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Julia Meaton. Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy, Vol. 1, 2009. 
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Since their invention in the late nineteenth century, automobiles have come to play a pivotal role in the everyday lives of people and have gone on to shape nations and their economies. In 2000 one in nine of the world's 6.1 billion people owned an automobile, and this statistic is growing annually. Until the first decade of the twenty-first century, automobiles have been perceived as a largely benevolent and positive influence on society, bringing independence, convenience, and speed to those who owned and used them. As such they became a sign of economic growth in the societies where they prevailed.

Most people see automobile use not as a matter of good or bad, but as an indispensable aspect of everyday life. However, the environmental, social, and economic costs of automobile use have become more obvious and acute since the 1960s, and the moral problems relating to their use need to be considered on the individual and collective levels.


Automobiles cause environmental problems from their manufacture, use, and disposal. The construction of automobiles requires large amounts of raw materials, including metal, glass, plastic, and rubber, and their actual assembly involves large-scale energy use, with considerable pollution as a byproduct.

During use, automobiles consume oil, and this stimulates demand for oil drilling, extraction, refining, and transportation. The geographical distribution of oil gives rise to international disputes over territory and access. Questions over the future availability of oil could escalate such tensions. Peak oil, the point at which half of all the oil that has ever existed in the world has been extracted (the most accessible half), is thought to have occurred between 2000 and 2008. As oil becomes scarcer, prices will rise, and more intense international political skirmishes are likely to follow. This raises significant ethical issues as well as practical problems for an oil-based global economy.

Once in use, automobiles produce over 1,000 pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and particulates, all of which damage the local environment and people's health. Asthma, bronchitis, and cancer are the main diseases associated with these types of pollution.

The issue of climate change and the contribution of transportation to greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, have come to dominate discussions about transport-related pollution. Since light-duty vehicles account for half the global transport sector's emissions of carbon dioxide, automobile use is clearly an important factor in this worldwide problem. Even at the end of their lives, automobiles

Hybrid Automobile in Japan, 2007. As automobile use continues to increase, along with knowledge of its detrimental effects on the environment, manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce negative impact. On a test course in Tokyo, individuals Hybrid Automobile in Japan, 2007. As automobile use continues to increase, along with knowledge of its detrimental effects on the environment, manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce negative impact. On a test course in Tokyo, individuals can drive a prototype of a Toyota Motor plug-in hybrid, which runs on chargeable batteries, TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.

continue to pollute, with each discarded vehicle containing an estimated 6 quarts of oil, 3 quarts of fuel, 5 quarts of cooling fluid, and 3 quarts of sulfuric acid.

In Los Angeles, over two-thirds of land space is primarily for automobile use. American suburbia exemplifies the interdependence of urban development and automobile ownership, and represents a way of life that promotes and depends on universal car ownership. Even this pro-automobile infrastructure struggles to cope, and traffic congestion in the United States is estimated to cost $60 billion a year.

Although the landscapes of European countries are less dominated by the automobile, the years since 1995 have seen many road-expansion schemes being targeted by environmental protesters, with land take, habitat destruction, traffic growth, noise, and air and water pollution being the key concerns. John Pucher and colleagues (2007) describe motorization rates in China and India as skyrocketing, with a fivefold increase in private-car ownership in China between 1991 and 2003 and a doubling during the same period in India. This growth has been matched by parallel increases in traffic-related deaths and injuries, as well as in noise and air pollution. Since these ownership figures still represent a rate of only 10 and 7 cars per 1,000 population respectively (compared to 745 per 1,000 in the United States and between 500 and 650 per 1,000 in European countries), the potential for further growth is huge, and the threat to the global environment immense.


Each year 1.2 million people die, and 50 million people are injured, in road accidents. Moreover, 500 million people

are either directly or indirectly affected by road accidents at an annual global cost of $500 billion. The inequity of the distribution of these deaths and injuries is also an issue. Around 90 percent of these deaths are in developing countries, and most deaths and injuries are inflicted on pedestrians, cyclists, poor people, and children (Grayling et al. 2002). Automobile use, it would seem, can no longer be regarded as a benign aspect of society and must be seen as an activity that causes damage and destruction in many different ways across the globe. Because of the number of negative externalities and their inequitable distribution and impact, automobile use likely cannot continue to be regarded as a private matter.

As public awareness of these environmental and social impacts has grown, more debates on the ethics of automobile use have emerged. Many of these center on the tradeoff between private gain and public harm, perhaps most famously expressed by Garrett Hardin in his classic paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968). Using the concept of Anglo-Saxon grazing commons, he argued that social welfare cannot be maximized by individuals looking after their own interests, because it is not possible for individuals to maximize their own interests without reference to the actions of others. Individuals freely pursuing their own interests will inevitably act in competition with each other, and the total effect of everyone's actions is that social welfare is reduced rather than maintained or enhanced. On the basis of this effect, Hardin made the case for social controls over the use of resources belonging to the commons.

The issue of personal freedom is at the core of many of these arguments, particularly since private-car use is typically seen as a symbol of this freedom. Julia Meaton and David Morrice (2001) used John Stuart Mill's theory of freedom to explore the ethics of private-automobile use. On the basis of Mill's distinction between self harm (activities that harm only oneself and therefore are not subject to societal control) and other harm (activities that harm other people and therefore are subject to societal control), they argued that a ban on private-car use is morally justified, although they concede that this is likely to be impractical.

Other ethical discussions center on the issue of choice. In a discussion on the case against the sport utility vehicle (SUV), Steve Vanderheiden (2006) argues that people can be held morally responsible for the negative consequences of their acts only if those acts are voluntary, informed, and avoidable. This adds to the confusion, since it is possible to argue that in an automobile-dominated society it is necessary to have a car and hence that the choice to own a car is neither voluntary nor avoidable, yet on the other side of the ledger it is difficult to argue that people are unaware of the ills associated with that behavior.

Religious leaders have become involved in the debate. In the United States the Evangelical Environmental Movement Network focused on the growing movement against special purpose vehicles and framed the choice of transport as a moral issue best resolved by asking, “What would Jesus drive?” —although that arguably might be better phrased as “Would Jesus drive?” In 2007 the Pope confirmed the issue of motoring as a moral issue and penned ten commandments for motorists, though these dicta focused on societal rather than environmental issues.

While widely differing opinions exist on the rights and wrongs of automobile use and on the responsibilities of governments and individuals, there is a growing consensus that more responsible behavior is a moral and environmental imperative. Examples of good individual behaviors include driving less, using public transport and nonmotorized forms of transport, and sharing cars. When automobiles are used, models with lower environmental impacts should be favored, and drivers should drive so as to be socially and environmentally responsible. Governments should institute policies that encourage such choices.

SEE ALSO Alternative Technology; Land Ethic; Tragedy of the Commons; Transportation; Urban Environments.


Grayling, Tony; Karl Hallam; Daniel Graham; et al. 2002. Streets Ahead: Safe and Livable Streets for Children. London: Institute of Public Policy Research.

Hardin, Garret. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162: 1243—1248.

Meaton, Julia, and David Morrice. 2001. “Individual Freedom and the Ethics of Private Car Use.” In Ethics for Everyday, ed. David Benatar, 683—697. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Pucher, John; Zhong-ren Peng; Neha Mittal; et al. 2007. “Urban Transport Trends and Policies in China and India: Impacts of Rapid Economic Growth.” Transport Reviews 27(4): 379—410.

Vanderheiden, Steve. 2006. “Assessing the Case against the SUV.” Environmental Politics 15(1): 23—40.

Julia Meaton

Source Citation:
Meaton, Julia. "Automobiles." Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy. Ed. J. Callicott and Robert Frodeman. Vol. 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2009. 84-85. Global Reference on the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources. Web. 21 Sept. 2017.
Gale Document Number:CX3234100036

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