When doing something is worse than doing nothing
According to a study reported in the Guardian, 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". The article came under the wonderful heading, “How going green may make you mean.”
How should an ethicist respond to yet another psychological study of human limitations? Some would no doubt argue that personal ethics should global, not local. Living ethically is a way of life, not an individual choice. That ethics should infuse all our choices, etc, etc
That is not my response. The “green movement” has another more significant adverse effect. It is a distraction. Governments and the public lead themselves to believe that they are actually addressing the environmental crisis by turning off lights, recycling and making people feel miserable for taking planes and driving cars. But they are doing little for the environment, while believing that they are saving it. This is a distraction from the real problem. The fate of the environment will now in large part be determined by China and the developing world. Our putting out the recycling will do nothing to change that. But while we feel good about ourselves, we fail to acknowledge the real problems and find solutions. Our ethics makes us feel good about ourselves and (falsely) reassures us that we are addressing the problem.
Toby Ord has identified the failure to give appropriate scale to the problems and solutions in development. He famously said that it matters more where you give, rather than whether you give because some programmes and charities are fabulously more cost-effective in orders of magnitude. The same applies to our efforts to improve the environment. Most of the things which we currently feel are so important will make little or no difference. And the biggest fish swim free.
We should not only identify ethical problems and find a solution. We should find the best solution. Too often doing something makes us feel good when we could and should do something else. In ethics, something is not always better than nothing.