The paradox of collective action is that while none of us can individually make a difference to the overall outcome, together we can. And while no individual’s failure to act will undermine the success of the collective effort, if too many people continue with business as usual we will not make a change for the better.
So why change your behaviour if it doesn’t make much difference for better or worse? Understanding how we might have obligations for collective problems will mean we need to rethink some of our common assumptions and intuitively held views about morality.
Here is a way in which we could rethink our moral obligations regarding problems of collective action. We could think of our individual obligations as deriving from the collectively optimal response to these problems and understand our responsibility to address them as shared, rather than individual.
Moral obligations or responsibilities, on this view, have different sources. Sometimes, we have obligations to perform certain actions or to produce certain outcomes because we can make a difference for the better. At other times, the source of our obligation may not reside in the effect of our actions or omissions, but in how these relate to a collective pattern of action that we perceive as morally right.
We might think that closing the emissions gap or slowing down antibiotic resistance by reducing our carbon or anti-microbial footprint is the best collective pattern of action available to us (beyond government action). Consequently, our obligations to change our behaviour can be seen as deriving their moral force from the fact that they form part of that pattern.
So reducing our carbon footprint or reducing our anti-microbial footprint are actions that are constitutive of our collectively doing the right thing. Another way of putting this is to say that individual moral responsibility (remedial, in this case) need not be tied to individual causal impact, but may derive from our collective responsibility and our joint difference-making ability.