Thursday, November 7, 2013

Can Climbers Think More Clearly About Ethics?

Can climbers think more clearly about ethics? Is there a way to make ethical arguments clearer and more relevant to the sport of climbing? What has sparked this thought is the recent revelation that Joe Kinder, a well-known figure in American sport climbing, decided to cut down a tree that interfered with the first 20 feet or so of a climb he wanted to bolt near Lake Tahoe. For any number of reasons this was the wrong thing to do but remarkably enough a striking number of Joe's defenders commented online that apparently this wasn't such a big deal after all, because after all, hey it's just a tree, and/or don't you live in a house made of wood so you are just as guilty and so and so on.

I think Joe has received enough of a shellacking from everyone else and I consider him a friend so I am not going to deliver a sermon on why cutting the tree down was a bad idea. But I am going to take issue with his defenders who are among other things  betraying a fundamental lack of understanding of how the sport of climbing actually works. Fundamental to this is an understanding of the principal issues at stake in making ethical decisions, issues that many, in fact too many, internet commenters seem willfully ignorant of.

Ethics is the study of right and wrong, conditions that humans have been aware of since the dawn of, well, humans. The argument can be made that every action we take involves to some degree a consideration of its ethical dimensions. Games, which climbing is certainly an example of, allow us to play with ethical questions in a relatively low-stakes fashion. That is to say, nothing truly significant is at stake regarding whether we get to the top of a climb. Even if we spend $50,000 climbing Everest, whether we get to the top or not really changes nothing of significance. How we treat people or the environment along the way is much more significant than reaching a summit or clipping chains on the proj.

Climbing is not superficially involved in ethics; I would argue instead that ethics is embedded into the very fabric of the game. This is something that a newer generation seems to have forgotten and is worth reiterating. Maybe a good starting point is this argument: There is no point in climbing something that has been altered to suit your abilities. In climbing there is always an easier alternative, such putting up a ladder, or walking around the back, or grabbing a sling, or just lying about what you have done. To climb something honestly is by definition to forego an easier alternative, a weaker alternative, a "less right" alternative. Therefore there is no logical way to avoid the continual presence of ethics in the sport.

Knowing this is central to thinking clearly about how to judge whether actions relating to a climb are ethical or not. So coming back to the alteration principle. Climbers violate this principle in diverse and incremental ways, the least egregious affecting primarily their own experience, the most egregious affecting the lives of others and the environment which we all share. Using shoes or other gear, applying chalk, top-roping or placing bolts are a few examples. Using shoes doesn't involve much in terms of direct alteration of the rock but purchasing shoes from an unethical manufacturer in order to save money seems to be violating some important principle, perhaps that of the Golden Rule as in would I like to be cheated out of my labor or work under a totalitarian regime? Chalk is innocuous enough unless of course I do not make the minimal effort involved in cleaning up my chalk marks, thereby affecting the experience of others including non-climbers. Top-roping seems to fit primarily under competitive ethics, the least significant in real terms of climbing ethical questions. For example top-roping a scary lead first and then claiming a ground-up ascent doesn't affect anyone else's experience very much in real terms. The rock is the same even if you told a lie. If someone else decides to climb ground-up because of a story, that climber is still responsible for his or her actions. Most of these minor alterations can be described as reversible, restorable, or of minimal external impact.

Placing bolts has long been seen as ethically complicated because of the alteration principle and yet is widely accepted in many areas because of an overpowering imperative of safety for many or even feasibility of climbing a formation at all, as in massively overhung walls that could not be toproped or protected by other means, foreclosing any likely possibility of human ascent. That said, they still violate the alteration to suit one's abilities rule and for that reason are frowned on in many places. But even with these examples, we might ask, does this alteration principle provide a guide to ethical actions?

Philosophers often think of ethics in two basic directions, actions based on possible consequences, such as will this make me or others happier or less unhappy,  and those founded in intrinsic moral duty, that is I am doing the right thing regardless of consequences or any benefit or harm that may occur to me or others. I think climbers would do well to consider their actions in both these lights and think both in terms of consequences of their actions and whether there is something intrinsically right towards which we should aim in climbing. I would argue that the alteration principle functions as an absolute one toward which we should aim and that we should acknowledge when we deviate from it. To borrow from Kant's categorical imperative, can we will that all climbers should strive not to alter the rock or the environment?

Looking at various responses to the Kinder incident, I am struck by the degree to which  relativism (the notion that there is no absolute standard of right or wrong) and utilitarianism (the position that actions which result in greater human happiness are more ethical) dominate the discussion. I am also struck by the degree to which an abstract human construct, a climbing route, which has minimal utility and a contrived identity at best, becomes something worth sacrificing a living being for. I think we should ask ourselves why it's acceptable to chop down trees and not acceptable to chop holds.  Is it coherent to argue that since we all drive cars and kill the environment in myriad other ways, we have no standing in criticizing environmental destruction by climbers? Is there a way to respond to relativism and claims of utility?

The argument is made that numerous routes have required "ethical" infractions including bolts, glue, and modified holds to make them "go." My argument is that rock modification is relevant primarily in the context of competition and utility, that is, a better route is a more natural route since as mentioned above, there are any number of ways to "get around to the top", so to speak. If there is perceived utility in bolting or otherwise modifying a climb, it seems logical that this utility should be discussed among the community it claims to benefit, much like a town would debate an eminent domain action to demolish a building. In other words, at the very least, (and I would not argue that it settles the issue of whether an action is ethical) there should be an informed public discussion on the merits of that action.

If this claim of utility is made in regard to living beings, the need for that discussion seems even more urgent than ever. Here the claims of relativism become even more shaky. Following the alteration principle, ending a life is not reversible and its external impacts are potentially considerable. For example, a number of individuals claimed that in the east of the US, trees are very common so cutting them there is not a big deal. California on the other hand is much more arid so the loss of a single tree at a cliff is more serious. But if we look at this from another perspective, say, that of human life, would we be persuaded by the claim that there are billions of people so what's one or two less? And would our concerns about trees or the environment really be nullified by reading paper books or living in a wooden house?

The latter point has some ardent defenders but upon closer examination grows less coherent. On the one hand, a tree is cut down to make a route go. On the other, well what exactly? Is the house built in an environmentally conscious fashion. Is it even a new house? And so on. On the one hand deliberate destruction to make a climbing route "go," on the other, again it's not so clear. The motives of the first action are clear, but those of the second would need to be examined much more closely.

My larger point is that climbing and environmentalism need to get closer together. The contemporary emphasis on expansion and consumerism ("Never Stop Exploring") in climbing should be at the very least matched with an emphasis on limits and consideration of the needs of the natural communities among which we play. Our game, as noted above, is rooted in an ethical decision not to take the easy way. In my view a better motto might be "Never Stop Thinking" whether it's about ethics or our impacts on the environment.


AlanL said...

We all clean moss and lichen off of holds, or climb routes that have been thus cleaned. I can see no ethical argument whereby trees are more important living beings than moss or lichen

Peter Beal said...

no argument at all? Then you would see the two situations as equivalent? I think if you actually believed that then you would be backing yourself into a corner where you could not climb or do much else. A more productive approach would be to recognize the rights of both and act to minimize impact such as not topping out through a bed of moss or lichen.

Bill Ramsey said...

Peter, I agree that climbers (like everyone else) need to a better job of considering the ethical dimension of their sport, and I also think I agree with the most of basic sentiments you express here, insofar as I understand them. But I also think that your post exhibits some of the less-than-careful thought that you lament. Take, for example, this passage: “Maybe a good starting point is this argument: There is no point in climbing something that has been altered to suit your abilities. In climbing there is always an easier alternative, such putting up a ladder, or walking around the back, or grabbing a sling, or just lying about what you have done. To climb something honestly is by definition to forego an easier alternative, a weaker alternative, a "less right" alternative. Therefore there is no logical way to avoid the continual presence of ethics in the sport.”
First, “There is no point in climbing something that has been altered to suit your abilities” is not an argument, it is a statement. And it strikes me as an implausible statement – there may be all sorts of points to climbing something that has been altered to suit my abilities. I don’t free-solo 5.13, so by putting bolts in a route, it has been altered to suit my abilities. Second, I have no idea what it means to climb something honestly – honesty concerns statements, not acts. I’m assuming you mean something like “climb something legitimately” or “climb something properly”. You say to do this is “by definition” to forego an easier alternative. I hardly see that as being true by definition, and I don’t even find it very plausible. Surely you don’t want to claim that the only legitimate way to climb a route is to do it the hardest way possible, such as avoiding obvious holds, climbing barefoot, without chalk, etc. (also, by making difficulty the defining feature of legitimacy, you imply that modifying the rock to make something harder is appropriate). Moreover, this is the very thing at issue – to just stipulate what it is to climb something legitimately without argument is to beg the question against those who might disagree. Finally, the “therefore” here is inappropriate. The claim that we can’t avoid the presence of ethics in our sport is almost certainly true, but it doesn’t really follow from your preceding comments – they could all be true and this claim could be false.
Sorry if these comments seem pedantic. But if you chastise others for sloppy ethical reasoning, then it is important not to slip up when doing so.

AlanL said...

Would you then argue that bigger living beings automatically have more rights than smaller ones? Why?

I do respect no-topout-because-of-rare-mosses rules in the Frankenjura (except when I want to I ab to retrieve gear, we are all hypocrites).

But what about ones (that used to live) on the route?

One certainly can't argue that no living beings were harmed in the making of this famous Gogarth classic that i tried recently.

"Every living thing is sacred" would be a consistent position, albeit - as you point out - impossible to realistically live up to. "Slash and burn, baby, I just want my fun" would also be a consistent position but I think one held by rather few climbers.

"Some (non-human) living things are more sacred than others because, erm ..." is actually pretty much everybody's realistic position, at which point as far as I can see you're irretrievably into subjectivity and grey areas.

Peter Beal said...

Hi Bill,
Thanks for the awesome comment! Note that I wrote "Maybe a good starting point is this argument: There is no point in climbing something that has been altered to suit your abilities." So it is a starting point and a proposal for discussion and by definition could be regarded as a statement. I suppose an argument would be, "Based on that premise, climbs that are chipped are inferior to ones that are natural".

Maybe a syllogism like this would work?

1. Lying on the couch involves no physical or mental exertion
2. Climbing involves mental and physical exertion
3. Climbing involves more mental and physical exertion than lying on the couch

1. Climbing involves more mental and physical exertion than lying on the couch
2. Climbing is a choice
3. Climbing is choosing a harder alternative

1. Climbing is choosing a harder alternative
2. Creating or enhancing a hold is not choosing a harder alternative
3. Using chipped holds is not climbing

I think that I could easily restate my ideas to create an argument more specifically. I don't think it changes the drift of the essay particularly.

Anyway moving on to the more important aspect. As I state, the "alteration principle" is a starting point, not a feasible standard to always be followed to the letter. As I mention in the following sentences, climbers routinely violate the alteration principle, myself included. However, following the premise that climbing chooses the harder alternative (without altering the rock), contemporary climbing practice routinely praises those who do in fact onsight 5.13 free-solo and chastises those who hack holds and place unnecessary fixed protection. BTW I don't imply that removing holds to make things more difficult since making things more difficult by modification is the same as making them easier. It's just relative to ability, easier or harder.

For me to claim that the "only way" to climb is to do without chalk, certain holds, etc seems to me a reductio ad absurdum but from an environmental ethics standpoint, it doesn't matter either way, as long as the non-alteration principle is followed. In the realm of competitive bouldering however, and even in sport climbing, such judgments of difficulty do matter and are made all the time. Are they culturally contingent? Perhaps but I think speaking broadly, using bolting versus chipping as an example, many climbers accept that bolting has a legitimate safety function (utility) where chipping and gluing do not. Necessity guides the former, choosing the weaker alternative guides the latter. And even where bolts are not allowed, say gritstone, the alteration principle is adhered to by environmentally nugatory practices such as toproping a route to learn the moves. Again, is this contingent? In practice, it seems to me that at the heart of this is the alteration principle.

My primary concern is not competitive ethics per se but their relationship to environmental ethics. My worry is how competitive ethics can drive climbers to make dubious decisions that can affect the environment and then have their supporters make claims of hypocrisy against critics of those actions. Especially problematic is the notion that high difficulty routes justify irreversible environmental damage.

I seem to recall that one of the issues that was left open in your essay on chipping was what would prevent climbers from going ahead and modifying established routes to suit their abilities. Was there any standard that would restrain climbers from acting on that impulse? Can you address that?

Peter Beal said...

Alan, as someone who has removed lichen myself, I would be loathe to condemn out of hand the practice. However, the closer you follow the "Leave No Trace/No Alteration" principle the better off the ethical result. And maybe some climbs should just be left alone. Maybe another option is an Aristotelian Golden Mean approach. A climb that is purely natural being unlikely, what is the best balance between wholesale alteration and being left alone? Given the purely discretionary recreational aspect of climbing, we should probably be leaning toward the latter.

Following utility, could we argue that a large tree shelters more organisms and its absence has a greater impact on the surroundings than a narrow swath of lichen? Environmentally it may be desirable to concentrate climbers in small compact areas and not disperse them out into less-visited sites. Bolted anchors to preserve trees and minimize cliff-top biomes make a lot of sense to me. Either way, there ought to be a more public discussion about this kind of action. Climbing is no longer under the radar.

Unknown said...

The strongest chord struck by your post, at least to my mind, is your mention of the ad hominem statements made by a surprising number of moral relativists, particularly, of course, in online forums. In an actual conversation the people making these statement would most likely realize they were in error if forced to reason their statements out to their logical endpoints.

I absolutely agree that competitive ethics cloud judgement with regard to other concerns, environmental or otherwise. I've fairly recently had an argument with someone wanting to remove a tree to establish a route. The tree certainly precludes any lead ascent of the route. I toproped the route and judged the climbing to be good, but it didn't sway my judgment that removal of the tree was too high a price to pay. Some of the justifying arguments used by the person equipping the route were ones you mentioned: High number of trees in the area, utility trumping other concerns, etc. Even though the route is nowhere near the most difficult nor is it even of the highest quality relative to other routes in the area, the logic still prevails in the mind of the person establishing it.

It does make me ask myself: is there a type of route that would make me consider aggressive tactics like tree removal? Would my own sense of ethics waver in the face of obsession? As has been said, It's important for us to constantly question our motivations in re how they affect our environment and those around us. I found Joe's apology, for instance, as somewhat of an underhanded justification for his actions despite whatever he intended. That said, I wonder if it also indicates that he's at least considering the ethical impacts of his actions or whether he's simply saving face. It seems hard to convince a younger generation that the pursuit of 'radness' is not justification for a scorched earth approach to environmental ethics, but that's perhaps what needs to be attempted.

Owensum said...

This is a very important conversation, thanks Peter for weighing in on it. I have one comment:

"There is no point in climbing something that has been altered to suit your abilities"

First - you can't tell people how they should feel about something.

Second - many people, for better or worse, feel that an "altered" climb can still be a lot of fun, and much more fun than in its unaltered state. Therefore I don't think you can make this statement.

Oftentimes the route is not altered to suit someones abilities, but instead to make it more pleasurable. Building a landing, trimming/chopping trees or comfortizing holds are done largely to improve the enjoyability, not difficulty, of a climb.

Bill Ramsey said...


I agree it is a good idea to find a starting point for discussion,I just think that in articulating that starting point, we want to be as careful as possible. I think a good starting point is to find common ground, and then move from there, seeing what is entailed by things we all agree upon. For example, here are two principles I think that most responsible people agree upon that are relevant to the recent incident: 1) In developing climbs, people should not do things that are illegal or that could get an area shut down by land managers. 2) In developing climbs, people from other areas should try hard to adhere to the local standards, attitudes, norms, etc. These strike me as so universally accepted that they make at least one good starting point for ethical discussions. People can then move outward and see where they disagree, or if certain claims are inconsistent with these basic norms.

As Joe readily admits, his mistake was in failing to follow these two principles when he cut down the tree. But I think he has done an admirable job, at least recently, of expressing remorse, apologizing, and trying to make up for it. So he did something wrong, but he also exhibited something right in the way he dealt with it. By contrast, I found the level of vitriol expressed on-line ethically worse than the transgression of cutting down the tree. This is something that I find really disturbing about on-line culture. I think it was that unwarranted hostility that many of Joe’s defenders were responding to.

A more technical note about ethics, and environmental ethics: It is important not to confuse these two ideas: 1) Relativism – right and wrong are relative to what we think, and there are no objective facts of the matter about what someone should do. Environmental ethical norms are like fashion norms – they are based on nothing other than what we or a given community prefers. 2) Situational objectivism – there is indeed something objective about a given act that makes it ethically right or wrong (it is not simply a matter of what we think), but that objective feature can vary in different situations, and hence the rightness of the act can vary. So, for example, Utilitarians and even some deontologists (though not Kant) would claim that lying in some situations is objectively wrong because of the harm it can cause (lying about your credentials as a doctor) whereas lying in other situations is objectively right because of the good it will promote (lying to the Nazi’s about the Jews you are hiding in your basement). This is relevant climbing ethics because the rule “Adhere to the local principles and attitudes when developing a route” entails that in some cases cutting down a tree for a climb can be (objectively) ethically acceptable (where the locals accept tree removal as a normal part of route development) whereas in other areas it would be objectively wrong (i.e., the Sierras).

Bill Ramsey said...

As for the point about the modification of existing routes, I’m surprised this is considered an open issue. First, the only sort of modification I endorsed in my chipping article was modifying the rock to make something possible. Now I don’t want to rehash the whole issue about how we know what is possible. I just want to point out that that principle would rule out the modification of an existing problem. Why? Because we know it is possible in its current state – it has been climbed. Second, I do think there is something to the idea that a route or even a boulder problem is something like a contribution, presented to the climbing community by the person doing the first ascent. That contribution should be honored and respected by the community. The climber who puts it up conceptualized the line and has greater authority about how it should go. This is a prima facie reason not to modify an existing route or problem in any way, especially by adding holds. Now this outlook can certainly admit of exceptions -- say, the bolts on a route are in a really bad or dangerous place and ought to be moved. But even in those exceptional cases, the person who climbed it first should probably be consulted. I can’t imagine a scenario where it would be appropriate for someone to chip holds on something that already goes.

OK, now back to less fun work!!

Bradley Carter said...

I think it is safe to say that because it was a climbing, "celebrity" who cut down a tree the reaction has been incredibly overzealous. I'm not defending Kinder's act, but if you've done much climbing development you know that you have to alter the environment at least a little bit. Kinder's highly visible image as a climber, developer, and gear spokesperson was essentially a giant bullseye on his back when it came to this issue.

Tree's are cut down all over the world all time, the reaction of folks who sent Kinder threats and viscous comments would do well to get half as upset at something with a little more environmental impact. Climbing has impacts. No doubt. We have surely affected animal populations who nest and live on cliffsides. That doesn't get discussed much, as an example. Yet, as a user group climbers do a better job overall than just about any outdoor group I can think of. There are exceptions, Everest, high use sport climbing and bouldering areas, guide heavy routes, but climbing is still less impacting than say golf.

Again, I wouldn't have cut down a full grown cedar tree just to put up a route but I also wouldn't use it as an opportunity to try to bring down somebody because they are famous and made a mistake. Which is what happened. I think his defenders are maybe confusing this argument.

sean said...

the categorical imperitive says, effectively, that we ought not impose on others those things that we would not do ourselves. ethics is the study of right and wrong, the origin of which is not at the dawn of man, but culture and probably had something to do with whats called the incest taboo, although the jury is still out. this thing that joe did has been done over and over again. the thing that makes joes actions stand out are because it was an old tree. if this was a hanging bark cedar or a douglas no one would have even noticed. i think all of this is ridiculous including an ethics lesson. he made a mistake that only matters because it was a juniper tree. the people who supported him throughout dont care about an ethics lesson or what utilitarianism or moral relativism are. they care that a person is receiving a lot of shit for an infraction that only matters because of the arbitrary designation of importance to something that we would usually just use for our benefit anyhow. this goes too far, all of it. and im an asshole for taking part at this point, but fuck it. he was trying to give something to our sport, he made a mistake, he apologized and is now a better person for it.

John said...

A principle that has been demonstrated to be false cannot serve as a proper or productive starting point for ethical analysis. Ramsey has pointed out one fatal flaw of the "alteration principle." Bolts make sport climb easier which is a function of their mere presence as well as quantity and location. Bolts required a deep hole to be bored into the rock so they necessarily violate the "alteration principle," as defined. So, a different approach must be taken if one is to argue cogently for such a position. I haven't heard of a plausible one yet. Such a principle could possibly work in context of traditional climbing, but not in sport.

justin said...

I think a good starting point is that in climbing I beleive we are fundamentally seeking a challenge in which we are forced to adapt to something else as opposed to adapt something to us, since this forces growth within us. I think this in turn implies as much of a minimalist approach toward impact/development as possible.

The "not adapting something to us" part is of course subjective since unless we climb everything as is whilst walking daintily through the woods to the cliff, some human adaptation has taken place. Its all about how much adaptation you allow yourself while still being able to reasonably justify that you are having an experience in which you are "not adapting something to you".

Of course everyone will have a different opinion of whats acceptable, but nonetheless I think this is generally the logic under which most of us operate since I think it explains why outright hold creation is generally considered a blatant violation whereas cleaning the moss/lichen from the useable parts of the rock, getting rid of loose rocks, all the grey area that comes with developing less than perfect rock, bolts on otherwise unprotectable faces, bolted anchors/rappels, etc seem to be less controversial overall.

Unknown said...

'Ethics' is central to climbing?! Is this the hunger games? Lol. No one is living, dying or being exploited. What other sport has ethics? Ethics is a misused name for what is 'best practices' in climbing.

The rock is not alive and does not have feelings, even the Buddhists agree on this. Bolting, comfortizing and chipping do to make the rock dry, it makes trustafarians cry.

to say that chipping is wrong but chalk has no impact is just silly. Chalk is only invisible to climbers, while a chipped hold is like raping an 8 year old.

Climbers and their 'ethics' need to seriously get over themselves.

justin said...

Except chuff, places like climbing, where as you point out the stakes are quite low in terms of direct real world consequences from any given decision, are where ethics are properly explored and hashed out. The discussions considering ethics in situations such as climbing can inform ethical decision making in a much broader and high stakes context. So, in short, yes, on some level arguing about the "ethics" of climbing, or sports in general, or just the "ethics" behind the decisions of any public figure, have some very intrinsic value. Do you ever wonder why your politicians are allowed to act like such children?