Professors in Profile: Quentin Gee

Photo by Irene Chen

Irene Chen

Professor Quentin Gee, who currently teaches in both the Philosophy and Environmental Studies departments at the University of California, Santa Barbara, originally came to the school as a graduate student studying philosophy.

During his time here, he began to develop an interest in the environment and environmental ethics, which served as a “springboard for other issues of interest, particularly energy and climate change,” Gee said. He believes energy and climate change have their own relationships to ethics and environmental philosophy.

There are various avenues he has been able to explore, Gee said in an interview with The Bottom Line. These avenues stem from his initial exploration of the ethics of climate change and the need for renewable energy.

One of his favorite classes that he has taught at UCSB has been ES 115: Energy and the Environment, which “touches on many ethical, policy, and scientific issues” within environmental ethics. Gee says that “this class, in particular, is of interest to [him] because it helps students to understand the scope of the problem… but also helps them discover ways to solve these problems.”

Currently, Gee also teaches ES 106: Critical Thinking About Human-Environmental Problems and Solutions, which he has “built from the ground up… in consultation and consideration of what other professors have done over the years it has been taught.” The class has allowed him to “carve his own unique path,” offering students different ways to understand environmental problems and solutions, frame environmental phenomena, and study the role of human cognition in responding to environmental harms.

Gee’s interest in environmental ethics centers around the “environmental implications and ethical responsibilities we have,” as well as the way “harms are diffused over a large population.” He cites the example of coal pollution: “While pollution from a coal plant increases everyone’s risk of having cardiac events… you can’t point to a single person and say with certainty that they had a heart attack because of the pollution.”

Gee believes this is an interesting ethical problem for us to consider because “it’s difficult to attribute these harms to specific individuals” and gives rise to the question: “morally, how do we deal with increases in risk associated with harms as opposed to a harm directly?”

Initially, Gee’s research in philosophy explored topics including political philosophy, ethical theory, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science. Gee also began to research energy systems and food systems—in particular, their relationships to climate change, which is one of the overarching environmental issues that concerns him.

His dissertation focuses on organizational behavior and ethical implications of organizational behavior. Gee contends that “groups of people can end up making decisions that are not necessarily the exact same as the individuals themselves would make. Thus, the group, taken as a group, can be thought of as an agent in its own right.”

In Gee’s dissertation, he argues and defends the view that group agency is a “legitimate phenomenon” and applies it to the case of ethical decision making and whether these groups can be considered moral agents.

Gee asserts that “while groups that are structured properly can be moral agents, they can’t be moral patients—that is, they can’t be recipients of significant moral harms, and only the individuals that comprise them are the recipients of harms.” Thus, while these groups have moral responsibilities, “they don’t have any moral rights, and any rights they have are thought of as the rights the individuals themselves have.”

Gee’s post graduate research on food systems centers around the “benefits of utilizing more plant based foods in the food system, because of the high carbon impact associated with animal products,” and the health and overall impact of a plant based diet compared to an omnivorous diet.

On energy systems, Gee has studied “pollution from fossil fuel sources and the impacts associated with it,” as well as renewable energy and energy efficiency options, such as heat pumps, which he describes as an “air conditioner in reverse” that is more efficient than a gas furnace or electrical heater; he currently has a manuscript in the works discussing this energy efficient alternative.

Overall, Gee believes that his studies have “made [him] someone who’s much more open to the gray areas in the world, as opposed to thinking about things in either black or white.” Environmental ethics has allowed him to realize that “there’s a lot of ambiguity in the world and to understand with clarity” where those ambiguous points are.

Gee believes that while he’s “not as confident in the things [he] believed or believes now, [he] can understand specific reasons for not being as confident in this view or being more confident in that view.”