Philosophy TV Managing Editors

David Killoren (Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry, Australian Catholic University)

Jonathan Lang (Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness, University of Wisconsin-Madison)


Avram Hiller and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

Avram Hiller (left) and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (right) on anthropogenic climate change.

Earth’s climate is changing as a result of human emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). How much of this is your fault? For instance, suppose you go on a Sunday drive in a gas-guzzling car just for fun. Then have you done any harm? Sinnott-Armstrong argues (starting at 9:43) that such an action is utterly harmless. But Hiller argues that every GHG-emitting activity—even one Sunday drive—is quantifiably harmful. After discussing their disagreement, Hiller and Sinnott-Armstrong consider a range of other philosophical issues related to climate change: the moral significance of nature (25:32); the ethics of species destruction (31:03); the influence of evolution on our moral intuitions (41:33); and the connections between global warming and global poverty (52:54).

Related works

by Hiller:
Climate Change and Individual Responsibility” (2011)
Morally Significant Effects of Ordinary Actions” (2011)

by Sinnott-Armstrong:
It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations,” in Sinnott-Armstrong and Howarth (eds.), Perspectives on Climate Change: Science, Economics, Politics, Ethics, Vol. 5 (2005)


1 comment to Avram Hiller and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong

  • A deontologist may not be able to respond well to the Sunday drive example but I think someone that is arguing from a view sympathetic to a virtue theoretic view can.

    This person may argue along these lines. The Sunday driver likely displays certain flippant sensibilities towards the environment by Sunday driving and that moreover, because consistent practice matters to the overall status of the environment and consistent practice is largely dependent on the existence of sensibilities which are largely cultivated through consistent practice, the Sunday driver ought not drive. Unnecessary driving undermines the cultivation of certain awareness, care and other sensibilities vital to environmental protection.

    The analogy is with an alcoholic. One drink for the alcoholic will not harm her. But consistent long term drinking will harm her. One would not give the “one drink won’t hurt you” excuse to an alcoholic based on consequential rationalization. One drink will harm her by undermining the cultivation of a temperate character. Likewise, one ought not give the “one drive won’t hurt the environment” rationalization based on the rationalization that the greenhouse gases emitted is negligible. It’s difficult to impossible to cultivate temperate attitude towards drinking when one has an occasional drink for an alcoholic and it may also be difficult to cultivate a caring, aware, attitude that consistently practices environmentally healthy behavior if one has no qualms about engaging in the occasional Sunday drive.

    However, some people may be able to cultivate such sensibilities and for these people, engaging in the occasional Sunday drive may not be so bad. Likewise, some alcoholics may also engage in the occasional drink without falling off the wagon. Though it may be as a general rule that these behaviors are foolish. In the case of the environment, one has to also take into account multiplier effects. Making it known to others the reasons one does not engage in unnecessary driving may induce others to behave similarly. Even not making one’s reasons known may still induce copy cat behavior. This multiplication of sensibilities and the resulting behavior will have large impacts on society and the environment.