In this post, Anne Schwenkenbecher discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the collective duties of citizens to address large-scale structural injustice.

Throughout the history of humankind, people have been getting together to join forces in the fight for just causes. Though collective action is a fundamental feature of human sociality, it is not always easy to establish, especially on a large scale. What if those willing to contribute are scattered across the globe? Or what if our individual contributions make no discernible difference to the outcome? In these cases, it is easy to think that the idea that we have shared moral obligations to undertake collective action is misplaced.

In a recent article, I argue against this conclusion, contending that it remains possible and important to make cumulative individual contributions towards a shared goal even if we are not able to ultimately solve any of these problems. In this way, we can collectively make a difference to global challenges such as poverty, climate change and public health threats such as antimicrobial resistance. It might seem strange to think that we all share moral obligations with people across the globe, but in an important sense we do.

It is important to distinguish two basic types of collective action: cooperative joint action and distributive action. Cooperative joint action is highly interdependent collaboration between individuals. We cooperate in this way if we play a duet, or jointly carry a pram up the stairs at the train station or if we run a business together. In order for those actions to succeed, we must have some knowledge of the others’ actions and intentions. Ideally, there is a level of common knowledge, where we have mutually reassured each other on what we are planning to do (before we do it) and what we are doing (while we are onto it). This can be nonverbal – musicians will often use visual cues, for instance. Sometimes, just continuing what we do is enough of a signal to the other person(s) that we are intending to keep cooperating.

But global moral problems are not like that. We – ordinary citizens – cannot directly communicate with most other people across the globe and even though our means of connecting with others at a distance are greater than ever, the kind of interaction we can have with them is still fundamentally different from the interaction that is possible and common in small-scale, direct cooperation.

At a distance, however, we can engage with others in distributive action. This type of collective action takes place where we share a goal and a plan – where each of us knows what that plan is and that plan specifies how we can achieve that goal and we each act accordingly. And we do this all the time: For instance when we reduce our meat consumption because we want to minimize our environmental or antimicrobial footprints.

In isolation, our behavioural change will not have much of an effect on the problem. But we often make those decisions with a view to contributing to a larger movement away from harmful practices, knowing that it is our contribution in conjunction with those of others that can make a real difference. In this sense, then, we can share a goal with people across the globe, the overwhelming majority of whom we do not and will never know. And we can share a plan with them: we can know what individual steps are necessary for us to collectively realise our goal. And when we do that we partake in distributive action.

A recent example for (national-scale) distributive action was the collective boycott of a Trump Rally in Tulsa by users of the platform TikTok. The plan to collectively buy up enough tickets with the intention of not showing up at the rally served the immediate goal of reducing the number of spectators and the mediate goal of protesting Trump’s political agenda. Other large-scale distributive actions include distributed denial of service attacks (DDoSing) such as Anonymous’ “Operation Payback” against PayPal and MasterCard for their refusal to process donations to WikiLeaks.

But, of course, most global moral challenges and injustices are much more complex than these examples – they usually result from multifarious interlocking political, social and economic problems. Without any doubt, global poverty, climate change, public health threats such as antimicrobial resistance and pandemics are best addressed by organised group agents such as states, international organisations, and, potentially, even corporations. But the more or less unorganised collective of ‘ordinary’ citizens globally can play a supporting role and take up some of the slack left by those more powerful agents who bear the primary responsibility.

There exist salient patterns of collective action that allow us to identify shared goals and plans and to play our part in realising these patterns in order to carry out shared plans. For example, we can support existing organisations that fight the causes and mitigate the impacts of poverty. In fact, through their work, these organisations make certain patterns of group action and individual roles salient to us.

This does not mean that we have a shared responsibility to completely eradicate poverty via distributive action. Where individuals worldwide contribute towards publicly shared, clearly defined goals we will only be able to reduce, but not to eradicate. But this should not prevent us from making a contribution. There are many issues in this world where rather than definitively resolving them we are ‘merely’ improving them and are happy to do so.

Without doubt, the sense of individual inefficacy can be overwhelming though. Not only do my own actions taken in isolation make no difference for the better, my failure to contribute usually makes no measurable difference for the worse either. But note that framing these global challenges as problems for ‘us’ (rather than for ‘me’) shifts the focus to what can be collectively achieved. This means taking collectively optimal solution as the starting point for thinking about our individual obligations. If the best scenario is one where the majority of relatively well-off people in the world make a contribution towards alleviating these injustices then we should each play our part in that.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.