a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Why good intentions need informed intentions


In discussions about climate change and climate justice, there has been quite some debate about individual duties – should we try to change our lifestyle to reduce emissions, or should we try to influence political processes that bring about institutional change? It always seemed to me that the correct answer is: do both, or whatever you are able to do. Given how drastic the consequences of climate change are likely to be, and given how climate-unfriendly our Western lifestyle typically is, this seemed the right answer. Wouter Peeters has made this case in previous posts, so there is no need to repeat the arguments here. But I’ll add a third point: in our attempts to do good, we also have a duty to be as well-informed as possible.

One of the consequences that I drew was to become vegetarian and also to reduce my dairy consumption, trying to switch to organic products wherever I could. Together with many others, I thought that factory farming had a huge environmental impact, and that the first best thing would be for everyone to become vegan, and the second best to try, at least, to reduce meat and dairy consumption as far as possible. But it turns out that things are far more complex. A glimpse of the complexities can be had from this book review that I discovered on the Guardian webpage yesterday.*

George Monbiot comments on a book by Simon Fairlie that reports how wrong some calculations of the climate-friendliness had gone. For example, the plausibility of the claim that 10,000 liters of water go into every kilogram of beef depends considerably on the assumptions you make in your calculations and on the relevant comparisons. If cows are fed on grass, and pigs on waste – i.e. stuff that humans could not digest anyway – the impact of farming is quite different from the impact it has when they are fed grains that could also be used for human food.

It is worth noting that Monbiot does not mention the other big ethical question around veganism: whether it is legitimate to kill animals at all, and/or whether it is legitimate to treat them in the ways industrial farming treats them. There seems to be an irony here: treating animals in ways that are better for them (e.g. let them roam and eat grass) also seems to be the more climate-friendly option. I don’t know whether such a happy coincidence always holds, though. In this case, our moral intuitions about treating animals well seem also to lead us to climate-friendly solutions. But moral intuitions can be very deceptive, especially when complex technological questions are involved. Take, for example, the climate impact of brewing coffee in different ways.  This article provides some background on how difficult it actually is to compare different types of coffee preparation if you do a full life cycle analysis.**

So there is probably a third duty for individuals with regard to climate justice, in addition to lifestyle and political duties: try to keep yourself informed. Try to be as scientifically-minded as you can while doing so. Watch out who pays for studies. Be ready to update your beliefs if new evidence appears.

It might be objected that especially with regard to climate change, there are competing sets of data and competing interpretations of the evidence, so that lay people have no chance to evaluate them. This is a serious worry. But it is a problem that is not unique to moral questions with regard to climate change. We have to process vast amounts of (sometimes conflicting) information in other areas of our life as well, for example when it comes to job decisions or to financial planning. We use various strategies for addressing them, for example consulting different sources of information, or listening to experts whom we have good reasons to trust.

My argument also raises all too familiar worries about the morality of climate change, especially about demandingness. But thanks to the internet, the obstacles to meeting this duty are far lower than they were in the pre-internet era. And fortunately, we can also rely on some division of labour. But it does remain a challenge that in addition to trying to change our lives, and influencing the political framework of our societies, we also need to be careful to do so in the wisest possible way – and this means taking all the reliable evidence into account.






* The article actually seems to be quite old. I have no idea why The Guardian posted it again yesterday.


**Thanks to my husband for drawing my attention to it.


Lisa Herzog

I work on various questions at the intersection of economics and philosophy, currently focussing on ethics and organizations and ethics in finance. Methodologically, I sit between many chairs and I have come to like the variety. I think of my work as critical, empirically informed social philosophy.



On what we should get out of work (other than money!)


Migration & Feasibility: Real Constraints or Cheap Excuses?


  1. Hi Lisa

    Great article! Thank you for posting.

    I really just wanted to emphasise how serious a worry I think the objection you raise to your argument is, particularly because some of the information associated with climate change is highly scientific/technical, which is different (in degree, perhaps) to some of the other moral issues we face associated with more ‘every day’ type knowledge. Some of the complexities associated with evaluating the information presented to us about climate change are compounded by the mis-information (rather than genuinely competing interpretations of data/evidence) propagated within the public sphere.

    Additionally, if you look at which media outlets have the most ‘misinformation’ about climate change, there is often a correlation with lower socio-economic audiences (e.g. the ‘C1’ to ‘E’ demographic categories in the UK).

    As these lay persons have often already been disadvantaged and deprived, especially in terms of education, it seems they ought not be held to the same duty, or level of duty or standards, as others within society who have greater education attainment and/or opportunities to access good information (e.g. especially politicians and media editors!).

    Might there also be complementary duties for media outlets to ensure citizens have access to the best information we have, so that they are able to meet their own duties?


    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Erin, thanks for pressing me on this point. You are right to point out that it can be more difficult for some people than for others to acquire unbiased information. I definitely think that journalists have professional responsibilities, and as you point out, there can be massive failures on their part as well. Concerning individuals who fail to acquire relevant information: I would say that there can be cases in which there can be excuses for failing to meet their duties. I prefer to conceptualize such cases in terms of excuses rather than justifications because I think the duty still applies to them (it is different from, say, a justification in terms of conflicts with weightier duties).
      So I agree that we should consider the situations of different individuals, but I still think that this duty applies to many individuals.

      • Fay Niker

        Hi Lisa and Erin. Join in this discussion, it might be helpful to distinguish between two kinds of bias: biased media sources and personal cognitive biases. You make reference to the first of these, Lisa, in your response to Erin’s point. Of course, I agree that this is a problem. But, another problem – and one that might look to be more intractable, in one way at least – comes from the second source of bias. Confirmation bias is one obvious example here: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities”. Given that there is a range of positions defended on this issue (see, for instance, Sarah Palin’s thoughts: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/15/sarah-palin-bill-nye-climate-change-hustle-film), it seems that people will be able to find reasons against making potentially costly or inconvenient changes to their lifestyle and will be able to defend this as an ‘informed’ position. This helps to cash out/ clarity your idea of having a duty to be as well-informed as possible, since it looks to put constraints on what would count as being ‘informed’.

        • Lisa Herzog

          Hi Fay, thanks for raising this point. Problems of cognitive bias were very much at the back of my mind when writing this (I found it very convenient to think that by being a vegetarian, I’m doing a great deal of good – I wish I could continue to believe that!). The fact that people always find reasons for justifying their preconceived opinions is precisely why we need such a duty (I love this line by Franklin: “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.”). Arguably, however, individuals are very bad at fighting cognitive biases on their own. So if I’d have to develop this more, I’d probably very quickly end up with duties that are not only individual (in the sense of only concerning the person and her beliefs), but social (in the sense of contributing to a social environment in which we have a reasonable chance to fight cognitive biases).

          • Fay Niker

            Thanks for this clarification/ expansion, Lisa. I agree with you that this would be a sensible way of going. Interesting stuff!

        • Great point Fay! Thanks for your contribution.

      • Thank you Lisa! That reply is spot on.

  2. Wouter Peeters

    Lisa, thank you for your post and for referring to my previous posts! I would very much agree with you on the importance of being informed, but I have two questions which might sound critical, but are meant to see how your argument could be developed further.
    1) Do you consider the duty to be as well-informed as possible to be separate from political duties and individual direct duties? I would rather argue that this is part of a larger moral character that every moral agent should try to build (which might for example also include keeping weakness of will at bay etcetera) and which underlies the other kinds of duties you mention. Your example of veganism shows that the individual reduction of environmental impact presupposes being well-informed, but for political duties it is good to know as well how to make the largest impact in terms of political change. I am not sure, however, whether seeing it as a separate duty or as an underlying part of moral character has any consequences for your argument.
    2) What would you think about lowering the standard of the duty to be “as well informed as possible”? Would it be a (partial) solution to your worry that the duty might be too demanding in complex issues (which, I completely agree with you, most moral issues are) to dial down your duty and the requirements of it to, for example, “being sufficiently informed”? To take your example: the question to be vegan or not is indeed complex and very much depends on how it is measured and what is included (this study for example estimates that GHGs from livestock might be as high as 51% of total GHGs: https://www.worldwatch.org/files/pdf/Livestock%20and%20Climate%20Change.pdf). However, do we need to know the complete debate and the detailed information? Is it not enough to know that eating meat has a huge environmental impact (even if it is only 10% of total GHGs, it is still too much as Monbiot acknowledges) that can be rather easily reduced, at least in the rich world? My fear is not only the confirmation bias that Fay mentions above, but also that people might give up before even trying, because these issues are just overly complex. I am not advocating keeping the general public dumb, of course not, but I wonder whether a lower standard of being informed might suffice as well.

    • Lisa Herzog

      Hi Wouter, thanks for raising these points. On the first: this might only be a matter of terminology; you are certainly right that political duties (and probably also many other duties) require us to be informed. In that sense one might describe it as a derivative duty. The reason why I would emphasize it separately from the others is that it involves quite different activities (searching, reading, etc.) and maybe also different virtues (open-mindedness, neutrality) than those directly involved in fulfilling our other duties. This, by the way, is somewhat different from the way in which information and action are connected in other areas of morality, where they can be very close together (e.g. in order to fulfill a promise, I need to know what the promise is about – but I may not need further information, including complex scientific information).
      Concerning your second point: I agree that this CAN be a useful strategy, and one that can help to reduce the overburdening-problem. But it is not quite clear where we can draw the line here – what we definitely need to know is whether things are going in the right direction (assume – counterfactually, as far as I know – that some of the food that we use to substitute meat is actually quite CO2-intense or otherwise problematic as well; then we better know about this). It also helps to have some sense of magnitudes, not least in order to understand how much we are actually contributing (this is important because we often assume that if we contribute a certain amount, we do not have duties to do more in other areas).
      I think the general strategy for addressing the “why even try?”-attitude shouldn’t be to lower standards of knowledge for everyone, but to try to develop a better epistemic division of labour: not everyone needs to know everything, but ideally, we’d want to have scientists or NGOs or so who would warn us if the rules of thumb we used turned out to be wrong…

      • Wouter Peeters

        Thanks Lisa for your answers. I particularly agree with your call for a division of labour. That’s the basic reason why I believe that scientists and academics should engage much more with a wider audience, especially on issues such as climate change that concerns all of us. Making their knowledge accessible in a comprehensible way enables other people to be well-informed without having to have an MA or PhD in four disciplines. This is indeed a better and more positive way to go forward in addressing the overburdening problem than formulating it in terms of a “lower standard.”

  3. Lisa Herzog

    This article http://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2016/apr/26/climate-scientists-are-now-grading-climate-journalism is so relevant to the topic that I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. Check it out!

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