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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Morality and environmentalism

The National Post is reporting a study from the University of Toronto that shows that people who purchase ‘green products’ are more likely to behave unethically, even stealing, if given the opportunity:

"While mere exposure can activate concepts related to social responsibility and ethical conduct and induce corresponding behaviours, purchasing green products may produce the counterintuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviours by establishing moral credentials," the researchers write.

In other words, the moral halo people feel after purchasing green products might lead them to develop a holier-than-thou attitude, whether conscious or not, that could ultimately manifest in immoral acts.

This reminds me of people that exercise but eat junk food. They feel like they are being healthy and are able to eat junk because they worked out for 30 minutes a couple of times a week. They are healthy in one aspect so they are justified being unhealthy in another. Similarly a person that feels like they are taking care of their moral character would be less likely to feel obligated to be moral in other aspects of their lives. This doesn’t seem to be refuted by this study’s opponents:

Green living expert Amy Todisco debates the study's findings, saying they seem like just another attack on environmentalism.

"The same argument could be made about Catholics after they've gone to confession or about missionaries doing good deeds - does that somehow licence them to do less altruistic things after they've done something good?" Ms. Todisco said. "I don't think that makes any sense."

Ms. Todisco is missing the point. People do not do good things for the benefit of others; they do good things, at least in part, to feel good about themselves. A person will then only be as good as they need to be to feel good about them self. The people that bought the green product felt good about themselves so they did not feel a need to be honest and good in other ways.

The problem is with the whole scheme of the environmentalist movement. They have turned ‘being green’ into the ultimate moral act of altruism. I am a good person because I am driving a car that has low emissions. Now that I consider myself a good person I do not need to do other good things, or at least I have to do less good things than I otherwise would have.

I’m not sure how conclusive this study should be considered. But it does merit further research and should not be dismissed as ‘another attack on environmentalism.’ It is more a study of human nature and what motivates individuals. Once we have a better grasp of how self interest works, we can come up with better schemes to protect the environment; we can invent schemes that will work with human nature instead of against it.

Posted by Hugh MacIntyre on April 1, 2010 | Permalink


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