Friday, May 16, 2008

Against Moral Mindfulness

More from Janet's post:
Reducing our decisions to dollars and cents keeps us focused on the impacts of our choices to ourselves, financially. It distracts us from the impacts of our choices on other individuals, or on our communities more broadly. Recognizing that those others are of value -- that they have interests that matter, too -- is kind of at the heart of being an ethical human being...

I'd really like to nudge myself, and those around me, to a place where we make more of our choices with a mindfulness about how those choices change the choices available to others (and to ourselves down the road). I don't want it to fall to our water bills to make us be the people we ought to be.

I disagree. Sure, insofar as we are acting qua citizen -- engaging in public debate, political advocacy, voting, etc. -- we should be guided by concern for the general welfare. But we should prefer to avoid needlessly burdening private individuals with additional concerns in their everyday life.

Benign spontaneous order is the ideal: far better to set things up so that ordinary thoughtless actions will tend towards the public good without any special effort or knowledge required on the part of the individual. As I wrote in an old thread:
I'd be delighted if our societal systems were so well-designed that people rarely needed to consider impartial moral reasons at all in their daily living. There is plenty of room for that in the public sphere, and it seems a more personal focus (on one's close relationships, etc.) would do more to enrich the private sphere.

Besides, it strikes me as perverse virtue fetishism to oppose effective institutions (e.g. markets) on the grounds that their good results emerge without requiring private virtue. Policy should be geared towards actually improving the world, not getting people to try to improve the world. (Cf. opposing safe-swimming flags at the beach because they reduce the opportunity for heroic rescues!)


  1. The only way this makes sense is if creating virtuous people leads to a better world. However it's not clear that creating virtuous people is the best and easiest way to make a better world. Indeed, as you suggest, it seems an inefficient way.

    Of course underneath it all though is a clear consequentialist perspective on ethics. That is I don't think everyone would agree with you that the point of ethics is to make things better. I'm enough of a consequentialist (to the degree I'm anything) that I agree with you though.

  2. I don't know. It seems like moral mindfulness & motivation could complement (though not replace) the financial incentives approach to water conservation. For starters, being morally motivated doesn't seem like an extra burden here. A financially motivated person tries to save water because it's expensive, while a morally motivated person tries to save water because it's a scarce resource that we need to share, but once they've made the commitment to saving water there isn't much difference between the two. Both are mindful of their water usage and motivated to change their behaviors to use less water - their reason for wanting to save water doesn't seem to enter into the picture.

    If that's correct, then financially motivated water-saving isn't any more or less "thoughtless" than morally motivated water-saving - both involve about the same amount of cognitive demands and "ego depletion." So, especially given that many people already have moral motivations for saving water, why not take advantage of the multiple motivations that people have? The government can raise the price of water usage, advertise the importance of not using too much water, make it easy for people to keep track of how much water they use, publicize water-saving techniques, and so on - whatever works. Note that some of these government actions (like the last two) can work regardless of why people are motivated to save water - and it might be harder to get them to work if people only see them as advice on how to save money.

    There's one other valuable role for the moral side of things. If high water usage is just expensive, and not seen as wrong in any way, then it could thrive as a form of conspicuous consumption. A big, lush lawn could be a way to show off high wealth and status. But if there are fairly widespread moral concerns about water usage, then this kind of high water usage won't work so well to raise one's status (or to advertise high status).

  3. Clark - What sort of theoretical perspective do you think motivates the opposing view? It doesn't seem deontological, since nudging others is not a matter of personally abiding by side-constraints. The question whether (it's good) to "nudge" others to be more mindful seems very teleological/consequentialist. It's just that the end to be promoted is not human welfare, but human virtue. (It's consequentialism with a warped theory of the good, in other words.) Unless, perhaps, a 'virtue theory' approach would make more sense of it?

    Blar - I like your point about conspicuous consumption. That's convinced me that we should, indeed, disapprove of really flagrantly wasteful water usage. (I don't imagine this would require much by way of psychological reprogramming.)

    On your main point, I agree it's fine if someone is naturally altruistic (just as others of us are naturally prudent) in the first place. Great. But many of us have to work harder to bring ourselves to act on altruistic reasons. Calls to greater "moral mindfulness" are thus experienced as haranguing. That's nothing essential to moral reasons, but just a contingent fact about (some) human psychology.


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