Ethics of Cooperation

With my colleague Phil Robichaud and 2 PhD students – Tessa Supèr and Dominik Boll – we run the “Ethics of Cooperation” project (2021-2025), on cooperation and responsibility in social dilemmas.

Climate change is caused by what billions of citizens, companies and governments on the planet together do. A successful response hangs on whether enough parties cooperate and reduce their energy consumption, not just on whether any individual citizen does her part. This raises the question: why reduce one’s energy consumption when doing so typically seems to be a waste of one’s efforts?

We work on this problem from different angles:

  1. Holding onto a carbon intensive lifestyle doesn’t seem “universalizable”. You want everyone to reduce their energy consumption and shouldn’t make an exception of yourself. Yet these reasons are controversial, and I’m trying to make sense of them.
  2. A second idea we’re working on is that, even when cooperating fails to make a difference, it may still have symbolic value. Boycotting products with a major carbon footprint, for instance, may express that you care about the climate and stand up for future generations. The question is whether this is valuable in its own right.
  3. These social dilemmas look an awful lot like personal dilemmas we’re all familiar with. For example, why exercise this particular afternoon if your goal of getting healthy and fit by the end of the year doesn’t depend on it? Tessa is investigating whether solutions to such personal dilemmas might also work in the collective case.
  4. In real life, some people take responsibility where others slack. But what’s the point of taking responsibility and possibly picking up the slack left by others? Dominik is exploring the idea that this can reshape and strengthen certain social norms.
  5. Finally, if people are not cooperating (possibly out of partial or willful ignorance), then how to hold them accountable? Phil and I have engaged in this debate in the past years, and are still following it closely.