The new compass should not be a static set of rules but a dynamic and reflexively evolving framework.
On our rapidly warming planet debates are heating up about how to ensure climate action that is both effective and ethical. We need a new “moral compass” to guide our actions, suggest researchers in a paper published in the journal Sustainability.
The challenges we face, argue researchers Marco Grasso and David Tabara, pose ethical questions and we need effective and commonly agreed guidance to answer them. A new moral compass should allow for “equal and impartial consideration to the interest of all” while focusing on the needs of the least well-off.
The authors consider the Western philosophical tradition with ideas on liberal justice as possible starting points to develop the necessary framework. By doing so they emphasize such values as freedom, equality, inclusion, redistribution and care. However, the Western philosophical tradition should not be seen as the only valid framework; rather, we should draw on other traditions from across the globe.
The new compass should not be a static set of rules but a dynamic and reflexively evolving framework along with societal perceptions of the issue. It should serve as a starting point for development towards greater consideration for the common good, future generations and life as a whole.
The compass can be based on three levels and four pillars representing its key aspects, the researchers propose. The first level of “cardinal directions” would act as “long-term moral yardsticks” to allow for broad overall judgment about a certain initiative without specifying any particular directions. Responsibility, integrity, fairness, and independence are suggested as avenues for moral considerations of any sustainability issue.
They, in turn, should be supported by a set of moral standards and principles, with the former providing “more concrete moral indications” and the latter allowing for real-life decision-making considering actual peculiarities of the context. Standards such as aspiring for the least harm and spreading justice should allow for decisions to be broadly acceptable, while principles such as precaution and robust knowledge should ensure effective and legitimate action.
The authors consider the compass to be a practical tool to help make decisions about future pathways for developing society, showcasing examples of how the compass can be applied to evaluating different socio-economic pathways developed for the EU, Iberia, Scotland, Hungary, and Central Asia within the IMPRESSIONS project as potential trajectories of response to high-end climate change.
Application of the compass would allow us to understand how each of the pathways needs to be fine-tuned. For example, when should a fast transition to a low-carbon society be particularly focused on fairness? A complete transition towards sustainability would need to make sure enough attention is paid to the second and third levels of the compass (i.e. local sensitivity, critical assessment of solutions deemed as sustainable) beyond broad adherence to the cardinal direction.
Another reason for considering the compass according to the authors is that the “lack of moral guidance can, in fact, favor the paralysis of governance arrangements and worsen moral corruption with respect to engaging sustainably with the eﬀects of climate change”. Beyond broadly defined Sustainable Development Goals and climate targets, we will need moral grounds to make sure we achieve those goals with the right means and in the right ways.
Researchers also suggest that an “existential clash of interests” between coal companies and those striving for a just transition can be gradually overcome through resetting social norms and making carbon-intense and unsustainable lifestyles illegitimate. The same approach has worked for slavery, racism or tobacco use. However, the authors stress, the compass’s applications would need to be voluntary and participatory so that they can encourage virtuous individual behaviors.
The researchers hope their ideas can stimulate discussion on the necessity of globally agreed-upon moral guiding principles and help us better prepare for the tough decisions we’ll have to make in years to come.