Philosophical Studies

, Volume 175, Issue 9, pp 2239–2261 | Cite as

Collective action problems and conflicting obligations

  • Brian TalbotEmail author


Enormous harms, such as climate change, often occur as the result of large numbers of individuals acting separately. In collective action problems, an individual has so little chance of making a difference to these harms that changing their behavior has insignificant expected utility. Even so, it is intuitive that individuals in many collective action problems should not be parts of groups that cause these great harms. This paper gives an account of when we do and do not have obligations to change our behavior in collective action problems. It also addresses a question insufficiently explored in the literature on this topic: when obligations arising out of collective action problems conflict with other obligations, what should we do? The paper explains how to adjudicate conflicts involving two collective action problems and conflicts involving collective action problems and other sorts of obligations.


Collective action Ethics Climate change Overdetermination Conflict 



My thanks to Rebecca Chan, Eric Chwang, Alex Dietz, Molly Gardner, Chris Heathwood, Charlie Kurth, Kathryn Lindeman, Julia Nefsky, Alastair Norcross, Julia Staffel, Doug Portmore, and audience members at the Rocky Mountain Ethics congress whose names I have forgotten. I also could not have written this paper without so many great students over the years who helped me to think about, and rethink, my views.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA

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