Archive for January 21st, 2010|Daily archive page

Your Local, Eco-Friendly Purchases Aren’t (Necessarily) Virtuous

My friend Matt passed this great article on to me, entitled “Buy Local, Act Evil: Can Organic Produce and Natural Shampoo Turn You Into a Heartless Jerk?” The author writes,

As the owner of several energy-efficient light bulbs and a recycled umbrella, I’m familiar with the critiques of “ethical consumption.” In some cases, it’s not clear that ostensibly green products are better for the environment. There’s also the risk that these lifestyle choices will make us complacent, sapping the drive to call senators and chain ourselves to coal plants. Tweaking your shopping list, the argument goes, is at best woefully insufficient and maybe even counterproductive.

But new research by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto levels an even graver charge: that virtuous shopping can actually lead to immoral behavior. In their study (described in a paper now in press at Psychological Science), subjects who made simulated eco-friendly purchases ended up less likely to exhibit altruism in a laboratory game and more likely to cheat and steal. . .

. . .[T]he findings add to a growing body of research into a phenomenon known among social psychologists as “moral credentials” or “moral licensing.” Historically, psychologists viewed moral development as a steady progression toward more sophisticated decision-making. But an emerging school of thought stresses the capriciousness of moral responses. Several studies propose that the state of our self-image can directly influence our choices from moment to moment. When people have the chance to demonstrate their goodness, even in the most token of ways, they then feel free to relax their ethical standards.

This article illustrates the difference between an act-based and a virtue-based morality. According to an act-based morality, certain actions are right and wrong, and hence to be good, you simply need to perform the right actions and avoid the wrong actions. A virtue-based morality says that not only actions, but also dispositions or attitudes are necessary for an action to be good. In other words, it is not enough to simply do the right thing but you must also do it for the right reason.

When it comes to buying eco-friendly products, we assume that the act itself is virtuous. Clearly, a person who buys organic produce and local meat is better than a person who does not, right? But a virtue ethicist like myself would say that we need to look deeper and examine the motives and character from which our people are acting. Does the person buying organic and local really love the earth and want to do what is best for the environment, or are they just buying these products because they want to look good for their friends or because they want to feel good about themselves?

In general, I think that buying eco-friendly products only makes us virtuous if we do so mindfully, using our reason to examine and shape our inclinations. And we need to recognize that just because we decide to start buying eco-friendly products, these acts alone don’t immediately make us virtuous. Aristotle famously said that it takes more than one sparrow to make a spring, and so too, more than one act to make a virtue. Buying eco-friendly products is only truly virtuous if these actions proceed from a deliberate will motivated by love of the environment, ecological restraint, and moderation in consumption. And thus concludes the article:

Another strategy is to make worthy actions habitual. When volunteering at the soup kitchen—or turning off unused lights—becomes routine, you’ll stop basking in that halo every time. Cultural norms are also key. If everyone is driving a Prius and taking the stairs, I won’t feel so smug about doing the same. Now, for instance, I don’t feel heroic when I sort the paper and plastics and take the blue bin out to the curb. That’s just what people in my neighborhood do on Monday nights.

A decade or two ago, buying green products and other environmentalist measures might have just seemed idiosyncratic. Now such conduct is widely lauded—which is precisely why, according to researchers, it may be capable of producing this behavioral backlash. But, for the most part, it’s not yet a matter of course. What’s the lesson here? Let’s stop congratulating each other—and ourselves—for using nontoxic cleaning products and compost bins. After all, it’s really the least we can do.