When Do Ends Justify Means?


The avenue de l’Opera, painted by Camille Pissarro (1898). Provided by Wikipedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Camille_Pissarro_-_Avenue_de_l%27Opera_-_Mus%C3%A9e_des_Beaux-Arts_Reims.jpg


Last week we discussed some of the ethical aspects related to Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris. Under Napoleonic rule, Haussmann was given the authority (and funding) to bring tremendous change to Paris. He evicted a sizable portion of Paris’ residents, demolishing several historical landmarks, and introducing wider straighter roads in an effort to accommodate modern modes of transportation and to reduce congestion. Building heights were increased and the water / sewer systems were updated. Many consider Haussmann’s legacy the Paris that we love and adore today. Unfortunately, this project came at tremendous cost. Haussmann was given the authority to bring radical change without concern for the unfortunate residents that his project displaced. As Edward Glaeser put it: “If you want to rebuild a city, it helps to have an autocrat behind you”. The renovation of Paris brought to the foreground an important moral question relating to the future of environmental policy. Did a more functional modernized Paris justify a potentially unethical renovation process?

This is a question worth considering with regards to the implementation of CO2 reduction policies. If a nation-wide carbon tax were to be implemented there would undoubtedly be geographically predetermined winners and losers. If a carbon taxation system where to be applied to all electric utility providers nationwide the cost of electricity would increase in regions where electrical power is produced by means of high CO2 emitting processes while the cost of electricity in regions utilizing low emission processes would be better off. A modern example of this scenario might include a region drawing most of its power by means of coal or natural gas vs. a region already producing much of its electricity by means of hydroelectric power. Barring a sophisticated reallocation process for distributing carbon tax proceeds to the communities / socioeconomic subgroups hit hardest by this theoretical legislation, there would be regions that become more expensive to live in as its inhabitants would be paying for the total cost of their electricity (CO2 emitting externalities included). This could potentially result in displacement and economic disparity in regions located in areas without low-cost access to clean energy. All of this as a result of a tax on services that many consider to be basic human rights.

Such a scenario reminds me of the ethical dilemmas created by Baron Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. Would implementing a policy that might prove beneficial to the entire planet over a (potentially infinitely) long time horizon be worth inflicting temporary hardships onto the unfortunate residents of regions that cannot produce clean energy without making significant investments in infrastructure and clean energy production? Would it be that terrible if this policy caused displacement? An influx of inhabitants to regions already utilizing clean energy and an out-flux of inhabitants from regions utilizing CO2 intensive energy doesn’t sound that bad. Are these hardships inequitable outcomes or are they actually a fair result of the market putting an end to a long period of arbitrage utility pricing? If these outcomes are inequitable, does it matter? Is a justification for such a policy really necessary when the benefits so clearly outweigh the costs?

I can’t answer these questions because the costs and benefits related to this problem are unique to everyone. I can however pose a question central to introducing such a policy: With the future of our planet at stake and an opportunity for radical change, at what point do ends justify the means?


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