Climate Change and Moral Excuse: The Difficulty of Assigning Responsibility to Individuals

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A prominent argument in the climate ethical literature is that individual polluters are responsible for paying the costs of climate change. 1 By contrast, I argue that we have reason to excuse individual agents morally for their contributions to climate change. This paper explores some of the possible constraints agents may face when they try to avoid harming the climate, constraints that might be acceptable reasons for excusing people’s contributions to climate change. Two lines of arguments are discussed. The first concerns the soft internal constraint: that democratic citizens do not experience their individual failures as failures per se. In other words, they do not psychologically ‘feel’ they are doing anything wrong. 2 The second argument concerns the soft external constraint: a number of studies have shown that many consumers report that while they are concerned about environmental issues, they struggle to translate their concern into green acts. 3 Put differently, while individual citizens may think they are morally obliged to avoid harming the climate, they struggle to fulfill these obligations. I argue that these constraints do not constitute reasons for not blaming individual agents. Instead, individual agents can be morally excused for contributing to climate change because external constraints on agency make climate change a case of imperfect duty, that is, a duty that is hard to fulfill.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018


  • Climate politics
  • Imperfect duties
  • Moral excuse
  • Responsibility


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