The morals of flying

The morals of flying – this may seem surprising at first glance. We live in a time when flying is part of everyday life for most of us. Long distance relationship, visiting friends, going on vacation – all by plane. Many thoughts and associations come to us about flying, few of them have to do with morality. In this post, I want to venture to do just that: look at flying from a moral perspective. In doing so, I would like to explore the question of whether, on an individual level, we have a moral obligation not to fly.

World climate and justice


The countries listed as "extremely vulnerable" in the Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2015 are all developing countries. In the Sahel, the number of weather-related disasters has doubled in the last 25 years. Bangladesh will lose 10% of its land area to the ocean by 2050; saltwater flowing into the groundwater salinates kilometers of land every year. Yet Bangladesh, with per capita emissions of 0.16 tons per year, does not contribute to climate change at all (each German emits 67 times more). So there is a stark asymmetry between those who cause and those who suffer. We therefore speak of victimization: developing countries are made victims of a problem to which they themselves have hardly contributed. We have not even taken into account the justice aspects with regard to future generations.

The 2° target – welcome to reality

Another aspect central to our moral consideration of flying: the so-called 2°C target. It was first set as a goal at the global level at the 2010 UN Climate Change Conference in Mexico, and states that global warming should not exceed an average increase of 2°C over pre-industrial levels. It is assumed that the consequences of a warming of more than 2°C can no longer be controlled and reach a dangerous level for humans. Many developing countries find this target too low, and are calling for global warming to be limited to 1.5°C, as the consequences for them would otherwise be catastrophic. What do we need to do to avoid missing the 2°C target?

We would have to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at around 450 parts per million (ppm) CO2 equivalents. If the values were still at 280 ppm before industrialization, they have risen to 430 ppm until today. So we would still have a buffer of 20 ppm, which corresponds to a global greenhouse gas emission of 900 billion tons of CO2 equivalents. If this remaining budget is divided equally among all the earth’s inhabitants, each of us would have an annual CO2 budget of around 2t available by 2050. A return flight from Germany to New Zealand causes 14t CO2 emissions per passenger, exceeding the annual budget by a factor of 7. The average greenhouse gas emissions in Germany are over 11 tons per capita and year. With an equal per capita distribution of the remaining CO2 budget, Germany would have to reduce its emissions by 80% by 2050!

Climate change is a community problem

At this point, the usual argumentation stops and this is where I would like to begin. In my opinion, the knowledge that individual action does not cause direct harm is not a sufficient reason to reject moral responsibility. The reasoning is simple: the argumentation shown fundamentally contradicts our everyday conception of the moral!

The individual responsibility

Let us imagine the following scene: A man is beaten up by a group of youths. Meanwhile, one of the young people stands guard to warn his friends in case they are in danger of getting caught. He himself does not beat up the man, so does not directly contribute to his suffering. Would we acquit him of the charge of immorality because his individual actions did not result in direct harm to the man?

Another important criterion we use in everyday life to evaluate an action is whether someone knowingly performs an action that is harmful to others. Let’s look at an obvious example. Already in the 19. In the twentieth century, factories emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases, which contributed to climate change in the long run. But we would not blame the factory operators because they could not have known about the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. Even through extensive research, they could not have foreseen the consequences of their actions, since research did not yet know anything about climate change. We would not call their actions immoral because they could not be aware of the consequences. Let us now assume that one of these factories is a textile factory in which garments are dyed, among other things. The dyes used in the process emit toxic fumes. Although the factory operator knows this, he decides against buying protective clothing for his workers, as a result of which several of his workers fall ill. In this case, our assessment would be different. The operator knows about the negative consequences, but still does not change his actions. He is aware of the consequences and continues anyway. We would therefore call his actions immoral.

Let’s summarize: In everyday life, we consider someone to be acting morally incorrectly if he or she participates in an action that is harmful to others and is aware of the negative consequences of this action.

If we now transfer this attitude to recreational flying, the verdict is different than if we merely consider the concrete damage. No, the individual flight does not directly harm other people. But whoever flies through the world for pleasure is participating, he supports this system and participates in an action which – aggregated – has massive disadvantages for other people. If we apply the evaluation standard from our examples of the party member or the person keeping watch, we even have to say: it is immoral not to do anything about this behavior. Then we would have to consider it imperative to resist the practice of recreational flying, to rebel against it, to raise our voices.

Path dependencies

It is fair to say that what has been said can be applied to all actions that involve the emission of greenhouse gases. With the above reasoning, every car ride and every non-regenerative heated room would be immoral. Strictly speaking, this is correct and we are urged to adopt an emission-neutral lifestyle as soon as possible. Nevertheless, we can differentiate at this point.

As already mentioned, in line with the 2°C target, each and every German would have emissions of around 2t CO2 equivalent per year at his or her disposal. If the emissions caused in Germany purely by the public infrastructure are applied to the population, the figure is already over 1t per capita. The very fact that we live in this society means that half of our annual CO2 budget has been exhausted. There is nothing we can do about these emissions on an individual level. This is a classic example of what is known as path dependency. Most of our public infrastructure dates from a time when climate change played no or a minor role. For example, the majority of public buildings are poorly insulated and equipped with emissions-intensive heating systems.

Today we are dependent on this path taken in the past. The same applies to our transport infrastructure. The main means of transport in the past was the automobile. Correspondingly, transportation routes for cars are the best developed transportation infrastructure. We can’t simply undo that. Here, too, we depend on the path taken in the past. So there are areas that we cannot change on an individual level. Political engagement is needed here to bring about systemic change (which is no less important than adjusting personal lifestyles!).

We have the choice

For ancient philosophers, the idea of the Good Life was inextricably linked to virtuous behavior toward others. A good life at the expense of others was for them a contradiction in terms. If we would orient ourselves more to this concept of the good, flying in our free time or irresponsible consumer behavior would be incompatible with the good life. In the areas where there are no or only personal path dependencies, there are no conclusive arguments to be found against a rejection of participation and a departure for the Good Life. There is nothing good unless you do it!

Guest author Andre (24) lives in Kiel, Germany, and is studying the complex relationships between humans and the environment as part of his master’s degree program. He does not fly anymore since 2012.

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Great train of thought, coherently argued – chapeau& thank you very much& Encore.

A wonderful article! Thank you!

What I also find morally questionable is the attitude of some people that they deserve the lifestyle they lead.

Thank you for this advance into the public sphere! I had it with a friend recently also of the fact that so avoidable and blatantly environmentally harmful behavior, because of the ignorance associated with it, should be ostracized just as socially as sexism, racism, etc. – BUT we have also come across a question on which I would like to hear your opinion: In the end, the mere fact that we (in Schland) live, or at least HOW we (almost) inevitably live here, is very harmful to the environment. So where do we draw the line morally-philosophically, in order not to arrive at ecologically-motivated mass murder, or at least suicide, as a motto? Do we in the industrial nations really still have the "right" to a certain pollution?? How can we demand this on the one hand, in order to be allowed to live at all, and on the other hand, distinguish ourselves from the ignorant behavior criticized in the article on the basis of flying, but which also applies to much more common things?? For me it is not about "guilt" but about responsible behavior. Or in another way, following the picture in the article: We could probably justify the death of all NSDAP-employees, if one would have saved the lives of many Jews by doing so. Is this really comparable with people who live a lifestyle with more than 2t CO2/year and the lives of today’s and especially future victims of the strongest effects of climate change?. Where do our rights as individuals (even against a community benefit) begin and end – and why? Is it possible to argue without such individual rights without falling into totalitarian patterns of thinking?? Again more concretely: How much restriction must be and how much may be?

A great article! I have never flown in my life..

Thanks for your follow up. What you mention is of course exactly the sore point.

I’ll start with the scientific part and then come to my own opinion. The questions you raise are classic questions in climate ethics, a relatively young field of ethics that looks at climate change from a perspective of morality and the just. There is a study from 2004, which was commissioned by the UBA to apply various established ethical theories to the problem of climate change. Nearly all established moral/justice theories thereby conclude that industrialized nations are obligated to reduce their emissions to a ‘fair share’ "as soon as practicable" and work to stabilize GHG concentrations at the "lowest feasible level". In short, the consensus in climate ethics is that we must do everything we can to reduce our emissions very quickly and very extensively. The exciting question, and this is where the unity ends, is what this "as fast as possible" means.

The question whether we have a right to live at all’ is seldom the subject of consideration. And I think the question can only be answered by oneself. I would answer in the affirmative with regard to the mentioned path dependencies. We have built our society and our infrastructure to a large extent in a time when we did not know anything about climate change. It is on this path that we depend today. Therefore, I would not go so far as to say that, from a moral perspective, we have forfeited our right to live. Nevertheless again: The own freedom ends, where the freedom of the others begins. We are living out our freedom right now in a way that is extremely restrictive of other people’s freedom. We need to move away from this ‘as quickly as possible’ and we have an obligation to reduce path dependencies as quickly and effectively as possible.

//If you are looking for scientific answers to this question, you should turn to actual ethicists, I am also a complete beginner in this field.//

What does ‘as fast as possible’ mean?

This is where opinions differ. The most common view is the one presented in the article, that we are committed to the 2° target and should divide the remaining emission rights equally among all inhabitants of the earth. This is often linked to the approach that industrialized nations, because of their enormous historical contribution to climate change, have an additional obligation to provide ‘clean development’ to developing nations through financial and technology transfers. From this point of view, ‘as fast as possible’ means to reduce our emissions by 85% until 2050, which would correspond to about 2t per person. Even if this approach does not do full justice to our historical contribution to climate change, should we follow this described path, I could get comfortable with it. Unfortunately, it does not look like it: Contrary to the ethics theories, we are far away from ‘as fast as possible’. Climate protection is still on TOP 3 – 5 of the agenda, selfish arguments like economic growth and job preservation are still dominant.

But now to the individual, and this is what you were aiming at in your question. What does ‘as fast as possible’ mean for us?? This is a question that only everybody can answer for himself. If you have answered the question, if you still have a right to live, you come to the point, where the question is, how such a life may/can look like. Here, too, I can only describe how I answered this question for myself.

Path dependencies exist on two levels, on a personal and on a structural level. Structural path dependencies (infrastructure, economic system …) cannot be reduced by individual choices. You describe quite correctly in your comment that we in Germany have no choice but to live at the expense of others. At the moment, you can’t actually get to the 2t. What is the conclusion? Whoever considers it morally imperative to no longer live his freedom at the expense of others and to come to a ‘fair share’, is obliged to work on a structural level to ensure that this is also possible for him in our society. Structural path dependencies can only be reduced by political decisions. Who wants to live with 2t has to work for the creation of structures that allow such a life. So I think it is necessary to work politically for the dismantling of structural path dependencies in the broadest sense.

In addition to the structural path dependencies, there are the personal path dependencies, which is, after all, what the article is trying to address. Again I cannot give you an "objective" answer. I also can’t think of any scientific approaches that deal with what would be required on an individual level. But I can’t think of any reason why the ‘as soon as possible’ shouldn’t apply to personal path dependencies as well. How can this be shaped? There are areas in which for me there are hardly any path dependencies. With me that is z.B. the area of nutrition: I grew up with vegetarian brothers and a father who covered our vegetable needs by growing his own vegetables. A meat-reduced diet as well as the exclusive use of regional and seasonal vegetables are not difficult for me to achieve. On the other hand, there are of course areas where there are greater path dependencies. For me, for example, this is the area of clothing. From my point of view, it is important to be clear about this and to set goals accordingly. In areas of strong path dependency, I try to set small, attainable goals and then revisit them periodically. The key is to set goals that still feel good to you. I have made the experience that people who directly forbid themselves everything and go beyond this area of good feeling, do not find a satisfying path in the long run. On the other hand, I keep hearing that the step-by-step approach described is associated with a higher quality of life. You realize what you really need and what is really crucial for your well-being :). I think it is most effective to set concrete, ambitious but achievable goals and to review them regularly.

To summarize: I interpret the duty of ‘as fast as possible’ on an individual level on the one hand as an obligation to work for systemic change in order to be able to live a morally responsible life within our society at all, and on the other hand as a call to continuously (but always within the realm of good feeling) change one’s own lifestyle accordingly.

One more note: I do not know if I have answered your questions with my explanations. But if you are interested in the topic of ecology and freedom, I can recommend the issue of the Boll magazine, which was explicitly dedicated to this field of tension at the beginning of the year. You can download it for free at:

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