Boston’s Smug Index

Boston prides itself on being a haven of high-minded thinking—something that's also made us insufferable.

boston's ethical culture

Illustration by Serge Bloch

Life Alive, a vegetarian café in Central Square, takes itself very seriously. The music overhead is New Age and plaintive. Patrons are encouraged to bus their tables themselves, in the community spirit. Locally sourced dishes abound on the menu, among them an entrée called “The Healer.” For $6.79, you can treat yourself to the 12-ounce “Superhero Alive”—a juice concoction with carrot, apple, spirulina, cayenne, and other wholesome ingredients, along with something called “pure water.” The place even has a mission statement, printed right on the menu, in which you’re told that you’re about to have “the profound experience of contributing to personal and planetary wellness as you blissfully nourish yourself.”

You might have a hard time feeling that after you’ve eaten the entrée called “The Alchemist,” which leaves an aftertaste not unlike the backwash from someone’s discarded carrot juice. But the food, of course, isn’t really the point. Or, to put it differently, Life Alive seems interested in food only to the extent that food can be thought of as an ideology. Based on the number of people you’re likely to find standing in line at the place on a typical Saturday afternoon, waiting to buy smoothies that cost almost $10, it’s fair to say there’s no shortage of believers. In fact, the Boston area is full of them.

Life Alive is exactly the sort of place that Kendall Eskine, an assistant professor of psychology at New Orleans’s Loyola University, had in mind when he decided to test what happens to people after they buy green or organic products. The results of his study, published this past summer in Social Psychological & Personality Science, weren’t pretty. It turned out that participants in the study who simply looked at organic food were significantly less willing to devote their time to helping a needy stranger than people who’d been shown, say, cookies or brownies. (Which may explain why you won’t see many Life Alive patrons putting change into the cups of Central Square’s needy strangers after they’ve bought their $10 smoothies.)

Eskine isn’t the only social scientist to have observed this behavior. The results of his study mirror those of another, published in 2010 in Psychological Science, the takeaway from which was that organic-only consumers seem to be more likely to cheat and steal than others. According to this study, consumers who wear a “halo of green consumerism” for some reason feel morally licensed to judge themselves by standards quite different from the ones by which they like to judge others.


Both of these studies fall within the larger field of moral psychology, which argues that a cultural preference becomes a value only after it is moralized. So what does that mean? Think of smoking. As bans on smoking have become the cultural norm, a new moral value has gradually emerged. Initially, as the behavior became recognized as unhealthy, more and more people began to consider it morally repugnant. But with the behavior now moralized, it’s smokers themselves whom increasing numbers of people consider repugnant.

What’s fascinating about moral psychology is that it’s up to a community to define its own values. Which explains why gay marriage is okay in Massachusetts but not Mississippi. But as these values harden, those who don’t live up to them suffer the consequence: moral approbation. Eskine, the Loyola professor, has experienced it himself. He has nothing against the organic ideal or the better angels of anyone’s progressive nature. For a long time, he says, he was even a vegan himself. But he also remembers a time he was shopping at a fair-trade co-op in Brooklyn and placed a bag of flour into his cart—not organic flour, just plain old flour—and a nearby shopper caught him in the act. He might as well have been butchering a calf right there in the aisle. “The look I got from this woman,” he says. “Sanctimonious. That’s a perfect term for it.”

This sort of thing happens everywhere, of course. But it’s wildly prevalent in the Boston area, it seems. Life Alive asks you to “notice how you feel after eating.” Newbury Comics uses plastic bags that say, “I’m Saving the Planet—What Are You Doing?” And activists in Jamaica Plain recently took things to another level. Desperate to preserve a feeling of diversity there after Whole Foods revealed plans to move in—a move that threatened the survival of a Latin grocery, and thus the activists’ feeling that they were living in an authentic neighborhood—they launched a long campaign to prevent all chain markets from moving in.

But the fact is, it’s always been this way. Generation after generation, Bostonians have felt sanctimony is their natural right.


Okay, let me be fair. We have excellent reasons to feel good about ourselves. Abolitionism, gay rights, universal healthcare: In each case, Boston has led the charge. We live in a city that in many respects is years ahead of the rest of the nation. May it ever be so.

But—and you know what I’m talking about—righteous progressivism can quickly devolve into almost militant piousness. It isn’t just that so many people around here take the moral high road when it comes to their special causes and allegiances. It’s that so many of them want you to know that they’re taking it. Must every menu list the source of its farm-raised beef—and then tout it to customers? Must I always be accosted on Mass. Ave. by earnest, pamphlet-packing young people eager to save trees/Cambodian seals/everything else? Do bikers always need to remind me that their way of getting to work is the healthiest option available? Being around so many well-intentioned people can be suffocating. As Robert Allison, the author of A Short History of Boston, puts it, “There’s a strain of sanctimony running through the city.”

Nowhere has that strain run stronger than among the Brahmins, who reached their patronizing worst with the Watch and Ward Society. From its founding, in 1878, until the 1960s, the society attempted to protect Bostonians from offensive or immoral art by forbidding its dissemination in the city. The Boston Public Library locked up objectionable books, Boston theaters put on plays in specially sanitized “Boston Versions,” and the phrase “Banned in Boston” became the topic of much national amusement. In 1926 the society even banned an issue of the American Mercury, the magazine edited by the ornery H. L. Mencken, who proceeded to sue the group—and win. The Brahmins, he famously and memorably fulminated, were like the Puritans, motivated by “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”


It still flows through Boston, this sense of righteousness and moral superiority. You see it everywhere, but especially in the nonprofits—in the hospitals, schools, and public charities that dominate this town. They’re all dedicated to the idea of helping others before helping themselves. And they wield a lot of power. In the past few decades, the number of public charities in particular has spiked, more than doubling across the state from 1989 to 2007, according to a 2008 report by the Boston Foundation, itself a powerful charity. The nonprofit sector’s influence has only increased since then. From 2005 to 2010, nonprofit employment in the state grew by 22 percent, or almost 75,000 positions, according to a 2012 Boston Foundation report. By contrast, civilian employment fell 1.9 percent nationally and 3.4 percent in Massachusetts. Johns Hopkins University recently found that nonprofits make up 16.7 percent of the Massachusetts workforce, versus 10.1 percent nationally. And Boston-area nonprofits hold an almost unfathomable amount of money: $203 billion in total assets in 2010, according to the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics. No other metro area of comparable size comes anywhere close to that. (Detroit’s nonprofits are second on the NCCS’s list, with $133 billion in total assets.) The 40 largest nonprofits in Boston own property that is equivalent to more than half the city’s commercial tax base, according to city estimates.

But it seems that the do-gooderism at the office ends when everybody punches out for the day. A study released this summer by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that Boston is the second-stingiest major metropolitan area in the country, with its residents giving only 2.8 percent of their discretionary income to charity. That’s a depressing number. Statewide, only 24 percent of us find the time to volunteer, a figure slightly lower than the national average. The Chronicle posits that the differentiation stems largely from our region’s relative lack of religion, and especially its weekly reminder to keep all of our values aligned.

A city that runs on the premise of doing good for others before doing well for yourself will almost inevitably foster a culture of priggishness. Lots of high-profile Bostonians are genuinely doing good, there’s no doubt. But plenty of them seem to think this gives them license to behave very badly. Paul Levy, the former president and CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess, made a big to-do about saving the jobs of low-level hospital employees by cutting back on higher-ranking salaries, all the while securing a high-paying job for a young woman he called a “close personal friend.” John Henry’s wife, Linda Pizzuti, who proudly touts herself as a green real estate developer, oversaw the tear-down of a preexisting 13,000-square-foot mansion on her Brookline property in order to erect a 35,000-square-foot palace with a home theater and its own grotto. Sal DiMasi unwaveringly declared gambling to be a moral evil while he was at the State House, but he doesn’t seem to have felt the same way about the kickbacks he received from lobbyists.

This summer Mayor Tom Menino joined in the fray, announcing that he would forbid Chick-fil-A from opening a store in Boston, because its president didn’t believe in gay rights. It was an act of liberal censorship that even the Globe’s politically correct editorial page called a very bad idea. “History will render judgment on the views of Chick-fil-A executives,” the paper declared. “City Hall doesn’t have to.” The mainly white activists who mounted the recent campaign against Whole Foods added to the madness, too. Just like the Watch and Ward Society of years past, the J.P. activists insisted that they knew what was best for their community. And what was best, they argued, was to ensure that J.P. kept other white people out, which meant keeping that Latin grocery and blocking the advent of Whole Foods. “There are about 50 different ways to interpret Whole Foods,” says state Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, a lifetime J.P. resident who now represents the neighborhood. “The big issue was gentrification, but the neighborhood was gentrified a long time ago.”

That had to be irritating—the interminable meetings, the demands that the neighborhood remain “authentic,” the civic disruptions and the arrests. This was at best hypocritical and at worst demeaning to the disenfranchised people the activists were claiming to help.

In the end, the activists lost their battle. Whole Foods is now well established in Jamaica Plain, and by all accounts it’s doing a brisk business. What’s funny, though, and not a bit ironic, according to Jeffrey Sánchez, is that a lot of the activists who so adamantly opposed the store are now apparently quite happily doing their shopping there.

And why not? The store, after all, really does sell a lot of organic produce.