A Phenomenological Theory of Ecological Responsibility and Its Implications for Moral Agency in Climate Change

Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 31 (6):645-659 (2018)
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In a recent article appearing in this journal, Theresa Scavenius compellingly argues that the traditional “rational-individualistic” conception of responsibility is ill-suited to accounting for the sense in which moral agents share in responsibility for both contributing to the causes and, proactively, working towards solutions for climate change. Lacking an effective moral framework through which to make sense of individual moral responsibility for climate change, many who have good intentions and the means to contribute to solutions for climate change tend to dismiss or put off addressing the root causes. With this tendency arises the practical problem that climate change calls for urgent global collective action, both in terms of mitigation and adaptation, in order to prevent global temperature rise from exceeding 2C and avoid worst case climate scenarios. In this paper, I develop a phenomenological theory of ecological responsibility which addresses the conceptual problem Scavenius brings out and contributes to clarifying the sense in which moral agents share responsibility for both the causes and solutions for climate change. To develop this theory, I draw from, combine, and transform insights from the late work of Husserl on open horizons, transcendental intersubjectivity, and genetic phenomenology with breakthroughs from Emmanuel Levinas in articulating an original, asymmetrical theory of unlimited, diachronic responsibility. In drawing from Husserl, I show how what Levinas describes as the source of a demand for unlimited, diachronic responsibility can be phenomenologically reinterpreted in terms of a horizon of indeterminacy. I then show how horizons of indeterminacy arise in phenomenological descriptions of both human and nonhuman entities in such a way that discloses the demand for responsibility as a broad-ranging demand for unlimited, diachronic ecological responsibility. An important implication of this phenomenological theory of ecological responsibility is that it contributes to clarifying the sense in which individual moral agents share in responsibility for long range collective moral problems such as climate change.

Author's Profile

Robert Henry Scott
University Of North Georgia


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