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Moral Motivation and Sustainable Behaviour Change

‘Climate change’ and ‘behaviour change’ are both central themes in the policy landscape, academic research, and media discourse of the twenty-first century. The former has been described by the former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, as “the greatest humanitarian challenge facing mankind today”, a statement that carries added weight in light of the complete devastation inflicted upon the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. The latter, ‘behaviour change’, has become a ubiquitous phrase in policymaking circles, representing a radical shift towards a non-regulatory policymaking paradigm, often referred to as nudging.

The 2008 Climate Change Act established the world’s first legally binding climate change target. This has committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 – a target that requires a major change in the way we live, representative of an unprecedented reversal of a universal trend among industrialised nations concerning the relationship between economic growth and carbon emission. The key question going forward, therefore, is: How is such a radical behavioural/cultural transformation going to be brought about? The current government’s answer appears to rest heavily upon behaviour change techniques that seek to nudge (implicitly encourage, incentivise, etc.) citizens’ toward more sustainable behaviour patterns.

The problem with this approach – or at least with the way in which it is currently being framed by the Coalition government in major initiatives such as the Green Deal – is that it threatens to actually undermine sustained sustainable behaviour change: for instance, by presenting energy-saving simply as a means of saving money. Providing this self-interested motivation for environmentally responsible action does not translate into meaningful engagement with climate change. And it also runs the risk of trivialising the issue at hand. The debate about sustainable behaviour change must remain connected to the fact that climate change is already a daily reality for some of the world’s poorest communities, where unpredictable rainfall and drought patterns are threatening food security and livelihoods. As Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and climate justice advocate, states: “These communities are not responsible for the emissions causing climate change, and yet they are disproportionately affected because of their already vulnerable geographic locations and their lack of climate resilience”.

In terms of private morality, we each have a duty of justice not to harm others; and our current levels of emissions can be expected to cause significant harm. Hence, we – citizens of industrialised nations – each have a duty of justice to reduce our net personal emissions to zero, whether by transforming our lifestyles or by offsetting our emissions. And this not only makes sense as an abstract philosophical argument; recent research by Dr Rachel Howell (University of Aberystwyth) has shown that the single most significant motivation among people who had already made major changes towards environmentally responsible, low- or zero-carbon lifestyles was a sincerely held conviction that climate change is a matter of social justice.

Hence, it seems as though the government’s enthusiasm for ‘nudge’ and its potential for generating measureable behavioural outcomes may have caused it to lose sight of the fact that committed, long-lasting behavioural transformations are not brought about by government officials tinkering with ‘choice architecture’, but rather by citizens’ internalising the ethical reasons that are motivating such a change – reasons based on justice, fairness and responsibility. For the sake of both efficiency and justice, therefore, the government’s ‘behavioural’ strategy on climate change should be driven and defined by the moral motivation that taking action on climate change is simply the right thing to do.

This would not necessarily involve canning the existing pro-environmental nudge policies; but it would require a significant alteration of the government’s rhetorical strategy, to make it focused on communicating to, and educating, citizens about climate change as an issue of social justice by highlighting the impacts on people, especially poorer and disadvantaged people. This strategy should also include the instigation of public debate concerning the socially just adaptation to climate change within the UK. Furthermore, alongside (and as part of) this norm-changing strategy, it will be necessary to provide both practical guidance about carbon-reduction and a variety of low- or zero-carbon infrastructure options, so that the opportunity for sustainable behaviour change is a real and equitable one for all citizens.

Ultimately, it is values and morals that (i) inspire public support for national-level policies and (ii) motivate transformational individual- and household-level behaviour changes; so the quicker the government engages with the issue of sustainable behaviour change in these terms, the more chance that we have of reaching our own decarbonisation targets.


Fay Niker

Fay is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Stirling. Before taking up this role, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University. Her research interests lie at the intersection of ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy.



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  1. Hi Fay, thanks for this post. I think you're right that it is best to do the good thing for the good reason, and hence that there is something regrettable in using nudges. I have a few related thoughts on this.

    At times you seem to say there is an incompatibility between bringing about behavioural change by 'tinkering with 'choice architecture' versus achieving this by 'citizens' internalising the ethical reasons that are motivating such a change'. But, as you suggest in other places, the two are not incompatible, but complementary, approaches. When you say it is 'necessary to provide both practical guidance about carbon-reduction and a variety of low- or zero-carbon infrastructure options' I think you are in fact pointing to the good kind of 'nudges' that governments should use.

    I wonder if you subestimate the problem of the weakness of people's will. We may genuinely believe our behaviour is harmful, yet fail to change it without outside incentives/coercion. I guess lots of people were easily convinced that smoking was harmful – not just for themselves, but also for the passive smokers around. Yet, for many it took steep increase in cigarette prices and bans on smoking in public places in order to reduce/quit. It's plausible the same applies to switching to a more environmental-friendly behaviour.

    Moreover: unlike with smoking, sacrifices for the sake of slowing down climate change make sense only if enough other people do them. Those who are very confident in their own ability to self-motivate may still worry about *others* having weak wills, and hence need (appropriate!) government nudges to be reassured that own their sacrifices are not useless.

  2. Hi Anca, thanks for these comments – they are very helpful to clarifying my views. I definitely think that nudges of all kinds are going to be very important in bringing about pro-environment behavioural changes, especially due to – as you point out – the problem of weakness of will and a host of other problems relating to the various cognitive and motivational biases and heuristics (e.g., following the crowd). And, importantly, I see nudging as an effective way of norm-changing that -similar to the process of regulating against smoking – prepares citizens for, and thereby generates public support for, stronger regulatory measures. My view, however, is that this all needs to be set within a framework that is defined by the moral reasons to act against climate change; because the current framework, based largely around offering various fairly minor financial incentives, does not take seriously our duties of justice, nor does it take into account what actually motivates people to make the kinds of larger-scale, longer-term changes (or the major attitudinal change required for offsetting all of our carbon emissions) that are necessary in light of our duty of justice.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post, Fay. I have a lot of sympathy with your comments here, but I also have an instinct similar to Anca’s about the possibility of other (perhaps complementary) options. Just to add a small point on the issue of nudges, I wonder whether you are not comparing like-for-like. You respond to Anca that ‘minor financial incentives’ do not take seriously the ethical import of the case or the key motivational factors, but what about ‘major financial incentives’? In a sense, that is the thread about tobacco: it was the more significant nudges (e.g., bans in public places, increasingly steep taxes) that seem to have had an effect. Perhaps we could be similarly more high-cost with sustainable behaviour. To take one example, in parts of Switzerland, they have a significant tax on refuse bags (not a massive one, but it does make them considerably costlier than normal). As far as I understood it, that has a fairly genuine impact on propensity to recycle and, of course, it could be increased. Would such measures, if exacted more extensively, still fail to take seriously the duties in question and not provide sufficient stimulus?

    I also wonder if I could press you further from the opposite direction: to wit, the option of using straightforward coercion. Given the gravity of the issue, perhaps leaving even better motivated people the option not to behave in a sustainable fashion does not take it seriously enough. We do not, after all, aim to limit the causing of other significant harms, such as murder or assault, (only) through ensuring good motivations. One might wonder whether it provides the most likely way of realising our objectives, but I am not sure I would want to say that it certainly could not do so, partly because it might force people to act rightly whether or not they see the reasons, but partly because it might provide the kind of moral lesson that you are suggesting. Again, I guess that many people viewing other forms of causing harm as so objectionable is partly a function of us treating it as so objectionable in law. So, I guess I would add a second question: even if encouraging sustainable behaviour is provides better gravity or motivation than nudges, do we know that it is better than other means of pursuing these ends?

  4. Fay, two questions on this interesting post:
    1) my impression is that people’s willingness to change their behavior has a lot to do with what they view as their rights and freedoms. A non-moralized, individualistic account of freedom, together with a certain sense of entitlement of keeping what you have, make people quite unwilling to change anything, be it for the sake of social justice or climate change. So if that’s correct, we need an even stronger focus on changes of values and the power of arguments.
    2) to play devil’s advocate: isn’t the popularity of nudging related to the fact that governments can introduce it very easily without incurring high costs or pissing off key supporters (because if some issue really matters to you, you can still resist the nudge)? This doesn’t mean that nudging could not be legitimate, but it raises questions along the line that Andrew mentions, namely whether the measures that we really need (and which would be justified) would be much more radical measures, including coercive measures – which politicians don’t want to adopt because they would have to be directed against powerful groups in society, e.g. leaders of certain industries. These people or organizations won’t be convinced by arguments either, we need systemic changes in the incentive structures, and maybe some rather draconic bans on certain forms of behaviour.

  5. I have some real sympathy with Andrew's second point – namely, why ought we to use nudges rather than straightforward coercion? To take a simple example, it we think that coercion is justified in the case of taxation, why wouldn't we think it justified in the case of environmental harms?

    One response that could be given is that nudging is a more politically viable option. In a nutshell, governments are unlikely to respond to environmental harms with the use of coercion since it might be deeply unpopular, but they may be tempted to use more subtle techniques such as nudge interventions. Is this the kind of response you had in mind? (This points echoes some of Lisa's thought as well I think.)

  6. I have one thing to add to Lisa's first point that may be of interest. Appiah has recently argued that radical changes in behaviour are principally triggered by what citizens regard as their rights and freedom, but instead by what they regard as acceptable or even honorable behaviour. He claims that, for many years the binding of feet was accepted as morally problematic but it continued as a practice until systems of honour changed. It might be thought, therefore, that we ought not to aim at changing citizens' responsiveness to moral reasons, but instead at changing our systems of honour.

    FYI: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ySZJ_lh5cWk

  7. Lisa, I have a question re your first point. If a *non*moralised conception of freedom (plus aversion to losing what one already has) makes people feel entitled to behave the way they do, how is a change in values and the power of arguments going to help much? Or are you rather saying that we should try to make people more responsive to (in this case, environmental) values and to the power of arguments?

  8. Anca, I just meant that people need to understand (by the power of arguments, hopefully) that their freedom has limits when the freedom others (or other important goods) are at stake. This might make them a) more willing to change their own behaviour, b) willing to vote for politicians who build institutional solutions. (Basically, getting rid of a certain libertarian understanding of „I do what I want and you can’t tell me not to“… which denies the applicability of political arguments and political rules to what are considered „private rights“, instead of acknowledging that these rights are themselves up to debate)

  9. Fay, I wonder whether the solution you suggest of the government changing its rhetoric so that it is "focused on communicating to, and educating, citizens about climate change as an issue of social justice by highlighting the impacts on people, especially poorer and disadvantaged people" is realistic. The current UK government has little interest in these ideas in any other social area (see the rhetoric on benefits and scroungers) so why should we think they would be willing to do this for climate change?

    I think if we want to see this kind of norm change it will have to come from outside of government, from various social movements and climate change campaigns.

  10. Hi Andrew, thanks for your comments. On the first point re: nudges – I would be on board with the extensive use of higher-cost measures of the kind that you describe; the point is that these are not nudges (but rather 'shoves'); my sense is that, as far as nudges can be used, they should be used in a norm-changing role. There is quite a bit of evidence showing that people really care what they are doing in relation to others; so providing information about changes that others are making to their lifestyles seems to nudge people to think about whether they should be making similar changes, etc. On your second point – again, I am in favour of coercive measures and think that they are required by justice. It is for this reason that I find the current nudge-agenda anaemic. However, I understand that there isn't currently the necessary public support (at least I don't think there is) to move into strongly coercive measures re: sustainable behaviour change; and this is why I see a norm-changing role for nudging, to prepare citizens for, and build public support for the need of, more far-reaching regulation and legislation. This is similar to the suggestion Tom makes above.

  11. Hi Bruno – I agree with you on this, but I do also think (hope?) that the government's commitment to reduce the UK's greenhouse gas emissions requires that they come up with a strategy that gets serious about climate change. It does not seem important to me how people become morally motivated about sustainability – and I think that it will generally be something that takes place in private face-to-face conversations (most of all), in families and communities, at a public lecture, through social media, or in classrooms, and that the "various social movements and climate change campaigns" that you mention will be at the forefront of this process. I suppose that my idea was that this norm-changing process could, and should, be coupled with a government strategy that isn't simply trying to 'bribe' people into pro-environmental behaviour by providing self-interested options that are not matched up with any sense of the moral duties that we have to act in this way. (One potentially effective way in which the government could do this might actually be to providing funding and other sorts of support/ backing to civil society sustainability movements who are "focused on communicating to, and educating, citizens about climate change as an issue of social justice", thereby bridging the gap that you mentioned between government and 'outside of government'.)

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