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

Views: 78

Replies to This Discussion

Fairness is a more workable value than equality, but you're right, nailing down the specifics seems impossible. And, some of the same arguments used to disqualify equality could also apply the concept of fairness.

 

Another issue I have about trying to determine a single "good," is that often events I consider "good" in the present, I later determine were "bad" in retrospect (and vice versa).

 

I despise George Bush and consider him the least moral president of my life time. I was (and am) sickened by the the Iraq war. But, I am pretty certain that the recent wave of Middle Eastern revolutions (which I consider "good"), was spawned by the actions of Bush administration.

 

That may not be the best example, but you get the idea. I read about a group of naturalists who were watching sea turtles hatch and run to the ocean. The first turtle emerged and was attacked by gulls. The naturalists saved the day and helped the turtle to the ocean.

 

What they didn't know was that the first turtle was a scout and making it to the water signaled that it was safe for the other hundreds of turtles to make the trek. Hundreds of baby sea turtles were subsequently slaughtered by gulls.

 

My point is, that in the big picture natures morality may not be to our liking, but it works to the advantage of the species. That's why I feel like our ideas about morality are rooted in preference. I prefer that we treat each other with respect, caring and fairness, but in the big picture, my preferences could potentially have dire consequences for the species... Ahhh... we do the best we can  ;-)

 

Your concerns regarding “trying to determine a single ‘good’” are, well, good! There are of course a billion little examples of the sort you mention, where what we thought was good doesn’t turn out that way, but I would argue that for each of these examples there are, well, let’s say hundreds of examples where what we thought was the “right” thing to do actually turns out to be the right thing to do. We would hardly be able to make it through the day if even a significant percentage of the things we thought were right turned out to be wrong. And this makes it clear that a good place to start looking for what is central to our values is basic things like survival and treating ourselves and others well. I think your arguments border on the skeptical side, which is a nice parallel to epistemology. Of course nothing is absolutely certain, but if we believe that reasoning is valid then we can agree to suspend our skepticism which we would use in an epistemological argument while we go about the rest of our daily lives, which makes up the greatest proportion of our time. Then we have no problem admitting that we have two hands, that cause precedes effect, and that we are completely certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. The same thing applies to ethics. We suspend our skeptical concerns while we act out the majority of our lives, but when we get into an ethical discussion then no holds are barred. This doesn’t mean that we really aren’t sure if our lives have any value to us, or that our closest friends have any value to us, or that protecting our mutual interests and feelings etc. Aren’t really good means towards those ends. It just means that we have a hard time being absolutely sure of it.

We suspend our skeptical concerns while we act out the majority of our lives, but when we get into an ethical discussion then no holds are barred.

 

Very good point. And, I suppose that is exactly what we do. I guess our bottom lines are slightly different, but functionally things work out the same. While I believe all moral codes to be somewhat malleable human constructs, it is certainly my preference that well reasoned moral constructs be in place! Also, I concede that such constructs have been improved upon over time, in that modern constructs (like those outlined by the humanists) appear to be more fair to more people.

 

There is a cool documentary on National Geographic on "stress." Part of the research was observational data collected on baboon tribes. One tribe lost it's alpha males to an illness. This resulted in a changed culture. The new culture was one of greater pro-social behaviors (cooperation and such). All members of the tribe had lower stress hormones and lower rates of stress related illness. Whats more, when a new, aggressive male joined the tribe, he was socialized to behave like the non-alphas. In this tribe, I think the females took over the leadership positions ;-)

While I believe all moral codes to be somewhat malleable human constructs, it is certainly my preference that well reasoned moral constructs be in place! Also, I concede that such constructs have been improved upon over time, in that modern constructs (like those outlined by the humanists) appear to be more fair to more people.

 

Well this is just fantastic. I'm very glad you have come closer to my own understanding of ethics, but perhaps even more glad to see that someone somewhere can actually be reasoned with and can change their stubborn opinions even when confronted with beliefs that they were resistant to. Either this is a miracle, unexplainable by science, or you are a rare bird, an actually reasonable person. Lol, anyway, well, I have actually heard this baboon example before and was also similarly struck by it. I guess the lesson to be learned from it is that even aggressive baboons (literally) seem to fare better and have better life experiences when they are more cooperative and acheive higher degrees of sociability. Happier people/baboons are less stressed and less aggressive! Seems like a pretty good moral lesson to me.

I think it is more likely that the individuals would have emotional regrets from incestual relations.

 

Unfortunately, we do not exist in a vacuum in which things can manifest themselves in their "pure form" without external pressures. What I am saying is that people will have emotional regrets about incest if they are socially conditioned to have "emotional regrets about incest."

 

Gay men will feel ashamed of being gay if they are in a culture that shames gay men.

 

Overweight people will have a low self-esteem if they are indoctrinated by their culture to have a low self-esteem for being overweight.

 

See where I'm going with this?

 

Sure, people break the pattern in time. Gay men no longer feel ashamed, or at least some of them.

 

But you can't say that people would naturally have emotional regrets about incest, no matter what, because you cannot separate people from their human culture / experience / indoctrination.

Well I don't agree on that. Some things go beyond just culture. Our genes for example also play a large role in how we experience our emotions. We, as humans, naturally feel ashamed when we have killed someone, as is evidenced by the experiences of soldiers in wartimes, or when we have been publicly humiliated as another example. I'm going to have to argue that this would be the case regardless of whatever particular society/culture/social experience/"indoctrination" we happen to be a part of.

Our genes for example also play a large role in how we experience our emotions.

 

Oh yes, I did not mean to imply otherwise. I agree.


We, as humans, naturally feel ashamed when we have killed someone, as is evidenced by the experiences of soldiers in wartimes, or when we have been publicly humiliated as another example. I'm going to have to argue that this would be the case regardless of whatever particular society/culture/social experience/"indoctrination" we happen to be a part of.

 

I agree, and I didn't mean to imply otherwise. There may very well be a biologica/genetic reason why we are naturally averse to incest (this is evident in primates, too, who leave their home to find new mates).

 

What I probably should have said was:

 

If and when a culture condemns any one thing (incest), you can be sure that people will internalize it and feel that self-condemnation themselves for that thing (incest). This happens regardless of biology or genetics. Muslims teach that pork is unclean. If you unknowingly fed a Muslim some pork, and he ate it, and then you told him, he may feel shame or disgust for doing so. This has NOTHING to do with biology, and everything to do with culture and religion.

 

Does that make sense? That is what I was trying to get at.

 

Social condemnation GUARANTEES feelings of self-reproach, regardless of what the so-called violation is. All that is important for those feelings to arise is the social condemnation itself.

Yes, I completely agree.

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?

 

One thing that we must acknowledge is that intention plays an important role in how we judge an action -- whether it was right or wrong. If we try to help somone, but accidentally cause more harm, judgment on us is not so severe, becuse we intended to do good. Intention is the difference between manslaughter and murder.

 

Intentions are also damnable, even if they do not lead to successful actions, as in being charged with attempted murder. There was an intention to harm, and that is enough to be convicted.

 

In the scenario you provided, Julia's fantasy about being raped would likely be considered irrelevant by anyone trying to moralize the story, simply because Mark's intention to do harm, regardless of Julia's desires, would outweigh all other considerations.

 

Further, that incest...nearly-always results in often serious negative consequences

 

Is that an assumption on your part, or do you have evidence for that? Do you know who around you has committed incest, and do you know if they liked it or hated it? My point is not to condemn or condone incest. My point is to challenge your assumptions, which you may be making without evidence. In other words, you assume that incest has negative consequences because you want to believe that it is so, or you have difficulting believing that it could be otherwise. But have you ever done any research on it?

 

I've not, but my guess is that both scenarios are likely true in all cases. In some of them it turned out to be harmless, and in the rest it turned out to be harmful. Both are possiblities, but how do we know for sure?

I would agree with you that intention plays an important role in moral considerations, but point out that this would apply to the first case as well. The intention in the original scenario was to commit incest, and whether that is considered a moral act or not depends on what the likely outcome would be. Does a person who commits incest intend to harm? Does the person who commits rape intend to harm? These aren't easy questions to answer, at least not without a deep philosophical understanding of what the difference is between right and wrong.

 

I do however mostly make an assumption that incest "nearly always results in often serious negative consequences". I have known people who have commiitted incest, and and the general consensus has been that of regret. That doesn't mean that I can extrapolate to the general population however, nor have I done any serious research on the matter, but the actual experience of those people plus my own experience in reasoning about the situation leads me to believe this is a justifiable conclusion, though it is not one I would stand wholeheartedly behind nor do I consider it to be anywhere near a central point to my overall understanding of ethical decision-making.

Yes, but we're talking about consensual incest. Non-consensual incest IS rape.

 

Your conclusion may be a justifiable conclusion. I don't think most researchers are out to determine what is or is not moral. Rather they are trying to uncover the why and how of it.

 

We do seem to have a natural aversion to incest, and as I said above, so do primates. Female chimps leave their home and go find new clans to intergrate into. For baboons, it's the males who leave their home. Their does seem to be an innate aversion to it. These researchers are trying to figure out why. Clearly it is not becuase of god, or logic, for that fact.

Yes, non-consensual sex is rape, but so is consensual rape, or, as the mighty Monty Python put it, "well, at first".

 

Well incest is most likely aversive because of the genetic consequences. So while god or logic might not have much to say about it, adaptation to the natural world might have a thing or two to say.

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