Catastrophe Ethics: How to Choose Well in a World of Tough Choices

Modern life can be full of tough and unsatisfying choices. On one hand, everything we do seems to matter and have great importance. But on the other hand, it can sometimes seem it’s all for nothing. To Travis Rieder, a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, this realization led to an obsession in recent years with answering the question: How do each of us live a morally decent life in an era defined by problems that are too big and too complex for any one of us to solve by ourselves?

Rieder’s attempt to wrestle with this question led to his new book, Catastrophe Ethics: How to Choose Well in a World of Tough Choices (Dutton), a warm and personal guide that provides the tools to build a strong moral compass in today’s world.

Read an excerpt from Time Magazine.

From seemingly mundane issues like whether to use a disposable plastic water bottle, to booking a flight for a vacation, to bigger questions like investing in an electric vehicle or having children, Rieder shows how to navigate the issues that often seem to have no good or easy answers. The decisions people make daily all contribute to massive, structural, collective problems.

Catastrophe Ethics includes a tour of the contributions of philosophers like Plato and Kant, as well as old fashioned ethics exercises like trolley problems that involve sacrificing one person on a track for several people. But as Rieder points out, people need to expand their understanding of ethical concepts for modern society.

“I don’t think an ethic of purity is realistic, because we cannot excise ourselves from the massive problems of today,” Rieder says. “But I also want to resist the slide into nihilism. Just because you can’t save the world by yourself doesn’t mean that what you do doesn’t matter.”

Rieder is the Assistant Director for Education Initiatives, Director of the Master of Bioethics degree program, and Associate Research Professor at the Berman Institute. He is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for Public Health Advocacy within the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In the book, Rieder offers an ethics starter kit to help readers solve the problem he calls “The Puzzle”: How do each of us live a morally decent life in an era defined by problems that are too big and too complex for any one of us to solve by ourselves?

Other topics include:

  • How to realize that even the most personal, intimate decisions do not escape responsibility and that how one chooses to live does matter, even if our actions don’t seem to make much of a difference. Whether it is through our decisions to travel, commute long distances by car, or even just our choices about what to eat, everyone contributes to many massive systems that cause harm—most of them without knowing it. Although it can feel that what we do does not matter, that line of thinking can lead to moral emptiness. Rather, facing a problem head on can lead to finding meaning.
  • Why ethics is hard to understand. Philosophers like Kant and Plato are important, but they did not face the same issues that we do today. There’s also the added difficulty of how to determine what we should do and how we should live, especially when psychological pressures make it seem like the choices that should be made are obvious.
  • How our moral duties include not engaging in disinformation. We all learn about the world every day and participate in the spread of information through discussion with others. We need to take care with how we get information, how we share that information, and holding others accountable whether they are family or friends, or even public figures.
  • That ethics is for both sides of the political spectrum. There are multiple ways to live a good life. With all the possibilities of political and personal engagement, it’s not a question of either/or, but of what specifically aligns with our values, preferences, and strengths.
  • How to use your moral tool kit. How can we decide what efforts to participate in and where to contribute our effort? One way is to map out the kinds of reasons that we have to withdraw from morally problematic activities and engage in good ones, and then to take a clear-eyed look at the challenges that stand in our way. We aren’t required to do everything, but we ought to do something, and this process can help us to organize our efforts.

“In a world where nearly everything we do implicates us in various systems and structures, there are a lot of opportunities to participate in good and bad, and so a lot of careful reasoning to do,” says Rieder. “The bad news is that this can feel overwhelming: everything we do seems to matter. But the good news is that we get to matter. The moral work is constant and creative, as we need to (get to!) decide constantly how to structure our lives so as to respond to the threats around us.”