as “but our (high carbon footprint) programs are so very important to our students, alumni, and even society in general”. Or “but our meager actions concerning investments in or divestments from the fossil fuel industries would make so little difference”. Or “surely you are not suggesting that our Notre Dame and Southern Cal fans get to their annual football game via biodiesel-powered buses!” All of these statements suggest that they don’t see the central point of the issue or think that it somehow does not apply to them or because of the good work they do, they should be granted a pass on this one.

So yes, it does appear to me that the leaders of our universities and colleges have moral lenses that are far too short-sighted for clearly seeing their long-term responsibilities to mankind. Their jobs, like those of the industrial CEOs, appear to be to orchestrate successes in a timely manner using the business-as-usual mechanisms available to them. As a result, the intergenerational responsibilities of our colleges and universities usually amount to little more than pontifications of how their carbon intensive programs will create better and smarter people for addressing problems such as global warming later. This, in spite of the well known facts that (1) emissions of CO2 are presently at an all time high, (2) the only thing that matters is the total amount of emissions accumulated over time, (3) the greatest offenders today are the “wealthy” among us in all countries whose carbon footprints are enormous and (4) by the time this problem is taken seriously by everyone, we might already have too much CO2 accumulation to do anything meaningful about it. As all knowledgeable climate scientists now know, it is primarily what we do in the present decade and right now that matters – far more than what we do in the next ones when even forceful actions might be too late. It is primarily the urgency of the problem that is not being sufficiently recognized.

Albert Schweitzer is reported to have once said “in teaching, example is not the most important thing, it is the only thing.” Thus, it is not surprising that our colleges and universities do not provide adequate leadership in the fight against climate change in the public arena. Their directive, “do as I say and not as I do”, doesn’t work very well and diminishes their credibility. So yes, indeed, Gardiner’s statement, “existing institutions and theories are weak, providing little ethical guidance” does very sadly apply to our institutions of higher education when it comes to the issue of climate change.




  1. Ethics is such a diffuse subjecr in the world.

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