Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Philosophy Professors Krista Thomason and Hans Oberdiek gave a presentation on the afternoon of Monday, April 6, concerning the moral arguments surrounding the divestment controversy. Most of the attendees were faculty, joined by about a dozen students.
Thomason started off the presentation by outlining the moral arguments on both sides of the debate. She presented four key arguments for the pro-divestment side: first, the idea that contributing to fossil fuels are wrong. If fossil fuels were contributing to morally wrong action, said Thomason, like harming the environment, then it would be wrong to support these companies through investment.
Second, Thomason introduced the integrity argument, saying that Swarthmore has to be consistent with its values: it “is about us as an institution.” Since this college is supposed to embody socially aware and progressive values, said Thomason, then it should pursue actions that are consistent with those values, such as divestment. Institutions like Syracuse University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund used the integrity argument when divesting, she said.
The third argument presented by Thomason was the delegitimizing argument. Thomason says that this argument proposes that Swarthmore become a “Beacon on the Hill” to stigmatize investing in fossil fuel companies. As more and more colleges divest, said Thomason, fossil fuel companies will look like an increasingly unattractive option for investment.
The final pro-divestment argument was one of consciousness-raising. Thomason said “If we do it, everyone will start asking questions,” and awareness of the negative impacts of climate change could increase.
Next, Thomason presented three anti-divestment arguments. The first argument is the “empty gesture” argument. The idea is that there are many other things that could be done that are more important, such as reducing the college’s carbon footprint. If alternative strategies have a bigger positive impact on the climate, then divestment does not have such a high moral ground. “The empty gesture may then allow people to shirk responsibility for what they have,” said Thomason.
Failure of meeting obligations is the second anti-divestment argument. Thomason says Swarthmore’s obligation as an educational institution may be at odds with divestment if divesting will reduce our endowment. “It may interfere with our ability as an educational institution to educate our students now and in the future,” she said.
Thomason also provided some rebuttals against the pro-divestment arguments. Against the ‘contribution’ argument, she highlighted that to be consistent, there needs to be compelling reasons to prioritize divesting from fossil fuels in particular than other pressing issues like divesting from companies that have poor human rights records. Further consideration has to be taken towards a possible backlash where other parties are more than willing to have a ‘buycott’ in response to the ‘boycott’ of fossil fuels stocks. Against the integrity argument, she questions whether “it [is] right to see Swarthmore as a policy-making institution.” She also pointed out how other colleges have smaller endowments and questioned if they had similar obligations than we do.
To introduce his section of the talk, Hans Oberdiek said that with age came the ability to reminisce. He recalled the controversy that erupted within the Swarthmore’s Board of Managers regarding the South African divestment talk. Then, many board members were also concerned about the fiduciary obligations of the school as an educational institution, while others were staunchly pro-divestment from the Apartheid regime. Oberdiek noted distinct differences with the South African case and the current one: divestment in the 1980s targeted companies doing business in South Africa, but did not target the actual content of what these companies were doing. By contrast, the current divestment movement opposes the actual core businesses of the fossil fuel companies, and wants to keep them from burning oil.
Secondly, the African National Congress, which eventually governed post-Apartheid South Africa and was led by Nelson Mandela, also promoted divestment, even at the risk of hurting the economy. No comparable figure can be found in today’s movement, Oberdiek noted. “My estimation of the board rose seriously,” Oberdiek said when he observed the tense, but highly thought-out discussions the board was having over the issue. He also recalled that the issue escalated when two African American members of the board announced their resignation because they staunchly supported divestment, which persuaded then President David Fraser to push for divestment.
“I think the moral arguments are very weak,” said Oberdiek of the fossil fuel divestment movement. He said that the possible effect of divestment is little. He proposed to accelerate the process of making Swarthmore College a carbon-neutral institution, because “you have to live by all the implications” for the integrity argument for divestment to work. Technologies such as geothermal energy, recycling human waste, and ensuring non-toxic construction are already available, but will be expensive to implement, but would increase student pride in the school.
The audience peppered the speakers with questions afterwards. One asked “If it be that there are more US colleges that started to divest, does that change our moral stance?” In response, Oberdiek noted that the effectiveness of the movement was important to consider. He also mentioned that the South African divestment movement was running for at least 15 years before Swarthmore decided to divest, whereas very few institutions currently have divested.
Audience members found the talk informative and engaging. Mickey Li ‘18 said “the talk was generally very stimulating and effectively offers the arguments that most accurately characterizes the two sides. […] My stance on divestment has been more well-informed.”
Professor of Philosophy Richard Eldridge also praised his colleagues, saying “I think my colleagues do an effective job presenting a range of distinctively moral arguments both for and against divestment from fossil fuel production.” He also commented on the nature of the talk, saying “I think that they exemplified the kind of discussion many of us should be having with each other.”