Do You Want “Ethics” With That?

by | Mar 19, 2010

The desire that things be “ethical” has developed in the same era as climate change anxiety. Naturally, there is some convergence. Things which promise to lessen ‘environmental impact’ are considered ‘ethical’, and the implication is that things that aren’t clearly labelled ‘ethical’ are therefore ‘unethical’.

This is unusual because “ethical” seems to have replaced the word “good” in the discussion about what is good. This is nonsense for two main reasons. “Ethical” does not mean “good”. Al-Qaida has ethics. The Nazi Party had ethics – It had a very “ethical foreign policy”. Ethics is about determining a moral framework, within which can be established, in any instance, right from wrong, good from bad. So at the same time, those who use the word “ethical” in the place of the word ‘good’ reveal their own lack of confidence in the concept of good, and yet pretend to be the only people to ever think about what is right and what is wrong. Ethics is now what you buy, not what you think.

Last November, George Monbiot said something we agreed with… “We cannot change the world by changing our buying habits”, he said. We agreed,  but with the qualification that George was right to say that “ethical consumerism” is wrong, but for the wrong reason, and was inconsistent. He was responding to a study in Canada, which had apparently demonstrated that “ethical consumerism” had the effect of creating a sense of entitlement to act ‘unethically’ elsewhere. In an experiment, participants who had “bought” ethical goods were more likely to go on to “steal”.

It was odd, then, to see that The Guardian were reporting the study again last week, nearly 6 months after Monbiot had reported it in the same newspaper.

According to a study, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the “licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour”, otherwise known as “moral balancing” or “compensatory ethics”.

The Guardian seem to be having a bit of an ‘ethics’ festival at the moment. Commenting on the “news”, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, Julian Baggini says of the experiment,

… complacency is as dangerous in ethics as it is in any other area of life where we strive for excellence. If we think we are “good people” we might think less about the possibility that we might actually be doing wrong.

But if that just seems to be a universal truth of human nature, what of the idea that being in moral credit earns us redeemable naughtiness points? I can imagine what the evolutionary psychologists would say: ethics is rooted in reciprocal altruism – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. So when you do the right thing, but not to any particular person, we instinctively feel that we have earned some sort of pay back. Since no-one will do that for us, we opt for self-service reciprocation.

That may indeed be natural, but that doesn’t make it right. And even if it did, there is still a problem that when we allow ourselves to dish out the rewards, we can’t trust ourselves to be fair.

The philosopher takes the experiment at face value, to begin to mull over the implications for ethics with respect to “human nature”, before coming to this conclusion.

True virtue would never liken its rewards to points on a loyalty card, not because it is its own reward, but because it is not something we should practice to accrue future benefits. If these latest studies show us anything, it’s that we’ve lost sight of this. It is not to our credit that we see good deeds as ways of earning it. Ethics has gone beyond reciprocal altruism and become unenlightened self-interest. But I’d better stop there: I’m in danger of feeling very, very self-righteous.

It is a shame that Baggini did stop there. Because the experiment says nothing about human nature, and says nothing about ethics in general. Instead, it speaks most loudly about “environmental ethics”. As we said back in November:

If it is true that buying ‘ethical goods’ makes you more selfish, then surely the lesson is that there’s something wrong with environmental ethics, rather than with its application in the form of ethical consumerism. …

This is the problem with attempting to locate the basis of ethics without humanity. A few posts ago, we discussed the implausibility of ‘eco-humanism’.  We argued there that the environmental conception of ethics puts the environment prior to humans – that their principle relationship was with the natural/biological order, rather than with one another. Furthermore, the prospect of catastrophe in the environmental narrative precludes any conception of ‘good’. All human action reduces to a quantity of bad, such that we can only speak about one action being less bad than another, using a carbon-footprint calculator, or something.

Environmental ‘ethics’ are an absurdity. First, they are extraordinarily polar, and lack any nuance whatsoever. All bad actions lead ultimately to nothing less than the end of the world, yet the most mundane actions – buying the ‘good’ kind of paper to wipe your arse with, for instance – become acts of planet-saving significance. This happens for the reason Baggini raises – that virtue cannot be likened to “points on a loyalty card”. Yet this is exactly how environmental ethics force us to see the world. Good is measured as the net balance of our exchange with the natural sphere, as calculated by ‘science’. Climate science, then, gives the ground for environmental ethics as a kind of cheap, vulgar moral realism – the idea that there are moral facts in the world.

What “the good life” consists of has haunted moral philosophers for thousands of years, but human ethics are swept away by the urgency with which the climate issue has been presented. And human politics are similarly abolished in the face of the looming apocalypse. To take issue, with any part of this moral framework is to deny its premises – “the science” – is to be a denier. To question the soundness of the framework is to be a “contrarian”, or a “delayer”. Adherents of environmental ethics even have words for those who are not observant.


  1. geoffchambers

    The idea of a moral calculus goes back to Jeremy Bentham and his attempt to measure goodness, which was polished into a more sophisticated form by John Stuart Mill under the name of Utilitarianism. The idea that everything can be measured, and that what cannot be measured is worthless, was parodied by Dickens in the person of Mr Gradgrind. Environmentalist ethics can be seen as the natural offspring of Gradgrind and another Dickens character, Mrs Jellaby, who was too busy raising money for poor Africans to care for her own children.
    It’s odd, on the face of it, that the Greens should have taken up such a mechanistic form of ethical system, just as it’s odd that they should rely on “objective” science as a source of legitimacy for what is basically an aesthetic attitude to politics – politics as people’s relation to the planet, rather than their relation to each other – as the editors here put it. Is it simply over-compensation for their “treehugger” image?

  2. StuartR

    The definition of ethical and who eventually controls that definition is interesting.
    A classic south sea islander of the early 20th century making raffia work headphones in an ethical cargo cult way, is an outstanding example of the ethical and productive thing to do.
    However, young Bob the south sea islander, who decides that it is rubbish to make raffia work airports, and would rather play with the dolphins as opposed to eating them as the other islanders do, doesn’t rank high in the “Ethics” stakes. He eventually decides to leave the island to become a CBBC producer.


    BTW. I know epistemology comes in there, but when is it all “sorted”? That we are so secure with what we know about the world that it ends up just boiling down to ethics to sort out what to do, say, day to day?

  3. Mooloo

    It’s odd, on the face of it, that the Greens should have taken up such a mechanistic form of ethical system

    I don’t think the real Greens have. They grow their own stuff for the most part, or buy from farms directly.

    It is the pseudo-Greens that advance the “ethical buying” agenda. That spares them the effort of actually having to go to the effort that being actually Green requires. Meanwhile some pseudo-Greens push the agenda because they intend to make money from it or because they think it buys political credibility with their audience.

  4. geoffchambers

    Mooloo’s distinction between the real- and the pseudo-greens is no doubt correct. The question then becomes: how did these two very different groups come to form an alliance, and believe themselves to be part of the same movement? I’ve just been on a Guardian thread where there were surreal conversations like:
    – “switch off the light or we’re doomed”
    – “It’s alright, I’m growing my own vegetables”

    Wasn’t it young Bob the South Sea Islander who protested against making headphones out of scarce raffia, when there was an infinite abundance of plastic headphones arriving on every boat? (Of course, they didn’t work any better, because there was nowhere to plug them in. But they’ve hired Mark Lynas as an adviser, and got a grant from the UN to recycle useless coconut shells as sustainable walkietalkies)
    You ask, when is it all “sorted”?
    It was sorted for Greens when they realised that, though money and consumer goods were inherently bad, they had quite a lot of the former, and needed quite a lot of the latter. They therefore needed (even more than they needed stuff) a belief system to make sense of their lives.

  5. Chuckles

    An excellent and thoughtful post. i suspect that it is post-normal science rather than objective science that is the attraction?

    I’m all for the raffia headphone knitters branching out into dolphin tickling, documentary production or whatever floats their boat;
    what concerns me are the hordes of well funded NGO’s and similar presuming to speak for the raffia knitters, and determined to keep them knitting in stereo, using strictly rationed quantities of raffia.

    A commenter at WUWT mentioned this parallel danger –

    ‘according to South Park people who drive Hybrids create “smug” and that this “smug” when concentrated in cities like “San Francisco” make the living environment there unbearable.
    So yes, going green can actually have a detrimental effect on the environment.’

    I guess it all comes down to the focus of ones morality?

  6. JMaes Cox

    The notion that we bad for ourselves is ilogical. The details, of what we do or do not do,cannot be decided by the relative amount of resources we use. Equality of resources, and hapiness should never be coupled.

  7. James Cox

    sorry about the spelling, and the missing “are”

  8. James Cox

    or our?

  9. James Cox

    using bad gramma to annoy Ben P and would like a response

  10. James Cox

    If you are alone in the desert and you are told you can do anything, essentially you are free. Yet you can can do nothing but wonder the desert. With people around you anything is possible.

  11. James Cox

    just seen the double negative


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