Moral Spending, Immoral Living?

I've written a bit on this blog about "moral consumption," how Americans try to meet their moral obligations through spending. We buy green, fair trade or red products. The idea seems to be that we get to have our cake and eat it too. We get to spend and consume while also being an enlightened moral person. We help the world through shopping.

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow's article in Slate--Buy Local, Act Evil--suggests that the problem might be even worse. Specifically, recent psychological research suggests that when we buy for moral reasons we behave, afterward, more poorly. It seems that having done our duty, morally speaking, when we shopped we feel entitled to let our behavior slip in other areas. From the article:

Why might this happen? According to Monin, now a professor at Stanford, there are two theories. One is that when we've established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I'm a good person, so what I'm doing now must be okay...

Another, potentially overlapping theory holds that we have a kind of subconscious moral accounting system. We like to think of ourselves as good guys, but sainthood has costs. So when we have done our mitzvah for the day, we cut ourselves some slack. In this model, "moral credits" are a kind of currency we accrue and spend.

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7 thoughts on “Moral Spending, Immoral Living?”

  1. Ok, WOW. First, there is the fact that buying and selling in an open market tends, to encourage trustworthiness and honesty especially where there exists the potential for repeated game play. See Diedre McClosky's work on this.
    Second, there are strong arguments that fair trade outfits actually distort the terms of trade significantly, causing resources to be applied to their second, third, or fourth best use rather than first best. This can perpetuate poverty under certain conditions. But then this new element is added in where acting virtuously under false premesis diminishes the future liklihood of acting virtously.

  2. I think, as usual, we are getting only part of the picture. Acting virtuously is a social construct in and of itself--people imagine that they are "acting virtuously" all the time. Buying green is only one subset of actions which people may think of as virtuous--Juris Naturalists assumption that there is a "first best" use for his dollars which is identical to that held by first year economics undergrads taking a friedmanite econ 101 level course is another example of the arbitrariness of the concept of "acting virtuously."

    The studies all posit a kind of psychic recoil--after acting "virtuously" and with other people's rights/lives in mind some people then recoil and relax and act selfishly. I'd argue that its because "virtue" is thought of as "stuff we don't do for ourselves, or that has a cost." It doesn't matter what we are doing it is that it is seen as unselfish (however wrongly) or as costing us more than we wanted to pay. We recoil and act selfishly to make up to ourselves for this perceived harshness to ourselves. This has nothing to do with green/not green. I daresay you could perform the same experiment with people who just got out of church and who gave at the collection plate or who confessed themselves and discover, shock! horror! that they, too recoil back into selfishness.

    A more interesting application--or question--is to look at how this mental recoil back to a steady state of selfishness relates to punishment. Don't we know from looking at how children respond to punishment that the harsher the punishment the more likely the child is to forget the original transgression and to act out to get revenge for the punishment? What is this but another example of the way virtue, or being forced to act virtuously against self interest/desire results in a moral recoil that produces less virtue?


  3. I think virtue is simpler to come by than we expect. Jesus summed it up easily; "Don't do what you hate."

  4. Dammerung,
    By leaving out "the other" in Jesus's commandment you are already showing how hard it is to be virtuous. Jesus didn't say "don't do what you hate" that would be of no more interest than if he advised people who don't like chocolate to avoid chocolate. He said "Do unto others as you would they do unto you." That's a commandment to be in relationship with other people, not a command to avoid dislikeable things. And its a command that instructs us to think about others as we think of ourselves--with love and empathy--instead of as distant and unimportant strangers.


  5. I'd also like to point out that there have been lots of people writing on the dangers of transforming "citizens" and "activists" into "consumers." There have been notable benefits to encouraging people to act morally with their dollars--a practice that goes all the way back to anti-slavery sugar boycotts, btw. But there are also dangers. Not the danger of somehow "distorting" the perfect market but of leaving people thinking that individual action can take the place of collective action or that the reward of the action lies in how it makes us feel about ourselves, instead of what effect it has on the world. But people are complex, selfish, pathetic beings and they need to be appealed to on a number of levels in order to change habitual practice. I'm not sure what the alternative is to asking people to think about all their activities from a moral perspective. It just so happens that more people are consumers, these days, than are producers and that they have a wide fora of choices about consumption, and wide discretion about how to handle what is really overconsumption.


  6. I came across this post by Richard within a day of reading the following article on essentially the same issue. Good fun.

    NOTE: couldn't make link work, so Google "adventures of low impact man" and you'll get to an article by Matt Labash at the Weekly Standard.

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