The motivational gap in climate change: Moral judgement, competing motives and moral disengagement

Wouter Peeters

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


Even though climate change clearly constitutes a severe threat to humankind, response to it is characterized by inaction on all levels. There are two explanations for this motivational gap. First, our moral judgement system appears to be unable to identify the complex problem of climate change as moral imperative that motivates action. The second explains the motivational gap with reference to people’s external motives that compete with and override people’s motivation to comply with their moral judgement.

In this paper, we argue that the first explanation, though apparently more favoured in climate ethics, is incomplete. In fact, both explanations are complementary: the inherent complexity of climate change indeed obscures moral judgement, providing people with the latitude to reconstruct their contribution to climate change and to reduce the moral intensity of the problem. These strategies of moral disengagement allow people to maintain their materialistic lifestyle without having to accept responsibility for the resultant harms.

The insights regarding the relationship between the two explanations and the role of moral disengagement inform our efforts to address the motivational gap. We discuss three broad strategies to increase people’s motivation to tackle climate change. First, we should enhance people’s moral judgement through more accurately situating their agency and invoking alternative values. Second, the force of competing motives can be reduced by encouraging people to evaluate and reconsider their self-interested motives. Third, we argue that the propensity for moral disengagement should itself be tackled as well.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationClimate change, policy and responsibilities. An interdisciplinary conference
Publication statusPublished - 2015
EventClimate change, policy and responsibilities. An Interdisciplinary Conference - University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom
Duration: 22 Jul 201523 Jul 2015


ConferenceClimate change, policy and responsibilities. An Interdisciplinary Conference
CountryUnited Kingdom


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