On Wasting Water on Recycling

My uncle posed an interesting question on Facebook and I thought I’d share the dialogue, in continuing efforts to showcase the cognitive nature of moral dilemmas.

His comment:

“OK, here’s sumthin: water is a precious resource, soon to be privatized, if global trends are any indication. from my experience, most corporate recycling programs are a total sham; it all just gets thrown out w/the general garbage. so, do we fulfill our implied covenant as responsible citizens, & rinse our recyclables, hoping for the best outcome, or are we just wasting water? where does our moral responsibility lie?”

My response:
It’s certainly a perplexing problem, and I’ve heard the “it all gets thrown out together; I seen it” testimony enough that it is difficult to dismiss, so I can tentatively grant the plausibility of the premises:

  1. It is bad to waste water.
  2. If corporate recycling doesn’t actually occur then you waste water in rinsing items in order for them to be recycled.

I take it that your question “where does our moral responsibility lie” is about how far our moral responsibility for our actions extends, such that you wonder whether it logically follows from these premises that:

c: It is bad to recycle.

It’s an interesting dilemma because the two competing duties (a duty to conserve water, and a duty to recycle) are both derivative of the more fundamental duty to do your part to protect the environment. Taken in this light, higher order instantiations of the same fundamental duty come into conflict given corporate irresponsibility. So now we can reduce the more particularized duties to the more general duty so that we see that you harm the environment in trying to not harm the environment.

Can you be morally responsible for an outcome that is the very opposite of what you intended? I think many people would say that you are not morally responsible in such a case, but I’m hesitant to take that line because I’m not sure that there is enough intentionality behind the action meant to protect the environment to justify the bad that comes of it – in other words, not enough is done to actively not harm the environment (in just washing items in order for another group to recycle them) to say that not harming the environment is intended enough to mitigate the badness of an unintended effect.

So to answer your question, it seems that the moral responsibility for the harm lies with us when we do not do enough to make sure that the intentions of our actions are realized. In this case, by actively protesting and lobbying to ensure that corporations are actually recycling.

Thanks for sharing this interesting dilemma. I will note that I tried to answer the problem with no assumptions as to the conclusion, and this is where reflecting on the concepts took me. I was a little surprised by the conclusion, as it seems to be very demanding of our time and attention, but I suppose morality just is that demanding.

What do you think? Is this conclusion too extreme? Or would you come to a similar conclusion from different arguments?

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  1. #1 by Jack Saunsea on April 28, 2014 - 12:58 am

    “Can you be morally responsible for an outcome that is the very opposite of what you intended?”

    This brought to mind the very true saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    I think that it may be wisest for us to mindfully choose our actions using information we learn about the consequences of our actions, but not relying on that information as the most educated person in the world could never really know nor account for all of the results of any action. So, my first suggestion is that we stop everything we are doing to find actual silence, peace, and contentment, then live without the need to control actions but act as naturally as the heart beats and lungs breath.

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