Monday, March 9, 2015

Moral Self-Indulgence

The Church of the Liberal Pieties has its own set of virtues. Many of them involve environmentally-friendly actions, like bringing your own burlap shopping bag to the super market or composting or eating organic foods.

So, when The Economist reports on a new study that looks at what happens when members of that Church do what their religion considers to be good deeds, we need to underscore that the virtues in question are of very limited scope.

The study does not seem to see the virtue in politeness, courtesy and punctuality… to say nothing or reliability and trustworthiness.

The authors accept as virtues those that adhere to an ideology. They ignore those that contribute to social harmony.

Being most interested in people who bring their own burlap shopping bags to the supermarket, the authors discover that, for those who attend the Church of Liberal Pieties, virtue is not its own reward.

One suspects that, for those who practice civic virtues, perhaps virtue is its own reward.

I would add that, to the best of my knowledge, the study does not consider the fact that burlap and other non-plastic shopping bags tend to incubate large numbers of nasty germs, thus making those who use them and their families more likely to suffer from illness.

Unless, of course, feeling good about nature acts as a panacea

I would also add that while plastic shopping bags have been widely denounced for the damage they do to the environment, the members of the Church of Liberal Pieties will soon have to face that fact that Keurig coffee cups are also made of plastic and are fast becoming a serious environmental problem.

Recent reports suggest that around 9 billion of the little cups pollute the environment each year. Worse yet, they are not recyclable.

Be that as it may, researchers from Duke and Harvard business schools have discovered that people who worship at the Church of the Liberal Pieties believe themselves entitled to sin with impunity. They feel entitled to receive a reward for using the right shopping bag.

This means that while such church members invariably buy more fresh fruits and vegetables they also buy more junk food, more sweets and more chips.

For them, virtue is not its own reward. Their true reward is junk food. They do not seem to believe that helping the environment is sufficient reward.

The Economist summarizes:

A recent paper* by Uma Karmarkar of Harvard Business School and Bryan Bollinger of Duke Fuqua School of Business finds that shoppers who bring their own bags when they buy groceries like to reward themselves for it. For two years the authors tracked transactions at a supermarket in America. Perhaps unsurprisingly, shoppers who brought their own bags bought more green products than those who used the store’s bags. But the eco-shoppers were also more likely to buy sweets, ice cream and crisps.

Psychologists call this sort of behaviour “moral licensing”: the tendency to indulge yourself for doing something virtuous. Although this example may seem harmless (except to the shoppers’ waistlines), the results can be perverse.

Speaking of perversity… which is, of course, just another lifestyle choice… one does recall a certain president of the United States whose predatory behavior toward women became a powerful recruiting tool for feminism.

When Bill Clinton was caught exploiting a power imbalance in his workplace, feminists rallied to his defense. As long as he supported a woman’s right to choose, he could do whatever he wanted to the White House intern or even Juanita Broaddrick.

For supporting the feminist cause Bill Clinton got a pass. He could prey on all the women he wanted. His feminist defenders granted him a special kind of earthly indulgence: he was allowed to sin with impunity.

It’s a moral calculus. Members of the Church of the Liberal Pieties can feel that they are being moral beings without having to work very hard, without having to love their neighbors, without having to show up on time, without having to return messages and without having to keep their word.

Anyone who believes that their virtuous behavior entitles them to a material reward, one that they can confer on themselves, is not really being virtuous.

He is conning himself... and maybe even you.


Sam L. said...

They lie to us, and they lie to themselves, but that's OK, they know they're "good people".

Ares Olympus said...

It can seem to get rather whiny to try to judge other people's motivational systems, and adding in President Clinton at the end seemed bizarrely off-topic, or are we to assume Clinton's "dalliances" are his "rewards" for doing housework perhaps?!

re: Anyone who believes that their virtuous behavior entitles them to a material reward, one that they can confer on themselves, is not really being virtuous.

This is a good question. And I agree if you have to reward yourself for doing the "right thing".

But some right things are just a matter of starting a good habit, so you only need an initial help, and the "self-indulgence", can be temporary rather than a permanent state.

If a doctor gives a child a lollipop for being cooperative, will this encourage the child to become a Pavlov's Dog, requiring a lollipop every time he is cooperative, or will he learn being cooperative is its own reward and stop needing a reward?

So that's the nature of predicament of any sort of rewards for behavior.

And I do see its the same with the ideas of wives exchanging sex privledges for husband's doing more housework.

Like if a promise of Friday night sex if a husband lowers the toilet seat all week helps him pay attention to his behavior, then perhaps at the end of the week he'll understand it is important to her, and he'll keep doing it after the first reward, without any extra incentives?

The whole punishment/reward system itself is surely flawed if used too often, but it would seem its value is in "training" our superego to see other people's points of view, and once we "internalize" other people's needs, we can consider them at least objectively as important as our own, and not need rewards.

On the other hand, the superego can learn "wrong lessons" as well, internalize false agreements in how the world works, so like if your religion teached you to "turn the other cheek", you may let yourself be abused for a long time before you wonder why it is your duty but not other people's duty to not hit.

And a martyr may feel "virtuous" without ever standing up for "her"self, and redirect resentment into idealism - seeing "her" rewards in heaven someday while her persecutors burn in hell. I mean at least that's a nonmaterial reward, but eternal rewards are worth material suffering, right?

So virtue would seem to always be messy.

I guess the trick to know if something is virtue or not is to ask "If I'm expressing a virtue on the assumption of future reward, if I KNEW that reward would never come, would I still do the right thing?"

I mean there's no fixed answer, but you can ask in every instance of expressing virtuous action. If the answer is no, then you need to take care about resentment. There's something that needs attention.

sestamibi said...

And they had a chance to preen about their nobility in voting for a black president as well.

Larry said...

K Cups are largely recyclable with some work. The foil top is not. The filter & grounds go in the compost, the little plastic cup go into the recycling.

Better are the eco-friendly versions without the plastic cup which let the grounds dangle in a in a filter.