I have been interested for some time about the effect of essentially useless moral badges. By “moral badges,” I mean moral choices that one makes as a statement of one’s values, but have very low expected utility. Whether or not you make this kind of moral choice will not make an actual difference in the world. Examples might be sticking an awareness ribbon on one’s car, or the purchase of items that will only make a difference in aggregate: organic foods, green products, high fuel efficiency cars, low-flush toilets, etc. A law requiring such purchases may ease the collective action problem. But until there is such a law, whether or not you buy the product will not actually change anything.
On the one hand, I can see how taking such actions might be essentially practicing a virtue, thus making virtue itself more habitual. So when it comes time to decide to perform an action that would have actual utility, you would be more apt to do it. You would be practiced in making morally correct choices. On the other hand, I could see that you might use up your reservoir of energy that is devoted to morality on such useless badges. So that when it comes time to decide to perform a moral action of actual utility, you might just say, “Eh, I gave at the office.”
Some recent studies have attempted to suss out the effect of such moral badges. The study design, however, is poor. Despite claims by the authors, they tell us nothing about the effect of such badges.
This study got some press recently. Caveat: I can’t access the study itself, so I’m relying on the abstract and descriptions in blogs. The study showed college students images of either organic foods, comfort foods, or neutral foods. Those who saw images of organic foods were more likely subsequently to judge debatable moral scenarios more harshly than those who saw images of comfort or neutral foods. In the words of the study authors, “These results suggest that exposure to organic foods may lead people to affirm their moral identities, which attenuates their desire to be altruistic.”
A blogger at Scientific American suggests that perhaps it was not that organic foods make you harsher, but that sweet foods make you more sweet-tempered. Or perhaps more guilt-ridden and needing to expiate the guilt. I can’t read the study, but shouldn’t the neutral foods have controlled for that?
There are other reasons to be suspicious of this study. First is the apparent assumption that harsher moral judgments are somehow immoral. That is itself, of course, morally debatable. I would be hesitant to assume that being more altruistic means necessarily that you are more fuzzy about your moral bright lines.
Also, and more importantly, the students did not buy the products. They simply looked at them. Just looking at something is not at all the same thing as buying it as an expression of one’s moral identity. If I see “It’s a child, not a choice” on a bumper sticker on someone else’s car, what does that say about me, morally speaking? I didn’t put it on my car, I didn’t spend any money on it. In short, the students spent no moral capital on viewing these products. There is no reason to think, therefore, that it affirmed their moral identities. Maybe the students were slightly irritated at the green products and the smug people who buy them, which put them in a more irritable mood for later testing. Maybe it made them feel guilty for not having bought them recently, and that’s why they didn’t volunteer and were harsher. What we still don’t know, despite the authors’ claims, is what these moral badges do when people actually choose them for themselves.
This study attempts to address the failures of the previously mentioned study. It at least acknowledges that there is a difference between exposure and purchasing. It puportedly shows, contra the previous study, that people who were exposed to green products were less likely to cheat and steal. Yet those who purchased such products were more likely. The authors claim that, “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.”
Yet this study totally fails to solve the problem. The students did not actually purchase the products, just select what they would purchase (and have a 1 in 25 chance of actually receiving) given pretend money. This was not an actual purchase. An academic was watching their choice. They might have wished to impress the test-runner. Moreover, in the experiment the products cost the same amount of pretend money. In real life, of couse, green products almost always cost more and almost always work less well. One is paying more for less effectiveness. It is a sacrifice twice over (in finances and efficacy) to buy green.
Also, these studies are of undergraduate college students. This is problem that plagues many psychology studies, of course, but it might be especially marked when trying to isolate this particular phenomenon. Aren’t college students famously willing to help the world at large but unwilling to sacrifice themselves in smaller scale moral acts? Developmentally, college students are more interested in broader moral statements than smaller scale ones. I would be suspicious that any study of the morality of college students might not generalize itself all that well to people in general.
In short, I am still left wondering about what moral badges do.