Author: Steven D. Hales

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 …