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Green shame: the next moral revolution?

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In this paper, I examine the phenomenon of what I call ‘green shame’, the shame one feels when knowingly behaving in ways that have a severe negative impact on the environment, like flying or eating meat, while other options are available at a financially and socially non-debilitating cost. I argue that individual green shame can contribute to the greening of society. I do so by first setting out my understanding of shame and distinguishing it from other significant feelings like guilt or embarrassment. I understand shame as the emotion one feels when one believes to have sunk below the standards of what dignity requires. I then draw out my account of green shame and distinguish it from green guilt. I raise three possible objections: the objection that green shame does not change behaviour, the objection that green shame does change behaviour but does not change it for the better, and the objection that (individual) shame is not the most efficient strategy in pursuing the greening of society. I argue that these objections can be met and show how that can be done. I conclude that green shame can contribute to the greening of society because, apart from its effect on individual choice, the sting of green shame urges people to demand action at an institutional level and creates a support base for much-needed institutional change.
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Keywords: environmental ethics; ethics; moral psychology; philosophy of emotion; shame

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Antwerp, Belgium

Publication date: May 2020

This article was made available online on February 10, 2020 as a Fast Track article with title: "Green shame: the next moral revolution?".

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  • Global Discourse is an interdisciplinary, problem-oriented journal of applied contemporary thought operating at the intersection of politics, international relations, sociology and social policy. The Journal's scope is broad, encouraging interrogation of current affairs with regard to core questions of distributive justice, wellbeing, cultural diversity, autonomy, sovereignty, security and recognition. All issues are themed and aimed at addressing pressing issues as they emerge. Rejecting the notion that publication is the final stage in the research process, Global Discourse seeks to foster discussion and debate between often artificially isolated disciplines and paradigms, with responses to articles encouraged and conversations continued across issues.

    The Journal features a mix of full-length articles, each accompanied by one or more replies, policy papers commissioned by organizations and institutions and book review symposia, typically consisting of three reviews and a reply by the author(s). With an international advisory editorial board consisting of experienced, highly-cited academics, Global Discourse publishes themed issues on topics as they emerge. Authors are encouraged to explore the international dimensions and implications of their work.

    All research articles in this journal have undergone rigorous peer review, based on initial editor screening and double-blind peer review. All submissions must be in response to a specific call for papers.

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