To what extent does climate change present new challenges for ethical thinking?


Human induced climate change has become an all pervasive concern across international relations, philosophy, politics, economics, religion and the environment in the 21st century. In this essay I will take a historical approach to determine to what extent human induced climate change presents new challenges to ethical thinking. I will begin with Aristotelian virtue ethics, followed by Kantian deontological ethics and Bentham’s utilitarian or consequentialist ethics before ending with Dewey & Tuft’s pragmatic ethics. I conclude by arguing for a pluralist application of all four paradigms to the problems of human induced climate change.

Gardiner (2011a) has argued that human induced climate change is a perfect moral storm since the problem is global, intergenerational and we do not possess the theoretical tools to handle it. The latter include the philosophical tools to choose which ethical paradigm to use and the scientific tools to understand the physics behind the problem and its possible solutions. Gardiner & Hartzell-Nichols (2012) state that “Any action on climate change confronts serious ethical issues of fairness and responsibility across individuals, nations, generations, and the rest of nature.”

The vast majority of scientists now accept that human induced climate change is happening, but some, mainly non-scientists, still deny it. We only have to look to the planet Venus to see what might be in store for us if we take no action!

Virtue Ethics

The earliest ethical framework is the virtue ethics of Aristotle. He was an ancient Greek philosopher born in 384 BC. He studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. He wrote many books across a wide range of disciplines. As one of the founders of western philosophy, his work was to have enormous impact across the Middle Ages right up to the 18th century enlightenment and even through to today.

Aristotle distinguished between emotional or ‘moral’ virtues and intellectual or ‘mental’ virtues. He proposed eleven emotional virtues including courage and truthfulness. His seven intellectual virtues included the disciplined application of both science and the arts. For him, virtues were positive personality traits that make someone a good person.

Virtue ethics were highlighted in the context of human induced climate change in the Roman Catholic Pope’s recent encyclical letter ‘Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for our Common Home (Bergoglio, 2015). He argues against consumerism and over-development (rather than sustainable development), laments the destruction of environments and human induced climate change, and tells us all to take “swift and unified global action.”

As befitting his position, Pope Francis the First highlights the needs of the poor and the importance of human dignity and purposefulness, all good virtues in anybody’s book. He goes beyond just human induced climate change by criticising pollution, lack of clean water, the decline in biodiversity, the diminution in human life and the destruction of society. This accords with the virtue ethics of balancing individual identity and the need for a moral community.

The Pope argues that religion and science are complementary in the search for solutions. He steers a middle way between left-wing Marxist anti-capitalism and right-wing authoritarian capitalism (as personified by human induced climate change denier US President Trump), but continues to promote traditional conservative catholic opposition to abortion, genetic modification, family planning, homosexuality and transgender issues.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to contraception means that many third world countries, particularly in Latin America, suffer from excess population growth. China has used draconian methods to halt this and has moved rapidly through the demographic transition, but India and many other countries still have a long way to go. This excessive population growth only serves to make human induced climate change worst.

Deontological Ethics

The second ethical framework is that of deontological ethics which goes back to Immanuel Kant in the 18th century enlightenment. He proposed that ethics spring from rational rules, universal norms, moral duties, justice, fairness, rights and responsibilities. Kant was born, lived and died in Königsberg, former capital of Prussia, now called Kaliningrad and located in an exclave of the Russian Federation!

Deontological ethics have been applied to human induced climate change in recent years. Agarwal & Narain (1991) distinguish between luxury emissions (e.g. from gas guzzling motor cars) and survival emission (e.g. using firewood for cooking in the third world). The “Common But Differentiated Responsibilities” (CBDR) concept came out of the Rio Earth Summit (1992) and argued that the more developed and industrialised countries must bear more of the burden of combating human induced climate change than developing, pre-industrial countries. This implies that polluters/producers pay rather than a consumer-pays approach.

The term deontological ethics was defined by Jeremy Bentham in 1826 as “the knowledge of what is right and proper.” He founded University College London, just before King’s College London was started, and he developed the philosophy of modern utilitarianism. This is based on the sum of any pleasure, minus the cost of any pain, involved in an undertaking, to which we will now turn.

Consequentialist Ethics

The third ethical framework is the consequentialist or utilitarian paradigm. This stresses the importance of outcomes of actions, the end justifying the means.

In the 19th century Jeremy Bentham was followed by philosopher John Stuart Mill who wrote that acts or intentions are morally relevant, that is, right, wrong or indifferent, only in virtue of their consequences, depending on the state of affairs that they bring about.

Peter Singer is an Australian humanist utilitarian ethical philosopher whose most famous work is Animal Liberation (Singer, 1975) which advocates vegetarianism. He says he is now a ‘flexible vegan’. Some religious people may argue that one should worry about human suffering before animal suffering, but certainly the widespread adoption of vegetarianism would go a long way to mitigating human induced climate change. More recently Singer (2002) has written about the ethics of globalisation too.

Bjørn Lomborg (2001) argued that resources would be better spent on poverty, AIDS, malaria and malnutrition in the third world rather than on mitigating human induced climate change, whereas Sir Nicholas (now Lord) Stern (2007) wrote a review of human induced climate change economics and development, which advocated a pro-growth strategy. The latter study tried to produce a Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) of the problem, but this requires a debatable discount rate to be set into the future.

Al Gore, former US Vice-President, published a book and wrote and starred in a documentary film in 2006 entitled An Inconvenient Truth which warns against global warming as a moral issue. The author shared the Nobel Peace prize and the film won two Academy Awards. Together they introduced human induced climate change concerns to many more people.

Jamieson (2007) argues that utilitarians should be virtue theorists whereas Marco Grasso (2013) writes that moral cognitive neuroscience indicates that personal harm triggers deontological moral reasoning. However the harm originating from impersonal moral violations, like those produced by human induced climate change impacts, prompts consequentialist moral reasoning. Grasso goes on “acccordingly, climate ethics should be based on consequentialist approaches. Moral cognitive neuroscientific research indicates, in fact, that consequentialism is closer to the moral processes and judgements human beings normally use when faced with issues like climate change that involve impersonal notions of harm.”

Pragmatic Ethics

The fourth ethical paradigm is that of pragmatic ethics. This was developed by John Dewey and James Hayden Tufts between 1908 and 1932. Dewey, as well as being a philosopher, was primarily a psychologist and educationalist. Tufts was also a philosopher and co-founded the Chicago School of Pragmatism. They argued that science can help refine moral ethics. Science proceeds by testing and replacing hypotheses as knowledge improves. Current theories are only an approximation to the truth and will get better over time. Thus Einstein’s work has replaced Newtonian mechanics as a better explanation of the laws of motion.

Recently Wells (2012), Curry (2014) and Torcello (2014) have applied pragmatic ethics to human induced climate change, along similar lines to Lomborg’s (2001) arguments above. Wells (2012) concludes that environmentalists “are wrong to give up on the potential of democratic politics and human ingenuity and settle for Malthusian doom mongering and moralising.” Torcello (2014) goes even further by arguing that misinformation from human induced climate change deniers is criminally negligent!


So we have seen that human induced climate change is an enormous problem with a large literature (see the selective bibliography below). There are four possible mainstream ethical paradigms (not including ecological ethics, environmental ethics or cosmopolitan ethics) which have been applied to it, but none provide all the answers. Moving on from pragmatic ethics we should adopt a pluralist approach of using all of them to better understand this ‘wicked’ problem!