In this piece, I present two arguments why the transition to a low-carbon society based on appealing to morality is an illusion rather than an effective way forward. The first argument is based on Bandura’s theory of selective moral disengagement, the second argument rests on the contractual challenge of intergenerational reciprocity.
Every minute six children die from hunger or hunger-related causes, adding up to more than 8,000 deaths caused by starvation each day (UNICEF 2014). It is striking that most of us are well aware of these terrifying numbers and feel morally obliged to help but neither are we taking immediate nor sufficient action to improve the fate of people starving to death each day. The cause for poor people dying is not that we cannot feed them, the cause is that we simply have not started feeding them – albeit the many appeals to morality to which we are exposed in the media and in private communication. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 13 quadrillion calories where produced worldwide in 2010, which amounts to 5,359 kcal on a per capita daily basis (FAO 2013). Earth provides abundant resources, but our effort to distribute them in a morally fair manner is modest at best. This “moral inertia” may be caused by specific psychosocial mechanisms as proposed in Bandura’s (2007) theory of moral disengagement.
Appealing to morality triggers the activation of self-sanctions, but selective moral disengagement may significantly hamper self-sanctions that would be required to bring down the global carbon footprint to a reasonable level.
Social cognitive theory of morality suggests that moral disengagement is caused by a series of mechanisms that individuals apply to bypass self-censure (i.e. moral justification, euphemistic language, advantageous comparison, diffusion of responsibility, displacement of responsibility, misrepresentation and dehumanisation). These mechanisms operate at the individual and system level and are applied to re-frame destructive social practices as being morally acceptable without changing behaviour and activating self-sanctions. Bandura identifies these psychosocial reactions as one of the major causes of widespread human harm and the degradation of the environment.
It is plausible that these mechanisms also play a key role in the (yet unsuccessful) transition to a low-carbon society. Appealing to morality triggers the activation of self-sanctions, but selective moral disengagement may significantly hamper self-sanctions that are required to bring down the global carbon footprint to a reasonable level. Messages packed with a moral undertone, emphasising our responsibility for the livelihood of future generations, may therefore be only marginally effective. If we are to transition to a more sustainable society, appeals must be directed to a different target…
Bandura, A. (2007). Impeding Ecological Sustainability through Selective Moral Disengagement. International Journal of Innovation and Sustainable Development, 2(1), 8-35.
FAO (2013). Statistical Yearbook 2013: World Food and Agriculture. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome.
UNICEF (2014). Levels and Trends in Child Mortality Report 2014. United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, New York.