Jellyby 2.0

March 22, 2010

The best character in the best novel by Dickens is Mrs. Jellyby of Bleak House, who spent long days working to improve “the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger” while, in her London home, her small children ran wild and neglected.  This was “telescopic philanthropy” – a trampling of her moral sphere for the sake of a heroic pose.

If every one of us did the opposite of Mrs. Jellyby – if every one of us minded the small world within which we have an influence for good or evil – there would be no need for telescopic philanthropy.

If every moral sphere became the stage on which decency and generosity triumphed over selfishness, there would be no poverty to end, no earth to save, no benighted natives of Borrioboola-Gha to educate.  We would each have taken care of our own business, which is the only business we can take care of.

Morality is about attention and energy.  I have a limited supply of both.  If I try to save the earth, I may neglect my kids.  If I puff myself up as morally superior because I consume “ethical foods,” I will have assumed a hollow pose, bought on the cheap, brimming with contempt for my neighbors.

If I dissipate my attention and energy on cosmic faraway causes, I will have less to spend where I can make a difference.

This brings me to twenty-first century Jellybys, and this funny bit of information in the Guardian:

According to a study, when people feel they have been morally virtuous by saving the planet through their purchases of organic baby food, for example, it leads to the “licensing [of] selfish and morally questionable behaviour”, otherwise known as “moral balancing” or “compensatory ethics”. [. . .]

Its authors, Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, argue that people who wear what they call the “halo of green consumerism” are less likely to be kind to others, and more likely to cheat and steal. “Virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviours,” they write.

Unfortunately, I am among those who believe that “studies” can prove just about anything, particularly if it gains notoriety for the authors, and lifts them above the vast academic studies-producing herd.

I am skeptical of studies, whether their findings are congenial or not.  So, despite their sonorous names and congenial message, I am skeptical of Mazar and Zhong, with their neat skewering of telescopic Jellybys.

But we can take their work as a warning.  It’s possible to be distracted by distant thunder, and miss the silent pain close at hand.