Daily Bulletin


Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by Anne Schwenkenbecher, Lecturer in Philosophy, Murdoch University
We need to rethink our moral obligations to create a better world

This is the sixth article in a series in which philosophers discuss the greatest moral challenge of our time, and how we should address it. Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, and part five here.

Our collective overuse and misuse of antibiotics is accelerating resistance to these universal drugs, leaving people increasingly vulnerable to infections that can no longer be treated. This applies not only to the use of antibiotics in human medicine, but also in animal industries.

Antibiotic resistance is an example of a collective action problem. These are problems where what is individually rational leads to a collectively undesirable outcome. Small things that many of us do, often on a daily basis, can have disastrous consequences in aggregate. The most challenging problems humanity is facing are in one way or another collective action problems.

The list of global collective action problems is long: plastic pollution of our oceans and waterways; the heightened concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leading to global warming; and the consumption of meat, the production of which is tied to environmental degradation.

The importance of individual action

What problems such as these have in common is that they cannot be resolved by any political actor on their own. We need global, coordinated policy responses to address these issues with any measure of success. Political actors – states, international organisations, or alliances of states – need to cooperate.

But should we leave it to policy makers and our political representatives to address these questions? I believe that in doing so we would violate important moral obligations as individuals.

Read more: Don't shoot the messenger when confronted with inconvenient ideas

Apart from coordinated policy responses, aggregate individual actions can actually have a significant positive impact on alleviating problems of collective action (even if they will not resolve them).

Let’s take the example of antibiotic resistance. The World Health Organization has identified a number of actions each of us can take to help reduce the spread of resistance. These include limiting the medical use of antibiotics (where that is a safe option), reducing the consumption of food produced using antibiotics, and preventing infections through improved hygiene.

Similarly, climate researchers have identified individual actions that will have the greatest impact on climate change mitigation, provided enough people join in. These include having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding air travel and shifting to a plant-based diet. If enough of us take such actions we can collectively limit global warming to a maximum of 2℃, thereby achieving something that global political actors have failed to achieve.

The paradox of collective action

The paradox of collective action is that while none of us can individually make a difference to the overall outcome, together we can. And while no individual’s failure to act will undermine the success of the collective effort, if too many people continue with business as usual we will not make a change for the better.

So why change your behaviour if it doesn’t make much difference for better or worse? Understanding how we might have obligations for collective problems will mean we need to rethink some of our common assumptions and intuitively held views about morality.

Read more: We must develop 'techno-wisdom' to prevent technology from consuming us

This, in fact, is something moral philosophers have been grappling with for several decades. The late Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit thought that so-called “common-sense morality” would often lead us to make mistakes in our “moral mathematics”. We tend to neglect the moral import of small (often imperceptible) contributions to large-scale problems (or benefits, for that matter). This is an empirical claim, but it also applies to moral theorising.

One of the conceptual obstacles to rethinking our moral mathematics is the view that if an action of mine does not make a perceptible difference to an outcome then I cannot be morally required to perform it (or to refrain from performing it). Holding on to such a principle means to let everyone off the hook for the kind of global collective action problems mentioned above.

Rethinking our moral obligations

Here is a way in which we could rethink our moral obligations regarding problems of collective action. We could think of our individual obligations as deriving from the collectively optimal response to these problems and understand our responsibility to address them as shared, rather than individual.

Moral obligations or responsibilities, on this view, have different sources. Sometimes, we have obligations to perform certain actions or to produce certain outcomes because we can make a difference for the better. At other times, the source of our obligation may not reside in the effect of our actions or omissions, but in how these relate to a collective pattern of action that we perceive as morally right.

We might think that closing the emissions gap or slowing down antibiotic resistance by reducing our carbon or anti-microbial footprint is the best collective pattern of action available to us (beyond government action). Consequently, our obligations to change our behaviour can be seen as deriving their moral force from the fact that they form part of that pattern.

So reducing our carbon footprint or reducing our anti-microbial footprint are actions that are constitutive of our collectively doing the right thing. Another way of putting this is to say that individual moral responsibility (remedial, in this case) need not be tied to individual causal impact, but may derive from our collective responsibility and our joint difference-making ability.

Authors: Anne Schwenkenbecher, Lecturer in Philosophy, Murdoch University

Read more http://theconversation.com/we-need-to-rethink-our-moral-obligations-to-create-a-better-world-93286

Writers Wanted

Phytonutrients can boost your health. Here are 4 and where to find them (including in your next cup of coffee)

arrow_forward

Healthcare, minerals, energy, food: how adopting new tech could drive Australia's economic recovery

arrow_forward

Review: new biography shows Vida Goldstein's political campaigns were courageous, her losses prophetic

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Scott Morrison: the right man at the right time

Australia is not at war with another nation or ideology in August 2020 but the nation is in conflict. There are serious threats from China and there are many challenges flowing from the pandemic tha...

Greg Rogers - avatar Greg Rogers

Prime Minister National Cabinet Statement

The National Cabinet met today to discuss Australia’s COVID-19 response, the Victoria outbreak, easing restrictions, helping Australians prepare to go back to work in a COVID-safe environment an...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Business News

How To Remove Rubbish More Effectively

It can be a big task to remove household rubbish. The hardest part is finding the best way to get rid of your junk. It can be very overwhelming to know exactly where to start with so many option...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Tips To Pass Skills Certifications Tests

Developing the right set of skills is valuable not only to your career, but for life in general. You can get certified in these skills through obtaining a license. Without a certified license, y...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Secure Home-Based Entrepreneurs from Cyber Threats

Small businesses are becoming a trend nowadays. The people with entrepreneurial skills and minds are adopting home-based businesses because of their advantage and ease of working from home. But...

News Company - avatar News Company



News Company Media Core

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion