Siblings, justice and equality – Joseph Rowntree report finds that fairness and a sense of obligation matter for climate change

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

In thinking about people’s motivations to act on climate change, have we ignored the influence of one of the crucial relationships of family life – that of siblings?

Many appeals to the public pander to people’s self-interest and materialism, seeing them as individuals with narrow, individualistic concerns. The short-termism of this approach has been criticised very effectively from a values perspective. Commentators like Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser point out the failure of such approaches to build deeper cultural change. They argue convincingly that it is the values opposed to this individualism – values based on concerns bigger than self – that need to be triggered if we are to address multiple social ills. Justice and equality figure strongly amongst these values but the psychological dynamics that lie behind them are not often discussed.

Siblings are the template

Sibling relationships provide the template for lateral relationships with peers in adult life and can profoundly affect people’s ideas on justice and equality. The childhood refrain ‘It’s not fair,’ echoes in the adult world in arguments about just rewards, entitlement, equality and free-loading. We can hear it in current arguments about ‘hard-working families’, ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘irresponsible bankers’.

Sibling relationships are characterised on the positive side by solidarity, loyalty, co-operation and willingness to share. The discovery of one’s inventiveness and creativity often arrives (along with mischief and devilment) in first friendships. On the negative side of sibling relationships lie rage at having been displaced, rivalry, envy and the suspicion that someone else may be getting a better deal or swinging the lead. And it is amongst childhood peer networks that we often get our first taste of bullying, of ‘might is right’ and the destructive power of taunts and teasing.

In her book ‘Siblings’ Juliet Mitchell remarks that

“…it is essential to work out the problems of future social interaction with siblings in our early childhood. If we fail to overcome our desire for sibling incest or for sibling murder…versions of these (will) be more insistently played out with later lateral relationships…”[i] (Mitchell 2003 p.2)

Freud, ever the pessimist, comments that ‘Social justice means that we deny ourselves many things so that others may have to do without them as well…”[ii] (Freud 1921 p.121).

Sibling relationships are often unstable: the joy at the almost-equal-other and the defence of fairness can quickly reverse into its murderous opposite as the brother or sister is felt to threaten one’s own uniqueness or entitlement. Developing the maturity to handle these conflicting feelings is one of the achievements of childhood. Whether we emphasise the positive or the negative side, the message is clear however: childhood relationships with siblings and peers can have a significant effect on how we later view citizenship, democracy, justice and equality.

Work from Joseph Rowntree

The ambivalence that characterises sibling relationships can be seen in work conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation[iii] exploring climate change as a co-operation dilemma. They found that most participants in their focus groups thought that:

  • Those with the greatest ability to reduce their CO2 emissions should bear the greatest burden of household emissions reduction
  • Participation should be compulsory, as a voluntary framework would let some people off the hook
  • Preventing ‘free-riding’ was very important
  • Regulatory approaches would be fairer than taxation

If we translate that into the language of the playground we can hear:

  •  “The big children should do more because they’re bigger.”
  • “It’s not fair if the big children/little children/boys/girls don’t have to as well.”
  • “Tell x he’s got to, ‘cos otherwise he won’t do his share and it’s not fair.”
  • “There should be rules for everyone but not quite the same for the big children and the little children.”

Fairness matters

The researchers also found that the discussion made people more concerned about climate change, more concerned about other people changing their behaviour and more optimistic about changing their own behaviour. Another key point they make is the difference between people liking a policy and people supporting a policy because they see it as legitimate. In the family no child likes doing household chores but can understand that they need to be done. While they will favour a system that shares them equally between siblings, they will usually allow that the big children should be asked to do more than the little ones.

So, with climate change it seems that only if life is fair are we prepared to co-operate. Childhood experience continues to echo in adult life. Policy makers would do well to pay attention.


[i] Mitchell, Juliet (2003) Siblings Cambridge: Polity Press

[ii] Freud, Sigmund (1921) Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE 18 London: Hogarth 1955.

[iii] Horton, Tim and Doron, Natan (2011) Climate Change and sustainable consumption: what do the public think is fair? Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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