Climate Ethics: Justifying a Positive Social Time Preference

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy
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Recent debates over climate change policy have made it clear that the choice of a social discount rate has enormous consequences for the amount of mitigation that will be recommended. The social discount rate determines how future costs are to be compared to present costs. Philosophers, however, have been almost unanimous in endorsing the view that the only acceptable social rate of time preference is zero, a view that, taken literally, has either absurd or extremely radical implications. The first goal of this paper is to show that the standard arguments against temporal preference are much less persuasive than they are usually taken to be. The second goal is to explore two different avenues of argument that could be adopted, in order to show that temporal discounting of welfare may be permissible. The first involves simply an application of the method of reflective equilibrium, while the second involves consideration of the way that our abstract moral commitments are institutionalized.

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