Sunday, February 1, 2015

How We Think about Morality

Most of the ethical philosophy I have read in my life strikes me as bizarre rationalizations of things people believe for completely non-intellectual reasons. Psychology professor Kurt Gray has more along these lines in the Times. These days our main justification for morality is avoiding harm; things are wrong, we tell ourselves, because they hurt somebody, and if they really do no harm they can't be very wrong. But as Grays shows, this apparently reasonable definition can be twisted around to justify all sorts of moral rules:
Victims — like beauty — are often in the eye of the beholder. In a series of recent studies we found that all our participants, liberals and conservatives alike, genuinely perceived victims in acts that they considered to be immoral. Even ostensibly “victimless” behaviors like necrophilia were seen to involve injured parties.

Participants in our studies read about things like rubbing feces on a Bible and being sexually aroused by images of animals mating. Those who rated such actions as immoral also believed that these actions caused suffering and had clear victims, ranging from one’s self to a specific other person to society more broadly. . . .

These perceptions of victimhood were automatic and effortless, not belabored rationalizations. Participants placed under a tight time limit were actually more likely to perceive a victim than those with ample time.

These perceptions of harm were powerful enough to influence similar judgments in unrelated contexts: The more immoral people saw a given act to be, the more they saw pain in minor injuries (e.g., hitting your head, cutting your finger) and the more they detected suffering in ambiguous facial expressions.
Who has deceived thee so oft as thyself?


G. Verloren said...

Political correctness at work. The fact that someone somewhere might find an action "offensive" is somehow enough to make it immoral, even if no actual harm is done. Which is, of course, entirely insane, because anyone can be offended by anything for any reason they like, which means nothing is not immoral.

I think the heart of the problem is our culture's conflation of "harm" and "offense". Burning a flag is often offensive, but logically speaking it is entirely harmless. And yet because someone somewhere is offended, the act is perceived as harmful when it really isn't.

G. Verloren said...

That said, seriously folks... don't burn flags, perform necrophilia, or do other stuff like that. It may not make you immoral, but it still makes you an asshole.