Individual agency and responsibility in mitigating climate change

Wouter Peeters, Andries De Smet, Sigrid Sterckx

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Although an appeal to human moral agency can motivate us to shoulder responsibility for our normative conduct, its phenomenological features have also been invoked to support certain restrictions on individual responsibility imposed by common-sense morality. Indeed, global dynamics such as climate change generate doubts about our practice of regarding the individual as the locus of responsibility, since, as noted by Samuel Scheffler, we tend to experience acts as having primacy over omissions, near effects as having primacy over remote effects, and individual effects as having primacy over group effects. At first sight, these phenomenological features of agency might appear to justify absolving the individual of her responsibility, but we will argue that in fact they can neither support nor justify a restrictive conception of individual responsibility. Individuals are agents with causal powers on the global level and therefore they can properly be held responsible for the harm their actions cause – however mediated the causal connection may be. In contrast to Scheffler, we will argue that the doubts about individual responsibility on the global level are generated by the context that gives rise to the so-called common-sense morality in which the vested interests of those who have a great deal to gain from a restrictive conception of responsibility and a great deal to lose from coming to see the global context as morally salient, are dominant. This context is shaped by a particular interpretation of the liberal political assumptions, which emphasises individual freedom and holds that the role of social and political institutions is to discharge as many responsibilities for citizens as possible.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPower, justice and citizenship
Subtitle of host publicationThe relationships of power
EditorsDarian McBain
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherInter-Disciplinary Press, Oxford
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-84888-292-8
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • individual responsibility
  • agency
  • climate change
  • Samuel Scheffler


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