Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ethics offsets?

The Guardian reports a new study, published in Psychological Science, purporting to show that people who buy organic food are more likely, given the chance, to steal and cheat. Researchers Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong

found that those in their study who bought green products appeared less willing to share with others a set amount of money than those who bought conventional products. When the green consumers were given the chance to boost their money by cheating on a computer game and then given the opportunity to lie about it – in other words, steal – they did, while the conventional consumers did not. Later, in an honour system in which participants were asked to take money from an envelope to pay themselves their spoils, the greens were six times more likely to steal than the conventionals.

Wow! The study suggests that when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the "licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour", otherwise known as "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics".

I've never heard of "moral balancing" or "compensatory ethics" - sounds to me like "ethical offset." Perhaps there's a whole literature on it, and what the study finds is not that green people are somehow exceptional but that they are like other smug do-gooders? That's the the conclusion to which Guardian columnist Julian Baggini comes. I'm not sure the complacency of the holier-than-thou can quite explain what the study shows, though: the reported behavior goes beyond complacency into immorality. (Baggini is right, though, to observe: 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. But there aren't that many of the "worst devils" around, not enough to show up in psychological studies, which at most show the ordinary devils we all are.)

My hunch is that the case of the green consumer is special (if not necessarily unique). The environmentally aware think more systemically, and so may value and judge actions differently than deontologists, utilitarians, etc. Making the environmentally right choice isn't just about you or your values or even the Moral Law but part of structures of behavior which either despoil or save the world. At the same time, because it takes extra effort (and money) to go green, it feels not just like a good thing to do but supererogatory. Everyone ought to be environmentally aware in their consumption, but since most people aren't, actually doing what everyone should do but doesn't makes you exceptional, even prophetic. As such, it merits if not a reward at least some praise. Or more leniency when you fall off the wagon - at least you do the good thing most of the time, unlike most people.

I can imagine ethical offsetting being part of the phenomenon - I observe it in myself. But again I think the cheating and stealing require further analysis. It's one thing to let yourself binge after purging (especially if this just takes you briefly back to the mediocre norm), quite another to take what's not yours. The interesting thing might have been to ask those test subjects who did steal and cheat about their behavior. My guess (just a guess! but maybe someone can get a grant to test it?) is that they would say they thought everyone cut corners, given the chance. Immoral it perhaps was, but not exceptional.

This might or might not be because they thought the "conventionals" cut moral corners every day already, in shirking their obligation to buy green. (Presumably the test subjects didn't know that green behaviors were what the test was about in the first place. But in the lab, as opposed to the supermarket checkout line where you can see how your purchases compare with those of others, people aren't reacting to others' choices.) In any case, it might have done them good to learn that the conventionals are, well, really more conventional, not ethical free spirits and high flyers who define their own curve but also not selfish sell-outs.

Incidentally, the Guardian report covers only half of what Mazar and Zhong's study showed, which seems from the abstract to show something more complicated than that some do-gooders are hypocrites. There appears to be "moral balancing" on the part both of the green and the conventional consumers in response to the green option:

Consumer choices not only reflect price and quality preferences but also social and moral values as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we find that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of them lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products. Together, the studies show that consumption is more tightly connected to our social and ethical behaviors in directions and domains other than previously thought.

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