Inaugural Elev8 Ethics speaker navigates ‘catastrophe ethics’

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SUMMARY: Travis Rieder, from the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, shares guidance on how to define your personal moral ethics.

On April 10, Ethical Reasoning in Action welcomed Travis Rieder as the first speaker in a new series, Elev8 Ethics. The goal of the series is to offer people tools to improve their decision-making in situations where ethical values are put into question.

An associate research professor and director of the master’s program at the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, Rieder is concerned with engaging in ethical reasoning about our individual lives in a time dominated by massive, structural threats that are too big and too complex for any one of us to meaningfully address on our own. His latest book is Catastrophe Ethics: How to Choose Well in a World of Tough Choices (2024).

Rieder discussed some of the difficult ethical situations that we face today, such as climate change and consumer choices.

As humans, it’s easy to feel like we’re drowning in our desire to “do the right thing,” he said, whether it’s a big decision, like whether to have children, or something as simple as what type of milk to pour over your cereal.

This internal struggle, he said, can manifest in two extremes, both equally destructive.

The first is “purity ethics” — when, as an individual, you decide you are morally responsible for purging your life of all carbon-emitting behaviors. Rieder is quick to shut down this lifestyle goal as nearly impossible and surely unreasonable.

If you’re not careful, he said, the demands of living “pure” can quickly devolve into the opposite extreme — nihilism, the idea that nothing you do matters. This is a dangerous ideology to hold in a world where so much of our gains come from collective human effort, he said.

“These are the moral poles that occupy the space of catastrophe ethics,” he said.

Through his writing, Rieder aims to share tools to navigate between the poles, help people realize that the puzzle of moral goodness is everywhere, and offer solutions that encourage better action.

Humans are obsessed with duty and obligation, both internally and externally, Rieder said.

“Coming to the conclusion that someone is doing something wrong, that they are violating their duty, is incredibly satisfying,” he said.

But what we often fail to realize is that many situations fall short of things we are morally required to do — what Rieder calls “moral shoulds.” Moral shoulds exist on a spectrum and are not as black and white as making the right or wrong decision.

There is no one thing we must do, he said, and the choice of how you live a moral life is up to you. Instead of attempting to live a morally perfect life, Rieder suggests realizing how these opportunities can open the door to choices for good and deciding which moral shoulds are most complementary to your life.

“Look at what you are good at, what [you] have a passion for, what you have the privilege to sometimes do, and then genuinely how hard different things are for you. … Then make some decisions.”

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by Lilly Johns

Published: Thursday, April 18, 2024

Last Updated: Friday, April 19, 2024

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