Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

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.

The Ethics of Golf

My esteemed adviser and I have been in an ongoing debate over the steamy summer months about the essence and ethics of golf. Initially, our conversation focused on whether or not golf was a sport. I argued based on the etymological root of “sport” coming from “disport,” meaning “to be lively or frolic” or “spiritus” meaning “life, breath, or wind” that to be a sport, a certain degree of liveliness, vigor, and activity that transcended that of ordinary activity, was necessary for the essential nature of a sport. Football, basketball, and hockey were clearly included; baseball was more tenuous. Golf, because the level of activity was lacking liveliness and vigor, could not be included.

My adviser argued (I think rightly) that the level of bodily motion of a golf player in full swing was both “aesthetically beautiful as well as intellectually complicated.” He went on to argue (I think wrongly) that such motion included a certain degree of liveliness, at least in the moment of the swing, that led gold to be rightly categorized in the realm of sport.

After a long discussion with my husband, we have established the following three essential criteria for a sport: (1) physical activity which, if using an instrument, requires that the instrument not be capable of acting on its own (baseball bats are acceptable; Nascar vehicles are not); (2) competition. That is, sports are something that are played against another party. So competitive golf could potentially be a sport whereas golf played alone or casually with a few buddies who don’t keep score may be an activity, but is not a sport. And finally, (3) a set of rules that maintain the integrity of the game and allow for clear winners and losers without a judge acting as a third party. So basketball is in, but gymnastics, which requires a judge to determine winners and losers would be an athletic activity but not a sport.

The debate about whether or not golf is a sport is fun, but my real vocation is in the realm of ethics. Thus I find this article from the New York Times Ethics Columnist Randy Cohen much more up my alley. Cohen examines the recent vote to include golf in the 2016 Olympics and the subsequent protests from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who, in response to the Olympic committee’s decision, denounced golf as a bourgeois sport and took measures to close some of Venezuela’s courses. My adviser wanted to know whether I had more in common with Chavez than I did the Olympics Committee.

Cohen, if you read the article, introduces his argument with some pretty arcane points like the facts that golfers are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, male, and conservative. He brings these issues up because they are probably what Chavez is referring to when he calls golf “bourgeois.” But the people playing golf are accidental to the ethics of golf in itself. So in that sense, I disagree with Chavez.

What I find much more convincing is the arguments (which Cohen raises though Chavez does not) is that golf in environmentally unsound. He writes,

Unesco warns of the lamentable consequences of building golf courses to attract international tourists: “An average golf course in a tropical country such as Thailand needs 1500 kg. of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year and uses as much water as 60,000 rural villagers.” Some courses have become more frugal with water, and a team of British scientists argues in “The Biologist” that “many golf courses actively promote nature conservation and harbour some of our rarest plant and animal species.” But it is hard to believe that the best-designed nature preserve includes 18 putting greens, or that even the most sophisticated golf course is better for the environment than no golf course at all. These considerations are putatively important to the Olympic Movement, which declares its intent “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport.”

An extraordinary amount of natural resources and labor go into maintaining golf courses, which are largely private and available to only a select few who can pay the extraordinary fees to gain the “rights” to play on such prime property. While some public course are available (16,000 nationwide, as Cohen notes), they still require exorbitant green fees. The golf course nearest to me charges anywhere from $25-50 in green fees, clearly precluding the vast majority of people from participating. From a market perspective, it makes sense to charge such high fees to participate–the upkeep of the course probably requires it.

But let’s think about what this upkeep entails. The course constantly needs to be watered, which, for 18 holes, is already quite a strain on at least one valuable natural resource. The green needs to stay green, which in most cases requires pesticides and fertilizers, which not only pollute the natural environment, but also cause chemical run-off that also contaminates neighboring environments and water supplies. And to build golf courses in the first place, you have to cut down trees and destroy existing ecosystems. As this article points out, golf courses cover more than 1.7 million acres and soak up nearly 4 billion gallons of water daily. All of this to feed an upper-middle class desire to play a game.

When ethicists talk about consumption of the environment and of natural resources, a word they throw around a lot is “sustainability.” Sustainability is based on the principle that current consumption practices in no way limit the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The question about the ethics of golf, to me, boils down to the question of sustainability. Obviously, there is no way to tell if future generations are being deprived by present golf practices. But we can say that generally, golf courses consume environmental resources without contributing anything in return. A farm which cuts down trees and uses fertilizer and consumes water at least produces a product that in some way allows that use of natural resources to be sustainable in the long run. But a golf course, at least as far as I can tell, contributes nothing accept some pleasure and some minimal athletic activity to mainly upper-middle class suburban folks.

The question of sustainability is also a question of virtue. Are we a society that is flourishing? That is, are we a society who is practicing social activities in such a way as to support and build up the common good? A society which is only interested in its present needs, and especially of meeting the need of satisfying the appetite of middle and upper-class individuals at the definite expense of the environment and the probable expense of the good of future generations is probably not a society which is striving for the common good.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that if you play golf and if you enjoy it and if you want to keep playing in the future you are in some grave way an unethical person. I am simply asking that we look at a widely-accepted society practice and question how this practice is forming us as a society. I am not convinced that a practice like golf, which consumes resources without contributing any resources in return, and which is a luxury that can only be enjoyed a select few with the prerequisite financial resources and leisure, is a practice that is making us a more virtuous society. Maybe Chavez has a point.