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.