On The Moral Imperatives Of Speaking Publicly About the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change-And How It Must Be Done.

I. Introduction

One of the great privileges of writing ClimateEthics is that it exposes the writer to the good, bad, and ugly of climate change arguments being made around the world. Actually quite frequently we receive thoughtful comments that force us to go a little deeper and in some cases correct mistakes or correct reasonable misinterpretations. Often we get inspiring comments.

One such example of this was a comment received on another website, Climate Progress, to an article of ours that they had cross-posted from Jeff Huggens. See, http://climateprogress.org/2010/08/17/are-ethical-arguments-for-climate-action-weaker-than-self-interest-based-arguments/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+climateprogress%2FlCrX+%28Climate+Progress%29

Mr Huggens said in part:

MANY MORE PEOPLE should be speaking out about these arguments. If only a dozen ethicists, moral philosophers, and others are conveying the strong argument in clear ethical/moral terms, the lack of others speaking out defeats the entire enterprise. People (the public, the media, and so forth) naturally wonder, if only 1 percent of all ethicists, spiritual leaders, moral philosophers, other philosophers, “wise women and men”, and so forth are speaking out in ethical/moral terms, then those ethical/moral arguments must truly be “not all that important”, or “highly controversial and not broadly accepted”, or “only held by theoretical folks”, or whatever. So, the efforts of the one percent or two percent of folks who DO speak out in those terms are somewhat nullified, in reality, if more and more people in the fields that are supposed to have views on such matters do not also join in to form a larger chorus of voices. In this sense, and for this reason, choosing to be silent, or indifferent, or “too busy” to take a stand on this IS making a choice — that is, one of indifference.

We believe that those who understand the ethical dimensions of climate change have a duty to speak up strongly because with knowledge comes responsibility.

II. How this Must Be Done

Now, one important reservation needs to be made, however, at this point. We believe that identifying the ethical issues entailed by climate change arguments will lead to three possibilities and all need to acknowledge this:

One, on some issues there will be an overlapping consensus among diverse ethical theories about what should be done. For example, no nation or individual may deny, given what is now indisputable about the threat of climate change even if some uncertainties about actual impacts are acknowledged, that they have immediate obligations to others to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions. We believe all ethical systems and views require this. Yet nations are frequently acting as if only their national self-interest counts. And fewer individuals have recognized their duties on this. (A matter that we expect to write a lot about in the near future.) Particularly in regard to the assertion that nations, sub-national governments, organizations, businesses and individuals have duties and responsibilities to others we need people of conscience to speak out.

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Are Ethical Arguments for Climate Change Action Weaker Than Self-Interest Based Arguments? Why Taking Ethical Arguments Off the Table Is Like A Soccer Team Unilaterally Taking The Goalie Out of the Net.

I. Introduction

Many commentators to ClimateEthics argue that since people are self-interested beings, it is more important to make arguments in support of climate change based upon self-interest rather than ethical arguments. Some go so far to assert that people don’t care about ethics and therefore only self-interest-based arguments should be used to convince people to enact domestic climate change legislation. In other words, they argue:”get real” only self-interest arguments matter.

This view has dominated much discussion of climate change policy in the United States. No U.S. politician known to ClimateEthics has been expressly making the ethical arguments that need to be made in response to objections to proposed climate change policies. As ClimateEthics has previously reported, this is not the case in at least a few other parts of the world. See, The Strong Scottish Moral Leadership On Climate Change Compared To The Absence Of Any Acknowledged Ethical Duty In The US Debate.

Almost all arguments in the United States in support of climate change policies have been different self-interest based arguments such as climate change policies will protect the United States against adverse climate caused damages in the United States, create good green jobs, or are necessary to prevent national security risks to the United States that might be created if millions of people become refugees fleeing diminished water supplies or droughts that are adversely affecting food supplies. There are no known politically visible arguments being made in the United States that argue that the United States should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions because it has duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others. In particular, there has been no coverage of the specific ethical arguments for climate change legislation in the mainstream media except with a very few infrequent exceptions.

More specifically, when opponents of climate change policies make self-interest based arguments against the adoption of policies such as cost to the United States, there are no follow-up questions asked by the press about whether those who argue against climate change policies on grounds of cost to the United States are denying that the United States has duties or responsibilities to those outside the United States to prevent harm to them
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Now ClimateEthics agrees, of course, that if the consensus view of climate change science is correct, enlightened self-interest would support strong climate change policies. As an example, most economists now support action on climate change because they believe the costs of doing nothing are greater than the costs of taking action. In fact, there are many reasons why enlightened self-interest would support action on climate change. Yet what we explore here is not whether enlightened-self interest supports climate change policies, of course it does, but whether self-interest arguments are actually stronger than ethical arguments. Although the conclusions reached in this post are initially counter-intuitive, we here explain why ethical arguments are in some ways much stronger arguments than self-interest based arguments and the failure to look at climate change policies through an ethical lens has practical consequences. This, as we shall see, is particularly true of arguments made against climate change policies. And so ethical arguments may be no stronger then self-interest based arguments for some things, but they are actually indispensable for understanding what is wrong with certain arguments made against adopting climate change policies.
In fact, ClimateEthics believes that an appeal to self-interest alone on climate change, a tactic followed both by the Clinton and Obama administrations for understandable reasons, has been at least partially responsible for the failure of the United States to take climate change seriously. We have written about this in some detail at Climate Ethics in and entry entitled “Having We Been Asking the Wrong Questions Scientists.?

We would like now to explain in greater detail why taking the ethical reasons for support of climate change policies off the table in the debate about climate change is tantamount to a soccer team unilaterally taking the goalie out of the net. In other words, a case can be made that the ethical arguments are actually much stronger than self-interest based arguments at least in some very important ways. Therefore the failure to make the ethical arguments for climate change policies should be a concern because such failure has practical consequences.

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The Worst Ethical Scandal In the US Congress: Climate Change?

What is the worst ethical scandal in the US Congress? Could it be climate change?

Although the US media has recently paid attention to the comparatively minor ethical stories unfolding in the US House of Representatives, there is not a peep in the US media about a much more momentous unfolding ethical failure in the US Senate. While many press stories have appeared in the past few week about potential ethical problems of Representatives Charlie Rangel and Maxine Waters in the House, ethical lapses that harm society because public servants may have abused their power in ways that enrich themselves or their families, the US Senate ethical failure is more ethically reprehensible because it is depriving tens of millions of people around the world of life itself or the natural resources necessary to sustain life. The failure in the US Senate to enact legislation to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions is a moral lapse of epic proportions. Yet it is not discussed this way.

There are several distinct features of climate change that call for its recognition as creating civilization challenging ethical questions.
First, climate change creates ethical duties because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people in developing countries. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.

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Have We Been Asking the Wrong Questions About Climate Change Science? Why Strong Climate Change Ethical Duties Exist Before Scientific Uncertainties are Resolved.

I. Introduction.

Are we asking climate change science some of the wrong questions? If what we do about the threat of climate change is an ethical issue, how does this affect how we talk about: (a) climate change science, (b) climate change “alarmists,”(d) the appropriate role of climate change skeptics, (e) what we mean when we make claims that climate change science is “settled”, (d) what should nations, sub-national governments. organizations, and individuals do to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in light of what science is saying about climate change impacts?

Despite the fact, as we shall see, many assertions about likely climate change impacts are based upon some unassailable scientific facts that have been known for well over thirty years and other claims about climate change impacts are based upon scientific evidence that is now entailed to high levels of scientific respect, a strong argument can be made that many proponents of climate change policies have been asking the wrong questions of climate change science, namely what do we know about climate change impacts. In this post we will examine: (a) whether we have we been mislead by some to ask what do we know for sure about climate change impacts rather than what are the scientifically plausible harms that could happen if we wait until remaining scientific uncertainties are resolved, and (b) because of these potential harms do ghg emitters have duties to climate change victims to take action even if we concede scientific uncertainty about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts?
This post obviously agrees with those who call for continuing support for science that minimizes remaining scientific uncertainties about climate change impacts, yet questions an underlying assumption of many in the thirty year climate change debate that we must look to science to tell us when we should act to reduce the threat of climate change. In other words, the argument we make here that what we should do in the face of uncertainty is an ethical issue not a “value-neutral’ scientific matter, it is not a claim that we need less climate change science for we always need to know as a matter of ethics as much as we can about the consequences of our actions and some uncertainties remain particularly about the potential for rapid non-linear climate surprises that are very possible. In fact in his new book, James Hansen admits that there may be both positive and negative feedbacks in the climate system that we have yet to discover. (Hansen 2010: 44) However, we claim it is deeply ethically problematic to assume that we need to know more before acting in response to strong duties to others to prevent harm to them unless the victims of climate change consent to being harmed or put at risk.

This post will argue that climate change ethicists must pay attention to what climate change science is saying to get the ethics right, but scientists should also answer questions that ethicists would ask of science (which are different than the questions scientists ask themselves when pursuing knowledge alone). Finally we argue that high emitters have strong duties to take action to reduce the threat of climate change before all scientific uncertainties are resolved. Now although most people would agree with what we have said so far, we will argue that all of this has consequences for what climate scientists talk about, what we should expect of climate skeptics, and how we justify domestic climate change policy. Because the United States for many years, and many powerful actors in the current climate change debate in the United States and several other countries consistently take the position we need more science before committing to strong domestic action, the issues discussed here go to the heart of the public debate about climate change.

As we shall see, those opposing climate change policies have managed to make scientific uncertainty the major focus of climate change policy debates, a focus that is often irrelevant to ethical duties to act once science generates a respectable description of likely impacts that follow from non-action in cases where waiting may make it impossible to avoid the consequences. In other words, ethical conclusions about climate change must pay attention to what science is saying about likely climate change impacts, but duties to act do not depend upon scientific conclusions that have reached high levels of certainty.

ClimateEthics has frequently examined ethical questions that arise because policy-makers must make decisions in the face of scientific uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of climate change impacts. See, for example, The Ethical Duty to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the Face of Scientific Uncertainty,
http://rockblogs.psu.edu/climate/2008/05/the-ethical-duty-to-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions-in-the-face-of-scientific-uncertainty.html

This post argues that for over thirty years the public climate change debate has focused on the wrong scientific questions compared to those that ethics would ask of climate science. Since the mid-1960s opponents of climate change policies have demanded to know from science what are the known climate change impacts; yet ethics would ask: (a) What are the scientifically plausible climate change harms?, (b) Could these harms happen if we wait until all uncertainties are resolved and the consensus view turns out to be correct?, (c) Are the harms potentially catastrophic for some, and (d) Have the potential victims of climate change consented to be put at risk while uncertainties are resolved?

This post argues that what we should do about climate change is not a scientific-technical question but is essentially an ethical question and the failure to frame it as such has been responsible, at least in part, for a thirty-year delay in taking action.

This post argues the misplaced focus on the scientifically known, rather than scientifically plausible climate change impacts and subsequent ethical implications that come from scientific notice that humans are doing something dangerous, is partly responsible for over thirty years of delay in adopting climate change policies.

As we shall see, it has usually (although not always) been arguments of some economically interested parties that have been most responsible for this misplaced focus on what is known rather than what is plausible or dangerous. Yet, we will argue, it is also the failure of some climate change policy proponents to stress ethical duties to take action in the face of some remaining uncertainties about timing and magnitude of climate change impacts that is also partly responsible for this thirty-year delay.

Unfortunately this delay has now resulted in atmospheric concentrations of ghgs being allowed to rise to levels that make it increasingly difficult to stabilize atmospheric ghg concentrations at levels that will avoid great harm to millions of the poorest, most-vulnerable people around the world. Furthermore the longer we wait to take action, the increasingly unlikely that it will be that the world will be able to reduce actions to protect the most vulnerable from climate change. In fact, according to a growing consensus view, we are already close to being able to prevent ghg atmospheric concentrations from reaching dangerous levels.

Although, as we shall see, much of the climate change science has never been in question and there is a strong scientific consensus view that is worthy of respect that predicts potentially catastrophic impacts from ghg releases at business-as-usual levels, given that there has been some uncertainty about the magnitude and timing of climate change impacts, proponents of climate change policies have sometimes implicitly bought into the assumptions of climate change policy opponents by how the climate policy proponents responded to uncertainty charges. That is they by responding to climate skeptical arguments with scientifically certain counter-arguments has been sometimes practically unhelpful while ignoring ethical arguments about the duty to act in the face of uncertainty in cases when delay in action can create harsh consequences for hundreds of millions of current and future generations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.This is so because truthfully scientists should admit that there has been some uncertainty not about whether human activities are creating a huge threat to human health, animals, and ecosystems around the world, this is a settled matter, but what quantitatively is the magnitude of climate change impacts. Yet not knowing precisely what harms will be caused by dangerous behavior is not an ethically acceptable defense to non-action to reduce the threat of a great harm to others. This is particularly true because although the IPCC predictions of what climate change impacts are likely to happen is truly catastrophic for some, there is actually reasonable scientific concern that climate change temperatures and impacts could be outside the upper bounds of IPCC temperature and impact predictions in this century.

The mainstream climate change scientific response to the skeptics has often to claim that the science is settled. There are without doubt, important elements if the scientific basis for human causation that are not only settled but have been settled for a long time. Included in this long list of scientific issues is that the warming we are seeing is highly unlikely to be the result of natural variability. There are numerous attribution and fingerprinting studies that make natural variability a very unlikely cause of the undeniable warming trends the Earth is experiencing.. In fact there is growing evidence that the IPCC upper bound projections of inputs are not “worse case”. . In fact ClimateEthics has criticized IPCC as a matter of ethics for frequently cutting of the tales of climate sensitivity distribution predictions from their often quoted predictions. See, for example, Ethical Issues Raised by the Work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): Report On The Bali Workshop (COP-13)

In fact, proponents of climate change policies have let opponents confuse knowledge and prudence claims that at the same time Ignore obligation and duties to others. That is most of the proponents of climate change policies have implicitly argued that because of what science can tell you about climate change impacts and given that the harms from these impacts may be so devastating, it is prudent to your interests to act. A prudence argument is still an argument about self interest. But since many rich people that are high-emitters can protect themselves from the kind of impacts that are being predicted for them, an argument that implicitly encourages people to act in their self interest ( another words an argument from prudence) is much weaker than an argument that that one must act because of duties to others –that is it is others interests that must be considered as a matter of duty, responsibility and obligation.

Those who oppose proposed policies to reduce the threat of climate change often base their opposition on scientific uncertainty or claims that there is no scientific basis for concluding that human activities are causing dangerous climate change. These arguments range from assertions that what is usually called the “mainstream” scientific climate change view is a complete hoax to the milder assertions that the harsh climate change impacts on human health and the environment predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other climate change researchers are unproven. Those opposing ghg reduction policies on scientific grounds have included some honest skeptics and disingenuous ideological purveyors of misinformation. Yet, we will argue, given what we have known for sure about climate change, even the arguments of well intentioned skeptics, not to mention the scandalous misinformation of the skeptical ideological purveyors, are not ethically supportable justifications for non-action on climate change.

In international negotiations, it has often been those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts such as the small island states or countries like Bangladesh that have insisted on action as a matter of justice despite some remaining uncertainty while a few large emitting countries including the United States and Australia who have resisted making commitments on scientific uncertainty grounds. As a matter of justice, no high-emitting country can use scientific uncertainty as justification for non-action on climate change as long as delay could harm the most vulnerable and there is a credible threshold scientific basis that continuation of certain behaviors is dangerous. Yet, the obvious justice issues entailed by waiting for uncertainties to be resolved before taking action which is then too late to prevent harm have been largely absent in the US debate about climate change. The small island developing states and Bangladesh get it, but Americans, for the most part, have not acknowledged that justice requires action in the face of uncertainty at least in the visible public debate about climate change. Surprisingly, there is no hint of the ethical obligations to act in the face of uncertainty in the US media coverage of the climate change debate.

No US politician, known to ClimateEthics, has made the argument we must act to protect others even if there is remaining scientific uncertainty about timing and magnitude of impacts.
As we shall see, this science-based opposition to climate change policies has a successful thirty-year history in the United States and other parts of the world. This post argues the failure to make the ethical arguments for action on climate change in the face of uncertainty takes off the table the strongest arguments for why climate change action is required as a matter of fulfilling responsibilities to others.

II. The Thirty-Five Year Focus on the Known Rather Than The Plausible or Likely.

From the begging of international concern about climate change in the early 1960s, much of the physical basis for worrying about climate change was never in doubt despite relentless claims by some during this period that concern about human-induced climate change was not scientifically sound. For most of the last thirty-five years, we have known without doubt such things as:

• The basic physics of the natural ghg effect including the initial forcing (a factor which changes the Earth’s energy balance) of each greenhouse gas in watts per square meter, therefore what warming would be expected in the absence of positive and negative climate feedbacks,

• How much ghgs are being liberated by fossil fuel combustion and some land use changes around the world such as deforestation,

• The global warming potential of different ghgs

• That the level of ghg in the atmosphere is increasing in proportion to fossil fuel use,

• The amount of infrared radiation being trapped and re-radiated at any time by increasing levels of atmospheric ghgs,

• The temperatures of the upper and lower atmosphere,

• Changes in global temperatures,

• Change in ice cover and glacier extent,

• Changes in the amount of intense storms,

• Amount of water vapor in the atmosphere,

• A great amount about the causes of natural climate variability including several variable features of Earth-Sun relationships, tectonic changes in the Earth’s surface, and ocean-climate interactions .

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Twenty Ethical Questions that the US Press Should Ask Opponents of Climate Change Policies.

I. Introduction

This post identifies twenty questions that the US press has failed to ask opponents of proposed US climate change policies that should be asked if climate change raises civilization challenging ethical issues.
To understand why these questions should be asked, it is first necessary to review the kinds of arguments that have usually been made in opposition to US climate change policies, programs, and legislation and why these arguments fail to deal with the profound ethical questions raised by the threat of human induced climate change.

Since international climate change negotiations began in 1990, the United States has yet to adopt meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reduction legislation For almost 20 years arguments against US climate change legislation or US participation in a global solution to climate change have been made that have almost always been of two types.

By far the most frequent arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are economic predictions of various kinds such as claims that proposed climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage US businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, or increase the cost of fuel. A variation of this argument is that the United States should not adopt policies on climate change until other nations such as China take steps to reduce their emissions because if the United States acts and other nations don’t reciprocate this will harm the US economy.

The second most frequent argument made by opponents of climate change policies are assertions that governments should not take action on climate change because adverse impacts have not been sufficiently scientifically proven. These arguments range from assertions that what is usually called the “main-stream” scientific climate change view is a complete hoax to the milder assertions that the harsh climate change impacts on human health and the environment predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other climate change researchers are unproven.
Both the economic and scientific arguments against climate change policies implicitly argue that climate change policies should be opposed because they are not in the US national interest.
The responses of advocates of US climate change policies to these arguments are almost always to take issue with the factual economic and scientific conclusions of these arguments by making counter economic and scientific claims. For instance, in response to economic arguments opposing climate change legislation, proponents of climate change action usually argue that climate change policies will create jobs or are necessary to develop new energy technologies that are vital to the health of the US economy in the future. In responses to the lack of scientific proof arguments, climate change advocates usually stress the harsh environmental impacts to people and ecosystems that climate change will cause if action is not taken or argue that climate change science is settled. In other words, advocates of climate change action, respond to claims of opponents to climate change programs by denying the factual claims of the opponents.

By simply opposing the factual claims of the opponents of climate change, the advocates of climate change policies are implicitly agreeing with the assumptions of the opponents of climate change action that greenhouse reduction policies should not be adopted if they are not in national self-interest.

Yet, climate change is a problem that clearly creates civilization challenging ethical issues. By ethics is meant the domain of inquiry that examines claims that given certain facts, actions are right or wrong, obligatory or non-obligatory, or when responsibilities attach to human activities.

If nations or individuals have ethical obligations, they are likely to have duties, responsibilities, and obligations that require them to go beyond consideration of self-interest alone in making decisions. And so, if climate change raises ethical considerations, governments may not base policy decisions on self-interest alone.
Given this, one might ask what aspects of climate change raise ethical questions. In fact there are several distinct features of climate change call for its recognition as creating civilization challenging ethical questions.

First, climate change creates duties because those most responsible for causing this problem are the richer developed countries, yet those who are most vulnerable to the problem’s harshest impacts are some of the world’s poorest people in developing countries. That is, climate change is an ethical problem because its biggest victims are people who can do little to reduce its threat.

Second, climate-change impacts are potentially catastrophic for many of the poorest people around the world. Climate change harms include deaths from disease, droughts, floods, heat, and intense storms, damages to homes and villages from rising oceans, adverse impacts on agriculture, diminishing natural resources, the inability to rely upon traditional sources of food, and the destruction of water supplies. In fact, climate change threatens the very existence of some small island nations. Clearly these impacts are potentially catastrophic.

The third reason why climate change is an ethical problem stems from its global scope. At the local, regional or national scale, citizens can petition their governments to protect them from serious harms. But at the global level, no government exists whose jurisdiction matches the scale of climate change. And so, although national, regional and local governments have the ability and responsibility to protect citizens within their boarders, they have no responsibility to foreigners in the absence of international law. For this reason, ethical appeals are necessary to motivate governments to take steps to prevent their citizens from seriously harming foreigners.

And so if climate change raises civilization challenging ethical questions which imply duties, responsibilities, and obligations what questions should the press ask opponents of climate change policies when they make economic and scientific arguments against climate change policies?

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Ten Reasons Why Examining Climate Change Policy Controversies Through an Ethical Lens Is A Practical Imperative.

I. Introduction

If ethical and justice arguments about why climate change policies are necessary are taken off the table in the climate change debate, it is like a baseball pitcher unilaterally agreeing to not throw any fast balls or breaking balls during a World Series game. Yet, as we will explain, there is almost a complete absence of ethical arguments for climate change policies in the US debate about proposed approaches to climate change. This failure to expressly examine the ethical issues entailed by arguments made by opponents of climate change action has important practical consequences.

This post first looks at how climate change policies are usually debated. Next, the post looks at why these controversies must be understood to raise ethical questions. And finally, this post lists ten practical reasons why climate change policies must be examined through an ethical lens.

II. Common Climate Change Policy Arguments

Arguments against climate change policies are usually of two types. By far the most frequent arguments made in opposition to climate change policies are assertions of various kinds of adverse economic impacts that will flow if climate change policies are adopted.

Examples of this are claims that proposed climate change legislation will destroy jobs, reduce GDP, damage US businesses such as the coal and petroleum industries, increase the cost of fuel, or will destroy the recovery from a recession. The second most frequent argument made by opponents of climate change policies are assertions that adverse climate change impacts have not been sufficiently scientifically proven.

The responses of advocates of US climate change policies to these arguments are almost always to take issue with the factual economic and scientific conclusions of these arguments by making counter economic and scientific claims. For instance, in response to economic arguments opposing climate change legislation or policies, proponents of climate change action usually argue that climate change policies will create jobs or are necessary to develop new energy technologies that are vital to the health of the US economy in the future. In responses to the lack of scientific proof arguments, climate change advocates usually stress the harsh environmental impacts to people and ecosystems that climate change will cause if action is not taken or argue that climate change science is settled. In other words, advocates of climate change action, respond to claims of opponents to climate change programs by denying the factual claims of the opponents.

Although these alternative economic and scientific arguments are relevant to whether climate change policies should be adopted, noticeably missing from the US debate are ethical and justice arguments for action on climate change. In fact, there is a hardly a murmur in US press coverage of climate change controversies about the ethical and justice reasons for adopting climate change policies when arguments against adopting climate change policies are made. This failure of the press to examine these issues is because advocates of climate change policies are rarely racing these issues.

III. Why Climate Change Policy Issues Must Be Understood to Raise Ethical Questions.

What distinguishes ethical issues from economic and scientific arguments about climate change is that ethics is about duties, obligations, and responsibilities to others while economic and scientific arguments are usually understood to be about “value-neutral” “facts” which once established are often deployed in arguments about self-interest.

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