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How to Make a Difference

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Steven Hales complains that we (folk and academic ethicists alike) focus too much on individual action:We like to believe that when it comes to the great global issues of our time—climate change, pollution, poverty, mass extinction—that we each can make a difference. A small one maybe, but a real and significant difference, nonetheless. [...] That’s a mistake. It not only makes us guilt-ridden and worse off psychologically, but even more harmfully it also provides only the illusion of effective action, thereby allowing global problems to fester without a proper solution. [... W]hen it comes to global-scale issues, what individuals do is somewhere between 100 percent pointless and 99.9999999 percent pointless.There's something right about this, but the central claim is crucially wrong.  After all, if you're able to alleviate just 0.0000001% of global harms, that's actually quite a lot of good you've done!  You may have saved someone's life, or slightly increased the chance of humanity's continued survival, or slightly increased the average quality of life for future generations (and either of the latter two may in fact involve astronomical amounts of good).  Once we grasp the magnitudes involved, it becomes clear that having a proportionate impact is far from pointless.Hales argues that individual contributions are necessarily wasted "when (1) we solve climate change and your sacrifice wasn’t needed after all, or (2) we fail to solve it and your sacrifice was squandered."  There are two major problems with this reasoning. First, it neglects the fact that climate change (like most of the "great global issues of our time") is a graded rather than all-or-nothing phenomenon to be "solved".  There is not one thing, climate change, that either happens or not, but rather a spectrum of related phenomena that may become more or less serious depending on how effectively we're able to address the underlying problems.Secondly, Hales. . .

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