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Climate and environment, Ethics and morality

The climate and ecological crisis – responsible but not to blame

Roger Paxton and Maeve McKeown look at the moral case and its implications for action.

19 June 2024

The climate and ecological crisis is upon us. Given the evidence of the crisis and its continual worsening, it is perhaps surprising that self-interest isn't leading us all to do whatever we can against it. This is our planet and our children's planet; why don't we stop destroying it? 

One reason is that most of the adverse consequences of what is happening are still too remote, geographically and temporally. For most of us in the Global North it doesn't feel like a crisis; it mostly just feels as if the weather is getting warmer and wetter. We're presented with evidence of continuing changes but the most damaging are usually far away. Another reason is that we're presented with reassuring messages: the government still says it expects to hit its net zero targets and around the world no governments are taking significantly more urgent actions (Poynting, 2024). Climate and environmental activists are largely presented as an inconvenience. 

A further reason is that our current lifestyles and expectations, and our social, political and economic structures, all contribute to maintaining inactivity by most of us. If self-interest isn't sufficient to motivate change, are there moral reasons for changing? 

Moral concerns arise because the crisis is not just an approaching catastrophe but also an injustice on a global scale. The richest continue to consume and pollute, while those who have done least to create the crisis and are least able to deal with it suffer most and soonest. We know that people are losing their homes, livelihoods, wellbeing and their lives. There is also the harm being done to so many other species, and future generations of humans everywhere – further glaring injustices. Still most of us just carry on. How strong, then, is the moral case, and how should we evaluate it? 

The moral case

How do we assess moral responsibilities? Philosophers have argued that there are two types of moral responsibility: for our actions, and as a virtue (Dworkin, 2011). We are said to be morally responsible, and potentially legally responsible, for actions carried out with intent, or at least negligence, that lead to bad outcomes. We also talk about moral responsibility as a continuing sense of 'being' responsible, i.e. virtuous. For example, without needing to think about it we feel responsible and take action to care for family members and people we love. If a stranger seems unwell or asks for directions, we try to help. We intuitively accept responsibilities to treat others with respect and tolerance, without consciously deciding to do so. 

Sometimes, for several reasons, moral responsibilities are unclear and moral judgements hard. Firstly a moral responsibility might conflict with self-interest. Someone might need help; I could and should help but I'm in a hurry to get somewhere that's important to me. Being a morally responsible person, or performing a morally right act can be demanding (Herman, 2001). Secondly I may face conflicting moral duties; which good cause should I support? Sometimes different kinds of duties may conflict: perhaps my duties to the person in front of me versus my wider structural duties (more on this later). Thirdly, when a responsibility is shared, how should I decide whether or how much the responsibility is mine? If we all have a moral responsibility to alleviate poverty, why should I do more than the next person? This is the fair shares view (Murphy, 1993). A fourth, related reason is that the likely consequences of particular actions may not be apparent. Why should I do anything if I don't know whether I'm likely to have any effect? This is the issue of imperceptible difference (Kagan, 2011). And finally it is sometimes not even apparent that there is a moral question to be faced. For instance, the British Psychological Society's distance learning course on Ethics in Psychological Practice uses the example of buying very cheap clothing. Who am I hurting and what wrong am I doing if I buy these clothes? This is the issue of structural injustice (McKeown, 2024) and we return to this example later. In all these examples, the difficulties are increased because the law is no help and the likely subsequent causal sequences are unclear. 

The differences between moral judgements and responsibilities that are obvious and those that require deliberation, suggest Daniel Kahneman's (2012) distinction between fast and slow thinking can be applied to moral judgements as well as practical and arithmetical decisions. Fast (type 1) thinking is automatic and often effortless; as, for instance, when we make easy and largely unconscious decisions while driving and talking at the same time. Slow (type 2) thinking requires active concentration and feels effortful. Mental long multiplication tasks are an example Kahneman uses. Similarly we can speak of type 1 and type 2 moral judgements and responsibilities; those that are immediate and easy versus those that require careful deliberation and are difficult. 

How do we think about non-obvious moral responsibilities and the type 2 thinking they require? James Rest's four component model of moral reasoning (Bebeau et al., 1999; Narvaez & Rest, 1995) is both a descriptive model of much ordinary moral reasoning and a framework to be applied to aid clarity under circumstances like these. 

The first component of reasoning in the model is moral sensitivity; recognising when an issue is one of morality, rather than, say, personal preference or practicality. Second is moral reasoning. Having identified that there is a moral issue, this component consists of deciding what ought to be done – the moral course of action. Third is moral motivation; acknowledging other interests and motives that influence thinking about the issue, and then weighing up these conflicting motives – moral and others. Fourth is moral implementation; bringing together moral reasoning and moral motivation to make and act on a decision. 

Decisions about both personal and professional moral responsibilities commonly arise in the here and now. What is the right thing to do about a matter involving a friend or family member? Or what should I do about a matter of professional judgement confronting me today? But sometimes we face moral choices involving strangers, perhaps many of them and perhaps far away. Under these circumstances, responsibilities are likely to require difficult deliberation. 

Public responses to the Covid pandemic provide many examples. For many people, especially those who were young and healthy, compliance with lockdown rules meant both emotional and financial losses primarily for the benefit of others. Furthermore, compliance benefited not just people close to us but many unknown others who might otherwise have suffered or died as an indirect consequence of our actions. Other people faced the opposite choice; those working in health and social care, transport workers, food deliverers, and emergency services and cleaning staff all had responsibilities to keep going into work despite the known risks. Of course legal sanctions affected compliance, but most people complied willingly (Wright et al., 2022), on the basis of a thoughtful desire to do the right thing. There seemed to be much type 2 moral reasoning, through which people accepted responsibilities to take costly, inconvenient and sometimes risky actions for the likely benefit of unknown numbers of unknown people. We might speculate that the four components of Rest's model underpinned the thinking that occurred. Sadly, there is no evidence of lasting change either in day-to-day interactions or political life. As political theorist David Runciman commented (2024), the 'fairy tale' hopes of longer term changes held by some were dashed. Sustaining new and more general and distant patterns of moral responsibilities is difficult. We will return to likely reasons for this.

Other moral responsibilities are still less clear and more remote in both distance and time. In these cases even the existence of moral choices may well not be apparent. In addition, what we perceive as moral concerns is culturally and politically influenced. Striking and urgent examples arise from the climate and ecological crisis. Leaving aside the obvious responsibilities of political leaders and leaders of major extracting and polluting companies, what about the rest of us, as individuals (and as psychologists); what are our responsibilities? Our day-to-day awareness of this crisis is very different from the awareness we had of the moral choices raised by the Covid pandemic. Then, we were presented daily with numbers of infections, hospitalisations, deaths, and economic effects. How different is the daily presentation of the continuing impact of the climate and ecological crisis. If we stop to think about it, we know that many people, and the world we live in, are suffering… but for us in the Global North, none of this is anywhere nearly as visible or immediate as the harm and moral demands of Covid. Hard thinking is needed even to achieve moral sensitivity here.

Clearly there is a great injustice, but where within it do responsibilities lie for ordinary citizens? Trying to apply Rest's model as a guide is difficult. How can I be held responsible for any particular element of climate breakdown or species loss? In ethical and legal discussions responsibility is usually linked to liability, blame and guilt, as when particular actions break the law or result in morally bad outcomes. But this doesn't easily apply to the climate and ecological crisis. The law doesn't provide guidance and there is no clear causal sequence from my actions. It is perfectly legal for me to take frequent hot baths, drive a large SUV and fly business class all over the world. What exactly am I guilty of, and why should I be blamed? What particular harm am I causing? Who exactly am I hurting? I could say that, on the contrary, I'm doing good by giving the economy a boost. How should I frame the moral questions here? 

From moral to political responsibility

We can think about responsibilities here in a different way, using Iris Marion Young's notion of structural injustice (2011). The climate crisis is an example of a structural injustice; that is, the (largely) unintended cumulative result of everyday accepted actions on the part of diverse agents, at different times and places, all mostly acting within accepted rules and norms, but leading to domination or oppression, and in this case, physical harm, suffered by certain social groups. We are all connected; through the globalised economy, global media, global political institutions and of course the biosphere. We thereby contribute to the processes that produce these unjust outcomes. This is Young's social connection model. Through these connections we bear responsibility. Young's sense of responsibility is different from the usual backward-looking sense of responsibility in being forward-looking. We should look outwards to consider how we contribute to the injustice and then forward to what we should and can do to counter it. 

One of us, Maeve McKeown (2024), extends Young's account of structural injustice, distinguishing pure, avoidable and deliberate forms. Pure structural injustice is as described by Young: no agent has the capacity to overcome it; it requires system change. Avoidable structural injustice is where some powerful agents have the knowledge and capacity to remedy it, but fail to act to do so. McKeown uses Young's example of housing deprivation in the USA as an instance of avoidable structural injustice. Renters have to pay high charges often for substandard properties because the alternative is homelessness. The injustice is avoidable because there are policy solutions that the state could implement but fails to do so, and landlords could charge less in rent. Deliberate structural injustice is where powerful agents have the required knowledge and capacity but actively perpetuate the situation for their own gain. McKeown uses the global cheap garment industry as an example of deliberate structural injustice. When purchasers around the world buy fashionable and affordable clothes (which gives pleasure to them, helps to keep their town centres vibrant, and supports the jobs of the employees in their local shops) this purchasing maintains the sweatshop conditions of the people who produce the garments. Nevertheless, if I buy these clothes I have no bad intention and do not knowingly cause harm to any identifiable person. Meanwhile, the multinational corporations that own the factories and shops, through the locations of their factories and their employment arrangements and pay structures, deliberately maintain the injustice to maximise their profits. The important point is that in avoidable and deliberate cases, powerful identifiable agents have the knowledge and ability to reduce or eliminate the injustice. 

McKeown says that climate change is an example of pure structural injustice, but acknowledges that this is complicated because fossil fuel corporations and governments have the knowledge and capacity to affect it. It may appear as a pure structural injustice because of the scale and systemic nature of the changes needed. Certainly, for the overwhelming majority, the climate and ecological crisis seems a pure structural injustice. None of us, just getting on with our lives, is directly responsible for it and none has the power to remedy it. 

Looking more closely at what might be done in the case of such injustice, Young describes four parameters by which ordinary individuals can assess the extent and kind of our responsibility for a structural injustice. First is power. Greater political or economic power confers the potential and therefore responsibility to do more to mitigate the injustice. Second is privilege. Those with privilege, such as the global middle class, are able to make choices about their consumption which are not available to poor people, and they should bear this responsibility. Third is interest. Different people have a greater or lesser interest either in taking or avoiding action against the crisis. Fourth is collective ability. We can all achieve more through collective action and so we have a responsibility to strengthen and exercise our collective ability. McKeown adds a fifth dimension; proximity. If we are in the area of a structural injustice flashpoint, we can focus our efforts there with other members of our local community.

On this issue, as on others, people may seek to avoid their responsibilities. Even though taking an ethical stance is in the longer-term self-interest of all, it's easier in the short term for most in the Global North to continue as at present. There are many ways in which people justify inaction, and Young points to four. Firstly, people reify the existing structures of injustice; treating them as natural, unchanging or inevitable. Secondly, they falsely deny their connection and therefore their share of responsibility. Thirdly they focus only on their immediate demands and responsibilities, and fourthly they claim it's not their job to contribute because they have other worthwhile concerns.

But after all this, even if I accept the argument and the responsibilities it entails, why exactly should I act on them? Perhaps surprisingly, Young and McKeown deny that what is relevant here is moral responsibility. Powerful agents with the capacity to alleviate structural injustice, or who deliberately perpetuate it, bear moral responsibility, but McKeown agrees with Young that ordinary individuals are not morally responsible. Instead they claim that ordinary individuals connected to structural injustice share a non-blameworthy political responsibility to act collectively to try to change it. There are a number of reasons for this. First, as noted above, intent, direct causation and knowledge are normally needed to generate moral responsibility, but, in the case of the climate and ecological crisis, ordinary citizens lack these. Second, they believe that a new way of thinking about responsibility is required when it comes to structural injustice. Moral responsibility is isolating and backward-looking, picking out individuals' specific actions for censure; whereas political responsibility is shared and forward-looking, focusing on fixing the problems collectively for a better future. Third, moral responsibility is inward-looking and can be 'self-indulgent' (as Young puts it), but political responsibility focuses on working with others for systemic change. They draw on Hannah Arendt (2003) in support of this position. Arendt distinguished the political responsibility of Ordinary Germans in letting their political system fall to the Nazis from the moral responsibility of people who actually committed crimes. McKeown also draws on the concept of "responsibility without blame" developed by Hannah Pickard (2011) in the context of clinical practice in mental health care. To recognise one's political responsibility for structural injustice is to recognise that one is responsible but not to blame. and therefore to engage in collective action to challenge structural injustice. 

It's easy to feel hopeless about the climate crisis, or simply to avoid thinking about it, but Young's concepts of structural injustice, social connections and political responsibility offer a way to think about it which is honest and practical. In a positive and forward looking way we should and can acknowledge our share of collective responsibility. Her comments on the parameters through which responsibilities can be assessed and her suggested excuses that we are inclined to use encourage further honesty and can lead us to action. Rest's model can aid clear thinking too. Together these ideas point to a realistic path to contribute to tackling climate injustice. 

Motivating action

Still the question remains – even if we follow the arguments of Rest, Young and McKeown, why should we take a responsible stance rather than a comfortable one? Douglas Alexander (2022), for instance, writing about motivation and climate change, says that, for us in the developed world, reasons to act are generally outweighed by the short-term costs of climate action and the ease of continuing as we are. This leads on to the statement that 'self-interested voters…don't care enough to turn climate change into a decisive electoral issue'. Politicians appear to share these assumptions, but they are only assumptions. The underlying assumption is the metaphor of 'homo economicus' – we are all selfish individuals acting rationally to maximise our own satisfaction. Reality is more complicated. It is obvious that most people have a moral sense; sometimes we are selfish, but at other times altruistic. Those who never display altruism are rare exceptions. How could social life continue if we acted only as homo economicus?

Returning to the idea of moral responsibility not just for particular actions, but also as an ongoing virtue, McKeown links political responsibility to the Aristotelian idea of virtue ethics and the notion of a good life – a life with personal objectives that are morally worthwhile. This is an approach to ethics that is relatively little discussed, but seems particularly relevant now in our culture of self-interest and consumerism. Virtue seems submerged by, or even equated with, selfishness. Some reasons for this are obvious. We live in a culture of glaring economic injustice and political dishonesty and hypocrisy in which greed and material acquisition are vigorously encouraged to feed the assumed need for endless economic growth. Just as type 1 practical and logical thinking clearly develops through education and practice, so we might expect that a culture of selfishness would lead to type 1 moral judgements that are selfish. 

Selfish choices seem natural, but their naturalness is a cultural artifact driven by the current economic and political model. If it is accepted that humans have moral capacities alongside the capacity for selfishness, we should consider the idea of moral wellbeing, alongside the accepted concerns for physical and mental wellbeing. And just as there is acceptance of public health policies to promote physical and mental wellbeing, so moral wellbeing should be supported and developed. Creating the conditions for moral decision-making would have the outcome of contributing to a healthier environment and helping people to live in accordance with altruism rather than selfishness, thus contributing to a good life. 

Without such broader structural changes, it would be wrong to blame ordinary individuals now for a lack of virtue with respect to caring for distant others and the environment. Moreover, many people simply cannot afford the virtuous option – the fair-trade clothes or food, solar panels and so on. Part of our political responsibility should be to fight for political institutions and an economic system that promote moral wellbeing and create the conditions for more people to act virtuously. A future government should acknowledge that we are in a moral as well as economic mess and rebuild respect for truth, openness and concern for others and for nature. We should promote an economy, political institutions and culture in which climate and ecological concerns are embedded within type 1 moral judgements – they become obvious and are attainable. 

The current moral absence and ideological commitments contribute to maintaining widespread consumerism, and turning a blind eye to the crisis and the major changes needed. As Raworth (2018), Hickel (2022) and others have shown, continuing consumption as usual, feeding the economic growth (green or otherwise) that the current model of capitalism requires, means continuing exponential growth in material and energy use. It is simply inconceivable that it can continue endlessly, but this obvious fact is dealt with by collective denial or political deceit, for short term financial and electoral reasons, and the continuing enrichment of elites. We need different values and a commitment to transition to a different political and economic system if we are to make the necessary changes. These are pressing moral and political needs, soon to be pressing material problems for all of us. What is to be done?

From individual responsibility to collective action

The starting point is to accept our responsibilities: our responsibilities as citizens, psychologists and members of a psychological organisation. This leads to actions, which many are already undertaking. It means changing our lifestyles, and helping others to do so. All of this is happening, and it needs to continue, accelerate and spread. 

Crucially, we can achieve broader effects through organisational changes. As McKeown argues, corporate agents with power to effect change have a moral responsibility to do so. The British Psychological Society, as a large national organisation with many international connections, bears and accepts a moral responsibility to address the climate crisis. Through the BPS, individual members can enact their political responsibility, using the collective ability of the BPS to organise and contribute to structural change. The BPS has established its Climate and Environment Action Coordinating Group (CEACG), the main purposes of which are to lead, coordinate and strengthen the efforts of us as individuals and as members of the various groups and elements within the Society. Very importantly the CEACG's workplan includes influencing public policy through working with other stakeholders including politicians and relevant organisations. You can see the Position Statement and action plans produced by the CEACG for the BPS here.

In this work we can learn from and be encouraged by the work of individual psychologists and the BPS during the Covid pandemic. The Society collaborated with sister organisations across Europe (via the European Federation of Psychologists' Associations), rapidly developing and making available guidance materials promoting safe psychological practice and personal wellbeing. Prominent psychologists with appropriate specialist expertise appeared frequently in news media providing comments and evidence-based advice on staying safe and healthy – mentally and physically. 

The climate and ecological crisis present greater challenges, but we can learn from and go beyond the Covid work. Main elements of the workplan produced by the CEACG are these. First the Society will demonstrate organisational commitment and consistency with a sustainability statement and long-term championing of the work led by the CEACG. The CEACG will work with networks within the Society to develop and focus work on the health and wellbeing effects of the crisis, and to promote awareness, public discussion and behaviour change. This will include producing guidance and educational materials. We will develop closer relationships with relevant organisations, institutions and leaders to energise and contribute psychological knowledge to policy making. We will promote the voices of people and communities who are least heard and most affected.

Readers of this article, reflecting on the responsibilities we all bear, will share, we hope, a sense of optimism. Through collective action we can achieve much.

  • Roger Paxton PhD CPsychol FBPsS is a member of the BPS Climate and Environment Action Co-ordinating Group. He is a retired clinical psychologist and past Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee.
  • Maeve McKeown PhD is an Assistant Professor of Political Theory at the University of Groningen. Her main research interests are structural injustice, historical injustice and feminism.

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