Inconsequential Contributions to Global Environmental Problems: A Virtue Ethics Account

Paul Knights

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This paper proposes an answer to what Sandler calls ‘the problem of inconsequentialism’; the problem of providing justification for the claim that individuals should engage in unilateral reductions of their personal consumption, even though doing so will make an inconsequential contribution to mitigating the harmful impacts of the global environmental problems that the aggregate of such consumption causes. I provide an answer to this problem by developing a virtue ethics-based argument that a limited but significant class of consumption actions performed by typical consumers in rich, industrialised economies in the global North are moral wrongdoings, and the corresponding unilateral reductions in personal consumption are morally obligatory. I make this argument by drawing an analogy between a typical Northern consumer and a member of a golf club who has discovered that his club causes harm—by dumping used golf balls into a nature reserve—to which he inconsequentially contributes. I advance a moral evaluation of remaining a member of a harming group, based on the attitudes to the harm expressed by so remaining, and on Sandler’s virtue-grounded agent-relative target principle of right action. I examine a number of objections to this argument. I use Elizabeth Cripps’s notion of a ‘harming putative group’ to respond to the objection that the set of individuals whose aggregated consumption causes environmental problems is merely an arbitrary abstract set, membership of which is not justifiable grounds for moral evaluation. I then present two responses to the objection that withdrawal from this harming putative group—by refraining to perform those consumption actions which constitute membership—is unduly demanding.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Early online date6 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • Inconsequentialism
  • Virtue ethics
  • Harm
  • Complicity


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