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Climate change, over-demandingness and 'real life': Investigating the role of empirical analysis in philosophical debate

ERI 149
Wednesday 31 January 2018 (15:15-17:00)

Philosophy Society Seminar Series 2017/18

  • Title: Climate change, over-demandingness and ‘real life’: Investigating the role of empirical analysis in philosophical debate
  • Speaker: Dr Jo Swaffield (University of Newcastle)

Wednesday 31 January 2018, 15:15-17:00 in ERI 149. All welcome!

For more information please contact the convenor, Scott Sturgeon.


The cumulative greenhouse gas emissions of billions of individuals and corporate agents over many generations now threaten basic human rights, such as life and health. Campaigners tell us that we have a duty to ‘do our bit’ to respond to this problem. We should change our everyday practices (e.g., by using public transport) or alter our consumption patterns (eg., by purchasing ‘green’ products). However, psychological research shows that many people resist the claim that they bear responsibility for realising human rights, arguing that the actions necessary to protect human rights would demand too much of them. The ‘over-demandingness objection’ has been widely assessed in political philosophy and, for some, ‘the fact that a moral theory is sometimes extremely demanding is not in itself a forceful objection to it’ (Ashford 2003, p.274). For others, the concept of ‘over–demandingness’ is a perfectly legitimate response to some moral theories and their corresponding duties. It is morally acceptable for an individual to pursue their own ‘personal projects’ (Williams 1973) or appeal to ‘agent-centred prerogatives’ (Scheffler 1982, p.14). What these responses do not tell us, however, is how we might determine an acceptable level of demandingness. What is the difference between morally legitimate objections and those that are simply self-serving? The paper takes an innovative approach to this problem by considering how we might assess the moral legitimacy of the over-demandingness objection. More specifically, it advocates the combination of normative analysis and detailed empirical study to examine how people do – and should – perceive the opportunities and the costs of pro-climate behaviours. We argue that a better understanding of the everyday pressures (and opportunities) faced by ‘real’ individuals can inform a more philosophically rigorous theory and a more practical account of individual responsibility for human rights and climate change.   

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