Mark Sagoff’s Schizophrenia

I am currently reading The Economy of the Earth by the US-American philosopher Mark Sagoff, one of the more influential critiques of the economic approach to preservation of nature based on its valuation. There is a lot of things in Sagoff’s book I don’t agree with, including a few false analogies, sadly common feature in the economic valuation debate. What has stricken me the most, however, is how Sagoff supports the frequent criticism that economic valuation of environmental public goods conflates the consumer and the citizen – he does it by invoking schizophrenia.

Many environmental economists think that to facilitate the preservation of ecosystems one should assign values to the benefits people draw to them. In other words, the idea is to make clear how valuable ecosystems are for us. This is a methodologically nontrivial task and, above all, a highly controversial approach. One of the most important ethical criticisms of the economic method as applied here is that valuation in terms of dollars or euros conflates two roles all of us play in society: the consumer and the citizen. While I think this is a valid point and find, e.g., Amartya Sen’s concept of first-order and second-order preferences very enlightening in this context, Sagoff’s argument in favour of this distinction appears to me very strange and, indeed, ethically quite problematic.

[L]ike members of the public generally, I, too, have divided preferences or conflicting “preference maps”. Last year, I bribed a judge to fix a couple of traffic tickets, and I was glad to do so because I saved my license. Yet, at election time, I helped to vote the corrupt judge out of office. I speed on the highway; yet I want the police to enforce laws against speeding. I used to buy mixers in returnable bottles – but who can bother to return them? I buy only disposables now, but to soothe my conscience, I urge my state senator to outlaw one-way containers. I love my car; I hate the bus. Yet I vote for candidates who promise to tax gasoline to pay for public transportation. […] I have an “Ecology Now” sticker on a car that drips oil everywhere it’s parked.

This quote reminds me very intensely of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket where private Joker had a peace button and the phrase “Born to kill” written on his helmet. As he explained to a general, however, this was ironic – Sagoff, on the contrary, does not seem to think that of his consumer vs. citizen examples. He really means it. And that’s either hypocrisy or schizophrenia.

Of course, none of us is really consequent with regard to what we believe on the one and what we do on the other hand. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski stressed in a text entitled Pochwała niekonsekwencji (The Praise of Inconsequence), truly consistent ethical systems are either impossible or cruel, at best. Sometimes it is better to admit some contradictions in our lives than to mechanistically attempt to do all things right according to exactly the same abstract principles. We should nonetheless be aware of our “weakness” and not strain it beyond a reasonable degree. As Sagoff does.

As already stated above, I think that the distinction between consumer and citizen preferences is an important one and may indeed be used as an argument against economic valuation of ecosystem goods. Its extreme version advocated by Sagoff, however, is folly. He is right in pointing out that people do often behave like that – we often expect the government to save the environment or to put a stop on various kinds of abuse by means of legal regulation, so that we do not have to bother when making our everyday choices. So, with regard to our behaviour, Sagoff is right. But since he argues against the allegedly “descriptive” economic approach using normative, ethical arguments, the fact that “so we are” should not lead him to accepting our hypocrisy as given.

To ask the government to solve societal problems for us without also at least trying to behave accordingly is plainly wrong. How should we convince others that, say, working conditions in poorer countries where our apparel and electronics come from should be made more humane, when at the same time we keep buying the cheapest products available? Does a person flying to Thailand for holidays every year have the right to ask others to switch to a green electricity provider? Or, to paraphrase Sagoff’s own example: what should we think of a person who makes it public that she supports environmentalist causes while at the same time driving an SUV?

Again, I do not call for total compliance with one’s own “citizen preferences” in every single act. “Nobody’s perfect” may often be a cant, but there is something true in it. The acceptance of one’s own imperfectness should not, however, be viewed as justification of downright ignorance of ethical principles. While there is a difference between our role as consumers and as citizens, this does not mean that there is a strict boundary separating them from each other. Indeed, the term “ethical consumption” has grown popular over the last few years and, while being used inflationary at times, it is of some ethical and practical potency. You think that livestock should not be treated as it mostly is in modern agriculture? Well, you may switch to organic meat or consider becoming a vegetarian (or vegan). You get angry every time a climate conference ends without having achieved anything more than averting an outright failure? Maybe it is time to think about stopping to fly by aeroplane and travelling by bus or train. You think there should be a speed limit on German autobahns? Not driving 200 kph anymore is a start.

We are not perfect. We do behave inconsequently. As consumers we tend to do things we do not find right as citizens. But there is a difference between acknowledging this fact while at the same striving to be better, and the schizophrenia Mark Sagoff offers.

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