The projected impacts ofanthropogenic climate change calls for immediate adaptation and mitigation measuresto be taken in order to ensure the survival of millions.
However, it seems thatwe, as individuals, are powerless to prevent or worsen the effects of climatechange. Therefore, as pondered by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, “Weare discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.” This highlights thecomplexity of the issue at hand, individual moral obligation in regards toclimate change. In “Its Not My Fault”, Sinnott-Armstrong argues that no individual ismorally responsible for climate change, or the harms that result from it. Rather,he concludes that the obligations that an individual must take on is to urgetheir government to take action to prevent global warming. Sinnott-Armstrong adopts this permissible point-of-viewtowards individual moral obligation by drawing on the classic theories ofmorality.
He finds them all insufficient in their ability to justify thecommonly accepted belief that there is wrongdoing with flippant environmentaldegradation by individuals. Although the conclusion of Sinnott-Armstrong’s argumentis sound in attributing responsibilities of individuals to politicalobligation, the premise of his argument can be seen as fallible. The effects ofindividual actions have been inappropriately neglected. Sinnott-Armstrong doesnot consider the moral principle that it is, “prima facie wrong to perform anact which has an expected amount of harm greater than another readily availablealternative” (Hiller 2017, 351). Sinnott-Armstrong utilizes the example of recreational SUVuse, and asks what moral principle might entail that it was obligatory to forgoit? He presents the actual act principles as a means of supporting his claimthat, “global warming will still occur even if I do drive a gas guzzler justfor fun Moreover, even if I do drive a gas guzzler just for fun for a longtime, global warming will not occur unless lots of other people also expelgreenhouse gases” (Sinnott-Armstrong2017, 343). This premise is not sound on the grounds that if individual drives do notmake any difference in global warming, but everyone’s driving does, theneveryone’s driving is reducible to individual acts of driving. Simply put,larger entities can still be broken down into individuals which all contributeto the harms of global warming. However, Sinnott-Armstrong considers the incremental contributions that an individualdriving a gas guzzler could have on global warming and concludes that, “my actof pouring the quart (of water) into the river is not the cause of the floodanalogously, my act of driving for fun is not a cause of global warming” (Sinnott-Armstrong2017, 335).
Yet, this claim can still be subject to the point given above thatthe sum of global warming is causing harm. Additionally, incremental contributionsof individuals differ in that some pour a quart of water into the rive while otherscontribute several gallons. Thus, we can show that any individual act thatcontributes to global warming also causes an expected harm and falls in linewith the moral principle that it is prima facie wrong to perform an act whichhas an expected amount of harm greater than another readily availablealternative. Sinnott-Armstrong alsoapplies the actual act principle through the indirect harm principle to endorsehis view on the permissibility of individual moral obligations to climatechange. The indirect harm principle contests that an action is morally wrong ifit leads to other actions which, collectively, cause harm to others (Sinnott-Armstrong 2017, 336).
Heasserts that this principle would explain why it is morally wrong to drive agas guzzler but claims that the actions of an individual are not influential.Needless to say, this argument is not sound and can be seen as fallible. Mooreutilizes the example of the Toklat river as an example of the influential natureof individual actions. Her example frames the problem of climate change in theform of a river with a rapid current. As she attempts to slow the current withone stone but that does not change the flow of the river.
However, the additionof several individual stones eventually slows the current. As Moore states, “Mywork and the work of every person who loves this world, this one, is to makeone deflection in complacency, one obstruction to profits, one blockage tobusiness-as-usual, then another, and another, to change the energy of the flood(Moore 2017, 297).Though Sinnott-Armstrong believes that there is no individualmoral obligation to global warming in going for a joy ride, he still holds thatwe have responsibilities with regard to mitigating global warming by individualstaking political action. Thus, in response to Moore’s analogy one might saythat Sinnott-Armstrong already advocates for individuals having a politicalmoral obligation to climate change. Nevertheless, his conclusion is fallible onthe grounds that his premise claims that individuals have to make politicalefforts when the same arguments that he gives against the insignificance ofdriving a gas guzzler can be made about the causal insignificance of politicalefforts. His claim is paradoxical because an individual’s voting in an electionis expected difference.
Thus, it would be impossible to determine that apossible climatic crisis was prevented because an individual called their staterepresentative or other such political actions.One might argue that Sinnott-Armstrong does in fact considerthe moral principle that it is prima facie wrong to perform an act which has anexpected amount of harm greater than another readily available alternativethrough the risk principle. The risk principle simply states that, “We have amoral obligation not to increase the risk of harms to other people”(Sinnott-Armstrong 2017, 336). Sinnott-Armstrong argues against this principle bysaying it is restrictive by utilizing the examples of boiling water andexercising, both of which expel greenhouse gases which in turn cause harm toothers despite them being harmless acts (Sinnott Armstrong 2017, 337).
However,one can maintain that there is a readily available alternative to both boilingwater and exercising. There may be no readily available option, in eatinghealthy food, then to exercise on occasion. Therefore, it is likely that it isprima facie wrong to perform an act which has an expected amount of harmgreater than another readily available alternative shows that exercising onoccasion is not prima facie wrong. Furthermore, even if exercising is a primafacie wrong, its not a wrong that takes everything into account. Additionally, Sinnott-Armstrongclaims that going on a gas guzzling joyride has no effects with regard toclimate change. Although this is fallible because a, “claim that actions withsmall effects are not at all prima facie wrong leads to problems for anynormative theory” (Hiller 2017, 355). Therefore, it is important to maintain that,going on a gas guzzling joy ride is a prima facie wrong.In conclusion, although Sinnott-Armstrong believes thatthere is no prima facie wrong in going on a gas guzzling joy ride, he stillmaintains that we as individuals have a moral obligation with regard tomitigating global warming.
This moral obligation refers to individuals takingup a political responsibility in order to change laws that relate to climateissues. This conclusion of his argument can be seen as sound. However, thepremise that there is no moral principle to attach to individual actions havebeen inappropriately neglected. Sinnott-Armstrong does not consider the moralprinciple that it is prima facie wrong to perform an act which has an expectedamount of harm greater than another readily available alternative.