4: Responsibility Beyond Morality


We ended the previous chapter by concluding that the difference which no one is too small to make must be a matter of helping to dislodge the assumption of self-interested action which underpins the collective-action dilemma. Unfortunately, appealing from self-interest to moral responsibility fails to escape the essence of this dilemma. The trouble is that the disparity between action and climate effect remains in force to prevent morality from getting any real grip here.

At first blush that seems counter-intuitive – surely the moral issues in this area are starkly clear? Whatever sense it makes in general to attach moral predicates to a collective entity (unsurprisingly, a contested point in social philosophy), it must be taken for the purposes of this book as perfectly intelligible to say that Western-style civilization, in persisting with its high-carbon ways of living while knowing what it ought by now to know about their consequences for climate and biosphere, is acting with gross irresponsibility. Indeed, attributions of climate irresponsibility to anything other than a large enough collective entity would be unintelligible, since only of such a collective does the claim that its actions are jeopardizing the climate even make sense. Again, however contested might be the issue of irresponsibility towards what – the question of whether an extensionist environmental ethics which talks about duties to threatened species or to the biosphere itself makes sense – it surely cannot be denied that future people, at least, are being thereby treated irresponsibly, nor moreover (as emphasized in the Introduction) that some of those who will suffer serious future adversity from such dealings are already alive.

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