The damaged bridge and global warming: Sinnott-Armstrong’s thought experiment on government/individual obligations

Today’s thought experiment comes from Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong:

“Suppose that a bridge is dangerous because so much traffic has gone over it and continues to go over it. The government has a moral obligation to make the bridge safe. If thegovernment fails to do its duty, it does not follow that I personally have amoral obligation to fix the bridge. It does not even follow that I have a moral obligation to fill in one crack in the bridge, even if the bridge would be fixed if everyone filled in one crack, even if I drove over the bridge many times, and even if I still drive over it every day. Fixing the bridge is the government’s job, not mine. While I ought to encourage the government to fulfill its obligations, I do not have to take on those obligations myself.”

Sinnott-Armstrong uses this thought experiment to demonstrate that we can consistently impose a moral obligation to the government to do something, whilst not imposing those obligations upon ourselves as individuals. He does stress that this thought experiment is not attempting to claim that in all cases where we impose moral obligations on our government we do not also take on those moral obligations, but just that there are some cases where this is the case.

In Sinnott-Armstrong’s article, which can be read in full here: ( https://www.dropbox.com/sh/bnt0355jgjax1sd/AAAlUKumBI5xOvEXEaxJ9zona?dl=0&preview=it-s-not-my-fault-global-warming-and-individual-moral-obligations.pdf ), he expands upon this further to argue that we as individuals do not have the same moral obligations to minimise our use of carbon emissions like the government does. He even says it is morally permissible for us to go for joy rides in a gas guzzler whilst demanding the government take action on climate change.

Ultimately I think his argument as whole fails. I do believe we hold individual obligations to minimise our carbon footprint. This is probably due to differences between Sinnott-Armstrong and myself regarding our approach to ethical theory. However, returning to the initial thought experiment, I think there is something that Sinnott-Armstrong gets right, which is the irrelevance of appealing to hypocrisy when discussing the government’s moral obligations to address climate change.

Regarding who has a moral obligation to fix the bridge, the argument can be made in reverse. Even if it is true that the government has a moral obligation to fix the bridge, it does not necessarily follow that I do not. For example, say the government is truly incompetant and the bridge is a true risk to my safety and others, it will come to a point where my fellow bridge travellers and I ought to take it upon ourselves to fix the bridge. However, even if we accept that we as individuals do inherit a responsibility to fix the bridge, this says nothing about whether the government has such a responsibility. Indeed, if it got to the point where we took it upon ourselves, this would be a demonstration of the government’s incompetence and its failure to fulfil its obligations.

Hence, in both interpretations of thought experiment where in one individuals are morally responsible to fix the bridge and in the other where they are not, the government remains morally responsible to fix the bridge.

In current conservative media the popular talking point is to argue that climate activists and politicians are hypocritical when they demand government action on reducing carbon emissions when they do not adhere to those actions themselves. I constructed a previous thought experiment addressing that argument here: https://philosophycriticalthinking.com/2019/11/09/clouds-hypocrisy-a-thought-experiment-on-climate-change-activism/ However, in that post I only addressed specific circumstances where use of carbon emissions to combat climate change was not hypocritical. Here I am addressing the topic of hypocrisy more generally regarding climate action.

Sinnott-Armstrong also addresses the point that appealing to someone’s hypocrisy is always a fallacious argument. He gives an example in his article of a father telling his son not to smoke, when he smokes himself. At first, our intuitions would tell us he is being a hypocrite. However, after further discussion the father mentions that he is addicted to them. And it is the addiction that serves as evidence to why his son should not begin smoking in the first place.

This should always be pointed out in the face of appeals to hypocrisy, they are recognised as fallacies in logic and critical thinking for a reason. However, we should always remember it does not let us off the hook. Just because appealing to someone’s hypocrisy is fallacious does not mean someone is not being a hypocrite.

The damaged bridge thought experiment can assist us in drawing out possible cases where individuals are being hypocritical or not in their demands of the government fixing the bridge. When we recognise that the bridge is this way from too much traffic, the circumstances of when and how we use the bridge becomes relevant. Imagine two scenarios: In the first, my workplace is across the bridge and I have no other means to get there. And in the second, there is a cinema across the bridge, there are other bridges I can use and I just feel like using that bridge because it is the most convenient.

In the first scenario, we would see this as much more reasonable for the individual to continue to use the bridge whilst demanding the government to fix it than the second. Both are still correct in their demand for the government to fix the bridge, but the behaviour of the second person is far more condemning than the first person. Therefore, the charge of hypocrisy can come in degrees depending upon what can be reasonably expected from the individual in question.

The standard of what can be reasonably expected can be applied to be both governments and individuals, but also can be compared with one another. Regarding the bridge, we can demand significantly more from the government on fixing the bridge than from individual citizens. The most significant reasons for this would be the possession of resources, ability to employ people to do it, ensure it is done correctly, and so on. Individuals typically have fewer means to do this.

Another situation can demonstrate this more clearly: the issue of overconsumption. In most of the western world, the greatest health issues are related to obesity, which is mostly brought about by too much consumption and sedentary activity. This overconsumption also leads to excess waste which negatively effects the environment. Fully aware of this, I call on the government to address this issue. However, if I engage in overconsumption and behave in a wasteful manner, then there is something about my behaviour that ought to be pointed out. But once again, this tells us nothing about what the government’s obligations are regarding this issue. At the same time, no one would demand that I not consume anything at all, or engage in extreme minimalism. There is a difference between having the occasional doughnut and buying a dozen every few days.

This is where we come back to appeals to hypcrisy regarding climate change. In my previous post on this topic, I mentioned Piers Morgan’s attacks on Extinction Rebellion co founder for being driven to the studio and owning a TV. This kind of accusation is similar to telling the man trying to get work that he cannot ever drive on the bridge he is complaining needs to be fixed. This would also be similar to telling someone who wants the government to address overconsumption that they cannot ever be caught enjoying a treat.

Some may want to argue that minimising carbon emissions is not one of the government’s obligations. For instance, libertarians and neoliberals may want to argue that it should be ‘left up to the free market’. But any of these arguments are fundamentally irrelevant regarding the hypocrisy of someone claiming that governments ought to fulfil their obligations.

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Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

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