The primacy of individual freedoms over responsibilities: Climate change, moral disengagement and the motivational gap

Wouter Peeters

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


In complex global dynamics such as climate change, individual agency appears to be subsumed in a way that generate doubts about treating the individual as primary locus of responsibility (Scheffler 1995). Indeed, climate change lacks the urgency of a paradigm moral problem, since it is 'not a matter of a clearly identifiable individual acting intentionally so as to inflict an identifiable harm on another identifiable individual, closely related in time and space' (Jamieson 2010: 436-437).

However, this seems only part of the story: we will argue that the doubts about individual agency do not excuse the greenhouse gases emitted to attain luxuries. Rather, these arguments correspond to strategies of moral disengagement, which alters the perception of one's conduct and its outcomes, thereby allowing emitters to continue to emit greenhouse gases without having to accept moral responsibility for climate-related harms. The complexity of climate change appears to be rather convenient for those emitters since it facilitates this form of moral corruption (Gardiner 2011: 48).

Although these explanations for the motivational gap - that is, the inadequacy of our moral framework and moral corruption through moral disengagement - are complementary, the main focus will be on illustrating the second and discussing two motives for moral corruption. First, emitters might perceive the burdens involved in tackling climate change as overly demanding. Nonetheless, the aggregative economic costs of mitigation and adaptation in fact turn out to be manageable. Moreover, luxury emissions can easily be reduced without compromising quality of life, let alone basic rights (Caney 2009; Shue 1999). Since many emitters have not even taken the most readily available actions, and in view of the potentially severe climate-related harms, it seems rather inappropriate to invoke demandingness as a rationale for inaction.

More fundamentally, the motivational gap can be traced to what can be called the primacy of individual freedoms over responsibilities. According to the dominant social paradigm, freedoms - and especially those regarding wealth accumulation and profligate, consumerist lifestyles - have gained an apparently unassailable status in people's lives. Accepting moral responsibility for the harms related to climate change and other issues of global justice would not only constrain self-interested pursuits, but more profoundly, it would unsettle the primacy of individual freedoms and challenge the social paradigm. It should therefore not surprise that especially economically and politically powerful elites resort to moral disengagement in order to shun such moral responsibility.

Caney, S. (2009). Climate change and the future: Discounting for time, wealth, and risk. Journal of Social Philosophy 40 (2). 163-186.
Gardiner, S. (2011). A perfect moral storm. The ethical tragedy of climate change. Oxford: University Press.
Jamieson, D. (2010). Climate change, responsibility, and justice. Science and Engineering Ethics, 16. 431-445.
Scheffler, S. (1995). Individual responsibility in a global age. Social Philosophy and Policy 12 (1). 219-236.
Shue, H. (1999). Bequeathing hazards: Security rights and property rights of future humans. In M. Dore and T. Mount (eds.) Global environmental economics: Equity and the limits to markets. Oxford: Blackwell. 38-53.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationFinal Conference – ESF ENRI Rights to a Green Future
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventESF Rights to a Green Future final conference - Soesterberg, Netherlands
Duration: 28 Oct 201431 Oct 2014


ConferenceESF Rights to a Green Future final conference


  • climate change
  • individual responsibility
  • agency
  • moral disengagement
  • motivational gap


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