We like to believe that when it comes to the great global issues of our time—climate change, pollution, poverty, mass extinction—that we each can make a difference. A small one maybe, but a real and significant difference, nonetheless. If we don’t try, or don’t try hard enough, we should feel culpable, and we have a concomitant moral responsibility to shame our lazy neighbors who refuse to make an effort. That’s a mistake. It not only makes us guilt-ridden and worse off psychologically, but even more harmfully it also provides only the illusion of effective action, thereby allowing global problems to fester without a proper solution.
Even professional ethicists are largely getting this wrong. I recently attended an international ethics conference, and the overwhelming take-away was the realization that philosophical ethics remains obsessed with individuals—trolley cases, what you should do, how you should act, who you should become. It is not appreciated that all the really serious moral issues of our time are collective action problems, and have nothing to do with you in the sense that they have nothing to do with individuals at all. The talks that did address collective action issues were keen on making them ultimately a matter of individual responsibility or blame.
You are a hypocrite if you speak out against climate change but run your air conditioner more than you really need to, or if you go for pleasure drives, or if you get your fuel from coal plants. We each need to worry about our carbon footprint if we fly to a conference or consider a vacation to Paris. We must stop using straws because of ocean pollution. Well, OK, maybe you are not contributing very much to climate change or ocean plastics, but you contribute some. We all need to “do our bit,” right? We can just parcel out the micro-guilt that each of us needs to feel about routine activities.
All of that reasoning is completely wrong. Collective action problems are either emergent or they are aggregative. Either way, when it comes to global-scale issues, what individuals do is somewhere between 100 percent pointless and 99.9999999 percent pointless.
A single rubber molecule is not elastic, but a bunch of them together make a polymer chain that really wants to remain in one particular configuration. Stretch them out, and they spring back to that default shape. A molecule of silicon dioxide is not fragile, but mix a few million together with some soda and lime and you get brittle glass. A school of fish tends to stay in a uniform pattern, as the fish stay a fixed distance from each other, turn, contract, and expand as a unit. If a predator comes, they disburse at the impact site and re-form when the threat has passed. Elasticity, fragility, and schooling are all emergent—they are properties that don’t exist at all on the individual level, but arise out of the collective contribution of many different parts. They are also mereologically robust; lose one rubber molecule and the rubber band is every bit as stretchy as it was before. The absence of a single silicon dioxide molecule means nothing to the frailty of a pane of glass, which remains just as sturdy as ever. If a barracuda successfully nabs a red snapper, the rest of the snapper school immediately gets back into formation.
Robustness is not stability. Schools of fish are stable, and it takes a lot to fully destroy one. Tornados are emergent but metastable; although they stick around for a while, it doesn’t take much for them to dissipate. Explosions are the quintessential example of an emergent but unstable state, since they are going out of existence immediately upon coming into existence. Nevertheless, all of these are mereologically robust, because the loss of a part, like a fish, a gust of wind, or a joule of heat, has no effect whatsoever on their persistence. If collective action problems are emergent, then individual action has literally zero effect on them. If you were to disappear from the universe right now, anthropocentric climate change would continue exactly the same as before, just as a murmuration of starlings carries on if one of its members is taken by a falcon. When it comes to collective action problems, what you do as an individual doesn’t matter. In fact, it can’t.
Each brick in a chimney adds to its total weight, and were one brick removed, the weight of the chimney would be reduced by that amount. Weight is aggregative. Kierkegaard argues that mobs are not emergent, but aggregative, which is why each person in a mob is responsible for his or her actions. “‘Crowd’ is an abstraction,” Kierkegaard writes, “and has no hands: but each individual has ordinarily two hands, and so when an individual lays his two hands upon Caius Marius they are the two hands of the individual, certainly not those of his neighbor, and still less those of the crowd which has no hands… For every individual who flees for refuge into the crowd, and so flees in cowardice from being an individual… such a man contributes his share of cowardliness to the cowardliness which we know as the ‘crowd.’”
Supposing that Kierkegaard is right and, as a member of a crowd or a mob, your accountability is just your portion of the mob’s. If you are one of five hooligans who dare lay hands on Caius Marius, you are, other things being equal, causally responsible for 1/5 of the harm. Had you stayed home, he would have been demonstrably better off. However, when we scale up to global-level collective action problems, your individual share of the harm falls off a cliff. World population is rapidly closing in on 8 billion, which means your causal contribution to climate change, species extinction, worldwide pollution, global poverty, or any other similar problem is, other things being equal, one in 8 billion.
Maybe you pollute twice as much as the average person. In fact, let’s suppose you roll coal in your jacked-up truck while tossing Taco Bell wrappers out of the window and say your share of global pollution is four times the average. That is still effectively nothing—your personal causal contribution is infinitesimal to the point of meaninglessness. Here’s another way to think about it: it takes just over 2 billion pennies, lined up end-to-end, to circle the earth at the equator. If those represent pollution and you are four times as bad as the average polluter, you contributed exactly one of those pennies. Go ahead and remove your penny. Do you really think it will have a detectable effect on the Great Chain of Pennies, or that it will matter to anyone? It’s like not using social media and pretending that you are thereby contributing to solving ethical problems with Big Data, or giving to a beggar and thinking you are addressing global poverty. You are a tiny and irrelevant data point in the ocean.
One speaker at the ethics conference, from Norway, argued that Norway needs to implement a progressive tax on carbon emissions to combat climate change. Sadly, it does not matter what Norway does. Their population is .07 percent of the world’s population. Norwegians could fly around in private Lear jets all day and it wouldn’t make the tiniest impact on global warming. In addition, Norway has negative population growth (1.7 children per woman, which is below the 2.1 standard for stability), so their future impact is even less than their present one. At best the Norwegians are merely finding ways of reassuring themselves that they are doing something, or that they are nice people, or that they Really Care. This is why slogans like “think globally, act locally” are not just foolish, but pernicious. They undermine effective action because they are a way of convincing ourselves, falsely, that “I’m making a difference!”—which impedes working towards actual solutions.
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If global-scale collective action problems have nothing to do with morality and are merely decision-theoretic conundrums to be solved formally, then no moral judgment is merited. The entire ethical framework of moral praise and blame goes out the window and we need to stop worrying about who is a hypocrite, or feeling righteously superior when we walk instead of drive. On the other hand, if collective action problems are at least partly moral ones, then contemporary ethics needs to step up. As long as moral philosophers continue to pretend that it is character, virtue, and personal action that are central to the enterprise, they will miss out on the most important ethical issues of modernity. The niceties of moral debate will be as relevant as Scholasticism during the Copernican Revolution or as productive as arguing over how to tie a fly-fishing lure when the lake is full of heavy metals and the fish are dying.
But what if, in spite of the foregoing, guilt is the solution? What if the lie of individual action mattering is a noble lie? If we can just make everyone feel guilty for using plastic shopping bags, or taking cruises, or not recycling, or driving instead of cycling, then they will all stop, and the collective action problems caused by those activities will vanish. Of course, for this strategy to work, we really need to ramp up the guilt as high as possible to get sufficient compliance. People must be made to feel terrible about just about any ordinary activity. Planning to grill some steaks on Independence Day? Think again. Don’t make me tell you about the harms of beef production or your smoky grill. Want to get a more spacious house than your cramped apartment? Think of the added carbon emissions! And forget a drive along the coast on a pleasant afternoon. You live in Pennsylvania and want to eat a banana? Have you never heard about the environmental impact of importing produce? Eat locally.
Unfortunately, setting our guilt-weapons on “maximum” won’t work either. One reason is that it’s very doubtful that anyone has the stomach to shame the poor for their contributions to collective action problems. For example, China produces twice as much trash as the US. While it is true that China has five times the US population (and thus the US trash production is much higher per capita), per capita production is irrelevant to the global amount of trash. All that matters is the absolute amount. Who’s up for shaming the Chinese twice as hard as the Americans?
The most serious failure is that it is simply irrational to give in to guilt. Suppose you really want to combat climate change. You feel guilty about your middle-class lifestyle, and so you decide to sell your SUV and live in a yurt. While you are happy to contribute to this cause, you don’t want to waste your contribution either. But you’ll be wasting it when (1) we solve climate change and your sacrifice wasn’t needed after all, or (2) we fail to solve it and your sacrifice was squandered.
Then you reason as follows: if humanity actually fixes climate change, then we will fix it without your measly individual effort. It follows that you could have kept your house-dwelling, SUV-driving lifestyle after all and the environment turned out just fine. Therefore you won’t give up your way of living. After a little reflection, you realize that everyone else will reason the same way, which means that no one will sacrifice to combat climate change. Since no one (or only the chump who didn’t think this though) is going to contribute, fighting climate change is for sure doomed to failure. Well, you’re certainly not going to abandon your middle-class lifestyle for a project that will inevitably fail. In the end it doesn’t matter we fix climate change or not; the rational thing for you to do is to keep on the way you are, and not give in to guilt.
The preceding reasoning is why the usual approach to solving collective action problems is coercion. We have an air-pollution problem, say, so the government raises taxes to pay for pollution abatement. Or the government orders manufacturers to meet emissions standards on pain of penalty. Coercion is a good approach, since it is now in everyone’s rational self-interest to comply, and because (almost) everyone is participating, the trouble caused by group action disappears as a result of group action. That’s the strategy behind carbon taxes and credits, and it doesn’t lead to the same failure mode as guilt. Again, though, we will need world-wide coercion for genuine success.
Our moral instincts are all personal, local, and tribal. They aren’t global. Collective action problems are hard enough to solve on the small scale, but when they are on the world-wide scale, our familiar moral tools are useless. Unless ethicists truly come to embrace this fact, they too will be irrelevant. Perhaps they are; it may be that it is only the study of decision theory and the logic of rationality that will empower us to find the right solutions. But either way we need to abandon guilt-mongering as irrational, pointless, and counter-productive.
Steven D. Hales is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. His next book, The Myth of Luck, is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in 2020. He can be found at stevenhales.org
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