As a kind of footnote to the last couple posts on bicycling and moral arguments, I wanted to say a little bit about how I think we should think about individual moral obligations. So here are a couple small points:
1. It doesn’t follow from an act’s insufficiency (relative to some goal) that there is no reason to do it. Riding a bicycle will not arrest, much less prevent, global warming. Neither will cutting back on driving, reducing one’s energy consumption, becoming vegetarian, or voting for a “green” political candidate. Neither will any of these things be sufficient to mitigate peak oil, prevent ocean death, retain topsoil, or any other such problem—an individual’s contribution is just too small. (“Vanishingly small,” as one of my colleagues put it.)
But it just doesn’t follow that one has no reason to do any of these. And it might even be the case that not only does a person have reason to do such things, there is an outright obligation to do so. (Argument is needed to reach that conclusion, but here I’m concerned only with blocking the inference from the insufficiency of an act to there being no reason to do it.)
For a close-to-home example, check out this recent discussion that Barath pointed me to. Late in the thread, the OP is basically told that, because data on other permaculturists’ practices isn’t a recipe for success—i.e. isn’t sufficient to get one’s own permaculture up and running—we shouldn’t bother collecting it. Hard for me to believe that someone who wants to promote permaculture would consider such information nearly worthless, but there you have it.
2. Making good individual choices does not exhaust one’s individual obligations. Suppose that I’m obligated to stop driving, eat a local and seasonal vegetarian diet, drastically cut my home use of electricity and gas, and so on; and suppose I actually do these things. It wouldn’t follow that I’ve thereby washed my hands clean of environmental harms. For there might be further obligations that I incur by being a member of an affluent industrial society, obligations which arise from problems at the social level but which place a burden on me, the individual. Exhibit A: citizenship. As a U.S. citizen, I have some influence on policy via my elected officials, and plausibly I ought to exercise it. (Of course, I alone have very little influence, but—as per point #1 above—it doesn’t follow that there’s no reason to exercise it.)
None of the above says anything about what obligations we actually have, and I don’t have arguments for such just yet. But I hope to have shown a couple common thoughts about individual action—I needn’t bother because it’s not effective, and I’ve done my part because I don’t drive, etc.—to be incorrect.