Joint Duties and Global Moral Obligations


  • I would like to thank the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Australian National University for hosting my 2010–2011 research project “Collective Moral Obligations Arising from Climate Change” and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for financing it. I am furthermore grateful to the ECR Advanced Grant Project “Distortions of Normativity” at the University of Vienna for having supported this research. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Australian National University (CAPPE Seminar Series 2011), Charles Sturt University Wagga Wagga (Philosophy Seminar 2010), The University of Melbourne (CAPPE Seminar Series 2010), Manchester University (Manchester Political Theory Workshops 2010), and the University of Tasmania (Philosophy Seminar 2011). I want to thank the audiences at these institutions for inspiring debates and essential feedback. I am also grateful to a number of people who read and commented on earlier versions of the paper, including Stephanie Collins, Bob Goodin, Holly Lawford-Smith, Larry May and Seumas Miller. Finally, I would like to thank an anonymous reviewer from Ratio for very helpful comments.


In recent decades, concepts of group agency and the morality of groups have increasingly been discussed by philosophers. Notions of collective or joint duties have been invoked especially in the debates on global justice, world poverty and climate change. This paper enquires into the possibility and potential nature of moral duties individuals in unstructured groups may hold together. It distinguishes between group agents and groups of people which – while not constituting a collective agent – are nonetheless capable of performing a joint action. It attempts to defend a notion of joint duties which are neither duties of a group agent nor duties of individual agents, but duties held jointly by individuals in unstructured groups. Furthermore, it seeks to illuminate the relation between such joint duties on the one hand and individual duties on the other hand. Rebutting an argument brought forward by Wringe, the paper concludes that it is not plausible to assume that all humans on earth can together hold a duty to mitigate climate change or to combat global poverty given that the members of that group are not capable of joint action.