Friday, June 17, 2005

What can little New Zealand do?

One of the main conservative arguments against New Zealand's participation in the Kyoto Protocol is that "we’re a small country, so what we do will make no difference anyway." Frogblog raises a strong objection to such reasoning:
Sure, our little bit might not be much in global terms, but it’s about doing our bit, making our contribution, pulling our weight as part of a broad group of countries in the hope that more and more will sign up. You could make the “what the hell can a little country like New Zealand do?” argument for not spending any money on foreign aid, for not opposing nuclear weapons, for pulling out of the United Nations. The point is that it’s very important to do our bit, lest our reputation as a good international citizen be tarnished.

This reminds me of an important point I made a few months back:
Even indiscernible contributions can be morally significant. In Reasons and Persons, Derek Parfit asks us to consider a thousand torturers, and a dial which causes pain in proportion to the number of times it is turned - each single turn being indiscernible, but a thousand causing intense pain. If each torturer turns it once, they (collectively) cause a great harm. Each individual is doing wrong, even though their contribution is indiscernible. They do wrong by being part of the group of wrongdoers. Charity is the opposite: we do well by being part of a group of welldoers, even if individual contributions make no noticible difference - which often isn't true in any case.

When the issue of defence spending is raised, we observe an interesting parallel, though with the dialectical positions of partisans reversed. In the past I tended to think that New Zealand shouldn't waste its money on defence spending, since we can't contribute anything of substance compared to Australia or the U.S. anyway. I suspect this is a fairly common position among left-wing kiwis. But of course it involves the same error in reasoning as the anti-Kyoto crowd makes above, in falsely thinking that indiscernable contributions are morally irrelevant. (That's not to say that we ought to increase our defence spending, but merely that this particular anti-military argument is not a good one. The broader issue is beyond the scope of this blog post!)

So, this raises an interesting problem for partisans who use such arguments: are you willing to take the same position with regard to this style of argument when it is employed by the other side? And if not, doesn't that suggest that you ought to stop using the fallacious argument yourself?


  1. Small efforts do matter, not so much because of the effect on our reputation, but because a small difference is still better than no difference.

    But this only works if other countries actions remain unchanged. The new Kyoto taxes will make our export goods costlier to produce and therefore our businesses will be less competitive. Non-Kyoto countries can therefore produce more and take our market share. Less pollution from us will be replaced with more pollution from them. We'll be poorer and the climate will be just the same.

    Obviously the same could happen with defence, but it's less likely that Australia and the U.S. would cut their defence spending to match an increase by us.

  2. Good post richard - I so often see peopel make that point and then continue to use the argument themselves.

  3. One could say fundimentally a government is obliged to represent its people and that as such its moral obligations do not perfectly match those of a "world government" or a individual utilitarian.
    Considering the soverignty defenses of the left and democracy arguments from the same people one might think they would be sympathetic to such an argument.


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