Indulgences

Back in the 16th Century, the Catholic Church got in trouble because – among other things – it allowed the wealthy to buy grace. They could pay the Church and be forgiven their sins – presumably freeing them to go right on sinning.

I’ve remarked in the past (can’t find the posts, and I’m in a hurry to go do chores) that one thing that’s made me uncomfortable with modern liberalism is my observation that the staunch liberals that I know are often pretty bad people; their personal behavior is often worse than the staunch conservatives I know. And that troubles me a lot.

While we like to believe we live our lives flying high in the rarified air of ideas and policies and grand dreams, the reality is that we live it sandwiched between our neighbors. And to me, any value system that privileges the ethereal while ignoring the concrete is suspect. What is, is.

I’ve taken some shots for this from progressives who have challenged my notions for a lot of reasons; the plural of anecdote is definitely not fact, etc.

But now, someone’s gone and done a study. Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto (pdf – h/t Register UK):

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.

Their study suggests that thinking about environmentally conscious products leads to more altruism and honesty; buying environmentally sound products, however leads to selfishness and dishonest behavior.

That’s consistent with some of my personal experience, as well as studies which have shown (for example) that conservatives are more charitable than liberals.

And this bothers the hell out of me.

I was discussing Michael Moore’s latest with a friend and I explained that I was troubled by his technique, and by his personal hypocrisy. I explained that I have two friends who do low-income housing with nonprofits in New York and here in Los Angeles. Each of them created, early in their careers, a limited-equity coop that they chose to live in. Each of their personal residences could be sold (even in today’s climate) for nearly a million dollars on the open market – but they will never see that because they made the moral choice to live the values they espouse. That’s the kind of liberalism I support.

It appears, sadly, to be almost too rare to mention.
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8 thoughts on “Indulgences”

  1. Look on the bright side. The mainspring of your politics has always been your love of America, and your belief in its moral worth and uniqueness. The same test of action that troubles you over the liberal / conservative divide should confirm you in your belief that you got the main thing right. America, the land of extraordinary private giving, really is special.

    American citizenship is not in any sense an “indulgence”. It’s something that inspires people to do more than they otherwise would have.

    Therefore, to the extent that liberalism is specifically American, based on American traditions, cultural concerns and moral intuitions, and not internationalist, deductive and bureaucratic, there almost has to be something right with it.

  2. I’m going to focus on the green products things for now (and avoid the whole DvR charity subcontext).

    One of the problems with the paper is they really don’t make an attempt to explain why this may be the case… and there are a lot of possible reasons.

    One may be that more people buying green for non-altruistic reasons (it’s currently hip), and so those less interested in green for altruistic purposes are more likely to steal.

    The best way to test this would be to compare green items to expensive designer items. I believe “buying” these items would demonstrate similar “stealing” behaviors. Which would mean that it’s not about the green products at all, just their presence as a status symbol

  3. bq. One of the problems with the paper is they really don’t make an attempt to explain why this may be the case… and there are a lot of possible reasons.

    Huh? Did you read the paper? They very explicitly say they believe that the ‘buy green’ behavior was taken as moral permission for other acts seen as not-so-nice.

    You can argue that they didn’t adequately support their case – and indeed it seems like your idea would be a useful control – but they certainly do spell out their reasoning, for better or worse.

  4. Ok, they say it in the introduction (which seems weird to me… shouldn’t it be in the discussion? Maybe a difference between chem & psych?) but yes, although I think they’ve demonstrated correlation, the causation (although plausible) is not supported.

  5. I’ve always admired how as a liberal, you criticism the left with an eye towards making it better.

    I can think two explanations that would contribute to the above phenomena.

    1) Who is the government?
    I think that in previous years, there was a sense that laws in America answered the question, “what should we do?” Now it’s quite clear that laws are really, “what can I force my neighbor to do?”

    Therefore, liberal values are not about doing good because there’s something good to be done. Rather, liberal values are a convenient way pillory your neighbor who’s better off than you are. Doing good trains you to be a better person. Hating your neighbor doesn’t.

    2) Atheism and relativism.
    Without a divinely perfect yard-stick, morality tends to relativism. So unless you think God is looking over your shoulder, reminding you to always be better, of course it all balances out. That’s only just. (I implicitly assert that conservatives are more likely to be religious and Christian)

    Besides, without a divine command, altruistic behavior really doesn’t make sense anyway. It becomes (at best) a meaningless tradition, (at worse) a command to destroy good things.

  6. bq. …(which seems weird to me… shouldn’t it be in the discussion? Maybe a difference between chem & psych?)

    Yeah, me too. I’m used to reading experimental computer science & human factors papers – served on a few program committees and review panels back in the day – and I find the structure a little odd. But IIRC, it’s similar to a few behavioral studies on computing from Stanford that I read back in the early 90s, so maybe it is a domain thing.

    In reviewer voice: I’d like to see some more control studies.

  7. I was curious about that book you sighted AL (study shows conservatives more charitable), and so I tried to read up on it, including the review you cited. But I noticed a big red flag in the paragraph:

    _Statisticians will no doubt seek to nitpick Brooks to death. Might there be large liberal donors living in red states? Might liberals’ higher incomes and lower charitable giving reflect the fact that they are concentrated in states with higher wages and higher costs of living?_

    Wait… The author didn’t address these questions? He didn’t control for incomes and cost of living? He didn’t control for education level? That’s a major oversight. (Another is that he treated Survey’s & behavioral data with equal weight…)

    So let’s look at a “study”:http://www.bc.edu/research/cwp/meta-elements/pdf/givingindices.pdf by Boston College that does measure charity by cost of living: (top 10 by state)
    1. NY
    2. DC
    3. Utah
    4. California
    5. Connecticut
    6. Maryland
    7. New Jersey
    8. Georgia
    9. Mass
    10. Hawaii

    See? a much more even mixture. Again, this BC study freely admits that no one measures volunteer hours or time spent in community projects:

    _In truth, every purported generosity index that has ranked states is, in fact, a charitable giving index. Individuals contribute time, effort, goods, money, and emotional support on a daily basis to many individuals inside and outside of their immediate family—all of which are forms of generosity and not captured by any so-called state generosity measure._

    There’s also a pretty good debate about this over at “volokh”:http://www.volokh.com/posts/1212183794.shtml

    So Buck up, AL. These issues are more independent of politics than you think.

  8. There are plenty of genetic studies on altruism that point to it having been selected on an evolutionary basis for its contributions to helping the continuing survival of species, among them being the Human Race.

    Without a divinely perfect yard-stick, morality doesn’t tend to relativism any more than masturbation leads to hairy palms.

    I think what you might be talking about is your own personal morality and projecting that unto others. If you need a divinely perfect yardstick not to slip into moral relativism that is your problem, not necessarily everyone else’s.

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