Moral Universalizability and Climate Change: a Restatement

Premise 1: It appears on the face of it, to everyday thinking, that the right thing to do concerning climate change is to reduce one’s own emissions as much as possible, or at least as much as is convenient, and to lobby the state to change laws concerning carbon and energy, and to encourage friends and the public both to make personal sacrifice and to lobby the state and others to act similarly. The general goal in mind in all these actions is to enable and facilitate a transition to a carbon neutral economy.

Premise 2: For a principle to be a moral ground of an action, it must be universalizable. This means that if everyone to whom it applies were to follow it strictly, this would not make it impossible to follow.

Note 1: I’m taking for granted that there might be lots of different principles that are grounds for different moral actions which come out of premise 1. I cannot deal with all of them.

Attempt 1: “One ought reduce one’s own emissions as much as can be done without significant sacrifice considering one’s means, needs, and position in society.”

Problem 1: If everyone were to act as “one” ought act in attempt 1, the economy would fall into depression. This contradicts the goal of enabling a transition to a carbon neutral economy inasmuch as transition to that economy cannot happen without any money.

Attempt 2: “One ought act in such a way that promotes the transition to a carbon neutral economy”.

Attempt 2 looks better, because it doesn’t specify any concrete action that if everyone followed would contradict the goal of the principle.

However, there is still a problem. First, one can’t call others unethical for not reducing their own emissions – only for not acting in such a way that enables the transition to a carbon neutral economy. Thus, we can’t make a moral law out of how much carbon you can emit – at least not yet. It’s perfectly possible that in a carbon neutral economy, it could be a moral law to emit only 750kg of carbon.

What do people think?



  1. “One ought reduce one’s own emissions as much as can be done without significant sacrifice considering one’s means, needs, and position in society.”

    This can be done in multiple ways, not all of which necessarily harm the economy. There is no green alternative to air travel, so the only mitigating option is to avoid it. There are, however, greener options in everything from transport to housing to food. Reducing one’s carbon footprint can be done either through reducing one’s level of consumption or through reducing the level of carbon emissions associated with any particular unit of consumption.

    Buying nice bikes and local beers and bagels won’t doom the global economy, and it may well help a person to reduce their ecological impact to a morally relevant degree. It is also necessary to lobby for legal and infrastructural changes.


  2. “A promising core strategy seems to be the following: Electricity needs to be made virtually emission-free, through the mass mobilization of solar and nuclear power and the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants. With a clean power grid, most of the other emissions can also be controlled. In less than a decade, plug-in hybrid automobiles recharged on the grid will probably get 100 miles per gallon. Clean electricity could produce hydrogen for fuel-cell-powered vehicles and replace on-site boilers and furnaces for residential heating. The major industrial emitters could be required (or induced through taxation for tradable permits) to capture their CO2 emissions or to convert part of their processes to run on power cells and clean electricity.

    Carbon capture and sequestration at coal-fired power plants might raise costs for electricity as little as one to three cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The mass conversion of the U.S. to solar power might involve an incremental cost of roughly four cents per kilowatt-hour, with overall electricity costs on the order of eight to nine cents per kilowatt-hour. These incremental costs imply far less than 1 percent of the world’s annual income to convert to a clean power grid. The costs in the other sectors will also be small. The fuel savings of low-emissions cars could easily pay for batteries or fuel cells. Residential heating by electricity (or co-generated heat) rather than by home boilers will generally yield a net savings, especially when combined with improved insulation.”



  3. Milan,

    You continue to miss my point. I realize that you or I choosing to purchase sustainable options will not harm the economy. And of course, I encourage you to do this, and I try to do it myself to some degree. However, universalizability means everyone – what would happen if everyone, tomorrow,followed the maxim:

    One ought reduce one’s own emissions as much as can be done without significant sacrifice considering one’s means, needs, and position in society.”?


  4. Tristan,

    Your objection is purely theoretical. There is no chance whatsoever that everyone will wake up one morning and reduce their emissions to sustainable levels.

    We need to act in the knowledge that this is true, not waste our time thinking about hypothetical situations.


  5. I believe so. Indeed, it might prove catastrophic to assert the opposite.

    When you are talking about group decision-making, the dynamic of change is likely to be a shift (spread across time) of the preponderance of behaviour from one mode to another. Using the argument that a complete and instant shift would have problematic consequences to deny the need for those aware of the issue to start shifting at all seems like an argument for universal complacency.

    In the specific case of climate change, there is probably a need for trailblazers to show that people can have good lives that are also low-carbon before legislators and the general public step in to make such lives the norm.


  6. In addition to the comment above, I think it’s fair to argue that those who have extensive awareness about the problem of climate change and have the means to do so at tolerable cost have a moral obligation to play that trailblazing role – just as developed states have a moral obligation to decarbonize their industries before they demand the same thing of developing states.


  7. Everything you say, I believe to be true. But that still doesn’t solve the perhaps merely academic problem of not being able to draft a moral imperative without producing a ridiculous contradiction. It’s absurd to say “everyone ought reduce their carbon footprint”, but then say, “well, off course, we have to make sure everyone doesn’t actually do what we say, because that would be awful”.


  8. There’s a possible solution: admit that there are no moral imperatives. That when we say “one ought reduce one’s emissions”, by “one” we mean “the people who are listening and might actually act on it” and not “everyone”.

    Thus moral imperatives are not universal at all, but just polemic claims we make on others.

    This is hard to jive with desiring to say that its a universal demand on humanity as a whole to stop global warming.


  9. Everyone ought reduce their carbon footprint… eventually.

    I think my parachute analogy is a highly apt one.

    Achieving that universal is simply more complex than looking at everyone and shouting “Jump!”

    This is the necessary result of how the achievement of the ultimate moral end requires societal transformation – not just changes in individual behaviours.


  10. I agree fully with your reasoning, Milan. I just don’t think it lends itself to moral language. It is much more like the language of medicine – the doctor observes, diagnoses, and makes an injunction. Not to delete the disease, but to impart a movement which will enable the body to regain its physis – its balanced everyday way of maintaining itself as a body.

    Likewise, the question with climate change is not to impose a solution (our actions are not such impositions, no one cars what I do), but rather to diagnose the problem, and act as an injunction. Perhaps if we think of morality this way, as the injunction of a doctor, then we avoid all the messy universalizability and maintain a strong notion of ethics.


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