Would a society of moral saints be a worse place to live?

In 2000, in his book Bobos In Paradise, the US commentator David Brooks noticed that the emerging class he called “bourgeois bohemians” had a particular fondness for rough textures: slate kitchen counters, coarse rugs, stone fireplaces, and so on. Where their parents prized smooth surfaces, these countercultural capitalists (and not to be rude, but I suspect the Guardian’s readership contains a few) yearned to go back to the land. Brooks grasped, too, that they saw something moral in their choices. Their rough-hewn chopping boards didn’t merely signify that they led better lives, but that they were better people.

This came to mind the other day when I read a new study on the psychological phenomenon of “moral licensing”. It’s been known for a while, now, that we’re prone to using our ethical acts as an excuse for our less ethical acts – so that, for example, the person who religiously eliminates single-use plastic from their life feels entitled to take a couple of extra long-haul flights per year, even though the harm of the latter might outweigh the benefits of the former. But a new German study, by researchers Jannis Engel and Nora Szech, provides an alarming glimpse of just how ready we are to let ourselves off the hook.

The experiment involved shopping for towels, and the details are a little complex, but the headline finding is stark: participants who felt they were doing something moral by choosing between “pure organic cotton” towels proved less bothered by whether or not they were produced under ethical working conditions than those choosing between regular towels. Even assuming that organic cotton is greener (and that’s disputed), many who value it surely do so for the rather selfish reason that they believe it’s a higher-quality product. Yet this apparently made them feel so virtuous that it eroded their sense of obligation about the conditions in which it was produced.

More and more, I find myself wondering if the ubiquity of findings like this points to something fundamentally wrong with the outlook the philosopher Daniel Kaufman has called “morality everywhere” – the notion that we even ought to be considering our every daily move through an ethical lens in the first place. This “aggressive moral scrutiny directed at the minutiae of everyday life” is suspect on multiple grounds, Kaufman thinks. For one thing, it backfires, triggering resentment against holier-than-thou types, and maybe contributing to events such as Donald Trump’s election. (Which certainly hasn’t been good for the environment.) Another problem is that it assumes morality’s the only virtue worth cultivating – whereas the flourishing of the arts, sport, literature, family life and much else require that we don’t make every decision about how to use our time, or spend our money, on ethical grounds alone. A society comprised exclusively of moral saints would be a worse place to live.

I’m not sure I agree – or if I do, that this is any reason not to try to make ethical consumer choices. But I can’t deny there’s something strange about “ethical living” as a moral code, if a) it’s impossible to follow it flawlessly, and b) it wouldn’t lead to the best form of society even if everyone did. Perhaps our world-improving energies would be better directed elsewhere.

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