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View Full Version : Local Being virtuous is wonderful thing, but feeling virtuous is a shortcut to vice.


Direckshun
03-21-2010, 02:21 PM
A fascinating thought experiment by the Guardian's Julian Baggini.

What do you think? How true is Baggini's argument to you?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/mar/16/green-consumers-lie-more-ethics

Goodies behaving badly
Doing good deeds as a way of earning naughtiness points shows ethics has become a form of unenlightened self-interest
Julian Baggini
Tuesday 16 March 2010 19.00

Being virtuous is wonderful thing, but feeling virtuous is a shortcut to vice. That seems to be the moral of a fascinating piece of research by two Canadian psychologists, which suggests that the greener people are, the more likely they are to lie and cheat. Doing the right thing by the planet earns us credit in our ethical investment accounts that we can then spend by dumping on our fellow human beings. The "halo of green consumerism", it is claimed, is just a license to behave less well in other areas of life.

This finding doesn't surprise me. It echoes a report that came out in 2008, which showed that people who were most concerned about the environment were more likely to take long-haul flights. Some of those questioned explicitly said that recycling every last scrap of paper earned them the right to fly, as though you could swap carbon footprints for green air miles.

It would be wrong, however, to think there is something particularly hypocritical about environmentalists. The general truth lurking behind these findings is that the feeling of being pure is a moral contaminant. In ethical terms, the best never think that they are the best, and those that believe themselves to be on the side of the angels are often the worst devils.

Why should this be so? One reason is that complacency is as dangerous in ethics as it is in any other area of life where we strive for excellence. If we think we are "good people" we might think less about the possibility that we might actually be doing wrong.

But if that just seems to be a universal truth of human nature, what of the idea that being in moral credit earns us redeemable naughtiness points? I can imagine what the evolutionary psychologists would say: ethics is rooted in reciprocal altruism you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. So when you do the right thing, but not to any particular person, we instinctively feel that we have earned some sort of pay back. Since no-one will do that for us, we opt for self-service reciprocation.

That may indeed be natural, but that doesn't make it right. And even if it did, there is still a problem that when we allow ourselves to dish out the rewards, we can't trust ourselves to be fair. It's like that old Laurel and Hardy skit where Ollie shares out the money, "one for you, one for me; two for you, one-two for me ..." and so on. He who cuts the cake should never be allowed to choose the first slice.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we also tend to over-value the good we do and undervalue the harm. The more you believe that saving the world is the most important thing in it, the more your credit for doing your bit is inflated. Our own moral priorities always, uniquely, earn double points.

True virtue, in contrast, doesn't keep tabs, because it is self-effacing. Consider, for instance, how you'd answer the question, are you modest? The truly modest can't answer yes, as that would be immodest. But to answer no would be false. The only honest answer that is not self-defeating is to say, "I don't know: I try to be, but I might not succeed." It's not about false modesty, but maintaining a proper scepticism about our ability to judge our own moral fitness. Proper, because we can see how hardly anyone believes his or herself to be a villain, yet villains there surely are. And it's also so easy to be self-serving in our rationalisations.

True virtue would never liken its rewards to points on a loyalty card, not because it is its own reward, but because it is not something we should practice to accrue future benefits. If these latest studies show us anything, it's that we've lost sight of this. It is not to our credit that we see good deeds as ways of earning it. Ethics has gone beyond reciprocal altruism and become unenlightened self-interest. But I'd better stop there: I'm in danger of feeling very, very self-righteous.

ClevelandBronco
03-21-2010, 03:59 PM
A fascinating thought experiment by the Guardian's Julian Baggini.

What do you think? How true is Baggini's argument to you?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cif-green/2010/mar/16/green-consumers-lie-more-ethics

Goodies behaving badly
Doing good deeds as a way of earning naughtiness points shows ethics has become a form of unenlightened self-interest
Julian Baggini
Tuesday 16 March 2010 19.00

Being virtuous is wonderful thing, but feeling virtuous is a shortcut to vice. That seems to be the moral of a fascinating piece of research by two Canadian psychologists, which suggests that the greener people are, the more likely they are to lie and cheat. Doing the right thing by the planet earns us credit in our ethical investment accounts that we can then spend by dumping on our fellow human beings. The "halo of green consumerism", it is claimed, is just a license to behave less well in other areas of life...

I think embracing the appearances, trappings and rituals of religion has given some folks — only some, mind you — the same kind of license to excuse poor behavior.

Sully
03-21-2010, 04:22 PM
It's like when I get off the treadmill and have a diet coke... And think that leaves me safe to eat an entire pizza that night.