Felix Pinkert

on matters philosophical

PhD Dissertation: Global Problems and Individual Obligations

I believe that I morally ought to do something about global warming, world poverty, trade injustices and political oppression, rather than just stand by. But I do not yet know what precisely it is that I ought to do. And somehow that bothers me enough to devote three years of my life to writing a dissertation to find out.

There are a many ways in which we together can do something to bring improvement in these areas. Scientists, engineers, economists, political scientists will be happy to tell us their best informed guesses as to which these are. Activists of all kinds will be happy to further tell me what I supposedly can do to make a contribution. But, even setting aside the important uncertainties about the best ways to tackle these issues, such claims about what I can contribute do not yet tell me what I morally ought to do. For example, it is still an open question how much I ought to contribute to the solution of these issues, and if I ought to take up the slack left by others who do not contribute as much as they ought. Further, can I be required to contribute to a cause that is in fact lost because not enough others are willing to contribute? And should I not  do what brings about visible benefits rather than to make seemingly insignificant contributions to large-scale projects?

The aim of my PhD dissertation is to provide a general framework to determine what individuals ought to do with regard to moral challenges like the above. These challenges have in common that we face them together with others, and that we can only successfully tackle them together. So in a nutshell, I am investigating the ethics of promoting the good together. One of the considerations that intuitively matter a whole lot are the consequences of our actions. We can take these into account in two ways: we may consider the consequences of our individual actions (by asking "what will happen if I do that?"), and/or consider also the consequences of what we together can do (e.g. by asking "what if everyone did that?"). In my dissertation, I evaluate a number of reasons for adopting the latter collectivist perspective.

You can find a more technical dissertation summary on the next page.

On a more applied note, why not set aside the question of what you ought to do, and simply sign one of Amnesty International's current petitions anyway? Even if it's supererogatory, it surely won't hurt, and only costs a minute.