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: 81

Replies to This Discussion

Emotional regret is a poor litmus for moral reasoning. The same reaction may be common after one first engages in homosexual sex, or first begins to question the religious beliefs of his/her family of origin, or first begins to masturbate.

The same reaction may be common after killing someone, or raping someone, or doing any horrible or not so horrible thing imaginable to yourself or to others, but that doesn't mean that emotional regret should be outright dismissed as any legitimate sort of gauge as to what morality may or may not be. We have reasoning, and we have our moral intuitions as well, and our reasoning about morality should include, not completely disregard, our intuitions.

I'm going to have to agree with Wanderer here. Our emotions do inform our moral sentiments. But I do think it is also safe to say that they are conditional. Shame for hurting someone is different than a shame felt for masturbation. I would say the first is good and the second is bad.

Our moral intuition is nothing but a conditioned response. Moral sense is exactly like fashion sense. It is learned.

 

Morality and  language are manifestations of socialization. Check out research on feral children. No morality, language or walking upright has occurred in any case to date. Likewise, no socially approariate behaviors specific to species manifests in wild animals raised in captivity (unless taught by caretakers).

 

You can actually follow the predictable stages of moral development in any child raised by humans. Babies have no morality. Toddlers learn that some behaviors are rewarded and others punished, so they will behave morally when they are being observed. As the brain matures, the child begins to internalize socially appropriate behaviors (including morality) as a means for gaining social acceptance. We want to be "good" boys and girls. The highest level of moral development reached by average folks is a concrete, black and white understanding of the rules (It's wrong because the law or the Bible or my parents tell me so).

 

Real moral reasoning, where critical thinking is applied to the values of culture and society, only occurs in a relatively small percentage of folks. Even then, deeply ingrained conditioning, "the moral sense", influences the process.

If there is no difference between moral sense and fashion sense, then how is there any difference between right and wrong? And if there is no difference between right and wrong, how can there be such a thing as "real moral reasoning"?

 

We come into the world predisposed to morality as well as language. We have predictable stages of language development as well as moral development, and these are universal, so it doesn't matter whether you grow up in China or in the US, you learn universal rules (let's call it a "moral grammar") which can be translated easily into other languages. There might be different words for right and wrong between different cultures, but they all have them and they all mean basically the same thing. This is why morality across different cultures conforms to each other on so many levels. Thus, your equation of morality with fashion sense or "indoctrination" fails on a deep level.

If there is no difference between moral sense and fashion sense, then how is there any difference between right and wrong?

 

The difference between the moral "right and wrong" and the fashion "right and wrong" are exactly the same. These differences are reflections of culture. The guidelines for moral behavior and fashionable clothing change across time, geography and culture.

 

You are right that we are wired for socialization. In other words, we are wired to be programed. You might have been programed to speak English, wear a buzz cut, and follow the moral ethics of Appalachian North Carolina. You might have been programed to speak German, wear swastikas and follow the "moral" guidelines of the Nazi party. You may have been programed to speak ancient Greek, wear a toga and follow the moral guidelines of that culture.

 

Language, appropriate attire and moral codes are components of socialization. However, unless there is a supreme being out there to tell us the universal moral code (and a universal language!?), then morality is learned behavior. It does not manifest, if it is not learned.

 

Like language, morality is a necessity for groups of humans to function together. However, the specifics of varying moral codes, like the specifics of different languages, are in a constant state of change depending on, for lack of a better word... fashion.

 

This is why morality across different cultures conforms to each other on so many levels

 

Really!?! You feel that the ancient Romans, Vikings, Incas, cavemen, Spartans, Huns, Aztecs, Victorian England, Apache, and ancient Egyptians operated under similar moral codes to modern Americans?

 

Just about every taboo behavior I can think of, including incest, murder, rape, child molestation, torture, theft and lying have all been considered acceptable by one culture or another across time. Incidentally, all behaviors we consider immoral may be found in abundance in nature.

 

As much as we would like a nice, clean, uniform morality, the truth is that, at best, moral behavior is more preference (how you'd prefer for you and yours to be treated) than universal rules provided by... who?

The difference between the moral "right and wrong" and the fashion "right and wrong" are exactly the same. These differences are reflections of culture. The guidelines for moral behavior and fashionable clothing change across time, geography and culture.

 

So you are a die-hard moral relativist? You don't think there really is a difference between right and wrong, its just what some people at some time or another say it is? This brings me back to my previous question, if there is no real difference between right and wrong, then what is this "real moral reasoning" of which you speak?

 

In other words, we are wired to be programed.

 

We are programmed to be programmed is what you just said. No. We are programmed to learn something that exists, something that is real, in just the same way that we are programmed to learn how to see and hear. Language is a real thing, just as visual and audio inputs are, and just as morality is. Our brains need to "learn" how to see and hear, as evidenced by what happens to the brain of someone previously deaf or blind who has recovered this sense.

 

Like language, morality is a necessity for groups of humans to function together. However, the specifics of varying moral codes, like the specifics of different languages, are in a constant state of change depending on, for lack of a better word... fashion.

 

Finally, something we can agree on. Morality is a real thing, something which at least, as you mention, helps hold our societies together and helps them to function better. So now we have here two very different things that you are saying. First, you are saying that there is one element of morality which serves a very real function, and that this function must adhere to elements of reality, e.g. what in fact will hold socieites together. Second, you are saying that the entirety of its manifestations are subject to a lot of variation. I have no problem with this either. My only point is that you seem to be trying to entirely discount the first of these elements which you yourself acknowledge. While Romans, Vikings, Huns, native Americans, and moderns Americans display variations in their morality, there is some stable element which distinguishes morality from, say, hunting behavior. Just as there are many different species of birds, yet we still have this idea of belonging to the family of birds. So, morality may indeed have elements of preference, but what it basically is is universally something determined by reality or, if you prefer, provided by mother nature.

For me, "moral reasoning" lacks a universal standard against which to measure right from wrong. The best instrument I can come up with is empathy.

People often use the terms empathy and sympathy interchangeably. When I use the term "empathy," I mean putting my own ego aside and truly trying to understand the world through the eyes of another. This is a slight variation on the "golden rule."

But even empathy is an imperfect tool. My success at understanding the world from another's perspective will vary based on my skills and how well I relate to a specified "other."

In nature, animals operate by instinct AND socialization. Without the learned socialization, wild animals cannot function effectively in their natural environments. I would imagine that there would be a direct correlation between the intelligence of a given species and the relative need for socialization for effective survival in the natural environment.

Regardless of the etiology of specific animal behaviors (instinct or socialization), we don't feel the need to impose moral judgments on them. When a lion kills and eats a zebra colt, we simply say, "that is how lions behave." We don't judge the lion for killing a youngster. We don't judge the lion on the impact his behavior had on the zebra's family, etc..

You don't think there really is a difference between right and wrong, its just what some people at some time or another say it is?

Yep, even though the idea of moral relativity is uncomfortable for me, when I look at the human species through the eyes of an objective third party, no other answer makes sense. Human behaviors are just the behavior patterns of a specific species. Bears engage in predictable bear behaviors. Likewise, with mice. Likewise, with humans.

Check out this blog called "We Are Dancing Bears"

http://www.atheistnexus.org/profiles/blogs/we-are-dancing-bears-an

I think I definitely overstated my case, but it is still a fun discussion.

We are programmed to be programmed is what you just said.

No, I said we are wired to be programmed. We are predisposed to easily assimilate language and moral codes. But, left to our own devices without input from other members of our species, we are not programmed and our behaviors are purely instinctual with no concept of language or morality. In fact, no concept of the "feelings" of other people. No empathy, no regard for the welfare of others, no concept of self vs others. Behaviors are limited to self stimulation and acquisition of primary needs.

Just as there are many different species of birds, yet we still have this idea of belonging to the family of birds.

Excellent analogy! I'll have to think on that one. Makes a lot of sense. So, if we were discussing another species (I like bears), then I could say:

  • here is a full range of wild bear behaviors
  • here are behaviors that differ depending on the type of bear
  • here are the behaviors common to ALL bears

By this reasoning, could I discern basic "bear morality" as the behaviors common to all bears? I guess, no really. Morality would be how bears "should" behave rather than how bears "do" behave.

If we observed the human species over time, we could find behavior patterns common to all (most) humans. But, This still wouldn't draw a bead on how humans "should" behave. The "should" will always be a personal judgment, a preference.

Historically, all human cultures have:

  • organized in groups
  • established pecking orders
  • cared for their young
  • competed with other groups for resources
  • established moral codes (usually through religion)
  • fought competing groups with differing moral codes
  • demonstrated six basic emotions

BY this line of reasoning, the establishment of moral codes seems to be intrinsic to humans, but it still doesn't indicate what should be included in said code.

  • Spartans believed that stealing was not immoral.
  • In Dark Ages Europe, the torture and killing of non-believers was a highly moral act, as the effort could save a soul for all eternity.
  • In Colonial America, marrying a 12 year old child, chaining the mentally ill in dungeons and the enslavement of fellow humans all fell within the realm of appropriate morality
  • The Old Testament endorses a full array of behaviors that modern sensibilities would judge immoral (rape, genocide, incest).

It is easy to judge the moral codes of other civilizations as "wrong." Because "we know what's best." And yet, in all likelihood, the humans from 2300 will use the same measure to judge our norms as sick and twisted.

 

For me, "moral reasoning" lacks a universal standard against which to measure right from wrong. The best instrument I can come up with is empathy.

First I somewhat agree with you, because if you mean by a “universal standard” something which is absolutely true without regard to who is doing the valuing, then yes I think this would be like appealing to some purely objective standard which doesn’t take into consideration at all the different circumstances each person has to deal with. Slave-owning, for example, was a widely-accepted practice, and calling Thomas Jefferson immoral because he owned slaves is one thing, but calling someone today just as immoral for owning slaves would be to blatantly disregard the social changes which have occurred since the founding of our country. However, we still think that it was better that slave-owning was eradicated, and that it might have been better if such a practice never existed. So this points to my understanding of ethics, which is that it may ultimately be relative to some valuers, but there may also be things we can say are objectively true about all valuers and thus about all values. We might say, for example, that all valuers value themselves as the experiencers of value. If you grant me this much, then not treating people badly and being empathic of their feelings and their values is at least something we could say indicates moral behavior.

Regardless of the etiology of specific animal behaviors (instinct or socialization), we don't feel the need to impose moral judgments on them. When a lion kills and eats a zebra colt, we simply say, "that is how lions behave." We don't judge the lion for killing a youngster. We don't judge the lion on the impact his behavior had on the zebra's family, etc..

I think this is because survival is a more central value to living beings than being nice and considerate. If you knew you and your family would die if you didn’t eat the one cow left around for miles, would you stop and bother to consider the cow’s feelings?

Just as there are many different species of birds, yet we still have this idea of belonging to the family of birds.
Excellent analogy! I'll have to think on that one. Makes a lot of sense. So, if we were discussing another species (I like bears), then I could say:

 here is a full range of wild bear behaviors
 here are behaviors that differ depending on the type of bear
 here are the behaviors common to ALL bears

By this reasoning, could I discern basic "bear morality" as the behaviors common to all bears? I guess, no really. Morality would be how bears "should" behave rather than how bears "do" behave.

If we observed the human species over time, we could find behavior patterns common to all (most) humans. But, This still wouldn't draw a bead on how humans "should" behave. The "should" will always be a personal judgment, a preference.

We can make the further distinction between the behaviors common to all bears/people, and which of these behaviors are properly considered to fall under the umbrella of moral behaviors. Sticking with my bird analogy, it would be like distinguishing between all birds and all flightless birds. Some of the behaviors common to all bears/humans wouldn’t be “good” for those creatures, and some of them would. This might begin to lead us in the direction of which behaviors lead such creatures to acquire that which they value and which have the opposite effect. Whatever we end up talking about, it ends up being the experience of each creature that talk about value is concerned with. And yes, each creature has quite different experiences, and this makes finding anything unifying about their experiences difficult, but not impossible. Just about every “higher” animal experiences pleasure and pain, happiness and sorrow, etc. And yes, while this itself can be subject to a great degree of variation, there are also some very “universal” experiences which bring about consistent results in all creatures. Eating food generally brings pleasure, losing a child generally brings pain, etc. Whatever ethics may turn out to be, it most likely has the survival of the species central to it, and those things which promote the survival of the species might be a good place to start looking for what is objectively valuable for an individual to pursue, and those which hinder this goal might be objectively a bad thing. And this is pretty much exactly where you went when you said this:

Historically, all human cultures have:
 organized in groups
 established pecking orders
 cared for their young
 competed with other groups for resources
 established moral codes (usually through religion)
 fought competing groups with differing moral codes
 demonstrated six basic emotions

BY this line of reasoning, the establishment of moral codes seems to be intrinsic to humans, but it still doesn't indicate what should be included in said code.
It is easy to judge the moral codes of other civilizations as "wrong." Because "we know what's best." And yet, in all likelihood, the humans from 2300 will use the same measure to judge our norms as sick and twisted.

The discussion begins to get very philosophical in nature, which I don’t have any problems with, but so far we haven’t been able to prove each other wrong. What the humans of 2300 think about us may not be what we think of ourselves, but they will also undoubtedly think that survival of the species is a worthwhile goal, that pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain is worthwhile, and so on. These things do seem to make up a core set of values that are applicable not only just to humans but perhaps to all sentient beings. I don’t disagree with you that other cultures have done accepted some pretty radical practices, but I do disagree that we are in no position whatsoever to judge them on their merits and to continue to inquire as to what the essence of moral reasoning might be.

The "should" will always be a personal judgment, a preference.

 

Actually I think this is where your argument makes its bread. So, for example, it might make someone incredibly happy and fill his life with meaning and purpose if he raised his kids properly. But what if he argues that he doesn't want a happy, meaningful, purpose-driven life! He wants to treat his kids like crap and remain a sorry sack of shit, thank you very much! Well, we might roll our eyes and think he is crazy, but then isn't that then just a personal judgment? You could look at it that way I suppose. But I don't. I tend to look at situations like this and think there is something really wrong with this guy's reasoning. I think he really does want to be happy and live a fulfilled life. I guess I'm saying I just don't believe him. Its not that I'm judging his choice based on my own system of values, I'm arguing that he really must share the same basic set of values that I do, and if there really were such a person who ever did exist he has almost certainly got something wrong going on upstairs, some mental abnormality that is interfering with his psychological states, and if the cause and its cure were to be found and administered, he would really be happy and thankful to us! As another example, take Hitler or some other serious sociopath. Were we to be able to go back in time and alter Hitler's brain chemistry so that he would be able to recognize that the Jews weren't the cause of Germany's problems, and make him reasonable enough to see that starting WWII was a no-win situation, and make him happy in pursuing other, more socially-appropriate avenues for pleasure, then I think he would really be able to experience a form of happiness that he must not have been able to experience as evidenced by his behavior.

Yea, this gets awfully sticky. One value that appeals to me is equality. It seems to me that equality would be a nice, universal value that would be hard to argue against...But, let's do it anyway ;-)

 

First, equality doesn't exist in nature. In fact, it appears to go against the grain of nature and the evolutionary process. In nature, during times of survival stress, the weak, sickly, young and old all become victims of inequality. These less fit members of the species don't tend to survive, but in the big picture, the species benefits.

 

Second, equality applied to politics would mean a true democracy, like they had in ancient Athens. It would mean that decisions would be made by the majority... and the majority is... dumb. The normal IQ range is from 85 to 115. The normal range including bright and dull normal, is 70 to 130. This makes up 95% of the population The percentage of humans who fall into the gifted range is only 2.5%! The difference between a normal IQ and a gifted IQ is the same as between a normal IQ and an IQ in the mentally retarded range. I babbled too much on this.

 

My point is, in a true democracy very poor critical thinkers make the decisions. Average IQ folks tend to make decisions rooted in base emotions rather than reason. Racist whites were able to watch a video of Rodney King getting the hell beat out of him, and some how believe the guy was fighting back. A primarily black jury found OJ innocent despite massive evidence to the contrary.

 

In a true democracy, minorities get hosed. I'm pretty sure separation of church and state would go by the wayside if America had a true democracy.

 

Third, there is actually no such thing as equality. It is an ideal that can not exist. We are not born equal. We are born in to a mind boggling array of relative strengths and weaknesses. The differences between us are so vast that a level playing field is impossible.

 

Forth, since equality is a human invention, it is hard to predict the actual outcomes of a system based in true equality. Often philosophical ideals when applied to the real world, have catastrophic results.

 

Ugh, finding even one universal moral value makes my head spin. The closest thing to a universal code of behavior in the natural world is survival of the fittest. A pretty unappealing moral code to modern sensibilities...

Well I agree that equality is unappealing, as is pure power (survival of the fittest). But there is a middle ground which I'm surprised you didn't mention: fairness. John Rawls wrote a book in which his argument is that justice just is fairness (A Theory of Justice). Now I haven't read the book yet (I had better!), but I haven't got a clue how you determine what is fair or not. Always is the question, fair for who?

 

I like to think about possibilities for the future of civilization in these cases. Would I rather have a society which is all-inclusive, which tolerates and even takes care of all walks of life? Would I rather have a society which is built around the elite, where most people who don't find inclusion are treated rather harshly? Or would I rather some middle ground? I think the latter, but how do you even begin to find a middle ground? How do you determine what type of people get excluded, on what grounds, and how do you implement such exclusionary tactics?

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