Lets say you are at a potluck party and shortly after everybody finishes indulging, somebody unexpectedly farts— loud and odorously repugnant. At that moment, as everybody repulses and withdraws, they all point and gesture to the guilty culprit. The accused turns red with guilt and shame and vacates to the kitchen. However, I feel it is rather unfair to put the entire blanket of guilt on the person who farted, so to show this, I will unpack the ethical problem of who farted.
At this party, regarding the ethics of the fart, we have four categories: the person who farted (F), the person who brought the bean-dip to the party (M), the bean-dip eaters who did not fart (E) and, lastly, the people who did not eat the bean dip (N). As there is already an assertion that F is guilty we will begin by examining M.
M: The bean-dip maker is, in essence, the one that brought the problem into existence. The casual relationship of bean-dip as cause and fart as effect was put into motion by the previous cause— bean-dip making, and without this act, the entire problem would be negated. It is to be assumed that the bean-dip maker was aware of the risk and the fart potential they were bringing into existence and did it anyway. For this, I would argue that the category M is partially responsible for the fart.
E: The only difference between E & F is that in F the fart physically manifested and in E it did not. But, the bean-dip eaters, fully aware of their fart potential by eating the bean-dip, did so anyway. Additionally, once the bean-dip was thrust into existence by M, everybody at the party assumes awareness of the fart potential and nobody wants to become F. However, once a single person assumes the risk and dips their first chip, others will follow, as each new E provides another layer of validation that the fart potential is worth the satisfaction of eating the bean-dip. Further, the realization that if somebody does become F, for every new E the potential responsibility and risk becomes diluted. Even though, like a Roulette Wheel, every persons fart potential is independent of everybody else, the frenzy of bean-dip eating gives the semblance of a negated potentiality. Almost, as if everybody is hesitant to eat it and become F, but they see the first person and think, “well, maybe I am over thinking this. If he did it, it’s obviously not that big of a risk. One little bite won’t do any harm.” The more E people there are, the more this effect becomes amplified. For this, I would say because category E validates the process and reinforces the act and equally so assumes the risk of the fart potential but just doesn’t have the bad luck of having the fart manifest, is also guilty and partially responsible for the fart.
N: You may have followed my reasoning with the previous three categories, but now with the category N, things begin to get complicated. As N did not fart, did not create the fart potential and they did not assume any fart risk. However, I will argue that they are equally at fault, if not more so. Just like all other categories, category N was aware of the fart potential and for this they avoided the bean-dip altogether. Regardless if they eat the dip or not, when F farts the negative ramifications will equally impact N— their act of non-bean dip eating will not dismiss them from being subjugated by the consequences. And, in their act of non-bean dip eating they are fully aware of this fact. Their desire to not eat the bean-dip is not rooted in any desire to negate the fart itself, but purely to remove themselves from guilt potential. So, at the end of the night when somebody does fart they can easily say, “it was not me, I did not have any bean dip.” But, why does that matter? The category N, who is knowingly aware of the fart potential and all the damage that could come from that, should act to negate the fart potential, instead of just the guilt potential. In other words, they should stand in front of the dip and stop everybody form dipping, and ask: “do you really wanna be the person who farts later?” and force each person into an existential crisis. Or, a fortiori, they should just throw the bean dip away— stuff it down the garbage disposal. In this act they negate E , F and M— and the entire problem, for that matter. They are guilty of the fart by their assertion that they can absolve themselves of guilt by removing themselves from the equation— which they cannot do. The impact of the fart will be devastating and explosive to all parties involved and when this happens N will sit back and presume no responsibility. But, lets stop a moment and switch to the classic thought experiment about the train operator who has to decide between having their train stay the course which will kill three people or switching to a different track, which will result in killing one person. This decision hinges between actively killing one person and passively killing three people. In both the train experiment and the fart experiment the outcome of death and farts is eminent, and although category N is not actively contributing to the fart potential, they are merely acting like the driver who passively kills three— I did not put the people on the tracks, I did not choose the course of this train. Or, in the fart problem: I did not bring the bean dip and I did not choose to eat the bean dip. But, like I said, the result of farts and death is eminent. Unlike the train experiment, category N has the potential to negate the entire problem by simply throwing away the bean dip, but they do not. So beyond being merely passively guilty by allowing the fart-train to continue down its tracks, when they had the potential to stop it, they are also arrogantly assuming they can will themselves out of the equation and sit on the sidelines, but it is this arrogance alone that rationalized their decision to not actively act to negate the bean-dip. With that, I would argue that the category N is equally guilty by passively trying to will themselves out of the equation and be the innocent bystander that did not want to interfere in ones desire to eat bean-dip. Additionally, because they did not bring the dip or assume any fart potential, they champion themselves as morally superior— however, their act act of self-preservation is not morally superior. The act of attempting to block everybody from eating the bean-dip would have made people think they were being a total asshole, and could have put friendships at risk. Or, what if they tried hard to block everybody from eating the bean-dip and failed, and hours later, nobody farted— proving that the effort to block the dip was unwarranted and the actions of a crazy person. For this, category N is avoiding the potential blow to their ego by the rejection of their bean-dip-blocking and allowing, full knowingly, for the fart potential to remain. This cowardly self-serving act serves no good. Like the train experiment, it is like the train operator allowing the train to kill the three people, because he can always blame the act on the parties that actively brought the problem into existence and while simultaneously freeing them of the guilt of actively killing somebody.
When we examine the difference between F/E and N we get to what Nietzsche would call the difference between passive and active nihilism. As the bean-dip eaters (F/E) actively worked towards actualizing the fart potential and N passively worked towards it by not acting. This, I’d posit, makes everybody at the party, to some degree, guilty of the fart.
Now you may think this whole thought experiment was a waste of time, but this idea can be applied to something much more catastrophic and applicable if we change our players a bit. If we change this to be an argument about climate change and carbon emissions we run into some complications. At the party it was quite obvious who farted- as we can see it, smell it and watch their face turn red with guilt. But, in the case of the guilty culprit who is the cause of climate change everybody points to another entity. The cause of climate change is corporations, or hummers, or cities, or capitalism, or China, or it is merely a liberal invention— in other words, the category F is always an abstracted Other. This is also the case of category M— who brought this problem into existence? Again, everybody points the other way— like a cartoon character with their arms pointed every direction and all knotted up in the middle. Next we arrive at category E. On the surface you would think that everybody is in category E, unless you find some way to completely abstain from all carbon emissions and live a carbon neutral life, but I would argue that the category E does not exist at all. In the fart analogy, everybody in category E had fart potential, meaning they had the potential to become F— the person who actualizes the fart. But, in the case of climate change, nobody is going to presume that their actions have the potential of creating the catastrophic results of climate change. The responsibility of the problem is so diluted that it even includes past people (dead people) and future people (people not born yet)— for this, the ability for a single person to actualize their role as creating the potentiality for a catastrophe to happen gets abstracted and diluted to the point that the realization of the potentiality disappears. This only leaves one category left— N. If everybody thinks that they incapable of being the sole contributor to the problem, and therefore, feel that they are merely an innocent bystander that is being thrust into the problem against their devices they will presume a position of N. They may use energy safe light bulbs, walk, take a bus and eat local food— but what does this do? Give them a get out of jail free card when the shit hits the fan? The N category could be broken down into 3 categories: 1) the people who do not believe in climate change and act as they always acted. 2) the people who believe in climate change but do not act to limit their carbon emissions and 3) the people who believe in climate change and do their best to limit their carbon emissions. Category 1 does not even believe E/F/M even exist in the first place and henceforth are acting passively (as they are not trying to stop or cause the problem— they’re indifferent/agnostic). Category 2 does not feel they have the potential to become E, and therefore passively acts, by not acting at all. Category 3 presumes they can’t become category E by their actions— just like the non-bean dip eaters, they presume if they walk a lot or drive a Prius they have removed themselves from the equation— so that when the chaos comes they can sit on the sidelines and remove the guilt potential. In other words, in pertaining to climate change— everybody is passively willing a state of nihilism.
To take this even further, lets examine the timetable a bit here. In the fart analogy the first action was M, the second was E/N and the third act was F. So in climate change, M is in the past, E/N are in the present and F is in the future. In some abstracted sense we could say that M was perhaps the industrial revolution and F will be at the result of some climate catalyst that causes the first true climate change catastrophe, but for now we are going to stick to the ethical dilemma of the self. Let us perceive M as our past-self, E/N as our present-self and F as our future-self. If we are all stuck in the present as N and are denying that we are E, or were M or will become F— then, for this, we will be forever category N. In the fart analogy the potential to step outside of the N self and block the dip and negate the whole problem was possible, but this is not the case with climate change…. tying ourselves to trees with chains is not going to work. If M is our past self and F is our future self— then what? Do we find a way to actualize ourselves as E in the present and recognize that every act we do has the potential of F and further, recognize that in the past we contributed to this problem and our M-self must be forgiven— if we do not forgive ourselves for our past transgressions, we can never hope to change. And lastly, recognize that F exists. F is us. We need to forgive M in order to accept our ethical obligation to F and act in the present towards minimizing F. And therefore become E and reject N as an option.
In short. In regard to climate change every human is the cause, the process and will become the effect. And, if we stand any chance of stopping this crazy train we must forgive ourselves for allowing this problem to come into existence and then accept that we have an ethical obligation to our future-self and from this actualize ourselves as having full potential of causing destruction. And maybe then our collective-ego will let go and we can all destroy the bean-dip together.
Cover art: Match Stick Men by Wolfgang Stiller