Confucianism, Climate Change, and The Power of Individual Lifestyle Choices

Given the current focus on effects of anthropogenic climate change, individuals may wonder what their moral obligations are to mitigate the issue. There has been little in the way of large-scale policy changes, and any personal changes in carbon emissions do not appear to make a large difference. In this paper, I will lay out the inefficiency argument as put forth by Johnson as well as the assumptions that it makes. I will then outline Hourdequin’s application of Confucianism to show that those assumptions are false. Finally, I will discuss the implications , concluding that each person has a moral obligation to reduce their emissions. There are many ways to live an ecologically friendly lifestyle, and for the purpose of this paper, I will be focusing on carbon emissions. However, I believe that the conclusion can be generalized to all branches of an ecologically friendly lifestyle, such as eating less meat, shopping locally and using alternate forms of power. These generalizations will be further discussed in my conclusion.

The inefficiency argument states that the unilateral actions of one person are not enough to cause or stop anthropogenic climate change, and therefore there is no moral obligation to change one’s lifestyle. Johnson frames this as a commons problem, where each person benefits by using as much as the resource as possible, however if everyone does so, that resource will be depleted. He substitutes the common resource for total carbon emissions.

As a commons problem, this argument makes three key assumptions:

1. The only incentive players have is to maximise [their individual] benefits from use of the commons. 

2. The only way players can communicate is by increasing or reducing use of the commons. 

3. Use of the commons is shared…[and] Resources saved by one individual are available for use by any other user. (Hourdequin 446)

If these assumptions are true, then increasing one’s emissions is the best option, whereas decreasing one’s emissions leaves more room for others to emit. Therefore, it seems as though one’s actions do not make a difference (Hourdequin 446). However, these assumptions also imply that every individual has the goal of emitting as much as possible and that they act unilaterally, uninfluenced by the actions of others.  I will now turn to Hourdequin’s discussion of Confucianism to show that the latter assumption is incorrect. 

Confucianism defines the self by its relation to others, as we learn to be moral through others. As a child, one mimics the actions of those around them in order to live amongst the community. The Confucianism model implies that one learns what constitutes as moral behaviour by looking to the people around them as models (Hourdequin 453). If it is true that we learn our morals from others, it cannot be said that all individuals act unilaterally. As well, this speaks to the second assumption of the commons problem: that the only way individuals communicate is through raising or lowering their emissions. The commons problem’s assumptions imply that lowering one’s emissions does not enact change in others except allowing them to increase their emissions. However, Hourdequin argues that lowering one’s emissions can inspire others to lower their own, as we are modelling a moral behaviour, and sending a message to others about our concern for the environment (Hourdequin 454). This is echoed in with the study done by Turrentine and Kurani, which found that people purchase hybrid cars in order to show a commitment to the environment, or as a point of discussion, instead of cost savings (Hourdequin 454). Therefore, she finds that not only are people influenced by each other, but the commons problem’s assumptions are false when it comes to carbon emissions, as lowering one’s emissions can influence others to do the same.

Johnson would raise the argument that it is not the responsibility of the individual to change their lifestyle in order to encourage others, instead they should instead use their effort to encourage governments to regulate and enforce limits on carbon emissions (Hourdequin 444). This is echoed by Hardin, who believes that social policy is the only way to resolve commons problems such as climate change (Hourdequin 454).

Hourdequin notes that Confucianism sees the path to social reform as a change in both mind and action, instead of coercion (Hourdequin 444). A law that limits the amount that one can emit amounts to coercion, as it forces people to lower their emissions. Instead, under the Confucian view, action against climate change must instead start with large scale understanding and acknowledgement of the need to reduce emissions. Without the change in mind, changes in action will be slow and fought against by those who do not understand why they are being forced to emit less. 

As we have shown that people’s actions are influenced by one another, I argue that large scale change starts in the individual. I therefore find that the first assumption made by the commons problem is false. It states that the only incentive players have is to maximize their benefits by use of the commons, meaning in the case of emissions that the only incentive is to emit as much as possible. Given the relational concept of Confucianism, I find that a far greater incentive is to maintain relationships within the community. If one decides to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, either by emitting less or consuming fewer animal products, the message they are communicating to others is that they are concerned with the wellbeing of others, as anthropogenic climate change will effect everyone. Therefore, lowering their emissions does not minimize their benefits, but instead maximizes the overall benefits of everyone. As they begin to discuss this among their peers, they will be able to change the minds and therefore the actions of others, creating large-scale change. Therefore, I find that one does have a moral obligation to live not only a low-emission lifestyle, but an overall environmentally friendly lifestyle. It is outside the scope of this paper to discuss what an environmentally friendly lifestyle consists of, as some aspects are debatable. However, lowering emissions, not littering, and consuming less animal products are manageable lifestyle changes that will produce benefits not only to the individual but to society overall.

In conclusion, I find that Hourdequin’s application of Confucianism is effective in showing that people are influenced by one another. Given this influence, each person therefore has a moral obligation to not only live an environmentally friendly lifestyle, but to engage in discussion about it with those that do not. Engaging in these discussions will help to offer different perspectives and encourage those who do not live environmentally friendly lifestyles to do so. 

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