Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (=SA)

It’s Not My Fault

Global Warming (=GW) and Individual Moral Obligation



2.      No individual moral obligation to avoid (such env unfriendly things as) driving a gas guzzling SUV for fun

         a.      It is not immoral to do so

3.      Allows that wasteful driving might not be morally best in other ways

         a.      Allows it is morally better or morally ideal to not wastefully drive (should praise those who don’t waste gas)

         b.      Might be justified in publically condemning wasteful driving in general

         c.      Perhaps these people should feel guilty and ashamed (if do these things regularly)

                   i.       And bring up children to have same moral emotions

         d.      But no individual moral obligation not to wastefully drive

                   i.       Can’t justifiably accuse someone of violating a moral obligation when they wastefully drive

4.      Questions:

         a.      If one should feel guilty, does it not follow that is because one failed to do what one ought to do (=?had a moral obligation to do)?

         b.      Is his idea that avoiding this behavior is not obligatory but “supererogatory” (=morally good, but above and beyond the call of duty)?

         c.      Should one feel guilty for failing to act in a supererogatory manner?

5.      Moral obligations we do have

         a.      U.S. has special moral obligation to help mitigate and adapt to CC

         b.      Individuals have a moral obligation to get governments to carry out their obligations

6.      GW is such a large problem that it is not individuals who cause it or who need to fix it; Governments need to

         a.      *Environmentalists should focus their efforts on those who are not doing their jobs (government), rather than those who drive wastefully

7.      Individual action/clean hands not enough (or required?)

         a.      Mistake to think withdrawing into simple life enough

         b.      Not enough to simply buy fuel efficient cars, insulate homes, set up own personal windmill

         c.      For it does little or nothing to stop GW

         d.      Good to keep one’s hands clean (by using very little fossil fuels) but not enough

         e.      Does he think it enough to work hard to get government to address CC? (No need in addition to limit one’s own use?)

8.      Does not fulfill our real moral obligations: To get government to do its job to prevent disaster of GW

         a.      Need to do things like work for political candidates who would change policies

         b.      Better to enjoy Sunday drive while working to change law so it is illegal to drive on Sunday

9.      Is it hypocritical to argue for a policy/law that would prevent you from doing something you continue to do?

         a.      Example: Is it wrong to accept a tax break one thinks should not exist?

                   i.       To not accept it does not change the policy and involves taking a loss that produces no gain

                            (1)    Is it true there is no gain? Perhaps there is a small, imperceptible gain, even though policy not changed

         b.      Example: Federally subsidized flood insurance?

         c.      Isn’t this a rational thing to do in tragedy of commons situations?

         d.      See below (#40?) Do we have a moral obligation avoid performing an action if it ought to be illegal? (SA says no)

10.    Things individual might do if government fails to address GW

         a.      Protest bad government policies

         b.      Vote for candidates who will make government fulfill its obligation

         c.      Support private organizations that fight GW

         d.      Boycott companies that contribute too much to GW

         e.      Not engage in wasteful driving

         f.       Each case is different, focuses on last



12.    Perhaps it’s our obligation to lessen our contribution to CC in some significant way (fewer hot showers, ride bike instead of drive, keep heat lower)?

13.    Perhaps its our obligation to do something significant in response to CC?

         a.      Like promoting government CC policies by writing letters, making calls, contributing funds to environmental groups, boycotting big CC polluters

         b.      “Obligation to be part of solution not just part of problem

14.    Can financial contributions, or working for GW policies, substitute for lessening our GW footprint?

15.    Is it worse to wastefully drive than to fail to do these other things?

         a.      Are any of these more important?

         b.      Sinnott-Armstrong argues that political action is more important

16.    Possible critique of SA’s position: *Do his arguments allowing wasteful driving (claiming not violating an obligation) also allow political inaction?                           

         a.      I fear that his arguments that green living is ineffectual also apply to green politics, and if no obligation to do the first (because will do no good), then no obligation to do the second (also do no good, and cause no harm if don’t act)



18.    Collective obligations do not always entail individual obligations

         a.      That your government ought to do something, does not prove that you ought to do it if government fails to do it

19.    Bridge example (individual obligation does not follow)

         a.      If a bridge is unsafe, government ought to fix it

         b.      If government does not, I have no obligation to fix it

         c.      I also have no obligation to fill in one crack even if its true that if everyone filled in one crack, the bridge would be fixed

         d.      I have an obligation to encourage the government to fulfil its obligations

                   i.       I don’t have to take on those obligations myself

         e.      Worry: Let’s say bridge would fail and kill people if we didn’t fix it and it was practically easy for people to go and fill in one crack (and if most/all did, bridge would be fixed and people saved); not clear to me we do not violate our moral obligation if we don’t do our fair share (or perhaps even more?)






22.    Does wasteful driving harm someone? (No)

         a.      I would be harming someone if my driving forced one person to breath all my exhaust, if I didn’t drive he wouldn’t be harmed

         b.      GW not like that

         c.      It will occur even if I don’t drive for fun

         d.      Even if I drove my guzzler for long time GW won’t occur unless lots of others also expel GHG

23.    Is this a response to Singer’s and Caney’s suggestions that we are killing people and violating their rights by our ordinary everyday activities?

         a.      How can we be killing them if they would die whether or not we drive our cars?


24.    Individual act of wasteful driving neither necessary (required) nor sufficient (enough) for GW

25.    Still, sometimes act can harm even if not necessary or sufficient for the harm

         a.      Example: Help push car over cliff

                   i.       Takes 3 people to push car off cliff (person inside) and 5 people already pushing

                   ii.      If I join, I cause harm to the person, even though my act is not necessary nor sufficient for that harm

                   iii.     Because I intend harm and my act is unusual

26.    Acts not necessary or sufficient for a result cause harm only when act is unusual and harm intended

27.    What makes something a cause (if not necessary or sufficent for effect)? Intention and unusualness (p.335)

         a.      If one intends harm that is a good reason to pick act out of all background circumstances and call it a cause

         b.      If the act is unusual, then reason to call it a cause

                   i.       Strike match, presence of oxygen, which causes the fire?

                   ii.      Both necessary conditions, neither sufficient (enough)

                   iii.     Striking match is the cause because unusual

28.    Since person who joy rides neither intends to cause GW nor acts in unusual way, should not see it as a cause of GW or GW’s harms


29.    Worries about above argument

         a.      Intention is not necessary to be responsible (a cause); knowledge that one is contributing to this result is enough

                   i.       I might be pushing the car to get exercise, not to kill the person, but I am responsible for the result and a cause of person’s death

                   ii.      I might be joy riding for fun, not to cause global warming, but I know I am contributing to this result, so I am responsible (hence a cause)

                   iii.     Time lag: One difference between helping to push the car over the cliff and helping to causing CC is the time lag

                            (1)    So there is uncertainty and opportunity for others to intervene and stop the harm

                            (2)    So it is like helping pushing car down a very long hill before the cliff and thinking there are always people who might intervene to stop the car or maybe the car won’t make it to the cliff?

         b.      Unusualness of act is not necessary for actor to be responsible (a cause)

                   i.       Slave ownership was not unusual

                   ii.      Still they were the cause of wrong/harm, even if not unusual

                   iii.     SA response: Slave ownership is sufficient to cause harm and unusualness is only important to establish responsibility for causing harm when act is neither necessary nor sufficient for the harm

         c.      Environmental problems such that very usual, commonplace activities are causing lots of harm even though they are not intended to cause harm nor sufficient or necessary for the harm!

         d.      So is wasteful driving causing the harms of CC like being the 6th person to push a car off a cliff is causing them harm/death?


30.    River cyanide/flood examples

         a.      Contributing to GW not like pouring cyanide into river and later having someone drink some molecules of poison and dying

         b.      More like flood coming downstream and I pour a quart of water into it (because I don’t want to carry it)

                   i.       This does not cause the flood

                   ii.      But it contributes to it

                   iii.     And it is not as if the flood is independent of one’s activities; one’s GHG lifestyle is a partial (very small) cause of the flood

         c.      Counterexamples?

                   i.       Cyanide: Emitting GHG like everyone putting the tiniest bit of cyanide in the river and then someone drinks river water and gets sick?

                            (1)    Except cyanide is a poison, and CO2 is not

                   ii.      Flood: Emitting GHG like being one of millions of people who pour our extra quart of water in a river that is causing an ongoing flood that harms people downstream (in future)


31.    Emitting GHG is fine in small quantities; problem is only when massive quantities emitted; my wasteful driving does not cause massive quantities that are harmful

         a.      **No one will be helped if I deprive myself of joy ride (even lots of times)

         b.      So no one is hurt if I do this (even many times)?

         c.      Even if true that wasteful driving by one person causes temperature of globe to rise infinitesimally, this cause no CC:

                   i.       No storms or floods or heat waves can be traced to my individual act of driving

                   ii.      So it causes no harm to anyone


32.    Imperceptible harm? Claims wasteful driving is also not causing an “imperceptible harm”

         a.      Imperceptible harm examples

                   i.       Thousand men are dying of thirst and I take a drop of water from each so I can fill my squirt gun

                            (1)    This is a harm, though no one will notice, so it is imperceptible

                   ii.      (Like stealing a small item from a chain retailer; no shareholder will perceive the harm?)

                   iii.     Are these really harms?


33.    Sets bad example? Is wasteful driving a harm because it sets a bad example for others or undermines my own personal environmentalism? (No)

         a.      The scale of climate change is too big to for me to cause it even with “a little help from me friends”


34.    Should not make problems worse?

         a.      Moral obligation not to make problems worse and so we ought not wastefully drive because it make CC worse

         b.      But it does not make CC worse, CC just as bad if do not drive

         c.      CC is only worse if more people die or more animals hurt

         d.      But my driving will not lead to more people/animals being hurt

         e.      CC is on such a massive scale that my individual driving makes no difference to the welfare of anyone




36.    Expresses a vice?

         a.      Do we have a moral obligation not to wastefully drive because doing so expresses a vice and we ought not act in ways that express vice

         b.      Reply: Why a vice to drive for fun when doing so harms no one?


37.    ???World would be better if people acted on green virtues, such as moderation and love of nature

         a.      And wasteful driving fails in this regard

         b.      Reply: Yes, but this does not show we have a moral obligation not to wastefully drive

                   i.       There are other important moral issues besides moral obligations

                   ii.      Doesn’t mean they aren’t important

         c.      ****So is he allowing that the wasteful driver morally fails in ways other than violating a moral obligation?


38.    Do we have a moral obligation not to perform an action if it ought to be illegal?

         a.      Since wasteful driving or even having a gas guzzler ought to be illegal, we ought not drive them

         b.      Reply: False that it is wrong to do something that ought to be illegal

         c.      Examples:

                   i.       Gas tax: Government should raise gas taxes to reduce usage and fight CC

                            (1)    Doesn’t mean I should pay that tax now by sending a check to the government

                                      (a)     It would not help solve the problem          

                   ii.      Assume gas guzzlers should be illegal

                            (1)    Maybe I have an obligation to work to make them illegal

                            (2)    Doesn’t’ follow that I have a moral obligation not to own one (while they are legal)

                            (3)    Is this true? Flood insurance example


39.    Group principle: We have moral obligations not to perform an act when this makes us part of a group whose actions together cause harm

         a.      Replies: Begs question

         b.      Airport talking example

                   i.       Everyone is talking loudly at the airport and this results in such noise that some people miss their flights

                   ii.      Not wrong for me to talk loudly (to do what others do) as long as they are going to do it anyway, so the harm is going to occur anyway

         c.      Cash a $600 check from the government that everybody gets

                   i.       If everyone cashes it this will harm people (government programs for poor will have to be slashed)

                   ii.      But given that everyone else will cash the check and the harm will result in any case, no moral obligation not to cash your check


40.    General action principle: Ought not to perform an act when it would be worse for everyone to perform an act of that kind

         a.      Reply: Disastrous if everyone did not have children, but does not make it wrong if a particular individual decides not to

Questions on Sinnott-Armstrong (=SA), “It’s Not My Fault”


1.      What is it that SA claims we have no moral obligation to do? Does he think it would be morally good to do what we don’t have an obligation to do.

2.      What moral obligations concerning climate change (=CC) does he think we do have?

3.      Who should environmentalists be working on for behavior change?

4.      Does SA think individual actions and keeping one’s hands clean is an important response to CC?

5.      Is it hypocritical to argue for a policy/law that would prevent you from doing what you continue to do? Explore using an example.

6.      Does SA think we have a moral obligation not to perform an action if it ought to be illegal? Give examples. What do you think about this claim?

7.      Is it more important to work for political change on CC than to lessen one’s own CC footprint? Or is it the reverse? Or equally important?

8.      Do SA’s arguments claiming we have no obligation to avoid wasting gas also show we have no obligation to work politically to try to prevent CC?

9.      What does SA think about the claim that collective obligations entail individual obligations? Use his bridge example.

10.    Why does SA think wasteful driving will not harm anyone? Is he right? Does this show that we are not killing anyone or violating their rights by wasteful driving? What do you think?

11.    Give SA’s example of an action that is neither necessary (required) nor sufficient (enough) for a harmful result any yet we still rightfully identified it as a cause of that result (helping to cause the harm). In response to the charge that wasteful driving is causing the harms of GW in the same way, he claims that causes must be either intentional or unusual, and wasteful driving is neither. Explain his argument here.

12.     What is SA’s response to the claim that wasteful driving is harmful: Because it sets a bad example? Because it makes the problem worse?

13.    Use SA’s airport example, to explain what he thinks of this claim: We have moral obligations not to perform an act when this makes us part of a group whose actions together cause harm.

14.    What is SA’s counterexample to the claim that “we ought not to perform an act when it would be worse for everyone to perform an act of that kind”?