What’s the Use of Green Shame?

Martha Claeys, University of Antwerp

Sustainable world concept.

In Swedish, there is a word for the shame we feel when we choose air travel over more ecological options. The Swedes call it ‘flygskam.’ They also coined the words ‘tågskryt’ (train pride) en ‘smygflyga’ (flying in secret). The question whether we should feel ashamed when making unecological choices is not restricted to Swedish media. But does this shame actually contribute to the greening of society?

Philosophers distinguish between being guilty, feeling guilty, and feeling shame. In the popular debate, these concepts are often used interchangeably. We can feel guilty without being guilty, as happens in survivor’s guilt, for instance. The feeling of guilt concerns a bad act, not the failure of the whole person, as is often argued to be the core of shame. Even when you hurt someone by accident, you can feel guilty. To feel shame, however, you need to believe that the pain you caused says something about you as a person, as the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues for instance. Social work researcher Brené Brown makes a similar distinction in a viral Ted Talk. Shame is the feeling we get when we act in a way that does not align with the idea that we have of what it means to live a good life. The feeling of guilt has a much more local role to play, and governs our acts, rather than our whole being.  

Shame is the feeling we get when we act in a way that does not align with the idea that we have of what it means to live a good life.

The Swedes speak of flying shame, not flying guilt. The feeling of green guilt would entail that you have acted unsustainably, but the act does not go against your most personal ideals. Green shame goes much deeper: it is the feeling that the choice you made is irreconcilable with your ideas about what it means to live a good life, a life with dignity. Someone who believes upon consideration that harming the planet and its inhabitants is wrong, but hasn’t really integrated this belief in her idea of a good life, might only feel guilt when she acts in ways that cause this harm. Someone who is convinced that a good person should not willingly and knowingly cause this harm, when other options are within reach, feels shame when she does so.

Fitting or not, green shame is alive and kicking. Does this uncomfortable feeling help us move forward, or are opinion makers right in concluding from the risks of individual shame that we are better off without it entirely?

The shame effect

An often-heard argument against shame is that shame does not change behavior. Shame is an emotion that paralyzes, rather than encourage a change in behavior. Why would a simply feeling of guilt not suffice, if the aim is a mere local change in behavior anyway? Here, it is important to distinguish between shaming another and feeling shame as an inner blush. That the act of shaming is reprehensible is convincingly shown by many psychologists and philosophers. Being shamed damages self-esteem, and is positively correlated with violence and regression.

This argument against shame specifically concerns what happens when one is shamed by another. But what if the felt shame is about a genuine feeling of tension between who you wish to be, and what you do? Is such shame not a motivator stronger than guilt? Jennifer Jacquet, professor in environmental studies at NYU, argues that guilt, precisely because it has such a local focus, is more prone to lead to self-comforting but misled consumerism. We tick the box that we wish to compensate our flight by planting several acres of trees, pay an extra carbon fee, or buy a bamboo toothbrush, and the feeling of guilt melts away. It is not that easy to shake off shame. Once you think you have not acted as a good person would, the solution is not to reverse or compensate the emitted pollution, but to critically reflect on yourself as a person, and what it means to live a good life.

Businesswoman standing under the spotlight

The direction of shame

If we look at the history of shame, the emotion has often sent us in the wrong directions. We have felt shame about things that we now think of as morally irrelevant. The British-Ghanese philosopher Anthony Kwame Appiah points out that moral codes can be wrong. People did not used to feel shame about owning slaves, and did feel shame about premarital sex. Even today, girls and women feel shame about menstruation. How can we be sure that flying shame guides us in the right direction?

Some philosophers find shame unreliable across the board for exactly this reason. But I read such examples of misled shame precisely as a reason to scrutinize the moral codes that guide our shame. We should wonder: is sustainability really a goal worth pursuing, or are we wrong? And that question has been amply answered (for example here, here, and recently here).

Efficiency first?

The argument against green shame that is most often used in popular media goes as follows: the impact of individual choices is the wrong focus, since just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of all global emissions. Aviation companies make detours around certain countries un purpose, to avoid overflight fees, and thus effectively spend more hours in the air than necessary. To tackle this large-scale pollution, we need structural measures, not individual change.

But why should one strategy exclude the other? It is not because green shame is not the most efficient way to live sustainably, that it cannot also have value. And isn’t this individual urge to change necessary to enforce structural change? There has to be a broad support base for the measures that can eventually restrict these 100 greatest polluters. There needs to be a public demand, and shame makes this demand urgent.

This game of passing on responsibility eventually risks exculpating everyone.

Green responsibility is passed on like a hot potato: whoever says that companies and institutions are the ones to blame for the climate crisis, is met with the response: but what about the individual? And vice versa. This game of passing on responsibility eventually risks exculpating everyone. But holding responsible is precisely the moral attitude we have towards people that we take seriously as moral antagonists. Feeling shame about our own behavior can indicate that we take ourselves seriously. We regard ourselves as people who can do something, instead of mere victims of the structures above our heads. Apart from that, we can of course still hold companies, institutions, and lobby groups accountable. The moral attitude is to regard all involved parties as real antagonists, and to not underestimate their room for moral improvement.    

Martha Claeys is a PhD student at the University of Antwerp (Belgium), where she is affiliated with the Centre for European Philosophy and the Centre for Ethics. She received a B.A. (2015) and M.A. (2016) in philosophy at the University of Antwerp, with a stay abroad at the Free University Berlin (Germany), and she received an M.A. in philosophy (2017) from the University of Chicago (USA). She currently holds a mandate for fundamental research at the FWO.

Martha’s research interests lie in the domains of moral psychology and the philosophy of emotion. In her PhD thesis, she develops a philosophical account of the emotion of pride and its role in a good life. Next to her academic work, Martha hosts and produces the philosophical podcast Kluwen.   

E-mail: martha.claeys@uantwerpen.be

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