Monbiot on Morality

I decided to set up some sites in Google Reader earlier and when I went to check up had popped a piece by George Monbiot on the morality of green consumerism. It was enough to distract me from “Carbonomics”.

George makes some sound points, in particular, of course, that political rather than consumer action is what’s going to make a difference.

But George has been seduced by some psychological research which seems to me to be of somewhat limited value in helping us understand moral behaviour. Taking a behaviourist approach, the researchers, as George notes, show that moral, “green” behaviour may be followed by apparently selfish behaviour.

There are various problems, not least that the experimenters used money as a reward. The use of something more directly pleasurable (a sweet or something) would have been better, since money is very complex. It represents the power to consume or to give to someone else, not consumption itself.

On George’s blog, SteelyGlint pointed out that someone believing themselves to be moral may not be selfish, but may simply believe they are the better person to take control of resources. The experimental set up could have tested this possibility by varying the “morality” of the alternative to keeping the money.

But there is a much more fundamental problem. A moral code is not necessarily rational. In fact, that is one of the least important aspects of it. Morals are all about group behaviour. Group cohesion is maximised when everyone follows the same moral code. Groups therefore try to align their morals, by policing them and by rejecting those who won’t adhere to the code. No wonder Monbiot observes in an otherwise incoherent conclusion that:

“Campaigners are constantly told that guilt-tripping people is counterproductive: we have to make people feel better about themselves instead.”

Too right. Laying on a guilt trip is tantamount to saying: “You’re not one of us”, or at best “You’re not a very good member of the group.”

And it gets even worse. Moral codes are not necessarily rational. Generally speaking they’re based on grains of truth (I need to study his ideas a bit more, but I understand this is what Daniel Dennett says in Breaking the Spell – btw there’s scope for improving your home page, Professor!) or some self-serving belief (often that people of one region or type are superior in some way to others).

In the green moral code there are numerous distinctly irrational positions. I mentioned only the other day the contradiction between using wood as a fuel in the UK (good, apparently) and in Africa (bad). I’m always harping on about how feed-in tariffs will lead to a distinctly sub-optimal allocation of resources. And the entire localisation agenda is distinctly dubious. It is nowhere near a given, for instance, that, even in the narrow terms of directly attributable greenhouse gas emissions, it always or even most often makes sense to consume locally grown produce.

So what’s actually needed is a way of determining the “best” course of action in a given set of circumstances. As far as I can see the only way to do this is to assign values to the various costs of every form of consumption. We must add in:
– the labour cost (having ensured that all are paid fairly), including research and other inventive effort that went into producing the product – because these represent someone doing something they didn’t really want to do, that being the reason society has to pay them;
– the scarcity cost of materials and other resources (land, water – unless we count this as a material… whatever – and so on) that were required to produce the product or components of it;
– environmental costs associated with the product, e.g. pollution including greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity losses resulting from production of the product and so on;
– the cost of delivering the product from the point of production to that where it is bought (or as otherwise required by the purchase agreement);
– the scarcity value of the product itself (aka profit, which could be negative).
We then arrive at the appropriate “price” for the product. The higher the price for the product, the less incentive to consume it.

In fact, we already have sophisticated mechanisms for determining the appropriate price that should be paid for a product. The problem is that the price does not include all the costs. Those it doesn’t include are usually termed “externalities”. All we have to do is internalise these costs. The debate should be solely about how best to do this. There’s nothing else to discuss.

What’s happening instead is that irrational behaviour is taking over. “Surely”, the moralists think, “we could solve this problem if everyone did the right thing?”. No. Most people will only do the right thing if they actually want to belong to the group; and if they think they’re being watched; and if they think everyone else is also doing the right thing; and if they don’t think they’ve already done their fair share; or if they want to appear to be a moral leader of the group. What’s more, we don’t even know what the right thing is.

Then, for the group to function, for there even to be a group, virtually by definition there have to be those outside the group. In particular, there are always those ambitious types who see the leadership cadre of the group as oversubscribed and set themselves up in opposition, with another set of beliefs and values.

We’re already seeing the influence of the moralists on policy. Instead of embedding green policies in an over-arching political framework, they want to “sweep away” “capitalism” or “the market economy” or some such nonsense, or, at the very least, implement policies that, by over-emphasising one possible solution – the obscenity of biofuels, say, or feed-in tariffs for micro-generation, that ideal policy for conspicuous advertising of moral credentials – leave us further away, not closer to solving the overall problem. Global warming is too complex a problem to solve by edict. Don’t let the moralists capture the political process.