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: 73

Replies to This Discussion

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

 

Consensual rape is not rape. It is fantasy.

 

adaptation to the natural world might have a thing or two to say.

 

Yes, which is the point I was making. : )

Rape that isn't rape? Well, I guess if its agreed upon beforehand then it isn't rape, but if its "consensual" but the intention is to rape and it hadn't been agreed upon beforehand, then isn't that rape, even if it "turns out okay"?
Yes, non-consensual sex is rape. Consensual sex that simulates rape is just fantasy.
Yes, but my point is that the intention to rape should be considered when we are conducting moral judgments about such things, which was your point to begin with. So let me add to my story that Matt wants to rape Julia, and though Julia wants Matt to rape her (making it "consensual), Matt doesn't want Julia to want him to rape her, he wants her to be unwilling. This of course doesn't matter to Julia, who just wants to be raped, but should Matt be considered to be doing something "less ethical" by intending to rape someone who doesn't want to be raped (even though unbeknownst to him she does)? lol
Yes, but my point is that the intention to rape should be considered when we are conducting moral judgments about such things, which was your point to begin with. So let me add to my story that Matt wants to rape Julia, and though Julia wants Matt to rape her (making it "consensual), Matt doesn't want Julia to want him to rape her, he wants her to be unwilling. This of course doesn't matter to Julia, who just wants to be raped, but should Matt be considered to be doing something "less ethical" by intending to rape someone who doesn't want to be raped (even though unbeknownst to him she does)? lol
You're making my head hurt! I would say that you're moving into a scenario that is so convoluted that it would be difficult to judge. But I'll try: I would say that if it was consensual, it doesn't matter what Mark secretly wishes (that it was REAL rape), simply because we have not basis by which to judge or punish toughts.
Yes, intentions are thoughts, but unless put into action (he broke in with the intention to rape), there is not way to judge, punish, or even know they exist (unless you are told).
Haidt's research is interesting as is his Moral Foundations Theory. I use that as part of a morality course I deliver at a local college for adult education. As always, we need to separate descriptive (essentially that of science) and normative (philosophical, religious) projects when talking about morality and ethics. Haidt is challenging the descriptive philosophical view that we reach moral judgments through reasoning. Of course we need to recognize that some philosophers, like Hume, also challenged this rationalist view of morality.

According to Haidt and others (from their research), the vast majority of people move automatically from a non-rational moral intuition (expressed as our emotional reactions) to a more conscious moral judgment. Reasoning with propositional statements comes later to justify and promote our position. As others have said also, reasoning evolved as much to win arguments as to find the 'truth'.

So, a description of morality, as if it stands apart for common human biological inheritance and our social conditioning, becomes somewhat problematic. I think there is value in discussion the normative aspects, the 'oughts', even though I'm not sure how one gets any consensus on the foundational beliefs. Do group rights exceed individual rights or vice versa? Is respect for authority more important than individual wants? Is it ok to cause individual pain for the group welfare? Before answering we need to recognize that we ourselves are firmly rooted within our cultural traditions. Haidt likes to refer to us in the West as WIERDs (from Western, Industrialized, Educated, Rich, Developed countries) - a minority group in the world!

So, without believing in something transcendental, like a god or gods or universal logic or the like, it's hard to know how one can claim any moral rule or duty as an universal 'ought' without heavy culturally-shaped conditions attached. Perhaps the constant sharing of visions about improving human welfare (group and individual) would be more effective ('I have a dream' stuff). Alex

So, without believing in something transcendental, like a god or gods or universal logic or the like, it's hard to know how one can claim any moral rule or duty as an universal 'ought' without heavy culturally-shaped conditions attached

 

Yep

Hard to know, yes, but I'm not convinced it is impossible
Alex, what a wonderfully concise and articulate description of the issue and research. Thanks.

http://www.ohio.edu/people/piccard/entropy/rawls.html

 

In case anyone wants to get a start on learning what Rawls' argument was, I found this page. Now I have to go read it myself...

Having now read it (and remembered learning about it during my ethics classes), the main thrust of the argument is put this way:

 

John Rawls asks us to imagine a social contract drawn up by self-interested agents negotiating under a veil of ignorance, unaware of the talents or status they will inherit at birth--ghosts ignorant of the machines they will haunt. He argues that a just society is one that these disembodied souls would agree to be born into, knowing that they might be dealt a lousy social or genetic hand. If you agree that this is a reasonable conception of justice, and that the agents would insist on a broad social safety net and redistributive taxation (short of eliminating incentives that make everyone better off), then you can justify compensatory social policies even if you think differences in social status are 100 percent genetic. The policies would be, quite literally, a matter of justice, not a consequence of the indistinguishability of individuals.

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