Climate ethics with an ethnographic sensibility

Derek Bell, Joanne Swaffield, Wouter Peeters

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
199 Downloads (Pure)


What responsibilities does each of us have to reduce or limit our greenhouse gas emissions? Advocates of individual emissions reductions acknowledge that there are limits to what we can reasonably demand from individuals. Climate ethics has not yet systematically explored those limits. Instead, it has become popular to suggest that such judgements should be ‘context-sensitive’ but this does not tell us what role different contextual factors should play in our moral thinking. The current approach to theory development in climate ethics is not likely to be the most effective way to fill this gap. In existing work, climate ethicists use hypothetical cases to consider what can be reasonably demanded of individuals in particular situations. In con- trast, ‘climate ethics with an ethnographic sensibility’ uses qualitative social science methods to collect original data in which real individuals describe their own situ- ations. These real-life cases are more realistic, more detailed and cover a broader range of circumstances than hypothetical cases. Normative analysis of real-life cases can help us to develop a more systematic understanding of the role that different contextual factors should play in determining individual climate responsibilities. It can also help us to avoid the twin dangers of ‘idealization’ and ‘special pleading’.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)611-632
Number of pages22
JournalJournal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Issue number4
Early online date5 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

“This is a post-peer-review, pre-copyedit version of an article published in Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. The final authenticated version is available online at: 10.1007/s10806-019-09794-z


  • Climate change
  • Climate ethics
  • Ethnography
  • Flying
  • Idealization
  • Individual responsibility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • History
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Environmental Science(all)


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