back pocket with credit card & cashI have a confession. I’ve knowingly been contributing to the genocide of orangutans and the destruction of the rainforest. I’ve been supporting war, sweatshops, the pollution of our oceans, and the rise in global warming. I’ve done all this, and I haven’t stopped. Why? Because I’ve been able to use motivated reasoning to justify my actions.

Take the orangutans and rainforests. Since I found out about the horrific impacts of palm oil, I’ve been choosing not to buy it — except for a certain brand of vegan margarine. My justification has been that I make so many other choices that do the most good and least harm, that this one little choice is dwarfed by all that. And there’s no really good (convenient) substitute for this product. Now technically it’s true that this one little choice doesn’t overshadow all the good I do, and we shouldn’t try to be policing every single choice we make — that would make us all crazy!

The bigger issue is this: When we want something badly enough, we’re able to find a way to justify it. We actually will alter our beliefs to do so.

Dr. Neeru Paharia, assistant professor at Georgetown University, recently conducted a study focused on our consumer choices and how they can influence our values: “Sweatshop Labor is Wrong Unless the Shoes are Cute: Cognition Can Both Help and Hurt Moral Motivated Reasoning.” 

According to what Dr. Paharia discovered,  we citizens engage in “motivated reasoning” which means people “change what they believe in based on what they want and how much they like something.”

Most of us think that our moral views are consistent, rather than flexible according to situations, but Dr. Paharia’s study showed that our moral views can be swayed by things we really want. As a recent article noted:

The study showed that people were more likely, for example, to endorse the use of questionable labor practices involved in a Caribbean vacation for themselves, but tend to oppose that use if the vacation in question is for their friends.

“This phenomenon, known as moral hypocrisy, is used by consumers in situations to benefits themselves but not others,” the professor explains. “They also made economic development justifications, such as convincing themselves that sweatshops are the only realistic source of income for workers in poorer countries, without which they wouldn’t develop, that the labor offers products not otherwise be affordable to low-income people and it’s OK because ‘companies must remain competitive.’ “

Read more about the study.

As good citizens we want to make choices that are aligned with our deepest values, but it’s not always easy to do so — especially when mainstream companies don’t offer us products that are consistent with our values.

That’s where the value of humane education comes in. Humane education gives us a lens to help us consciously strive to do the most good and least harm for all and maintain an awareness about our choices. It motivates us to seek out more information about the impact of our choices and the systems we support. It helps us recognize the importance of balance and joy in our lives. It spurs us to reflect deeply on questions such as: Do I really need this? and What are my alternatives? It empowers us to help create systems that promote a compassionate, just, sustainable world.

And humane education has helped remind me why I make the choices I do … so I won’t be buying that certain product anymore, and can feel glad that I’m causing less harm to orangutans and rainforests.