Philosophy Hurts Your Head

The blog of a cranky Philosophy PhD Student from Newcastle, Australia.

The Ethics of “If we don’t then someone else will”

Posted by Sam D on September 7, 2007

While everyone has been distracted by the sound and fury of APEC the the New South Wales state government approved a new major coal mine for the Hunter region. Without getting into the technical details the bare facts are that this mine will involve a lot of coal (10 million tonnes per year for up to 21 years) being dug out of the ground, sold, and then burnt. Presumably this will involve a lot of Carbon Dioxide ending up in the atmosphere. The Greens say the mine, near Mudgee, will increase Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5.3 per cent per year. It’s plausible that this could contribute to climate change. For what it’s worth, I’m not a climate change sceptic, but I wanted to talk about something different here.

In response to criticism from green groups, NSW Planning Minister, Frank Sartor is reported to have argued that if the coal did not come from this mine it would come from a mine somewhere, and hence the development was ethically and morally acceptable. This claim is what I’m really interested in.

There might be other factors, but the “if we don’t then someone else will” argument, by itself, does not seem to provide much in the way of ethical justification. Assuming that burning coal is a bad thing, we can easily draw a parallel with the provision of other products that seem morally challenged.


If we don’t provide the market with anti-personel land mines, then someone else will….

If that crack cocaine isn’t produced here it will be produced somewhere else….

Demand for hardcore child pornography is so high that if we don’t sell it to developing countries then some else will…..

etc, so it is morally and ethically justified for us to do so.

This seems to me to be a questionable inference. The only circumstances that anyone would use such a justification for action would be when they do not hold a strong moral belief that such an action was wrong, or that they believe that other factors outweigh the negative effects. In this case it seems that either Frank Sartor is a climate change sceptic, or he does not believe that it is wrong to contribute to Global Warming or that he believes that the positives ( in this case 320 jobs and coal exports worth $7.5 billion) outweigh the possible harm that burning the coal could cause.


One Response to “The Ethics of “If we don’t then someone else will””

  1. jonjon said

    This “if we don’t then someone else will” keeps the world running. It’s one of the most despicables justifications ever. It’s the philosophy of the “winners” without love or hate, just fed with greed. The philosophy of the kind of people who at the same time can blame others for their beliefs and ethics. This kind of thought is a sad form of staking a cynical hegemony.
    It’s depressing…

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