Moral Responsibility for Environmental Problems—Individual or Institutional?

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The actions performed by individuals, as consumers and citizens, have aggregate negative consequences for the environment. The question asked in this paper is to what extent it is reasonable to hold individuals and institutions responsible for environmental problems. A distinction is made between backward-looking and forward-looking responsibility. Previously, individuals were not seen as being responsible for environmental problems, but an idea that is now sometimes implicitly or explicitly embraced in the public debate on environmental problems is that individuals are appropriate targets for blame when they perform actions that are harmful to the environment. This idea is criticized in this paper. It is argued that instead of blaming individuals for performing actions that are not environmentally friendly we should ascribe forward-looking responsibility to individuals, a notion that focuses more on capacity and resources than causation and blameworthiness. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that a great share of forward-looking responsibility should also be ascribed to institutional agents, primarily governments and corporations. The urge to ascribe forward-looking responsibility to institutional agents is motivated by the efficiency aim of responsibility distributions. Simply put, if responsibility is ascribed to governments and corporations there is a better chance of creating a society in which the opportunities to act in an environmentally friendly way increase.


Individual responsibility Environmental problems Ethical consumers Forward-looking responsibility Institutional responsibility 



This research is part of the research program Moral Responsibility in R&D Networks, which is supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) under grant number 360-20-160.

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This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of PhilosophyRoyal Institute of TechnologyStockholmSweden

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