Climate Giving: Altruism and Connectedness

By Tom Lee, Dr Matthew Robson, and Dr Joshua Wells.

Climate change is one of the greatest threats we face in the 21st century. The past 30 years is littered with failed attempts of people, states and institutions trying to act on climate change. If we are going to successfully respond to climate change, then many of us will have a part to play. This blog considers the question of why people give their money, time and effort to combating climate change, and which of these strategies should be used to get people to give more. 

Why do we give?

Giving to others often means we must sacrifice what we, ourselves, have. Many of us are willing to give our time, effort and money for the benefit of others. Giving blood, helping neighbours with their shopping and taking risks to rescue strangers are all examples of such behaviour. Central to our giving behaviour are two key elements: our degree of altruism and how connected we are to those we are giving to.

Altruism, simply put, is a regard for others: for their own sake. A complete lack of altruism leads to egoism, or selfishness, whilst an overabundance leads to selflessness. It is a general concept, applying to others in general, not to specific individuals. 

When we give it is, however, often to specific individuals. Our relationship to those individuals is important in determining how much we give. To our close family and friends, we are often willing to give more than to complete strangers. How connected we feel to those individuals often determines how much priority we give to them, in relation to others and ourselves. 

These two elements are distinct, but interconnected, and affect our giving in different ways. A greater degree of altruism increases our giving to all, regardless of how connected we feel to those we are giving too. Whilst an increased connectedness to particular individuals can increase how much we give to them specifically. Practically speaking, these two approaches might be complementary; together increasing giving more than either could do alone. 

We will explore how changes to these elements could increase giving, focusing on climate change. There are many forms that climate related giving could take, such as taking actions to reduce one’s personal carbon footprint. Giving can also occur in the monetary sense of donating to charities which support those who are affected by climate change. One could also give their time to help address the injustices of climate change, for example by campaigning on climate change. The possibilities for climate giving are numerous, yet subject to the same considerations of connectedness and altruism. We will now proceed by considering whether it is more morally desirable to increase climate giving strategies by focusing on altruism or connectedness. 

A case for altruism

Why might we prefer to enhance our altruism rather than increase our social connectedness? Here we’ll consider altruism in virtue ethical terms (admirable character traits like honesty, kindness etc.) and consider it broadly synonymous with ‘benevolence’. Benevolence responds to the needs of others with the appropriate sentiment i.e., feeling, in doing that. It is a reliable disposition to identify those in need and be moved to respond to those needs.   

Climate action is demanding; so are climate activists. Add the newer ‘moral’ flavour to climate action and it’s hardly surprising that many are overwhelmed by the demands of morality that appear to leave little room for living. But, as Christine Swanton says, virtues allow us to “…respond well to the demands of the world”. Why might benevolence be less demanding and, thus, more appealing?

First, an excessive tending to the well-being of others shows a lack of self-respect and -love. Many carers experience this, becoming utterly absorbed in their work and losing all track of their own wellbeing. Benevolence is one virtue among others, self-respect and -love are important too; the carers should care more about themselves. Second, benevolence hardly forbids indulgence: an appropriate amount is essential for a good life. What virtues do is point towards salience and call attention to slips into vice: excessive indulgence or apathy in this case. They can set the ground for debate.

For climate ethics, we can ask how well we are practicing benevolence. We needn’t appeal to duty nor subject ourselves to monkish lives. We can simply appeal to ourselves and others to be better by some approximately shared understanding of the features of benevolence and its excesses. We probably have good reason to think we are more self-obsessed than ever. However, if we are right to admire benevolence (let’s assume so), then we should want to be more benevolent full-stop and not just for climate change.

The basis of standing (the relation between you and others) is important to acting well for many virtues, especially benevolence. Consider how the importance of the right sort of feeling varies depending on the relation with the ‘other(s)’: we should feel more caring and empathetic when assisting our close friends rather than some stranger or a cause like Comic Relief; begrudgingly assisting a friend is wrong in a way which it isn’t to begrudgingly search for coins to placate some annoying dressed-up students imploring you to ‘dig deep’. We should care more about family and friends over strangers. They are special to us and our relationship demands more than impartiality admits. It is not defective to be kinder to friends than to strangers, quite the contrary, and this is where some caution about increasing connectedness comes in.

Special bonds are essential to a good life and, if one eliminates ‘distance’ between ‘us’ and ‘other’, then we lose this essential part of life. Good parents should care more for their children than for someone else’s, for example. Nobody here is seriously suggesting total(itarian) impartiality. Yet, calls to significantly decrease social distance are hardly uncommon and, in their various guises, are met with much resistance often manifested in xenophobia or jingoism. However, these ugly manifestations might hide some important truths which might trouble the social connectedness case.

The first is psychological resistance to denying that essential partialism of relationships, the second is that greater social connectedness is not necessary: benevolent people are disposed to give their time, effort, and money to those in need. One might give more (and more gladly!) to those one is closer to, but benevolence demands that the needs of those others are acknowledged too. Being wholly selfish, our social connectedness obviously wouldn’t matter; but, if I am altruistic, I will be more broadly giving. Benevolence directs us to how we ought to respond to the needs of others of varying standing while, importantly, not denying the validity of that variation in standing.

The case for altruism can well admit that our bonds with others are undernourished—perhaps we are inappropriately distanced from the ‘global poor’ or non-human animals (there are reasons to think that is the case at least in a limited sense)—but fostering altruism is more important and desirable. However, perhaps this view fails to appreciate another way in which we can stand in relation to others. This other way could well be central to climate ethics and, thus, favour a social connectedness approach. 

A case for connectedness

The connectedness approach requires you to consider your relationship with individuals. You use that relationship to determine whether you should give to them and, if so, how much. This initially paints a pretty bleak picture for the prospects of climate-related giving; I have not met many of the people who will first experience the more extreme impacts of climate change. Given that I have not met them, I cannot name them, I have not been to their countries, I am aware of their existence in the same way I am aware that there are other galaxies which I have not seen; my relationship to them appears to be as non-existent as a relationship can be between two individuals. The set of people who are most vulnerable to climate change are the set of people who are so far away that the connectedness approach would be too demanding to apply.  

If it were true that I did not have a connection to those who are vulnerable to climate change, the above would be true. Yet this is not the case. Each of our carbon emissions has contributed to the threat of climate change; the nation and society with which I feel connected are one of the biggest emitters in the world; I engage with and implicitly support through my actions industries that have harmful carbon footprints . I do stand in relation to those who will suffer impacts from climate change, for my life and activities have played a part in the climate change story.

The connectedness approach explains that a degree of our giving can be accounted for by how connected we feel to others. In the case of climate change, it seems that we fail to appreciate the way in which we are connected to others. Yet this is no reason to abandon the connectedness approach, instead, it highlights the importance of successfully raising awareness of the connections which exist between us and those who stand to first experience the impacts of climate change. We need to make it clear how we are truly connected to those who will experience the impacts of climate change first. 

One of the concerns with the argument from altruism is that altruistic giving is an act of benevolence; it is an act of charity. Suppose people understand their giving in the case of climate change in this way. In that case, they seem to miss something fundamental about the nature of climate ethics. They have a duty to help others who face climate change harms, which is a stronger duty than that of charity or benevolence. Acts of charity do not require a connection at all. Yet, the fact we are connected to those who suffer from climate change means that it is a mistake to think of giving to them as acts of charity. It is the difference between, thinking you do someone a favour by driving them to the hospital after accidentally breaking their leg, as opposed to driving them to the hospital because it is your duty to do so after accidentally breaking their leg. It would be a mistake to think that it is an act of charity to drive someone to hospital after breaking their leg, just as it is a mistake to think it is an act of charity to help those who will suffer from climate change.


There are plenty of reasons to see both increasing altruism and connectedness as morally desirable strategies for encouraging climate giving, and giving in general. Yet, there is also a clear and obvious sense in which either of these strategies succeeding is desirable; we have good pragmatic reasons to avert climate disasters. The challenge before us is to determine how much weight we should give to the moral questions posed by the means and how much we can afford to when facing the preeminent catastrophic threat of the 21st century.

Altruism and connectedness are explored as ways of understanding giving behaviour, in general, in Matthew Robson’s recent publication:

3 Replies to “Climate Giving: Altruism and Connectedness”

  1. I enjoyed this read. I found the case for both compelling in the sense that they are clearly well-grounded in philosophical theory. As a graduate of political science, however, I struggle to imagine how the individual – greatly atomised through a capitalist world order – could ever be encouraged to act in a meaningfully altruistic or interconnected way. One could question, therefore, whether we must rethink the whole structural economic system to allow for the proliferation of the altruistic or interconnected beliefs needed to address climate change. Alternatively, one could ask, how might an individual – within an individualistic society such as our own – be morally incentivised to act against climate change. In essence, capitalism conditions the individual. Capitalism is not naturally conducive to the selflessness required to act against climate change. It is my opinion that being conditioned to think about the self, as people are in capitalism, precludes the possibility of any meaningful widespread attempt of altruism or interconnectedness.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment Brendan,
      You are right that capitalism obversely has an important role to play in informing our response to climate change. The focus on altruism and connectedness is a product of the work done in experimental economics by Matt. The experimental literature finds that even in capitalist societies we do repeatedly find a significant amount of people who are willing to give, those who are wholly selfish individuals tend to be in the minority. So yes, we might never be able to change the behaviour of everyone, but we should target those whose behaviour we can more easily change. This might be those who currently give a little, if the egoists are set in their ways.

    2. First of all, as Josh says, thanks for your thoughts Brendan! (And this feels a little like getting the part one band together!)
      My response, unsurprisingly, doesn’t have anything to do with empirical evidence, and believe Josh’s response is more what you were after. However, here it is anyway!

      Really, I wonder what is meant when you say “meaningful”. I think you’re using it as synonymous with “significant”, in which case climate ethics is irrelevant for individuals since no individual can significantly impact the problems of climate change. We could only ask questions about how “we” as a community could be closer to those suffering the worst effects or could be more benevolent. But I think reducing climate ethics to these questions would be a great shame. It would remove responsibility and integrity away from individuals and shift it to some faceless system. Secondly, the system focus I find uneasy because it A) is overly instrumental (for me!) and relatedly B) skips over the fact that systems are the product of individual persons.

      I think, regardless of instrumental impact, there is something “meaningful” (ethically so) in more benevolent or having appropriate respect for ones standing with others. Climate change always tends towards a consequentialist outlook (as you’ve likely seen especially in critical theory) but, unless one is a commited act consequentialist with extremely hard teeth to bite a good many bullets, I think we should be very cautious of confusing what we have good pragmatic reasons to see brought about and what would be ethical to see it done.

      Finally, I think your comment points to a very interesting thought about structure and impact regarding the recent report about the world’s richest 1%. If it is true that capitalism makes for greedy selfish people, then presumably this is truer the “further up” one goes. The interesting empirical question could be whether, if the other 99% or even just 75% could be benevolent and properly close to others, would that be enough to see a “meaningful” impact?

      Thanks again!

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