Julian Baggini: True virtue would never liken its rewards to points on a loyalty card
Being virtuous is wonderful thing, but feeling virtuous is a shortcut to vice. That seems to be the moral of a fascinating piece of research by two Canadian psychologists, which suggests that the greener people are, the more likely they are to lie and cheat. Doing the right thing by the planet earns us credit in our ethical investment accounts that we can then spend by dumping on our fellow human beings. The “halo of green consumerism”, it is claimed, is just a license to behave less well in other areas of life.
This finding doesn’t surprise me. It echoes a report that came out in 2008, which showed that people who were most concerned about the environment were more likely to take long-haul flights. Some of those questioned explicitly said that recycling every last scrap of paper earned them the right to fly, as though you could swap carbon footprints for green air miles.
It would be wrong, however, to think there is something particularly hypocritical about environmentalists. The general truth lurking behind these findings is that the feeling of being pure is a moral contaminant. In ethical terms, the best never think that they are the best, and those that believe themselves to be on the side of the angels are often the worst devils.
Julian Baggini is a Distinguished Supporter of the BHA.