Green Ethics

Last Updated Apr 9, 2008 12:36 PM EDT

Yesterday, I wrote a post about how Toyota Prius buyers were accused of being liars because many bought their vehicle not for the hybrid's eco-friendliness, but because it announced their own eco-friendliness. And let me say again that I'll take a hybrid any way I can get it. If they buy it because they think it makes them look "green;" if they buy it because it matches their hair; if they buy it because they think it makes them look taller... I don't care, because I'm thinking about the environment and the fact that, on the whole, more hybrids is better for everyone.

Now some readers took me to task for failing to acknowledge that people buy all sorts of cars to make a statement about themselves, from the mid-life crisis Corvette to the kids-have-won minivan. Where I find an ethical dilemma in the concept that Prius drivers are also buying their cars to make a statement is simple: isn't the statement of buying a Prius, or any hybrid, simply an internal acknowledgment that we've been making bad statements with our automobiles all along and you now want to do something for the greater good instead of your own ego? Isn't the key word here "minimal?" Shouldn't the personal statement be a minimal consideration when the whole point of buying a hybrid is to minimize your carbon footprint while minimizing the dependence on oil?

The figure I pointed to came from a New York Times survey which found that 57 percent of Prius owners purchased their vehicle because it made a statement about themselves. I would have no great problem with that figure if it were not number one on the list by a long shot, especially when the survey offered people the option to choose multiple reasons for why they bought the car. Yet, with the chance to choose more than one, only 36 percent bothered to check higher fuel economy, and only a quarter checked lower emissions.

If those numbers were in balance, I wouldn't have even blinked. If we use the old Aristotelian definition of ethics - the idea that virtue is a disposition to act in a way that benefits both the person and the person's society - then balanced numbers would have worked. But the numbers don't add up. Those in the Times' survey were using the image of a benefit to society to benefit their own personal image, and that is where this issue gets ethically squishy.

Either way, I'll take it.

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.