Morality & Pipelines

April 19, 2018
Rick Kool

While the controversy over the “twinning” of the Kinder Morgan (KM) TransMountain pipeline might be seen as a constitutional crisis, or a conflict between economics and environment, it is really something else. At its core, the pipeline project poses a moral problem and we should try to understand its solution in terms of a moral point of view.

One approach is utilitarian which argues an action is morally good if its consequences are desirable and bad if they are not, using the maxim “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Another approach to moral decision-making is rule-based, and takes just those points—justice and rights—as fundamental and says that the consequences of the actions are not important; we have to do what is just and right.

Our actions today run far beyond the ability to accurately predict their impacts and outcomes: we can now do far more than we can actually understand and once we take certain steps, we cannot readily undo them. Our ability to act across space and time leaves us with deep moral problems that traditional ethics can’t seem to deal with.

For Jonas, the taking of responsibility—for the future of humanity and for the future of the biosphere—now has to be at the centre of our decision-making. Jonas is also a rule-maker, but his rule for decision-making differs: ‘Act so that the effects of your action are not destructive of the future possibility of such life’; or simply: ‘Do not compromise the conditions for an indefinite continuation of humanity on earth’. For Jonas, we can risk our own individual lives, but we cannot risk the potential for the continuity of humanity and the associated biosphere on which humanity depends.

Yet rather than starting to reduce the life-threatening potential of continuing to load more carbon into the atmosphere, the Governments of Canada and Alberta have decided, through the doubling of the KM pipeline, to facilitate the acceleration of the development of carbon extraction and conversion activities, which threaten humanity and the biosphere.

Fifty years ago, Garrett Hardin wrote in his famous essay The Tragedy of the Commons, that there is a class of problems for which there is no technical solution but which instead require a fundamental extension of moral thinking. One can try to deal with the KM project as a merely technical issue solvable through the normal application of science (e.g., carbon capture and storage), an economic question (the billions of dollars to be made), or a political question (on whose side is the law). But there is no technical solution to the question of what is or what should be our responsibility to the future. Civil society has to insist that our political leaders ratchet up their moral decision-making ability in ways appropriate for the 21st century, and considering Jonas’ moral maxim: 'In your present choices, include the future wholeness of Man [sic] among the objects of your will.’

Vancouver, BC