On the abuse of logic

Here, in a sentence, is the moral case for fossil fuels, the single thought that can empower us to empower the world: Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous – because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.

Alex Epstein, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels (2016)

I came across the bold assertion above while reading Carey W. King’s interesting and thoughtful book The Economic Superorganism (Springer, 2021; the quotation is on page 106). It’s an interesting example of the sort of reasoning we seem to see around a lot these days: an ill-formed argument founded on false premises, intended to answer a poorly-chosen question.

Mr Epstein is attempting a kind of syllogism. This is a form of argument going back to the ancient Greeks, and exhaustively discussed by Aristotle amongst others. It takes the form of two propositions which, if both true, prove a conclusion. The classic example is:

  • all men are mortal (A)
  • Socrates is a man (B)
  • therefore Socrates is mortal (Z)

There are many variations, of course, but that’s the general idea. If proposition A and proposition B are both true, then conclusion Z follows. Mr Epstein’s argument looks like this when cast into the form of a syllogism:

  • “human life is the standard of value” (A)
  • “using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life” (B)
  • therefore “Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous” (Z)

Now I would dispute the truth Mr Epstein’s proposition A, but it’s not in itself a claim that can be proved or disproved; it is an article of faith. I strongly disagree with it, if only on the pragmatic grounds that it leads one to short-sighted actions that have negative consequences. I wrote a previous post on the folly of human exceptionalism, and won’t repeat myself here.

Yet even granting A for the sake of argument, proposition B fails abjectly on its own terms. Mankind’s use of fossil fuels led directly to the view of Beijing at the head of this post, which is not even slightly “wonderful for human life” or any other form of life for that matter. Very large numbers of humans currently live in places which in the future will be underwater, once again as a direct consequence of mankind’s use of fossil fuels.

Now one might claim – and I imagine Mr Epstein certainly would – that these are minor drawbacks which are outweighed by all the other benefits that fossil fuels bring us, such as microplastics and the ability to watch videos of kittens 24/7. Air-conditioning is certainly convenient if you choose to live in a desert. Then again, perhaps the majority of mankind is onto something in choosing to live somewhere other than a desert.

I do wonder also just what the scope of “human life” is for Mr Epstein. Some people certainly do very well out of our fossil-fuelled industrial civilisation, but plenty of others don’t, and indeed suffer for it. I venture to suggest that Mr Epstein is not thinking of rice-farmers in the Mekong Delta, for example, or crab fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. I suspect, like most of us, his notion of humanity is based largely on himself and people like him – and in his case also on the Koch brothers. Life may indeed be wonderful for them, but the rest of us surely also count if we are going to be included in such sweeping claims.

Yet even if I were to grant his proposition B as well, I don’t see that the conclusion follows. Is fossil fuel use the only thing that conduces to making the world “wonderful for human life”? It certainly would not appear to be true that everyone experienced the world as uniformly horrible prior to the Industrial Revolution. Shakespeare, for instance, contributed quite a bit to making life wonderful for many people, despite not driving an SUV.

I doubt that most visitors to National Parks go there in order to make them lovelier by burning fossil fuels. On the contrary, people go to these places because they do not exhibit the effects of burning fossil fuels, compared to (say) Los Angeles. On Mr Epstein’s view, surely they should be flocking to the Alberta Tar Sands instead, in order to contemplate the loveliness that fossil fuel use has wrought.

Isn’t it lovely? Those tiny dots are huge earth-moving machines. They are not powered by renewables.

We can just about make the argument work by restating it with a little more precision:

  • virtue consists in advancing the interests of a certain group of people
  • using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for that group of people
  • therefore using fossil fuels is “supremely virtuous”

I would have more respect for Mr Epstein if he had had the honesty to express himself in these terms. Even so, we are left with a definition of virtue that equates it baldly with making money for the Koch brothers. Such a definition certainly exists, in the sense that plenty of people live their lives in accordance with it, but I don’t feel compelled to accept it, and neither, I hope, do you.

It also implies a narrow view of the interests of these über-humans. Even the Koch brothers need oxygen, for example. Conventional thinking, especially economic thinking, tends to discount the future as inherently unpredictable, but if an economist is sealed in a chamber and the air is then removed from that chamber, even the economist would predict his or her imminent demise. The vital interests of all human beings include the vital interests of all other forms of life.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” as John Donne pointed out a long time ago. We can pretend otherwise, and of course we do, but we do so at our peril. It takes considerable skill, in fact, to persuade ourselves and others of it. No doubt it appears self-evident to sociopaths that they are islands; they may live to discover, however, that they are not entire of themselves.

The rest of us, who already know this, will do well to keep a sharp eye out for the sophistries of Alex Epstein and his ilk. We would be fools to try and navigate the choppy waters ahead of us with a faulty compass. There is a great deal more at stake here than the share price of Koch Industries (motto: “Creating value. Transforming life.”).

It is of course already the mainstream view that burning fossil fuels is not really the best idea. Despite this, however, unlike them, this kind of twaddle is clearly an abundant and renewable resource. As Albert Einstein is supposed to have said: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Be on your guard.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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