Complicity: Individual Responsibility in Collective Contexts

Project Details

Layman's description

Climate change is caused by human action, yet none of us can be said to have intended it. Furthermore, no agent, even a collective one, can stop the unfolding climate crisis on their own or by acting unilaterally. Many of the systemic harms or wrongs in our world, such as climate change, the use of sweatshop labour in global supply chains, and the non-balanced representation of certain groups of people in the media, are caused collectively. That is, they are caused and upheld by a number of different agents, none of whom can affect the outcome directly on their own. They are also usually the unintended (but foreseen) consequence of some other activity, such as travelling on holidays or purchasing clothes, or an outcome of underlying biases and social norms that lead to certain groups being under- or misrepresented. In other words, these systemic effects can come about even when no contributing agent intends any harm or wrong.

Why should we care about what we do as individuals if the effects of our individual actions are imperceptible? Yet what we do together, in aggregate, matters a great deal: it is the difference between stabilized emissions or climate chaos. A crucial question in cases of systemic harms is whether individuals can be responsible for causing or upholding these, or whether the responsibility lies with a collective. In either case, there are many issues that need to be resolved. If individuals are deemed responsible, how exactly does each small action cause a great harm? On the other hand, if we want to argue that a collective is responsible, we need to clarify what this means.

This two-year project sets out to explain how and in what ways individuals can be held responsible for collectively caused systemic harms, and when should we hold a collective responsible instead. When we understand the potential in our individual participation, we can create new groups and networks that ensure that can affect even systemic harms. We can also affect social norms and prevailing practices. This, I believe, is the key to solving the gridlock we are in not taking enough action over systemic harms like climate change.
Effective start/end date01/08/201931/07/2021


  • Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowships programme : €189,973.00

Fields of Science

  • 611 Philosophy
  • complicity
  • responsibility
  • collective responsibility
  • social epistemology
  • climate change mitigation