Dubious Ethics Studies, Part II

There are good reasons to be skeptical of all studies purporting to analyze what people think according to how they fit into common ideological categories. In 2003, a study purported to portray conservatism as a kind of mental disorder. In 2008, another series of studies was packaged to make the case that liberals were compassionate in words only, that when it came to putting one’s money where one’s conscience was, it was those mean old conservatives who opened their wallets. Now comes a study called “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?”published in the latest edition of the “Journal of Psychological Science.” Its authors, Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, did a series of experiments comparing the behavior of patrons of “green” products and the conduct of the less environmentally correct.

The researchers report that those who bought green products appeared less willing to share a set amount of money  than the non-green consumers. They were also more likely to lie and steal when given an opportunity where it appeared they could get away with it. In an honor system experiment in which participants were asked to pay themselves an earned fee from an envelope full of money, the green-lovers were six times more likely to overpay themselves than the non-greens.

Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong conclude from all this that their subjects were prey to a syndrome related to the rationalizations I call “the Saint’s excuse” and “the King’s Pass,” when individuals conclude that their virtuous deeds and important work create licenses to do bad things because, in essence, they have earned extra “brownie points” with the Cosmos and have a right to cash them in for fun and profit. That is one possible interpretation of the data; certainly those who work for what they regard as ethical goals often become convinced that they have “earned” the right to be bad, like the long-time “good girl” who decides to break all the rules in one night.

It is equally possible, however, that these individuals had malfunctioning ethics alarms to begin with, and simply adopted a “green” lifestyle out of perceived self-interest (they think it will benefit their own lives), to be accepted by a peer group, to take the  politically correct side of a controversy or because they were following a movement or a leader. None of these motivations have anything to do with ethics. The fact that advocates argue that environmentalism is ethical, or even the fact that it usually is ethical, doesn’t mean that ethics is the real motive of every environmentalist.

Or perhaps the “green” subjects were engaging in what I call “the Ruddigore Fallacy,” using “green” purchases as a remedy for the ethical misdeeds they had done and knew they would do. “Going Green” didn’t make them mean, as one headline about the study asserted. Perhaps they were already mean, and went “green” to try to balance an ethics bank at which they knew they were already overdrawn.

Then there is the cynical theory expressed by blogger Bill Bonner, who writes:

“Where the researchers and commentators go wrong is in the beginning. They think that buying an ‘ethical’ mutual fund… or a ‘green’ car… is a form of being nice. It is nothing of the sort. It is a substitute for being nice. Being nice is not always easy. Many people have a hard time with it. Others judge it not worth the effort… or even counterproductive…Nice people don’t have to pretend to be nice by buying supposedly ethical products. They are nice; that’s what counts to them.The person who buys ethical products, on the other hand, is a scalawag and a hypocrite. He is not really nice at all, which is what the researchers really discovered. “Love afar is spite at home,” wrote Emerson. He was talking about people who are nice to mother earth… but nasty to their own mothers. Or people who are nice to ‘humanity’… but mean to their next door neighbour. Or people who whine about starving children they have never seen and ‘underprivileged’ people they hope they’d never have to meet. He was talking about people who buy a cup of ‘fair-trade’ coffee and don’t leave a tip…

Bonner goes too far, but I am grateful for the reminder of Emerson’s perceptive quote, which accurately describes a tendency shared by many big-thinkers whose ethics alarms don’t function in everyday encounters, and, it appears, the Pope.

So what does the Mazar-Zhong study prove? Like most ethics studies, not much. It shows that ethical people can do unethical things, unethical people may behave ethically, motives are difficult to measure and that an ethics alarm that only works some of the time isn’t very useful.

Didn’t we know already know these things?

One thought on “Dubious Ethics Studies, Part II

  1. We all SHOULD know this. Presidents, major charitable and cause- and faith-leaders, famous artists, musicians, actors, etc., have long been known to have dysfunctional families and to have been generally unethical jerks in their personal lives because of their “dedication” to their “larger missions.”

    Saint’s Excuse indeed. I grew up in this environment (no pun intended on the “green” article), and know for a fact that it’s often just EASIER for these types to leave the hard personal decisions to someone else, and focus on some sweeping cause that allows one to ignore the often painful, ugly duties of everyday life. As in “the people that know you the least like you the best.”

    But back to the original topic… The sanctimonious attitude of the “green,” anti-war, pro health reform, global warming, anti-smoking advocates and others is not only annoying, it is incredibly arrogant. This is clearly what leads to the tunnel-vision, the intolerance of other views, and the unethical behavior in everyday life. These people become more than just advocates of a cause: they become posses, it’s scary, and it’s worth more attention than just intellectual discussion or naval-gazing, in my opinion.

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