Moral balancing

There’s this article in The Guardian (of all places) that describes a study conducted by a pair of Canadian psychologists that purports to show that “green” consumers may be more likely to cheat, steal, lie and less likely to be kind.

The pair found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it – in other words, steal – they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.

I don’t want to make too much of this.; not everyone who buys recycled toilet paper is a jerk.  But I don’t think the conclusion is entirely surprising.

Dieter Frey, a social psychologist at the University of Munich, said the findings fitted patterns of human behaviour. “At the moment in which you have proven your credentials in a particular area, you tend to allow yourself to stray elsewhere,” he said.

I think that’s likely true. And I’m sure that environmentalists are not the only virtue-obsessed group that engages in moral balancing; any ethic that divorces the virtue of an act from the agent-relative value of an act will tend to foster this kind of behavior. This is especially true if “virtuous” behavior confers social prestige. If virtue is not it’s own reward (and let’s face it, using recycled toilet paper is NOT a reward), but imposes some cost on the virtuous, then the virtuous will be more likely to compensate for their sacrifice in other ways. In a sense, these people feel that they’ve “paid at the office.” It’s a result that is of a kind with the studies that seem to show that charitable giving declines as support for taxpayer funded entitlements grows. If you’ve satisfied an obligation through taxes or hemp, you’re more likely to compensate for that sacrifice by extracting some compensation for that obligation in some other area.

I’d like to see a similar study that controlled for meta-ethical motivation. While I’m sure that most environmentalists are firm deontologists, I’m sure at least some of them must be consequentialists.  My hypothesis is that the consequentialists will be less likely to engage in moral balancing; if you see virtue as a means to a particular agent-relative end, then you’re more likely to find reward in  virtue itself and less likely to seek balancing compensation.

I’m speaking statistically here; not all deontologists are closet criminals and not all consequentialists are moral paragons. But I do think that the extent to which we divorce ethics from the value of human life the more likely we are to see human actors struggle with their “moral” commitments.


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