The limits of common-sense morality: The phenomenology of individual agency in climate change

Wouter Peeters

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingMeeting abstract (Book)

Abstract

In his seminal 1995 essay Individual responsibility in a global age, Samuel Scheffler argues that the political, economic and institutional developments on the global level erode our confidence in the restrictive conception of individual responsibility embodied by common-sense moral thought. According to this conception, negative duties have priority over positive duties, and individuals have distinctive responsibilities towards those to whom they stand in special relationships, as opposed to strangers. Moreover, in conventional practice, the individual is treated as primary locus of responsibility. These restrictions serve to limit the scope of morality, and to protect agents against unduly demanding duties and responsibilities.

Many of the doubts regarding the applicability of common-sense morality in global dynamics (such as climate change) are related to the phenomenology of agency by which common-sense morality is supported. This is the characteristic way of experiencing ourselves as agents with causal powers, according to which acts have primacy over omissions, near effects have primacy over remote effects, and individual effects have primacy over group effects. Whereas this phenomenology sufficed to guide human action in small communities and small-scale interactions, it seems to be increasingly inadequate to situate individual agency in relation to the more recent global dynamics.

In view of this phenomenology, there are pervasive doubts about individual agency in climate change. Consequently, common-sense morality appears to be ill-suited to deliver a solid moral judgment about the responsibility for remedying climate change that fully covers its complexity. We lack robust theories in the relevant areas.

However, substantive, non-restrictive conceptions of responsibility (such as consequentialism and certain human rights accounts) remain controversial. Therefore, in this paper, we will attempt to determine exactly the extent to which common-sense morality is able to guide human action and where or when it fails us with respect to climate change. We will argue that although the doubts about individual agency in climate change are to some extent legitimate, they have also become overly emphasized. Although common-sense morality is ultimately inadequate, it does allow for the assignment of a substantial part of the remedial burdens involved in tackling climate change. Finally, we will tentatively discuss some suggestions regarding a more robust yet feasible alternative to the restrictive conception of individual responsibility embodied by common-sense morality that takes legitimate concerns from the duty-bearer perspective seriously.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationVI Meetings on Ethics and Political Philosophy
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventVI Meetings on ethics and political philosophy - Universidade do Minho, Braga, Armenia
Duration: 8 Jul 20159 Jul 2015

Conference

ConferenceVI Meetings on ethics and political philosophy
CountryArmenia
CityBraga
Period8/07/159/07/15

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