Seminar Series: Catastrophe Ethics by Travis Rieder, PhD

Monday, Apr 1, 2024
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
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Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Wolfe W3030
615 N. Wolfe Street
Baltimore, MD 21205
We are surrounded by problems that are urgent and catastrophic—that seem to require a moral response by each of us—but which are too big and too complex to be solved by any individual. Climate change is the paradigm case of such a challenge. It occurs when billions of people engage in uncoordinated activity, emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, hundreds of billions of tons at a time. So what must each of us do, ethically, in response? Are you obligated not to buy a gas-gazzler and take it for joy rides while the world burns? Faced with the reality that problems of this scale are insensitive to individual choice, some moral philosophers concede that this simply isn’t a problem for individual ethics. In this talk, Rieder will argue that although individuals likely have no strict duty to act in a particular way in the face of massive, catastrophic threats, there is still much work to be done thinking about what a decent, morally responsible life looks like in such times. This is especially important, he’ll suggest, as climate change is far from the only case in which individual action can feel morally important and yet futile at the same time. Acting during an infectious disease outbreak, making consumer choices, engaging in politics, giving to charity, and responding to structural racism all have the potential to give rise to the puzzle of individual morality in an era of collective threats.
Travis N. Rieder, PhD, is the Assistant Director for Education Initiatives, Director of the Master of Bioethics degree program and Associate Research Professor at the Berman Institute of Bioethics. He is also a Faculty Affiliate at the Center for Public Health Advocacy within the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.