Dominic Lawson: If you want to detect hypocrisy in a public figure, try Utley's Law

I'd be fascinated to know if Labour MPs were less generous than their Tory rivals

Share
Related Topics

Is Greenness the path to Godliness? To judge by recent lectures from the grandest pulpits of the Church of England, that is the official view of our national church. Not so very long ago it published a set of new "Green commandments" entitled "How many Lightbulbs does it take to change a Christian?" and the Prince of Wales's favourite clergyman, the Right Rev Richard Chartres, declared that flying was "a symptom of sin".

Last week, however, the academic journal Psychological Science issued what amounted to a peer-reviewed rebuttal of this peculiarly fashionable form of moral teaching with a paper entitled '"Do Green Products Make Us Better People?'. Based on a controlled experiment tracking 156 students from the University of Toronto, the authors, Drs Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong, concluded that the answer was: no, and possibly quite the contrary. Their study, which admittedly seemed somewhat contrived even by the standards of psychological experimentation, found that "purchasing Green products may produce the counterintuitive effect of licensing asocial and unethical behaviours by establishing moral credentials..."

Actually, this is something which the Church of England's Bishops ought to understand very well: it is reminiscent of the charge against the Pharisees in the New Testament – that they confused ritualistic acts with genuine morality. An analogous accusation has rightly been made about the now vast business of carbon-offsetting: that it is the modern equivalent of the mediaeval Roman Catholic practice of the purchase of indulgences.

Perhaps, therefore, it should not have come as such a surprise that two out of the three Labour MPs recently charged under the Theft Act were also the two elected politicians most admired within the Green movement: Elliot Morley and David Chaytor. This newspaper published a heartfelt elegy for Mr Morley after his collar was felt by the cops: "Most of all he became concerned about climate change... This man spent all his long ministerial career defending the environment... Say what you like. Cast what stones you want. This is the truth." David Chaytor, meanwhile, is the long-serving Secretary of Globe UK, the British branch of the international network of environmentalist parliamentarians. Naturally both men protest their complete innocence of all the charges of theft, so it is too early to say whether they are a slam-dunk case for the Canadian psychologists' theory that establishing one's virtuousness as a Green makes one more likely to transgress in other matters, on the grounds that one has satisfactorily demonstrated one's essential goodness.

This might seem like marvellously fresh ground for a novelist – were it not for the fact that some of the great writers of the past had already covered something of the same territory. The most comical observation in the English novel of a related phenomenon is Charles Dickens's character of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House. She devoted all of her attentions to a project in Africa called the Borrioboola-Gha venture – while remaining completely, even cruelly, blind to the needs of her own children, who therefore lived in conditions of squalor and neglect. Hence the tragic-comic exclamation of one of her little daughters, shivering in the cold of an unheated London home: "I wish Africa was dead!". Dickens gave this chapter of Bleak House the unforgettable title "Telescopic Philanthropy".

Mrs Jellyby, though monstrous in her own way, at least was spending her own money on the Borrioboola-Gha project, rather than everybody else's. The modern-day environmentalist politician wants to force the entire nation to pay more for its fuel, and, if necessary, to shiver in the cold, in order to "save the planet". This is not charity, but compulsion, and therefore nothing to do with individual moral decisions.

This does not much bother the Left, which, ever since Rousseau, has regarded the state, rather than the individual, as the source of a people's moral salvation. It is a bizarre, but surprisingly tenacious, view. As those Canadian psychologists suggest, the consequence might be that those politicians who regularly vote for "virtuous" higher taxes (to fund their various schemes of redistribution from the well-off to the less so) are actually more likely to exploit their hold on the public purse to their own personal benefit.

This does indeed seem to have been borne out by the great Commons expenses scandal. Despite the long-standing view that Tories are the most venal of politicians, it turned out that Labour MPs took the greatest amount of the public's money through so-called "home-flipping", in which they gamed the expenses system to set up personal property windfalls. Of course, many Tories were at it too, but the whole episode ought to have destroyed the view that the Left in British politics is axiomatically less sleazy or corrupt than the Right. I realise that many readers will regard it as a category error to describe such New Labour stalwarts as Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon as men of the Left, but the fact remains that it was only Labour MPs who have fallen for the Sunday Times' latest undercover scheme to lure greedy politicians into offering to sell influence for cash.

I would be fascinated to know if it could also be demonstrated that Labour MPs are less generous to charity than the supposedly hard-hearted, tight-fisted Tories. I suspect that they are, if we as a nation are anything like our American cousins. A few years ago a professor at Syracuse University, Arthur Brooks, made something of a splash with a paper called "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism". Brooks, who is not himself a Republican, found that Republicans gave more time to charities than Democrats – and even gave more blood. He also discovered that in the 10 states of the Union which voted most overwhelmingly for George Bush in the 2004 Presidential election, the average percentage of income donated to charity was 3.5, while in the 10 states where John Kerry did best, the average donated to charity was just 1.9 per cent of income.

Most strikingly of all, Professor Brooks claimed that "although liberal families' incomes average 6 per cent higher than conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 per cent more to charity". As one startled American commentator remarked on Brooks' findings: "The belief that liberals care more about the poor may scratch a partisan or ideological itch, but the facts are hostile witnesses."

It's true that statistics are notoriously easy to manipulate, and in any event it can not be the case that all "liberals" are of one type of personality and all "conservatives" of another, whether for better or worse. There are near-saints, and appalling sinners, on both sides of the political divide, and always will be.

The most illuminating insight into the phenomenon of what is sometimes termed "private vice and public virtue" was put to me by Virginia Utley, who had been a secretary to a number of MPs over many years. She observed that those MPs who had the best public image as kind and caring were complete nightmares as employers, while those who had a public reputation as hard and unfeeling were absolute joys to work for. I called this Utley's Law, so successful was it in its predictive power.

Perhaps the findings of Professors Mazar and Zhong are no more than a further illustration of Utley's Law: that those who feel they have established a reputation (if only in their own mind) for virtuousness are capable of sinning without conscience thereafter, while those with least confidence in their own moral worth are the people who most merit our votes. The only problem is: how do we ever find out which are which?

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
“I just wanted some chicken wings,” Tan Shen told the assembled media. “But once I got in there ... I decided I needed time to think.”  

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015