Moral disengagement and the motivational gap in climate change

Wouter Peeters, Lisa Diependaele, Sigrid Sterckx

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
265 Downloads (Pure)


Although climate change jeopardizes the fundamental human rights of current as well as future people, current actions and ambitions to tackle it are inadequate. There are two prominent explanations for this motivational gap in the climate ethics literature. The first maintains that our conventional moral judgement system is not well equipped to identify a complex problem such as climate change as an important moral problem. The second explanation refers to people’s reluctance to change their behaviour and the temptation to shirk responsibility. We argue that both factors are at play in the motivational gap and that they are complemented by crucial moral psychological insights regarding moral disengagement, which enables emitters to dissociate self-condemnation from harmful conduct. In this way, emitters are able to maintain their profligate, consumptive lifestyle, even though this conflicts with their moral standards with respect to climate change. We provide some illustrations of how strategies of moral disengagement are deployed in climate change and discuss the relationship between the explanations for the motivational gap and moral disengagement. On the basis of this explanatory framework, we submit that there are three pathways to tackle the motivational gap and moral disengagement in climate change: making climate change more salient to emitters and affirming their self-efficacy; reconsidering the self-interested motives that necessitate moral disengagement; and tackling moral disengagement directly.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)425-447
Number of pages23
JournalEthical Theory and Moral Practice
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 29 Apr 2019


  • Climate change
  • Moral disengagement
  • motivational gap
  • individual responsibility
  • Consumption


Dive into the research topics of 'Moral disengagement and the motivational gap in climate change'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this