On individual and shared obligations: in defense of the activist’s perspective

In Mark Budolfson, Tristram McPherson & David Plunkett (eds.), Philosophy and Climate Change. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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We naturally attribute obligations to groups, and take such obligations to have consequences for the obligations of group members. The threat posed by anthropogenic climate change provides an urgent case. It seems that we, together, have an obligation to prevent climate catastrophe, and that we, as individuals, have an obligation to contribute. However, understood strictly, attributions of obligations to groups might seem illegitimate. On the one hand, the groups in question—the people alive today, say—are rarely fully-fledged moral agents, making it unclear how they can be subjects of obligations. On the other, the attributions can rarely be understood distributively, as concerned with members’ obligations, because obligations to do something require a capacity to do it, and individual members often lack the relevant capacities. Moreover, even if groups can have obligations, it is unclear why that would be relevant for members, exactly because members often lack control over whether group obligations are fulfilled. In previous work, I have argued that a general understanding of individual obligations extends non-mysteriously to irreducibly shared obligations, rendering attributions of obligations to groups legitimate. In this paper, I spell out how the proposed account also helps us understand the relation between individual and shared obligations. Even though few individual human agents have any significant control over whether we will be successful in preventing climate catastrophe, our collective capacity to prevent catastrophe and shared preventative obligation to do so can give rise to significant individual obligations to contribute to its fulfillment.
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