Who’s good?



(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

Where were you the first time you heard the term “P.C.”? Auntie Ruth was with a buddy doing not much when he pronounced an opinion to be “politically correct.” At the time, the phrase was utterly new—the Soviet Union still existed, oh my—and the term itself smacked of a quaint Stalinism, Marxism in a common-sense frock. Auntie Ruth and her friends chuckled. Little did we know the phrase would last. And last.

P.C. is derogatory when wielded by Fox News; it is somewhere between a smug “told you so” and comradely encouragement when wielded by progressives. It does speak to a conscious desire to have one’s behavior reflect one’s higher hopes, which is a good thing. But, when under suspicion, it suggests a body of law to be followed absent any good sense.

Green consumerism does come with a halo attached: You feel a little better shopping at the farmers market; a little better buying the organic apples, the Amy’s pot pie, the Prius. Cloth bags provide an “ahh” moment. These aren’t bad things, but what, if anything, follows that “ahh” moment?

Go ahead and Google Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto and their paper “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?” Long story short: They conclude, after three experiments with U of T students, that “people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products.”

That is to say: whoa.

According to Benoît Monin of Stanford University, there are two theories that explain the phenomena of “moral licensing.” “One is that when we’ve established our rectitude, we interpret ensuing behavior in a different light: I just proved I’m a good person, so what I’m doing now must be okay.” This applies, obviously, to acts of shopping, not genocide. As Monin told Slate in 2009: “Another theory holds that we have a subconscious moral accounting system. We like to think of ourselves as good guys, but sainthood has costs. … In this model, ‘moral credits’ are a kind of currency we accrue and spend.”

Balance probably lies in not being too overly congratulatory when doing the green thing, and not overly self-punitive on burger night. Or as Gov. Jerry Brown said in a different lifetime, “You paddle a little bit on the left, then you paddle a little bit on the right side, and you keep going straight down the middle.”