Bioethics Blogs

Moral Offsetting

A recent blogpost on 3 Quarks Daily satirised the idea of ‘moral offsetting’. Moral offsetting would work like carbon offsetting. With carbon offsetting, you purchase carbon credits to offset against your emissions – for instance, you might give money to a private company that plants trees, to offset your transatlantic flights. Moral offsetting works in a similar way: whenever you indulge in behavior of dubious morality (say eating meat, or buying clothes made in a sweatshop), your transgression would be offset. The simplest way to offset would be through a donation to a charity.

Of course, both what counts as a transgression and what kind and amount of donation would be hard to calculate. Whereas carbon offsetting aims to reduce a single readily measurable output, moral offsetting is much more complicated. If you’re consequentialist, you may think that there is a single output to be measured and maximized (welfare, say); even so, converting the expected consequences of actions and omissions into a single measure would be extremely difficult. For those consequentialists who recognize multiple goods things will be harder still. Of course, not everyone is a consequentialist, but since virtue theorists and deontologists recognize that consequences do matter, moral offsetting may have something to offer them too.

Carbon offsetting is controversial, with some people regarding it as a license to perform morally wrong actions (it has been compared to the pre-reformation practice of selling indulgences). Whatever the merits of carbon offsetting, I think moral offsetting has a lot going for it. It might help combat the moral offsetting we already do.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.