Friday, June 4, 2010

Scab, Snitch, Slut

On the use of aesthetic "moral" taboos to enforce compliance in large coordination problems



Part One: An Introduction to Coordinaton Problems

  • A scab is someone who works for an employer despite an ongoing strike by a union.
  • A snitch is someone who testifies against a criminal - sometimes for personal gain.
  • A slut is a female who has sex (or gives the appearance of being willing to do so) without demanding marriage, monogamy, or other social concessions in return.

These fun but ugly Germanic words have something in common: their aesthetic power enforces taboos that are perceived by users of the words to be ethical, but are, in reality, only solutions to large coordination problems. Enforcing these taboos is not morally justified - it only feels that way because a large group of people benefits from enforcement of the taboos. In fact, enforcing the taboos harms large groups of people at the expense of the benefiting group, and in these cases, there is no base-level ethical justification for that harm.

Intro to Coordination Problems: Shit

People are social animals. They live in large groups. In any particular instance, what is best for the group is not what is best for a particular individual. Paradoxically, if everyone in the group does what's best for the group, then each individual in the group is better off than if each individual maximized her own utility separately.

It's best for us all if we do what's best for the group. But each one of us has an incentive to cheat in particular situations.

Take defecation. It's annoying to have to only crap in certain places - an individual might be better off crapping wherever he felt like it, as opposed to only in designated latrines. But if everyone crapped wherever he felt like it, there would be shit everywhere, and everyone would be worse off. Society asks us to make a trade-off between our individual desire to shit freely on the one hand, and our mutual need for clean water (and sidewalks) on the other.

We spend a large amount of time alone, though, and so we may occasionally be tempted to violate this scatological provision of the "social contract." That is where taboos come in: (1) they facilitate the emotion of shame on the part of would-be taboo violators, enough to offset a minor expected individual gain from a taboo violation; and (2) they turn the entire society into "taboo enforcers" by giving moral color to the situation, thereby enabling the enforcers to punish the taboo violator (i.e., inflict retribution out of proportion to the harm the violation actually causes).

The no-shitting-in-the-spring taboo is a pretty good one, I think; it may even deserve its moral color. However, the taboos represented by my titular words merely represent a certain group in society claiming that moral power for themselves, at great cost to other groups. It is my position that these taboos have no genuine ethical power, because (1) they do not protect universal human needs (like clean water and freedom from torture), and (2) the harm occasioned to the "out-group" is unjustifiably great.

Enforcement of these taboos isn't altruistic, though it is often felt to be so by taboo enforcers. Following the taboo may be altruistic, in that it trades one's own happiness for the happiness of the group. Enforcing the taboo is more complicated: while taking on the cost of enforcement oneself for the benefit of the group may be altruistic, at the heart of enforcing a taboo like this is placing the needs of one's own group above those of another group - just like nepotism, racial discrimination, and genocide. Hardly altruistic, in the philosophical sense.

End of Part One.

Memento mori.



It is interesting to me that the people who tend to violate the "no shitting outside designated latrines" rule are homeless people - people (1) for whom the cost of following the taboo is great, and (2) who do not particularly benefit from enforcement of the taboo. It's good for everybody to have clean sidewalks, but the cost is greater for some than for others.

18 comments:

  1. This reads a bit like an object lesson in Haidt's (neo-Nietzschean) Moral Foundations Theory.

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  2. Thank you so much - that's exactly it! Great connection.

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  3. Actually, I intended my observation as a criticism: your view of taboo, the justificatory pressure you bear on it, and your conception of what constitutes "genuine ethical power" seem to illustrate Haidt's (and Nietzsche's) point that liberals tend to construct their normative views from a range of moral-intuitive foundations ("harm/care", "fairness/reciprocity") that is narrower than both what conservatives tend to additionally draw upon and what the anthropological record supports ("ingroup loyalty", "authority/respect" and, what tends to be most difficult for liberals to appreciate, "purity/sanctity"). (It'll be interesting to see how matters are complicated by an additional "liberty/constraint" foundation which is apparently under consideration.)

    I've not yet read enough Haidt to see how much he echoes Nietzsche's view, as I take it, that it's not that liberals' outlook isn't also informed by those other three foundations, but less so, and that this has resulted in a sweeping -- encompassing for him the entire post-Christian, secular moral philosophical tradition -- lack of self-awareness which finds expression their moral rationalizing and theorizing having so little recourse to those foundations. (A major function of the performative aspect of his texts, particularly the Genealogy, I take to be to awaken recognition in his likely "liberal" -- in the Haidtian sense -- readers' of their own responsiveness to those "conservative" foundations.) I'm rambling...

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  4. Hey, that's great! I knew that this theory (with the five foundations) existed, but I forgot who the author was and didn't bother to find out.

    In fact, I have used these psychological facts to stir some intuitions if people failed to have the intuition that the human condition is tragic and deplorable - because their's two groups of people whose minds seem to work quite radically different in certain very consequential areas.

    However, as great and important as I find the psychological research reported in the paper, their remarks about the conceptual side are obviously rather superficial. I'm not going to say something particularly non-superficial, I'm afraid, but here are some remarks nonetheless.

    I, too, have always viewed many of the allegedly moral concerns of people who lack a strong "That's none of your fucking business!" intuition as an aesthetic matter. The theoretical advantage of this is that it helps a lot in avoiding consistency problems, because it's fine for aesthetic values to conflict with moral ones, and contrary to what Haidt and Graham seem to think, there are definitely severe consistency issues with a five-foundations morality because they point in opposing directions and no-one seems to have a principle for weighing them.

    A second theoretical point in favor of counting these other things as aesthetic is that this seems to facilitate the formulation of a principled, non-disjunctive definition of what morality is all about. The disadvantage of a disjunctive formulation is obvious: why do you call this morality and not also that? In this area, the findings of this paper actually support our position: there is no asking about why to call the non-disjunctive definition "morality", because the two foundations that captures everyone accepts anyway.

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  5. @Rob:

    Actually, I intended my observation as a criticism: your view of taboo, the justificatory pressure you bear on it, and your conception of what constitutes "genuine ethical power" seem to illustrate Haidt's (and Nietzsche's) point that liberals tend to construct their normative views from a range of moral-intuitive foundations ("harm/care", "fairness/reciprocity") that is narrower than both what conservatives tend to additionally draw upon and what the anthropological record supports ("ingroup loyalty", "authority/respect" and, what tends to be most difficult for liberals to appreciate, "purity/sanctity").

    At least in this paper, though, Haidt is careful to leave open the possibility that on a conceptual level, we are actually right to disregard three of the foundations. So it can't really work as a criticism.

    Neither does it seem to work as a criticism of Curator's hypothesis that these values serve to solve coordination problems (if you interpret it evolutionarily) and that, from our point of view, they're not particularly good at it because they overgenerate.

    I've not yet read enough Haidt to see how much he echoes Nietzsche's view, as I take it, that it's not that liberals' outlook isn't also informed by those other three foundations, but less so, and that this has resulted in a sweeping -- encompassing for him the entire post-Christian, secular moral philosophical tradition -- lack of self-awareness

    But we are not unaware of our valuing these things. I may not fully get what sanctity is all about, but I guess my experience of arts gives me a taste of it. I, too, feel secure and comforted among people who are in relevant respects like myself (though sexual orientations happens not to feature among these respects). What I may be able to relate to the least is the respect/authority business. I guess I don't really get that at all.

    Anyway, in the light of this, it seems ridiculous to accuse me of a lack of self-awareness. I do have these desires and I'm aware of them, only I view them as matters of taste and not morality. And to say that I'm mistaken about how I view them strikes me as meaningless.

    So I hope Haidt doesn't follow Nietzsche in this, but it was interesting to hear that this may have been Nietzsche's view on the matter.

    PS: Obviously, I'm disappointed that they called increased suicide rates the "dark side of the 'Gesellschaft'". Also, instead of the generic indefinite phrase "individuals", they should have used the quantifier "some" or "many". Just had to say this...

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  6. My aptitude for philosophical journalism is obviously very limited, so I would simply refer to Jesse Prinz, and this excellent survey of ExPhil with John Dorris. (It would be interesting to know how readers of this blog score on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire.)

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  7. My scores:

    Harm: 2.6 (liberals: 3.8; conservatives: 3.2)
    Fairness: 2.2 (liberals: 3.8; conservatives: 3.0)
    Loyalty: .5 (liberals: 2.0; conservatives: 2.9)
    Authority: .4 (liberals: 2.1; conservatives: 3.3)
    Purity: 0 (liberals: 1.6; conservatives 3.0)

    I took the questionnaire a couple of years ago, so my scores might be different now.

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  8. I took it several years ago, too:

    Harm: 2.6 (3.7; 3.1)
    Fairness: 4.2 (3.1; 2.8)
    Loyalty: 0.8 (2.0; 3.2)
    Authority: 2.1 (1.8; 3.1)
    Purity: 0.6 (1.6; 3.0)

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  9. "ethical, but are, in reality, only solutions to large coordination problems"
    Which ethical principles could we not say that of?

    I link to some other philosophy quizzes/surveys you guys might be interested in here.

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  10. TGGP - I'm still working it out, but I expect to claim that the distinctions between an aesthetic taboo with no claim as a true ethical principle ("don't have sex before marriage") and a genuine ethical principle ("don't torture people against their will") are two: (1) universality of the interest defended in the latter case, and (2) moral justifiability of the harm (to anyone claiming not to support the principle) occasioned by enforcing the principle (which will be, I think, related to the first distinction).

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    1. [quote from curator 7 June 2:23PM]a genuine ethical principle ("don't torture people against their will")[/quote]
      What about toruring them with their will/consent?

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  11. Sister Y:
    Harm: 4.0 (liberals: 3.7; conservatives: 3.0)
    Fairness: 4.0 (liberals: 3.8; conservatives: 3.1)
    Loyalty: .8 (liberals: 2.1; conservatives: 3.1)
    Authority: 1 (liberals: 2.1; conservatives: 3.3)
    Purity: 0 (liberals: 1.3; conservatives 2.9)

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  12. I got pretty similar scores to Sister Y, despite being a utilitarian (albeit a negative one:-):

    Harm: 4.0 (liberals: 3.7; conservatives: 3.0)
    Fairness: 4.8 (liberals: 3.8; conservatives: 3.1)
    Loyalty: 0 (liberals: 2.1; conservatives: 3.1)
    Authority: 1 (liberals: 2.1; conservatives: 3.3)
    Purity: 0 (liberals: 1.3; conservatives 2.9)

    I wonder what relationship (if any) exists between aesthetically based morality and punitive justice.

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  13. I'm interested to see how Curator avoids the kind of cultural psychologically-informed criticism (beginning on page 322 here) incurred by Anscombe and like-minded moral theorists in regard to the "magistrate and the mob" case.

    I just can't (yet) see how "the distinctions between an aesthetic taboo with no claim as a true ethical principle [...] and a genuine ethical principle" can be made without crucial recourse to geographically and historically specific intuitions that are in irreducible conflict with other complexes of intuitions which support the practices and attitudes disapproved of.

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  14. I just came across this piece, which supposedly would be relevant here, and which I found immensely interesting:

    http://ethics-etc.com/2010/04/25/the-truth-in-cultural-relativism/#comment-2373

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  15. A pertinent interview with Jesse Graham, a co-author with Haidt on moral foundations research.

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  16. Another way to frame a challenge Curator's normative account of taboo can be found in Haidt's Edge Conference presentation last week: namely, it's merely an expression of WEIRD morality.

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  17. Haidt and colleaques have now applied their moral foundations theory to libertarians:

    ""Although the causal directions remain uncertain, our findings indicate a robust relationship between libertarian morality, a dispositional lack of emotionality, and a preference for weaker or less-binding social
    relationships."

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