Confucius, Keynes and Christ: the role and opportunity for ethics and ethical systems as a driver for climate-friendly behavior change

 Posted by sustainable on January 28, 2013 

It is often argued that we have an ethical obligation to combat climate change for two related reasons: (1) we must not cause serious harm to future generations, and (2) we have an ethical duty to preserve the natural environment based on notions of stewardship or to preserve and respect animal life.

While these appeals are based on rational arguments and make sense to many people, they are problematic on several levels. First, the appeals are extrinsic or external to our individual selves; second, they refer to people and places distant in time and space, and thirdly, they lack any direct causality. Not to mention that they are tied to global warming and climate change, which some continue to persistently deny.

The problem is that it simply is not in our DNA to act based on the concerns of future generations.  Moreover, the impacts of whatever we do to change our actions in terms of greenhouse gas emissions will be virtually invisible within our own lifetimes, given the global nature of the atmospheric commons and the time-delayed impact of carbon emissions.

In contrast, appeals to traditional ethical systems offer an intrinsic appeal with more immediacy, and can be invoked independently of climate change and global warming arguments.

How might appeal to “virtue-based” ethics spur people to action to reduce their carbon footprint?   To attempt an answer this, let’s step back for a moment.  When we make appeals to people to change their behavior or lifestyle to forestall global warming, we usually ask two things:  change our buying or investment patterns and/or change our daily actions.  For example, do we buy a 48” plasma television, or perhaps a more energy efficient option; do we invest in energy efficiency upgrades for our home or live with higher heating bills; do we take public transit to work or drive?

To expand upon this, one can argue that a small set of key individual decisions make a disproportionate impact on one’s cumulative carbon emissions:  where we live, what type of housing we choose, how many kids we have, even our choice of profession. For example, the size of one’s lifelong carbon “shadow” in transportation may largely be determined by where one decides to live.  Clearly, there is a complex set of factors that determine the outcomes of key life decisions but surely among them are social norms and values, which may be informed by religious or philosophical-ethical beliefs.

The key point here is that traditional systems of virtue ethics are either very much in keeping with low-carbon or lower carbon living and at the least, instill values that do not place materialism or material riches at the front and center of what we value and hold dear.  Put another way, rediscovering teachings from the past can appeal to us as individuals as they can offer prospects to make us better, happier, more fulfilled individuals.  They are not extrinsic appeals to act or to change on behalf of people we’ll never know in a world that we’ll never live in.


One can hardly hope to do justice to great spiritual traditions here but only trace the faintest outlines.  Let us now make a few remarks on the teachings and writings of the three individuals in this blog posting’s title, focused on the following questions:  (1) what has primacy; (2) what is the desired end state for individuals or society; and (3) what is the path to that end state?  But first a question: what has primacy in society today?

Society’s Figure of Merit

A key problem for the climate today is that society’s figure of merit and key metric is output and consumption, and much output is carbon intensive.  As Joseph Stiglitz says, “Metrics matter… if we have the wrong metrics we will strive for the wrong things.”

Problems with the GDP metric (Gross Domestic Product) are numerous and well documented:  no accounting for environmental externalities, carbon impacts, and ecological damages; GDP credits inefficiency and waste (think U.S. health care); no consideration of “natural capital,” etc.

Since society’s indicator of success is GDP and income, deciding to sharply reduce one’s personal consumption is very much swimming upstream. Moreover, the U.S. is highly responsive to this metric and outstanding as measured by it: #1 by a large margin in household consumption, orders of magnitude higher than hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.

Surely the gospel of growth and primacy of profit has been a wonderful thing and has enabled much higher living standards over the past decades.  And surely it or very similar frameworks are the paths forward for the developing world.  Yet the U.S. also leads the developed world by a large margin in income inequality and also in health and social problems including physical and mental health problems, divorce rates, out of wedlock children, drug use, obesity, incarceration rate, etc.   The U.S. has also led the way in perhaps the greatest market failure of all time, global warming and with it, the prospect for catastrophic climate change.


Let us start by addressing why Keynes is included here.  Certainly Keynes is not on par with Christ and Confucius in historical impact.   But in many ways, economics is our new religion – pretty much unquestioned and unchallenged until just a few years ago.  Many would place Keynes with Adam Smith as perhaps the greatest exemplars of economic thought.

J.M. Keynes was a free ranging thinker.  Among his more expansive works is a short essay penned in 1931, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes predicted that by 2030, much higher productivity would enable us to work far less.  There would be plenty instead of scarcity and more leisure instead of more work in a post-profit world.  Capitalism was seen as a necessary evil to a greater end.

As it turns out, Keynes was more or less correct in terms of productivity gains.  For vast numbers of people in the developed world, especially America, the problem is indeed managing plenty instead of managing scarcity — too much stuff, too many calories, too much traffic, and far too many cable TV stations.  But of course working hours have not decreased.   Keynes missed the insatiability aspects of greater wealth and consumption.  Since wealth is the societal marker for success, there is ongoing and ceaseless striving, much like an elevator where everyone is moving upward but no one is gaining on anyone else.


Clearly God has primacy for Christianity as in the other Abrahamic religions, and the desired end state is a place in heaven.  Of course it’s hazardous to selectively quote from the Bible, but the Biblical Jesus was pretty unequivocal about the pathway for his followers.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Matthew 19:23-24

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24

My vision of Jesus and the life he would lead today is quite the opposite of today’s masters of the universe. In fact, Jesus would probably champion low carbon living. Clearly this is not the focus of fundamental Christians today perhaps because it would require such an inconvenient lifestyle.  Today’s fundamentalist Christians seem more focused on belief and faith rather than acting to follow in Christ’s footsteps.


Confucius lived about six centuries before Christ in post-Zhou Dynasty China, a time of great chaos and “moral degradation.”   In this environment, Confucius was most interested in how to reclaim a lost Golden Age in attaining a harmonious society with wise, benevolent rulers.  He held that perfection of man is the ultimate goal in life: to be a “sage” (or essentially a secular saint). Humanity (or Ren) is the key – what is it that makes us human? To this end, reciprocity, kindness, and sincerity are emphasized as well as an early statement of the Golden Rule:  “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  Self-regulation of the individual is at the root of a harmonious society and education is of paramount importance.

On the negative side, Confucianism carries with it the artifacts of its time and emphasizes a strict social hierarchy.  But there is still much to be praised or taken from its teachings. (The same could be said of Aristotle).  These issues have huge modern relevance as China’s current leadership grapples with what philosophy or set of teachings to pursue with Mao’s teachings relegated to the scrap heap just as the ancient sage’s teachings were jettisoned a half-century ago by Mao.<

The Challenge for Today

Of course, other great spiritual traditions have much to offer – the mindfulness and meditation of Buddhism, the spiritual maturation process of Hinduism, the teachings of Daoism and others.  Throughout history – and perhaps only up until recently, traditional ethical systems have been an important guide and contributor to behavior and decision-making, for better or worse.

So how might we tap into and/or synthesize the “better” part of these traditions as we take on the immense challenges of climate change? Are there policies that might be pursued that are in harmony with these traditions?  For example, should we consider higher consumption and luxury taxes? Advertising limits for children as in some Scandinavian nations?  Greater emphasis in K-12 education or college-level curriculum on traditional ethical systems?

Themes contained within major philosophical and religious traditions are quite consistent with “low carbon living” and material restraint.  And as we argue here, it’s important to inspire and appeal to people’s intrinsic values rather than make them feel guilty, fearful, or to ask them to be unnaturally altruistic. At the very least, there should be more debate and discussion on these topics, as we face not a Sputnik moment but potentially a civilizational one.

Max Wei is a program manager in the Sustainable Energy Systems Group in the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Related links:

2012 BECC Presentation on Ethics

2011 BECC Presentation on Long term energy conservation potential

California’s Carbon Challenge (long report)

California’s Energy Future (set of reports)

Photo via (cc) Flickr user gtall1