The Consumption of Guilt

I’m currently reading Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (Pantheon, 2015), a book that distinguishes shame from guilt in ways that make guilt seem less valuable for societal change than we commonly think it is.

For example, we tend to respond to environmental problems by assuaging our guilt about them via consumption choices. We buy organic, dolphin-safe, free-range, etc. By doing this, we buy into the free-market concept of choice, which allows the wealthy and concerned to buy their way out of environmental degradation, while the use of pesticides, the killing of dolphins, and the mistreatment of chickens scarcely changes. The alternative is government regulation, which removes choice and ensures much less harm to animals and the environment.

Consumption choices can even make things worse, in two ways. One is that people who assuage their guilt through making choices that are good for animals or the environment more easily justify other sorts of misbehavior. The second way is that labeling standards that allow for choice undermine the possibility of serious regulation. To get a price premium, organic, dolphin-free, free-range products have to be the exception, not the rule. Therefore, the companies involved have extra incentive to oppose regulation.

Jacquet asks us to consider what would have happened to the ozone layer if CFC-free products were voluntary and expensive. The ozone layer was protected by government regulation worldwide, not by choice.

Another consideration is that even small changes by big institutions can make a big difference, while changes among some individuals make very little difference. It is better to shame companies and governments into action than try to instill guilt among individuals.

Jacquet argues that “we should not be encouraged to engage with our guilt as disenfranchised consumers, capable of making a change only through our purchases, and instead encouraged to engage as citizens.” Note the “only.” It is not wrong to make these purchases, only to stop there, to think that this is enough to salve our consciences and, therefore, fail to engage as citizens.


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