Ariely points out that we are driven by morality much more than standard economic models allow. But I was struck by what you might call the Good Person Construct and the moral calculus it implies. For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer — part of a daily battle against evil.
But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.
The Good Person isn’t shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.
Obviously, though, there’s a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently: I was honest with that blind passenger because I’m a wonderful person. I cheated the sighted one because she probably has too much money anyway.
I think this is actually an insightful and accurate observation. I have noticed this a lot recently, more in discussions I see on the blog than in real life, but probably only because the topic of morality comes up a lot more here than it does in real life and people tend to feel the need to take some kind of moral high ground when advocating something horrible like killing all sociopaths (or even just the simple art of accusing anyone of anything), so there is a lot of self-justification going on here. The weird thing is that many people will unashamedly admit that they're not perfect, but then go on to assert something categorically negative about sociopaths. I guess the price of admission to the moral high ground is not what it used to be.