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December 11, 2009

Indulgences: Study Shows Good Little Eco-Ninnies Who Buy Organic 'n Stuff More Likely to Lie and Cheat in Experiments That Test Ethics

Pretty interesting. Two possible conclusions:

1) Eco-ninnies just suck.

2) Eco-ninnies are effectively buying post-modern papal indulgences, they believe, by paying for their sins with minor changes in their consumer purchasing patterns. By buying this supposedly eco-friendly soup, they've saved the environment a little, and satisfied their own (apparently low) threshold of moral and upright behavior, and have a great deal of wiggle room when it comes to other areas of their lives.

I sort of buy both but especially that Number Two. I have long, and long-windedly, argued that liberals indulge themselves with a great many of Ostentatious, Conspicuous Pseudo-Moral Gestures, no different than the judgmental prig they take as representative of a "Christian," a stereotype they know almost exclusively from movies like Footloose.

The gestures are directed both outward and inward, outward to convince others of one's superior morality, but more importantly inward, to convince themselves.

Anyone who's ever talked to such a person comes away thinking, "Good Lord, you have fashioned yourself a real crazy-quilt of ad hoc, made-up, superstitious neo-pagan rules to live by! How do you keep up with all these restrictions and blather?"

It seems like a patchwork super-structure of ersatz, faddish morality designed with only one conceivable purpose: To supplant the conventional morality taught by traditional institutions. Apparently the soul still craves the feeling of living a just and righteous life, even after traditional notions of the just and righteous have been abandoned. The entire code of forbidden foods and rituals of eating in Leviticus is overwritten, line by line and jot by tittle, by some new equally oddball code: Pork is not precisely forbidden, but you can't eat pork that was acquired from a farm more than 60 miles away; and Thou Shall Not Eat Chilean Sea Bass, at least not if it has been caught by a commercial net.

In some cases it might make a lick of sense (okay, maybe the sea bass is being overfished and we hardly want that) and in other cases it's purely a neo-pagan gesture to the new gods. I really do not believe the trivial "carbon costs" of shipping some pork in by railway car are anything more than a rounding error in the carbon costs of feeding that pig and sustaining a farm in the first place.

Oh, and carbon costs are jive in the first place.

Net result? One's sense of place in the universe is affirmed, and one is given the fulfillment of knowing one is doing Gods' work (plural intended) in making rather trivial shopping adjustments. And, even better than that: One gets that crucially-important rush of feeling superior to someone else.

And one more bonus: If you're doing right by Mother Earth, it frees you up to cut corners with your fellow man.

. 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.

In an experiment, participants were randomly assigned to select items they wanted to buy in one of two online stores. One store sold predominantly green products, the other mostly conventional items. Then, in a supposedly unrelated game, all of the participants were allocated $6, to share as they saw fit with an anonymous (and unbeknownst to them, imaginary) recipient. Subjects who had chosen items from the green store coughed up less money, on average, than their counterparts. In a second experiment, participants were again assigned to shop in either a green or conventional store. Then they performed a computer task that involved earning small sums of cash. The setup offered the opportunity to cheat and steal with impunity. The eco-shoppers were more likely to do both.

It would be foolish to draw conclusions about the real world from just one paper and from such an artificial scenario. But the findings add to a growing body of research into a phenomenon known among social psychologists as "moral credentials" or "moral licensing.

Yeah I just said that before reading it so shut up, I don't need social psychologists to give it a name for me. "Indulgences" works fine.

A few years ago (or ten years ago -- how the years flash by) I read some magazine article about "compassion fatigue," liberals basically growing fatigued by the long list of restrictions urged upon them, grapes this week, apples the next, coffee now, now sea bass. And it discussed just a general weariness about the whole regime.

It is probably the case that people only have a limited capacity to restrict their wants and desires according to moral stricture. And that you can not simply keep adding and adding to the pile of requirements and forbiddances. Because at some point, someone just gives up on it, and starts observing rules more sporadically, or not at all, because he's overwhelmed by the sheer number of demands for self-denial and cannot deny himself any further.

And if that's the case -- which seems rather plausible -- it is in fact dangerous to continuously add to this list of moral strictures, clogging up one's limited self-denial machinery with trivial matter, because the ultimate effect may be that the truly important stuff starts getting ignored in favor of the meaningless, or frankly, the flat-out idiotic.

Afterthought: Religions impose a lot of rules about two broad areas: Sex, and food.

It seems that a lot of liberals are getting their religion in at Whole Foods. Sure, they have generally shed some of the rules about sex they find arbitrary and too restrictive, but day-um, are they ever making up for that additional freedom in the Sex Sector by adding a huge list of Thou Shall Nots in the Food Sector.

I don't know -- if you've shed the guilt for a licentious blow-jay you're going to get maybe twice a year if you're lucky, but on the other hand, you have to worry and gnash your teeth every single meal fretting that your pastrami-on-rye isn't free range enough to be eco-kosher, what have you really gained as far as freedom of action?

Seems to me you'd be better served to just chuck your worries about the sinful sandwiches and just feel guilty twice a year when you hook up with someone.

Corrected: The study was about the eco-conscious, not liberals, exactly; liberalish pseudo-conservatives like David Brooks and Rod "Captain Crunch" Dreher fall into this category too, I guess. So do some readers, who aren't liberal (and who I just realized I insulted with whatever term I use; sorry).

So, in the beginning of the post, I've changed liberals to "eco-ninnies." After that I let stand the slip into "liberals," because while the studies may be about eco-ninnies, the rest of my post is about liberals who buy into eco-ninnyhood.

Thanks to Artorious.

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posted by Ace at 09:14 PM

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