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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The Morality of Collective Harm

  • Author(s): Nefsky, Julia
  • Advisor(s): Kolodny, Niko
  • Wallace, R. Jay
  • et al.

Collective Harm Cases pervade the modern world. In these cases, people collectively cause harm, or fail to prevent it, but no individual seems to make a difference. For example, while climate change is caused by millions of people acting in certain ways (driving in cars, flying in planes, using coal-generated electricity, etc.), it seems that no individual such act will make a difference. Similarly, while the large-scale consumer patterns of wealthy nations can affect the lives of people in poorer nations, it is hard to believe that any individual purchase will make a difference for the worse. In cases of this sort, if it is true that no individual act will make a difference, it is unclear how we can say that anyone ought, or even has reason, to act otherwise. But if we cannot, this would be very troubling. Morality would be powerless in a wide array of cases in which it should have force. This is the Problem of Collective Harm.

I argue that the key to solving the Problem of Collective Harm is to reject a standard, intuitive assumption that underlies it. The assumption is that if an act cannot make a difference with respect to an outcome, then it cannot play a morally significant, non-superfluous causal role in bringing that outcome about. Or, to put it another way, we must reject the assumption that helping to bring about an outcome requires making a difference to it. This assumption is highly natural, but I argue that it is mistaken and that once we see that it is mistaken, the central puzzle of the Problem of Collective Harm is resolved.

Chapter 1 is devoted to setting out the problem and how I will approach it. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss a range of proposed solutions that have been put forth by others. The upshot of the critique of these views will be that we cannot solve the Problem of Collective Harm unless we can reject the assumption that helping requires making a difference. In Chapter 4, I turn to my positive proposal. There I give an account of what is required for an act to help to bring about an outcome, where this does not require being able to make a difference. I use this account to explain our reasons for action in Collective Harm Cases, and I give an error theory that explains why the standard assumption seems right, even though it is not. In Chapter 5, I highlight some noteworthy features of my proposal and some important questions about it that still need to be addressed.

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