Collective Harm and Environmental Duties
This paper will defend collective moral duties – and correlative individual duties – to address the problem of environmental destruction. These could extend to a duty to establish global institutional structures to prevent, or at least reduce or mitigate, harm to others through damage to the environment. As such, the paper may be seen as blurring the line between the moral and the political. Its motivation, however, lies in two practical points. Firstly, technology has developed to the extent that we can interact, travel, trade and communicate – and harm – on a global level. Secondly, relatedly, the damage we are doing to the environment, through the aggregation of our individual behaviour, as well as through the mechanisms of states, corporate entitles or other agencies, has become one of the greatest practical and political challenges facing humanity. “Practical” philosophers have, I suggest, been disadvantaged in their attempts to engage with this serious problem by a tendency, in moral philosophy, to focus on only our moral duties as and to individuals. The related tendency, in political philosophy, is to speak of our “moral” duties, qua individual, and our “political” duties, qua member of coercive political institutions, not only as though the former can have no bearing on the latter, but also as though the two exhaust the categories of duty. This paper will challenge these tendencies, arguing that a set of individuals can be collectively morally responsible, in a weak but important sense, for harm resulting from the predictable aggregation of individual behaviour. This responsibility brings with it collective duties and, through them, individual ones. Focusing on environmental harm, I will dismiss five possible “moral excuses” which might be used to claim that it not impermissible – or at least that individuals have no (enforceable) duty to comply with a global environmental decision-making body.