Mob Morality: The Dangers of Repugnance as Moral Authority

What is it about topics like incest, bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism that urges us to pick up pitchforks and torches? A more important question, however, is whether these topics automatically or necessarily should elicit outrage enough for us to target those who perform these acts. I think not.

Considering the purely descriptive side, there has been some interesting but controversial research into our moral psychology and intuitions.

Jonathan Haidt famously provided the following example in a study.

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

Haidt, in an interview, explained the responses of subjects reaching ‘moral dumbfounding’:

People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons. And so in some of the videotapes you can see, they start laughing. But it’s not an “it’s so funny” laugh. It’s more of a nervous-embarrassment puzzled laugh. So it’s a cognitive state where you “know” that something is morally wrong, but you can’t find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what’s wrong, you just say: “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong.” So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.

Moralisation is immediately engaged when judging Julie and Mark as doing something ‘wrong’. Being consequentialist, we are presented with benign consequences, if not beneficial ones. As deontologists, perhaps we can make the argument that by some rule or law closely biologically-related people should not engage in intercourse. This only begs this question ‘Why?’

 

Read the rest on 3 Quarks Daily.

Tags: Jonathan Haidt, cannibalism, disgust, ethics, incest, moral dumbfounding, morality, murder, psychology

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Replies to This Discussion

Just because most people (or all of the people interviewed) haven't really questioned their own sets of ethical rules and can't give proper answers to why they think something is wrong doesn't mean that there might not be anything "wrong" with incest, bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism, or even things that people have a surer understanding of why they are wrong from their own moral framework, like rape, murder, theft, etc. If your point is that ALL moral judgments are simply emotional reactions with no basis in any real distinction between right and wrong, I'm going to have to disagree with you there. If you are instead trying to point out that most people haven't got a clue what the difference between good and bad really is, then I agree wholeheartedly!

Just because most people (or all of the people interviewed) haven't really questioned their own sets of ethical rules and can't give proper answers to why they think something is wrong doesn't mean that there might not be anything "wrong" with incest, bestiality, necrophilia and cannibalism, or even things that people have a surer understanding of why they are wrong from their own moral framework, like rape, murder, theft, etc.

 

If referring back to Jonathan Haidt's original research, I think the point that he is trying to make is that when people are questioned and confronted about their moral beliefs, that they are often unable to give a good reason as to why they feel this or that way, that in the end, they are "morally dumbfounded." They have a belief, but they cannot justify the belief by use of reason or convention, they just "feel" or "know" it is wrong.

 

I don't get the impression he is trying to determine whether or not rape and incest are TRULY and ABSOLUTELY wrong. He is just trying to figure out -- or perhaps prove -- that people hold beliefs that they cannot rationally justify. If this is the case, from whence do they come?

 

If your point is that ALL moral judgments are simply emotional reactions with no basis in any real distinction between right and wrong, I'm going to have to disagree with you there.

 

Did you ever get a chance to finish reading "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail"?

 

You should also read this: http://www.philosophynow.org/issue82/Morality_is_a_Culturally_Condi...

 

Actually I haven't, I will get around to reading both when I have the time. But you didn't answer my question. I agree with you, Haidt, and with Ed Teach, that most people's ethics operate according to emotion and not to reason. What I do not believe is that the true source of ethics, i.e. the essence of what it means to be good or bad, cannot be discovered through reason (when combined with all our other faculties, including emotion, intuition, etc.). You have pointed out what Haidt points out, that most people don't know their asses from their elbows when it comes to ethical reasoning. But my question for you is whether you are saying that there can be no real distinction between right and wrong, that, for example, being an atheist is no better than being religious, its just a matter of opinion?

What I do not believe is that the true source of ethics, i.e. the essence of what it means to be good or bad, cannot be discovered through reason (when combined with all our other faculties, including emotion, intuition, etc.).

 

That depends on what you mean. Do you mean that we are using reason to discover how we act (on the level of the researcher), or are we using reason to justify our moral beliefs (on the level of the individual)?

 

But my question for you is whether you are saying that there can be no real distinction between right and wrong, that, for example, being an atheist is no better than being religious, its just a matter of opinion?

 

Well, technically, I never said anything on the subject. I just crossposted the article without comment. But if you ask, I don't believe that we can justify or accept moral beliefs on the basis that they are completey subjective. In other words, I don't believe that if the OogaBooga tribe thinks rape is right then we just have to accept it as right because it is their subjective world view.

 

On the other hand, it seems to me that subjectivity explains why morals are different culture to culture.

 

So no, I can't say that there is "no real distinction between right and wrong," as there obviously is, but the nearly-objective nature of these moral codes exist in our biology, and do not come from some externality, such as god.

 

And I do think atheism is better than religion because religion is patently false because it believes in things without evidence. But that seems more a question of reason and less of one about morality, up until the point that religious belief begins to inform on one's morality, that is.

No, I realized you didn't say anything about your personal beliefs, but posting an article like this points to the fact that you think it has something important to say, and I wanted to press you so I could determine what that was.

 

But since you agree with me that there is a difference between right and wrong, I would like to know what you think the essence of that distinction is. You say it is part of our biology. Does that mean you think we have just evolved to be what we are, and another species which might evolve differently would hold different moral views, and that they would also be perfectly justified in their beliefs? But I think you wouldn't say this, because if for example another species existed which was just like us in most relevant respects but evolved to abhor rationality (and let's just say that they were more powerful than us and could destroy us, rendering our evolutionary advantage moot), I think you would say that it would be better, all other considerations aside, to be rational than not to be. Following these lines, it makes sense to assume that you think that evolutionary adaptation is a good thing, and that being maladapted to one's environment is a bad thing. But does this strike at the heart of your ethical theory, or is it less central?

 

I had also thought of this question of whether religion is "bad" just because it is irrational, but my point was that a species could at least in theory be irrational and still hold that to be a good thing and rationality to be a bad thing, so the question was still relevant to ethics since one could consider adherence to truth and reality a thing of value or disvalue. E.g. some people question whether truth or goodness is more important, and if goodness is more important, doesn't this mean that if it came down to it we should be false (e.g. lying) rather than respect the truth. And one can also question whether rationality is the highest good, like the Vulcans, or whether we should instead sacrifice some rationality to some higher good. But this is all peripheral.

No, I realized you didn't say anything about your personal beliefs, but posting an article like this points to the fact that you think it has something important to say, and I wanted to press you so I could determine what that was.

 

That is partially true. I will often post things that I think are important or interesting, but just to let you know, you should never assume that the posting of such articles is a tacit endorsement of what is written therein. For me, it is about the exchange of ideas and the exploring of possibilities, nothing more.

 

But since you agree with me that there is a difference between right and wrong, I would like to know what you think the essence of that distinction is. You say it is part of our biology. Does that mean you think we have just evolved to be what we are, and another species which might evolve differently would hold different moral views, and that they would also be perfectly justified in their beliefs?


Let me be clear that in no way do I pretend to be an expert on these matters. I'm just a student at life, not a master. I'm just trying to figure these things out like the rest of us. But it seems to me that it cannot be anything other than evolutionary. Since other species do exist, and seemingly without a moral code (perhaps yet to be discovered, idk), then yes, they could hold different moral views. I recently read of a -- let me see -- a bacteria I think, that had 16 distinct sexes. If these bateria had a sexual moral code, it is doubtful it would be a heteronormative one. 


But I think you wouldn't say this, because if for example another species existed which was just like us in most relevant respects but evolved to abhor rationality (and let's just say that they were more powerful than us and could destroy us, rendering our evolutionary advantage moot), I think you would say that it would be better, all other considerations aside, to be rational than not to be.


Hypotheticals are always difficult to address, because they are always "just so" circumstances. But no, I can't believe that any creature would think that its potential destruction or servitude would be "better." Rationality has its advantages, but so does emotion. Science is learning that emotions inform our reason, and that if people cannot access their emotions, they cannot make reasonable decisions. (See attached PDF below.)


Following these lines, it makes sense to assume that you think that evolutionary adaptation is a good thing, and that being maladapted to one's environment is a bad thing. But does this strike at the heart of your ethical theory, or is it less central?


No creature who is maladapted to its environment would survive. So yes, that is a bad thing. And I'm not sure I have an "ethical theory." Lol!

 
I had also thought of this question of whether religion is "bad" just because it is irrational, but my point was that a species could at least in theory be irrational and still hold that to be a good thing and rationality to be a bad thing,


If irrationality proved to be an evolutionary advantage to a species, and they survived where the rational died out, then to them, irrationality would be a good thing.

Attachments:
I'll read this and anything else you suggest. I would like to continue this discussion, I'm glad you at least admit to not having mastered the subject (unlike some others I have met on here) and hope we can at least help each other to move in a positive direction on this question. I'm working on my own theory, and would love to get some feedback from you guys. When it is ready (enough for the purposes of a Nexus discussion) I will post it and see how it flies.

Very interesting... especially the stuff about the initial attempt to provide "reasons" for why the incident was morally wrong. I think it points to the delusion that humans operate according to reason. In fact, this case shows that reason is an after thought to justify a moral judgment that is actually based in an emotional reaction.

 

This is also the case when bigots provide rationalizations for their beliefs, even though the rationalizations do not hold up to overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Exactly. You need to read my post in this group, called "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail." Well worth the time.

As an aside, my answer to the incest question might have been as follows: Let's say that there were two people, Julia and Matt, who were out on a date one fine evening, when Matt decided to take it upon himself to rape Julia. Little did he know, but Julia was secretly fantasizing about Matt raping her. Afterwards she told him so, and this made him feel ever-happy that he had made this decision, and then they both decided to keep it their special little secret. Does this mean that if you conjure up a set of circumstances where you take away all the negative consequences, leaving only benign or even beneficial ones, that you can justify any act?

 

Further, that incest or date-rape nearly-always results in often serious negative consequences, the probabilities alone should suffice to allow for the introduction of a rule against suchacts, where even the chance that things might turn out alright cannot possibly outweigh the far more real chance that things will go horribly wrong. But we still need a definition of right and wrong.

Wanderer, I hope you are not equating consensual incest with rape... besides it was not rape if Julia wanted it, just 'rough sex...' The intent to rape, however, was an intent to deny Julia's freedom of choice and therefore wrong even though it all 'turned out alright.'

 

You say that incest, 'going terribly wrong' is more probable... I say first you have to define incest... If you mean close blood relation heterosexual vaginal sex without birth control, then yes there is increased chance of recessive traits manifesting themselves in the phenotype, these traits could be good or bad. Aristocratic elites understood this well enough through the ancient concept of blood lineage, and practiced incest in an attempt to 'distill and purify the attributes of royalty.' If you consider incest bad for genetic reasons, than there is even more reason to keep stupid ugly people, alcoholics, drug abusers, and fast food junkies from reproducing.

Hah, no I was not equating the two, merely pointing out that one could take practically any act and if you took away what people normally considered negative consequences then you could concoct a scenario where any act might not be deemed immoral.

 

What other definition of incest is there? Are you asking me to define it so that you can argue that some types of incest are less likely to have negative outcomes than others? That would depend on how closely related the individuals are I assume. Did you think I had left out something relevant to my argument? And though incest might be considered generally bad for genetic reasons, there are other reasons it might be considered bad as well, such as the likely problems for the self-esteem of the individuals. Sure, there might be people like the ones in the given example who suffer no emotional regrets, but (and I don't have any numbers to give on this) I think it is more likely that the individuals would have emotional regrets from incestual relations. Anyone disagree?

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