Modern Morality

Ever since I watched Barry Schwartz's TED talk on wisdom that I posted a while back, the idea of doing good for the sake of doing good has been on my mind - and the more it's been on my mind, the more I see the exact opposite in the world around us.

To summarize, there were two key points in the talk. First, wisdom is knowing how to benefit others and can be learned. Second, when people are given other incentives in addition to benefiting others, they tend to do good less. (The talk is very good, go watch it.)

So I've been converted, in short. But that apparently doesn't stop me from trying to convince people that environmentalism has tons of benefits beyond just being a good, morally right thing to do. (In fact, I just submitted an opinion piece to the Oregonian about the benefits of environmentalism - we'll see if it gets published.)

But this is apparently normal for not only environmentalism, but all kinds of politics. Take the opinion article Barack Obama published in a ton of newspapers today. Here he's talking about the economic crisis:

...we have an economic, security and moral obligation to extend a hand to countries and people who face the greatest risk. If we turn our backs on them, the suffering caused by this crisis will be enlarged, and our recovery will be delayed because markets for our goods will shrink further and more American jobs will be lost.

And we've seen this other places in the B-man's repertoire; for him, while climate change is a looming threat, the big reason for renewable energy inventiveness is the American jobs and exports that we can create.

In political terms, that's probably right. There's a stereotype in my head of a bleeding heart liberal crying out "but what about the environment and the children and the poor!" and it all falling on the deaf ears of hawkish, patriotic white males who may or may not be wearing business suits. But that's just in my head, and I have a very active [bleeding-heart liberal] imagination.

In reality, I think that the big B-O might have both the communication skills and the popularity to bring up this idea of doing right by the world and make it stick. In more subtle ways, I think he already has - but on the whole, his policies are framed in the context of bringing America back to power.

Like I started out saying, we - environmentalists - are guilty of this as well. In part, I think it's because pleas to save this species, cease that pollution, or save those rainforests fall on deaf ears all too often. Maybe too many environmentalists start off as street-level canvassers and are just god damn tired of getting waved off by apathetic people (wearing business suits?). On the whole, it seems that environmentalists and other commentators - Thomas Friedman stands out in my mind for this - have shifted towards pointing out the benefits associated with environmental work. And they do exist, without a doubt.

But more and more, I've been wondering whether the movement will change. As direct evidence of climate change collects (as opposed to predictive, scientific evidence that most people can't really feel) I wonder whether this movement will become a struggle against evil - our generation's world war.

And maybe this is the start. The economic crisis has brought the elite - especially the financial elite - down a peg in the public eye. Maybe we're getting closer to the tipping point, where the majority of the population believes something is wrong - and the majority really wants to change it. Maybe then we'll have good for the sake of being good.

I can dream, anyway.

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