Morality is not a zero-sum game
March 19, 2010
Ah, mankind, I haven’t patronised you lately. You do make it really easy though, as this story stands as evidence. The chap at the end appears to be claiming that humans instinctively practice a sort of transactional approach to morality; maintaining their moral character as some sort of checking account.
Now, to a large degree, this appears to be true: how many times have you said to yourself, “Well, I’ve done my good deed for the week,” after perhaps helping an old lady onto the bus? How many times have you justified to yourself not giving money to a beggar by reminding yourself of your previous purchase of a slightly more expensive FairTrade chocolate bar? How many times have you justified your purchase of chocolate by reminding yourself you took the stairs rather than the lift this morning?
Perhaps the answer is none; I’m asking rhetorical questions into the digital space of the internet. But it is a compelling narrative which accords with personal experience. It’s also stupid. The actual paper itself is here, and a cursory inspection reveals that all the experiments were carried out on students from the University of Toronto.
While I’m sure they did their best to come up with proper controls (although there’s no mention of this in the paper), focusing on a body that traditionally has low levels of disposable income in a study on consumerism will necessarily skew the results. The papers’ authors do not discuss this as a potential factor, which leads me to question its effectiveness at proving its claims. There is, however, a bigger potential bias.
I would argue that the conceptual framework that produces the form of ‘moral accounting’ on display here has its roots in the Christian concepts of sin and atonement. These are still prevalent in our society; I’ve met many people who believe that in order to make up for doing something bad, you need to do something good. The flip side of this, of course, is that doing something good entitles you to do something bad. The extreme example of this is the self-flagellation practiced by certain Catholic sects like Opus Dei, ‘popularised’ in the Da Vinci Code. The intent is to mirror the suffering of Christ during his crucifixion, by which means – according to the New Testament – he absolved mankind of original sin.
This is mirrored in a strangely pathetic way by people who claim they’ve expelled their moral guilt by buying the Big Issue. It is, however, not an attitude towards morality that is universal. The obvious rejoinder at this point would be to say, “But Adam, surely this is exactly what karma is all about!” That would be wrong. Karma, in the Hindu sense of the word, is a kind of rationalisation of how shitty the world can be. If something bad happens to you, it’s because you did something bad. If something good happens to you, it’s because you did something good. Here, the agent of judgement is the world, whereas in the above moral accounting model it’s the individual who determines their own punishment.
For this study to carry weight, it needs to be carried out in a multitude of societies that aren’t largely based on Christianity. Conceptual frameworks like the one given above carry far greater weight in our thinking than we typically realise.