UCL Faculty of Laws


Recording | Quain 2022: Climate Change and Quality of Life

14 November 2022–18 November 2022, 6:30 pm–3:00 pm

Climate Change in 4 images

The Quain Lectures in Jurisprudence 2022 series: three lectures by Professor Peter Railton (University of Michigan) & Commentators' Seminar

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Speaker: Professor Peter Railton, University of Michigan
Convenors: Professors Jeff King and Kevin Toh, University College London

About the Series (see recorded lectures below)

What could psychological research on “subjective well-being” teach us about the nature of well-being in a fuller sense, and how might this help us contend with the difficulty that effective measures to control global climate change are often perceived as at odds with personal well-being? Answering these questions requires us to examine both the psychological processes underlying an individual’s sense of subjective well-being and the social and political processes shaping conceptions of the quality of life and the possibilities for fundamental change. Please join us for this year’s Quain Lectures in Jurisprudence, during which one of the world’s most distinguished philosophers will propose in-depth answers to these profoundly important questions.

About the Lectures

Justice would appear to require that countries that have made the greatest contribution to climate change, have benefited the most from the practices that have led to this change, and possess the most resources for contending with it—primarily the most-developed countries—shoulder the greatest share of the burden in controlling climate change. Yet efficacious control measures are widely seen in those countries as having substantial negative effects on the existing quality of life, an “inconvenient truth” that undermines social and political support for these measures.

Might this notion of sacrifice of quality of life be based more upon ideology than science? What sort of science do we have of quality of life, and what sorts of ideology might be involved? There is a large and well-developed empirical literature on “subjective well-being”—a measure combining an individual’s self-reported positive vs. negative feelings with their overall sense of satisfaction with their life—but many have, for good reason, been critical of the adequacy of this measure to capture the whole of well-being. Nonetheless, how an individual experiences their life must certainly be an important component of well-being, and we should ask what these experiences might be telling us about the nature of well-being. The literature on subjective well-being has also brought to light a number of features of life experience that we would not have anticipated—features that might call for a rethinking of prevailing ideologies of quality of life. Such a perspective is strengthened by recent research on underlying mechanisms of human valuation and cognition, which suggests that human affect and intuition can carry much more sophisticated and knowing information than previously thought.

Our question thus becomes, what sort of information might assessments of subjective well-being carry, with what relevance to our capacity to respond effectively to global climate change? For example, subjective well-being bears a complex rather than simple relation to material level, and certain non-material factors significantly associated with higher subjective well-being—social connectedness, meaningful activity, learning, connection with nature, and mutual trust, for example—are compatible with much lower demands upon the natural environment. It is a piece of ideology, not a hard reality, that the quality of life in the most-developed countries depends upon sustaining existing levels of consumption and exploitation of natural resources. This might be a “convenient truth” as we seek grounds to mobilize the social and political responses needed in the developed countries to control climate change.

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About the Speaker

Peter Railton is the Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor, John Stephenson Perrin Professor, and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Philosophy. His main research has been in ethics and the philosophy of science, focusing especially on questions about the nature of objectivity, value, norms, and explanation. Recently, he has also begun working in aesthetics, moral psychology, the theory of action, and artificial intelligence. He has a special interest in the bearing of empirical research in psychology and evolutionary theory on these questions. A collection of some of his papers in ethics and meta-ethics, Facts, Values, and Norms, appeared with Cambridge University Press in 2003. He has been a visiting professor at Berkeley and Princeton, and he has received fellowships from the Society for the Humanities (Cornell), the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has been associated with CREA (Paris) and CSMN (Oslo). Professor Railton has been President of the American Philosophical Association, Central Division (2011-12) and is a recipient of the 2009 D'Arms Award for Distinguished Graduate Mentoring in the Humanities. In recent years he has worked with psychologists and cognitive scientists and a joint project, Homo Prospectus, defending a prospective conception of the human and animal mind, appeared from Oxford University Press in 2016.

Seminar on the Lectures

Professor Railton's three lectures will be followed on Friday, 18 November, by a seminar to discuss the lectures with the following commentators:

  • Matthew Agarwala, Economist at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge.
  • Anna Alexandrova, Professor in Philosophy of Science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.
  • Hilary Greaves, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, and Director of the Global Priorities Institute.
  • Kate Laffan, Assistant Professor in Behavioural Science at the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The events for the Quain Lectures in Jurisprudence 2022 are kindly supported by the UCL Faculty of Laws and the UCL Centre for Ethics and Law.

Book a place for Lecture 1 (Monday 14 November 2022, 18:30-20:00)


Book a place for Lecture 2 (Wednesday 16 November 2022, 18:00-19:30)


Book a place for Lecture 3 (Thursday 17 November 2022, 16:00-17:30)


Book a place for the Seminar on the Lectures with Commentators (Friday 18 November 2022, 13:00-15:00)