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The Futility of Guilt-Based Advocacy

We like to believe that when it comes to the great global issues of our time—climate change, pollution, poverty, mass extinction—that we each can make a difference. A small one maybe, but a real and significant difference, nonetheless. If we don’t try, or don’t try hard enough, we should feel culpable, and we have a concomitant moral responsibility to shame our lazy neighbors who refuse to make an effort. That’s a mistake. It not only makes us guilt-ridden and worse off psychologically, but even more harmfully it also provides only the illusion of effective action, thereby allowing global problems to fester without a proper solution.

Even professional ethicists are largely getting this wrong. I recently attended an international ethics conference, and the overwhelming take-away was the realization that philosophical ethics remains obsessed with individuals—trolley cases, what you should do, how you should act, who you should become. It is not appreciated that all the really serious moral issues of our time are collective action problems, and have nothing to do with you in the sense that they have nothing to do with individuals at all. The talks that did address collective action issues were keen on making them ultimately a matter of individual responsibility or blame.

You are a hypocrite if you speak out against climate change but run your air conditioner more than you really need to, or if you go for pleasure drives, or if you get your fuel from coal plants. We each need to worry about our carbon footprint if we fly to a conference or consider a vacation to Paris. We must stop using straws because of ocean pollution. Well, OK, maybe you are not contributing very much to climate change or ocean plastics, but you contribute some. We all need to “do our bit,” right? We can just parcel out the micro-guilt that each of us needs to feel about routine activities.

All of that reasoning is completely wrong. Collective action problems are either emergent or they are aggregative. Either way, when it comes to global-scale issues, what individuals do is somewhere between 100 percent pointless and 99.9999999 percent pointless.


A single rubber molecule is not elastic, but a bunch of them together make a polymer chain that really wants to remain in one particular configuration. Stretch them out, and they spring back to that default shape. A molecule of silicon dioxide is not fragile, but mix a few million together with some soda and lime and you get brittle glass. A school of fish tends to stay in a uniform pattern, as the fish stay a fixed distance from each other, turn, contract, and expand as a unit. If a predator comes, they disburse at the impact site and re-form when the threat has passed. Elasticity, fragility, and schooling are all emergent—they are properties that don’t exist at all on the individual level, but arise out of the collective contribution of many different parts. They are also mereologically robust; lose one rubber molecule and the rubber band is every bit as stretchy as it was before. The absence of a single silicon dioxide molecule means nothing to the frailty of a pane of glass, which remains just as sturdy as ever. If a barracuda successfully nabs a red snapper, the rest of the snapper school immediately gets back into formation.

Robustness is not stability. Schools of fish are stable, and it takes a lot to fully destroy one. Tornados are emergent but metastable; although they stick around for a while, it doesn’t take much for them to dissipate. Explosions are the quintessential example of an emergent but unstable state, since they are going out of existence immediately upon coming into existence. Nevertheless, all of these are mereologically robust, because the loss of a part, like a fish, a gust of wind, or a joule of heat, has no effect whatsoever on their persistence. If collective action problems are emergent, then individual action has literally zero effect on them. If you were to disappear from the universe right now, anthropocentric climate change would continue exactly the same as before, just as a murmuration of starlings carries on if one of its members is taken by a falcon. When it comes to collective action problems, what you do as an individual doesn’t matter. In fact, it can’t.


Each brick in a chimney adds to its total weight, and were one brick removed, the weight of the chimney would be reduced by that amount. Weight is aggregative. Kierkegaard argues that mobs are not emergent, but aggregative, which is why each person in a mob is responsible for his or her actions. “‘Crowd’ is an abstraction,” Kierkegaard writes, “and has no hands: but each individual has ordinarily two hands, and so when an individual lays his two hands upon Caius Marius they are the two hands of the individual, certainly not those of his neighbor, and still less those of the crowd which has no hands… For every individual who flees for refuge into the crowd, and so flees in cowardice from being an individual… such a man contributes his share of cowardliness to the cowardliness which we know as the ‘crowd.’”

Supposing that Kierkegaard is right and, as a member of a crowd or a mob, your accountability is just your portion of the mob’s. If you are one of five hooligans who dare lay hands on Caius Marius, you are, other things being equal, causally responsible for 1/5 of the harm. Had you stayed home, he would have been demonstrably better off. However, when we scale up to global-level collective action problems, your individual share of the harm falls off a cliff. World population is rapidly closing in on 8 billion, which means your causal contribution to climate change, species extinction, worldwide pollution, global poverty, or any other similar problem is, other things being equal, one in 8 billion.

Maybe you pollute twice as much as the average person. In fact, let’s suppose you roll coal in your jacked-up truck while tossing Taco Bell wrappers out of the window and say your share of global pollution is four times the average. That is still effectively nothing—your personal causal contribution is infinitesimal to the point of meaninglessness. Here’s another way to think about it: it takes just over 2 billion pennies, lined up end-to-end, to circle the earth at the equator. If those represent pollution and you are four times as bad as the average polluter, you contributed exactly one of those pennies. Go ahead and remove your penny. Do you really think it will have a detectable effect on the Great Chain of Pennies, or that it will matter to anyone? It’s like not using social media and pretending that you are thereby contributing to solving ethical problems with Big Data, or giving to a beggar and thinking you are addressing global poverty. You are a tiny and irrelevant data point in the ocean.

One speaker at the ethics conference, from Norway, argued that Norway needs to implement a progressive tax on carbon emissions to combat climate change. Sadly, it does not matter what Norway does. Their population is .07 percent of the world’s population. Norwegians could fly around in private Lear jets all day and it wouldn’t make the tiniest impact on global warming. In addition, Norway has negative population growth (1.7 children per woman, which is below the 2.1 standard for stability), so their future impact is even less than their present one. At best the Norwegians are merely finding ways of reassuring themselves that they are doing something, or that they are nice people, or that they Really Care. This is why slogans like “think globally, act locally” are not just foolish, but pernicious. They undermine effective action because they are a way of convincing ourselves, falsely, that “I’m making a difference!”—which impedes working towards actual solutions.

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If global-scale collective action problems have nothing to do with morality and are merely decision-theoretic conundrums to be solved formally, then no moral judgment is merited. The entire ethical framework of moral praise and blame goes out the window and we need to stop worrying about who is a hypocrite, or feeling righteously superior when we walk instead of drive. On the other hand, if collective action problems are at least partly moral ones, then contemporary ethics needs to step up. As long as moral philosophers continue to pretend that it is character, virtue, and personal action that are central to the enterprise, they will miss out on the most important ethical issues of modernity. The niceties of moral debate will be as relevant as Scholasticism during the Copernican Revolution or as productive as arguing over how to tie a fly-fishing lure when the lake is full of heavy metals and the fish are dying.

But what if, in spite of the foregoing, guilt is the solution? What if the lie of individual action mattering is a noble lie? If we can just make everyone feel guilty for using plastic shopping bags, or taking cruises, or not recycling, or driving instead of cycling, then they will all stop, and the collective action problems caused by those activities will vanish. Of course, for this strategy to work, we really need to ramp up the guilt as high as possible to get sufficient compliance. People must be made to feel terrible about just about any ordinary activity. Planning to grill some steaks on Independence Day? Think again. Don’t make me tell you about the harms of beef production or your smoky grill. Want to get a more spacious house than your cramped apartment? Think of the added carbon emissions! And forget a drive along the coast on a pleasant afternoon. You live in Pennsylvania and want to eat a banana? Have you never heard about the environmental impact of importing produce? Eat locally.

Unfortunately, setting our guilt-weapons on “maximum” won’t work either. One reason is that it’s very doubtful that anyone has the stomach to shame the poor for their contributions to collective action problems. For example, China produces twice as much trash as the US. While it is true that China has five times the US population (and thus the US trash production is much higher per capita), per capita production is irrelevant to the global amount of trash. All that matters is the absolute amount. Who’s up for shaming the Chinese twice as hard as the Americans?

The most serious failure is that it is simply irrational to give in to guilt. Suppose you really want to combat climate change. You feel guilty about your middle-class lifestyle, and so you decide to sell your SUV and live in a yurt. While you are happy to contribute to this cause, you don’t want to waste your contribution either. But you’ll be wasting it when (1) we solve climate change and your sacrifice wasn’t needed after all, or (2) we fail to solve it and your sacrifice was squandered.

Then you reason as follows: if humanity actually fixes climate change, then we will fix it without your measly individual effort. It follows that you could have kept your house-dwelling, SUV-driving lifestyle after all and the environment turned out just fine. Therefore you won’t give up your way of living. After a little reflection, you realize that everyone else will reason the same way, which means that no one will sacrifice to combat climate change. Since no one (or only the chump who didn’t think this though) is going to contribute, fighting climate change is for sure doomed to failure. Well, you’re certainly not going to abandon your middle-class lifestyle for a project that will inevitably fail. In the end it doesn’t matter we fix climate change or not; the rational thing for you to do is to keep on the way you are, and not give in to guilt.

The preceding reasoning is why the usual approach to solving collective action problems is coercion. We have an air-pollution problem, say, so the government raises taxes to pay for pollution abatement. Or the government orders manufacturers to meet emissions standards on pain of penalty. Coercion is a good approach, since it is now in everyone’s rational self-interest to comply, and because (almost) everyone is participating, the trouble caused by group action disappears as a result of group action. That’s the strategy behind carbon taxes and credits, and it doesn’t lead to the same failure mode as guilt. Again, though, we will need world-wide coercion for genuine success.

Our moral instincts are all personal, local, and tribal. They aren’t global. Collective action problems are hard enough to solve on the small scale, but when they are on the world-wide scale, our familiar moral tools are useless. Unless ethicists truly come to embrace this fact, they too will be irrelevant. Perhaps they are; it may be that it is only the study of decision theory and the logic of rationality that will empower us to find the right solutions. But either way we need to abandon guilt-mongering as irrational, pointless, and counter-productive.


Steven D. Hales is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. His next book, The Myth of Luck, is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in 2020. He can be found at

Photo by Maciej Serafinowicz on Unsplash


  1. we will need world-wide coercion for genuine success

    We also have to destroy the village in order to save it.

  2. “In fact, let’s suppose you roll coal in your jacked-up truck while tossing Taco Bell wrappers out of the window”

    Oddly specific example.

    I recently flew out of Jackson Hole WY, which is chock full of climate change hypocrites. There was a big cardboard sign that explained you could send some grifter organization a measly $4 and they promised to give said $4 to organizations that develop clean energy (whatever that may be) in order to offset the carbon footprint damage you are doing by taking this flight.

    How is that for guilt absolution! And this is at an airport where a plastic bottle of water costs $6.

    And then there’s this new California law:

  3. With so many shouting about “making a difference” with no discernible change in their own lifestyle choices, I doubt the base motivation is to make a difference. For the rank and file, the displays of concern appear to be moral preening and group acceptance rather than actual interest. For the elite, it arouses suspicion these “great global issues” are rather carefully invented and then promoted specifically because there is not much that can be done individually. Instead they provide a wonderful opportunity to accumulate money and power for a ruling class along with all their associated courtiers and groupies. The “cause” is merely the horse to ride in advancing the real aim toward power.

    An admission?

  4. I have recently become a convert to contempt-based advocacy.

    I do not recycle. I do not conserve water. I drive a pickup truck.

    And I thank God every day that the earth is not cooling.

  5. One of the frequent criticisms of organized religion is its use of guilt to bring about compliance. The preachyness holier than thou attitude are consider a turn off and ineffective way to reach laity by many. No one particularly cares for the self righteous piety. Some churches unfortunately offer absolution and salvation for following church proscriptions instead of scripture.

    So why does a movement supposedly based upon science practice the same tactics. Some climate alarmists are indistinguishable from members of the Westboro Baptist Church.

  6. I know what you mean. Just reading this article makes me want to take a pointless drive for a few hours in a SUV, then BBQ some steaks over entire bag of charcoal lit with half can of lighter fluid. But first I think I’ll cut down a couple of old growth trees that block my view, using a gas-powered chain saw. Run the A/C on high while I’m outdoors, but I open the windows so that the cool air from the house will help cool down the back yard, especially with that big BBQ charcoal fire going. Don’t worry, out here on the islands, most of our electricity comes from fossil fuels that are barged in.

  7. I am originally from Romania but immigrated to Canada when I was young. During communist Romania, my grandpa was not allowed to attend school simply because his father was a “wealthy” landowner, and there was a lot of hate towards land owners.

  8. I have a slightly different take from those who’ve commented. The author is arguing two different things but seems to conflate the two: he is saying a) individuals make an infinitesimally small impact on large global issues, and b) they shouldn’t feel guilty if they don’t try to make the difference.

    I agree that the latter point is true, particularly with the guilt/shame/fear-based collectivist tactics that are so prevalent today via social media. But I disagree with the first point, at least to a degree.

    One can argue that individuals make no perceivable difference in any large issue. I had an intelligent mathematician friend who argued this when she explained why she didn’t vote: her own vote was statistically meaningless. Indeed, pick any large issue and it can be shown that statistically, an individual can do almost nothing at all. Not simply climate change–any issue. Now, to make his argument stronger, the author stays with climate change as the large issue, since climate change is so complex and involves so many players that it’s easy to show that an individual who doesn’t recycle impacts nothing. Furthermore, the subtext here is that the climate change alarmists - the ones who shriek the end of the world is nigh - all claim that each individual must do his/her share, and shame/guilt anyone who doesn’t toe the line. (My friend who lives in Berkeley is a perfect case in point. We went out to eat at a pizza place, and I accidentally threw away my soda can in a ‘regular’ garbage, not seeing the recycle bin–with pursed lips, she literally reached into the garbage, pulled out my can, and ostentatiously threw it in the recycling bin. It was supposed to shame me and signal her own virtuousness, but it simply irritated me, particularly since she was my friend.) So if you’re rather horrified by the irrational chorus of anti-Western climate change activists, you might well be tempted to agree with his overall point.

    The problem is that if you take this attitude about any large issue - individuals can change nothing - you will change nothing, and, perhaps worse, you will come to rely on the government to be the powers to enact change. Throughout history, there have been exceptional individuals - inventors, rulers, religious figures, artists - who have enacted largescale change for both the good and the bad; yet statistically they should not have been able to do anything at all. There are also a great many people who make meaningful change ‘on the ground’ and silently. Indeed, to use a personal example, as a teacher in an impoverished urban district, I see my share of such people every single day. They toil to change the world one person at a time; they live the life they want to see. They don’t toot their horns; they simply do. If we were to extend the author’s logic to them, we would ask why they bother, since they have, say, a 1/200,000 chance of changing anything.

    My point is I agree with the author that guilt-based advocacy is coercion and pointless. I disagree with the reasoning, however, that individuals can do next to nothing. It is true statistically, but ignores human nature and the power potential in each person to influence others. I also disagree about the hypocrisy–if you (delusionally) believe that the earth will be destroyed in ten years due to climate change, then you will do your part to change the earth in any way you can, just as each ant moves the grain of sand to make a hill to protect the nest. So if you shriek that the world is ending but behave as though it’s not, you’re not simply a hypocrite–you are belying your entire premise and showing by your actions that you don’t believe what you’re arguing. Or else you believe that sacrifices must be made by everyone but you. This is what people mean when they say such people are hypocrites, the idea that they want to force you to do something they are not willing to do themselves.

  9. a sufficient number of people, each one powerless, each one acting individually yet at the same time collectively (there is no contradiction), can bring the world’s most powerful empire to it’s knees.

    It also can form lynch mobs.

  10. Just another setup for the “we’re taxing the hell out of you for your own good!”

    Here in Canada, we’re a carbon sink ie. we absorb far more carbon than we produce, with our vast forest areas. Yet, the elites feel we need to be taxed more - for the sake of the planet!

    As pointed out in the article, our small contribution is like spitting in a bucket. But it’s enough reason to raise taxes to spend on pet projects (ie vote getters).

    If Canadian politicians were honest, they’d be selling our multitude of available “carbon credits” as a country, thus lowering our tax burden.

  11. Thirty five years ago I built a passive solar house, partly in response to the idea of climate change at the time but largely for energy savings, for the sake of saving money. While the solar design did not add cost to the construction it has since been found to be surprisingly effective even in wet Oregon. While I did not boast about it, many of my leftist associates would talk to me about it but when it came to their own residence they built the typical McMansion wholly without regard to solar energy concerns. Basically no one I know has since built a solar house, passive or active solar, which I find disappointing, but at least those who are not continually signaling their devotion to climate change are not glaringly inconsistent.

    One person, an English prof who was more ingratiating and often said that solar was what should be done, built a standard type house and then didn’t even bother to orient the long axis of the house to East/West even though it was put on several acres. For those interested, just orienting a standard rectangular home with the broadest side facing South and the narrowest East/West, will typically save 20% on heating and cooling over turning it 90 degrees. Observation over the last three decades revealed those who repeated the climate religion mantra, when it came to their own choices they demonstrated it was not a consideration at all.

  12. It is estimated that Al Gore has made $100 million off of global warming: Thus we can conclude that one person cannot do much for global warming, but global warming can do a hell of a lot for one person.

  13. In other situations it also may be possible such a person was high in orderliness. A similar story, one of my hiking buddies was put in charge of the recycling at the hospital where he is a nurse. He is conservative and most all his colleagues were liberal, in the U.S. conventional sense, and while they wanted to recycle, they put him in charge of carrying it out. He expressed his frustration that eventually his liberal colleagues didn’t much care what went where, garbage vs recycle, but it was his conservative colleagues who seemed to be able to read labels.

    The moral to his story was it took liberals, high in openness, to want to recycle, but it took conservatives, high in orderliness to get it done. Yes a generalization, but like most of my prejudices, they have been carefully assembled over decades of observation.

  14. Exactly.

    It is also the same argument that keeps corruption or crime going in corruption and crime-ridden societies: “everyone else is doing it, I’d be a chump not to”.

    Be the change you want to see, start with yourself because that is the only behaviour you have the power to change directly, act the way everyone should act, are good principles to live by.

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