In the monthly "Ethical Inquiry" series, we examine ethical questions, highlighting a broad array of opinion from journalism, academia, and advocacy organizations. Our intent is to illuminate and explore the complexity of some of the most vexing ethical questions of our time.

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Ethical Inquiry: February 2010

Who Bears Responsibility for the Environment?

Yoon animals
Artwork by Hoseob Yoon

This spring the Ethics Center is taking part in a year of activities designed to raise awareness on the Brandeis campus about climate change and the choices we make with regard to the environment. In this installment of Ethical Inquiry, we explore the opportunities and obligations of individuals and institutions to positively impact the environment.

Can an Individual Make a Difference?

Many of us take some sort of action to help preserve the environment or the climate – we might switch off lights when we leave the room or drive a hybrid vehicle. And each of us can probably think of more actions we could take. Indeed, many of us have probably seen lists like this one from the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Ten Personal Solutions to Global Warming,” that suggest ways to help. But can an individual make a meaningful difference, or are individual actions just drops in the pond?

The scale of the problem (See the “Data Store” website from The Guardian) might lead us to be rather pessimistic about the potential positive impact an individual can have.

Such pessimism is not just a morale problem; it might also serve as the root of a philosophical argument against the duty of the individual to the environment. According to the principle that “ought implies can” (subscription may be required to access link), often cited by moral philosophers, if a person lacks the ability to do something, she cannot be obliged to act. If it is the case that individuals cannot make a difference with respect to the environment, then the ‘ought implies can’ principle suggests that individuals have no obligation to act in environmentally responsible ways.

light switchHowever, philosophers also cite a principle called “Pascal’s Wager.” Pascal’s Wager suggests that, when we can make a choice that ‘costs’ us little or nothing, but which has a likelihood of contributing to a greater good, we ought to make that choice. Though originally developed as an argument in favor of belief in God (contending that belief costs almost nothing in comparison to eternal salvation), we can transpose Pascal’s Wager to inform our environmental decisions: if we can make small lifestyle changes at little or no cost (e.g. switching off lights), even if we cannot be assured of their impact, we may still have reason to make these changes.

Furthermore, recent research on the effects of social networks suggests that our individual actions may have greater impact than we realize. In their recent book Connected: The Suprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, (New York Times Sunday Book Review, 2009) authors Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler show that our actions can impact not only our friends, but even the friends of friends – people whom we will never influence graphic

Christakis and Fowler explore the ‘contagious’ nature of various phenomena, including weight gain, back pain, and political views, and argue that one individual’s experiences and actions can have a large and unexpected effect on other members of our extended networks.

Since one person’s decision to carpools to work or to buy organic food might have an effect on an extended social network, is the individual’s obligation to take even seemingly small actions greater?

Who is Responsible: Individuals or Institutions?

Even if an individual can make a positive impact on the environment, do individuals or institutions bear primary responsibility when it comes to sustainability efforts?

While many argue that individuals are, to some extent, responsible for remedying the environmental issues that face us today, it is not so clear that they are primarily responsible for doing so. Additionally, it is not so clear whether, in all cases, individuals ought to be regarded as being at fault for their contribution to general environmental decline.

In her article, “Moral Responsibility for Environmental Problems – Individual or Institutional?” (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 2008) Jessica Nihlén Fahlquist discusses to what degree individuals, versus institutions, are morally responsible for environmental problems. She concludes that institutions, rather than individuals, are primarily responsible for the task of remedying contemporary environmental problems. But why?

architectural corinthian columnsAccording to Fahlquist, institutions, particularly governmental institutions, are primarily responsible for the implementation of policies that ultimately shape and define the relevant contexts in which individual members of a given society operate. For instance, an environmentally responsible governmental institution might advocate the taxation of non-organic foods and a reduction in the prices of organic alternatives. Such a policy would promote environmental efforts by making it easier for individuals to act in ways that are more “environmentally friendly.”

Given that it is primarily the responsibility of institutions to enact policy – specifically, policy that is conducive to progress toward environmental sustainability – and also, that the enactment of environmentally friendly policies would likely facilitate the efforts of individuals to make environmentally responsible choices with greater frequency, Fahlquist concludes that the brunt of environmental responsibility falls on institutions, not individuals.

A similar, but perhaps more radical view can be found in Terry Townsend’s article “Individual Versus Social Solutions to Global Warming” (Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 2008). Townsend agrees with Fahlquist’s general thesis that institutions (specifically governments) ought to change the contexts within which individuals make their environmental choices. He takes this argument further, however, contending that the trend to encourage individuals to ‘do their part’ has the consequence of letting governments and corporations ‘off the hook’ when it comes to making these institutional changes.

Another Possibility

Perhaps responsibility is intertwined. The New York Times' “Freakonomics” blog hosted a ‘Quorum’ in 2007 that asked experts what governments and individuals should, respectively, be doing to combat global warming. Many experts agreed that individuals might be most effective if, rather than focusing on specific eco-friendly actions, they centered their energies on changing governments, institutions and social mores.

We hope you will join us this spring to continue the inquiry begun on this page and further explore the ethical issues
Fair photo
Sculpture and photo by Tory Fair
surrounding the environment and climate change. See the Ethics Center’s events page for details of related upcoming events.

Suggestions for additional content that looks at the ethical issues surrounding the environment and climate change?  Let us know.

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This installment of "Ethical Inquiry" was written by Prof. Kate Moran (PHIL) and Chris Howard, Master of Arts in Philosophy program.