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Hot deontology and cold consequentialism – an empirical exploration of ethical reasoning among climate change negotiators

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Philosophers, political theorists and cognitive scientists have applied the traditional distinction between deontology and consequentialism to determine ethical responsibilities – usually of states – to take action in response to climate change. Most of this work is either purely conceptual or based on experiments with individuals, who are not part of the global political process. This paper makes two contributions to this debate. First, based on interview data I describe existing patterns of ethical reasoning among global political actors rather than groups selected for lab experiments. Integrating theories of risk perceptions, international relations and moral philosophy, I identify both deontological and consequentialist cognitive patterns, and examine their constitutive elements. My second contribution concerns the role of emotion in moral reasoning. Using the same qualitative data, I offer support for a controversial argument about the emotional nature of deontological reasoning. Further, I argue that many negotiators experience climate change not as an impersonal threat posed by the environment, but rather as an “up, close and personal” threat, over which other negotiation participants have significant control.

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  1. I will leave aside virtue ethics for the purpose of this paper.


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Correspondence to Manjana Milkoreit.

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This article is part of a special issue on “Multidisciplinary perspectives on climate ethics” with guest editors Marco Grasso and Ezra M. Markowitz.

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Milkoreit, M. Hot deontology and cold consequentialism – an empirical exploration of ethical reasoning among climate change negotiators. Climatic Change 130, 397–409 (2015).

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