Articles for Env Phil papers




Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “It’s Not My Fault,”in Gardner, pp. 332-346 in Stephen Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, & Henry Shue, Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (Oxford, 2010)

Joakim Sandberg “My Emissions Make No Difference”: Climate Change and the Argument from Inconsequentialism
Going Green but Getting Nowhere
Do Individual Acts Help Save the Planet?

Ethical Obligations in a Tragedy of the Commons

Baylor L. Johnson

Environmental Values 12(2003): 271-287. doi: 10.3197/096327103129341324

When people use a resource without a co-ordinated plan the result is often a tragedy of the commons in which the resource is depleted. Many environmental resources display the characteristics of a developing tragedy of the commons. Many believe that each person is ethically obligated to reduce use of the commons to the sustainable level. I argue that this is mistaken. In a tragedy of the commons there is no reasonable expectation that individual, voluntary action will succeed. Our obligation is not fruitlessly to reduce individual use, but to support a collective agreement to reduce everyone's use to the sustainable level.

Climate, Collective Action and Individual Ethical Obligations

Marion Hourdequin

Environmental Values 19 (2010): 443-464. doi: 10.3197/096327110X531552


Both Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Baylor Johnson hold that under current circumstances, individuals lack obligations to reduce their personal contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Johnson argues that climate change has the structure of a tragedy of the commons, and that there is no unilateral obligation to reduce emissions in a commons. Against Johnson, I articulate two rationales for an individual obligation to reduce one's greenhouse gas emissions. I first discuss moral integrity, which recommends congruence between one's actions and positions at the personal and political levels. Second, I draw on a Confucian, relational conception of persons to offer a critique of the collective action/tragedy of the commons framework itself. Under the relational conception, commons problems can be reconceptualised so as to dissolve the stark contrast between the individually and the collectively rational. This perspective can inform our approach to climate change and help reconcile individual and political action to mitigate it.

The Possibility of a Joint Communiqué: My Response to Hourdequin

Baylor Johnson

Environmental Values 20 (2011): 147-156. doi: 10.3197/096327111X12997574391580


This article is a response to Marion Hourdequin, 'Climate, Collective Action and Individual Ethical Obligations', Environmental Values 19 (2010): 443-464. As Hourdequin argues, we have an obligation to reduce our individual emissions of greenhouse gases. This obligation is not, however, to reduce to the level that would be sustainable if everyone else did likewise. We are obligated to make limited reductions in the service of our primary obligation to organise and embrace collective schemes to ensure that everyone reduces emissions and that benefits to the environment are proportionate to the sacrifices made. She and I can agree on the existence of an obligation if she recognises that there is a fundamental difference between the obligations we have to avoid individually harmful actions and our obligations in a tragedy of the commons.

Climate Change and Individual Responsibility: A Reply to Johnson

Marion Hourdequin

Environmental Values 20 (2011): 157-162. doi: 10.3197/096327111X12997574391643


Can unilateral action be an effective response to global climate change? Baylor Johnson worries that a focus on unilateral action by individuals will detract from efforts to secure collective agreements to address the problem. Although Johnson and I agree that individuals have some obligation to reduce their personal emissions, we differ in the degree to which we see personal reductions as effective in spurring broader change. I argue that 'unilateral reductions' can have communicative value and that they can change the structure of collective action problems, making such problems easier to solve. Since collective action problems are much less tractable where individuals abide by the tenets of traditional game theory and much more tractable where individuals are oriented to cooperate and to trust that others will reciprocate, we need moral norms that promote individual restraint in exploitation of the commons, and we ought ourselves to abide by those norms.


Bystanding and Climate Change

Carol Booth

Environmental Values 21 (2012): 397-416. doi: 10.3197/096327112X13466893627987


Most normative advice to individuals about what they should do to help prevent climate change focuses on reductions in personal emissions. This is consistent with an accountancy model of morality, with perpetrators held responsible for the harms they individually cause. An alternative focus receiving less popular and philosophical attention, but with greater potential to achieve substantial mitigation outcomes, is citizen activism for systemic reforms. Rather than perpetration (consisting of negligible contributions to climate change) priority moral concern can be directed to bystanding (as political passivity facilitating preventable and potentially catastrophic harms). To more effectively guide action, reformist ethics need to be informed by psychosociological research on motivation and societal transformation.


Bearing the Weight of the World: On the Extent of an Individual’s Environmental Responsibility

Ty Raterman

Environmental Values 21 (2012): 417-436. doi: 10.3197/096327112X13466893628021


To what extent is any individual morally obligated to live environmentally sustainably? In answering this, I reject views I see as constituting two extremes. On one, it depends entirely on whether there exists a collective agreement; and if no such agreement exists, no one is obligated to reduce her/his consumption or pollution unilaterally. On the other, the lack of a collective agreement is morally irrelevant, and regardless of what others are doing, each person is obligated to limit her/his pollution and consumption to a level that would be sustainable if everyone were to act in this way. I argue that the truth is somewhere between these, but that a very precise specification of the extent of one’s responsibility is impossible. Roughly, what can be said is that each individual ought constantly to strive to do more than she/he does currently and to push her/himself into new, uncomfortable territory, though no one is obligated to martyr her/himself for an environmental cause.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “It’s Not My Fault,”in Gardner, pp. 332-346 in Stephen Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson, & Henry Shue, Climate Ethics: Essential Readings (Oxford, 2010)