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Archive for March 15th, 2010

Are we ready to eat the dog yet?

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The family dog is outside playing, runs in to the street and is killed when it is struck by a car. The owners of the dog having heard that dog meat is delicious, cut up the dog, cook it, and serve it for dinner. Most people recoil at the imagery that those sentences conjure up. While many find it difficult to point to a specific rule or principle being violated in the scenario, most will say that there is something inherently wrong with eating the family’s pet dog. That inherent feeling of wrongness without pointing specifically to rule violation is called moral dumbfounding. Jonathan Haidt used the findings of his moral dumbfounding experiments to build a model of morality and argue against increased levels of rationality, or more sophisticated reasoning, as leading to higher levels of morality, an alternative paradigm proposed by Lawrence Kohlberg.   

Haidt stated that since people inherently just “knew” that certain things “felt” wrong and could not specifically state why, that morality was not being driven by rational thought, rather we first judge and then latter on attempt to build a logical case around that judgment. We need to build the logical case in order to justify the judgment we made to ourselves (settling cognitive dissonance issues) and to convince others to our point of view (which helps us confirm to ourselves that we were right all along and builds self-esteem). The bottom-line is we don’t tend to use facts or figures or carefully considered arguments as we judge what is moral or immoral, rather we first judge and then later on work to justify that judgment. Yet it is clear that people can have differing definitions of morality based on their world-views, and once judgment is made then the race is on to justify that judgment post-hoc and to win over others to your point of view. Intuitive moralistic judgments affect the political sphere, business decisions, social codes and mores, nationalistic tendencies, as well as notions of bigotry, bias and hatred driven by rationales conjured up by people that often boil down to “it just is” or “because” when all other rationales are stripped off.

There is great power over individual behavior and what people are willing to do or not do, when the moral code of a person or group of people is manipulated or coerced, often for the benefit (i.e. power, accumulation of wealth, shaping society to their worldview) of others. What was once grossly unacceptable behavior can move towards acceptability or even normalcy under the right circumstances.  For instance, if a group or organization is able to get members to commit acts that are generally considered immoral by outsiders, it will more strongly bind members to the group or organization, since those acts become “normal” group behavior and are justifiable in member’s heads by buying into the belief system or morality standards of the group. If they remove themselves from the group or organization they can fear being judged by others as acting inappropriately and become an outcast of both the group they were a member of and the larger society as a whole.

An illustration of that point comes from Congo where a war has been raging. As reported in the NY Times, February 10, 2010, a new set of vocabulary has been created in order to describe some of the atrocities being carried out there. For instance, some of the military leadership have coerced soldiers to cut off chunks from living people and then to make the victims eat their own flesh. In order to describe this, the term auto-cannibalism has been coined. In addition to being repugnant and morally abhorrent, getting soldiers to perform this grizzly act binds them to the unit, for where else in civil society would they ever again find acceptance other than in the unit in which their behavior was committed by themselves and others? They have nowhere else to go. These military leaders rather than being viewed as irrational, immoral madmen for this behavior, are crudely calculating how to increase the cohesion of the forces they are leading. They may be immoral and capable of great crimes (as so many others have been before them), but it would be a mistake to think that they are stupid. They know just what they have to do to hold onto power.

How many soldiers in how many armies over the course of humans making war on humans have been bound to their military, by finding acceptance of certain behaviors within the military unit in which it occurs? How much rationalization regarding such behaviors as necessary in order to achieve important goals has occurred? And how many whistle blowers of unacceptable behavior, within any organization, have been ostracized for publically describing practices that should never have occurred in the first place? I have great respect for certain militaries, when they are run as professional organizations with full knowledge of the inherent risks of and avoidance of inappropriate conduct.     

There is an ad being played on the local TV stations for an insurance company which shows people walking through a city and doing the right, morally correct behaviors.  Vignettes spill from one to the other with the person on the receiving end of a good deed, performing a good deed in the next vignette because it simply is the right thing to do. The implication is if you help others they will in turn do their share and so on and so forth. The company of course is implying that they to will do the right thing by you if you buy their product. This is not the insurance company trying to invent a new notion but rather they are tapping into a feeling that most people desire to experience. Moral sustainment or elevation is caused by the pleasure derived by doing the morally correct things and feeling good about it. In wanting to reproduce that pleasurable feeling of doing good, they do good again.

It was not long after the earthquake in Haiti and the scenes of chaos emerged that the money and help began pouring in. Even in a time of recession and needs at home, record amounts of cash were raised to help those less fortunate and in need of assistance. On the down side, there was a record number of charity scams aimed at taking advantage of people’s desire to do the right thing. Contrast Haiti to Chile where much less money and assistance has been delivered to help after their own earthquake. When you ask people why they did not give money and are not as moved by Chile’s plight as by Haiti’s the answer I get is that Haiti needs more help. Chile can stand on its own.      

While the notion of moral sustainment and moral dumbfounding can be written about in a rather black and white fashion, sometimes moral choices, both the dramatic ones and some that are more mundane, are not as clear cut.

Consider the morality of the following cases:

  • An employee of HSBC was recently arrested by the French police for stealing information on 24,000 customers with secret Swiss bank accounts, some of which are suspected of being used for tax evasion. The French government is now using that stolen information to hunt down the tax evaders. Is using the stolen information the morally correct thing for the French government to do or should they have pursued the information through legal means?
  • A ship is attacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. The ship’s owners have to decide whether to pay ransom, knowing that if they do so their other ships will routinely be hijacked. If they choose not to negotiate with the pirates there is a good chance their employees will lose their lives. Save lives now and put future lives in peril, or put lives in peril now but perhaps save lives in the future? What is morally correct? Most ship owners do the math and do not provide security aboard their vessels, finding that simply paying ransom for the occasional ship a cheaper solution. Is that morally an easier or acceptable solution?
  • A manager is working 60+ hours per week to get her job done but reports only 40 hours, as she is worried about giving the appearance of not being able to get her work done within a reasonable time period during a economic cycle in which people are getting laid off. She is worried enough about the morality of the situation, lying on her weekly time reports that she writes into The Ethicist at the New York Times looking for advice. Is it morally ok to routinely lie on order to protect your job? What are the implications on others who report accurately? What would you say?
  • An organization lays-off a woman who is seven months pregnant at the start of what is generally acknowledged to be a severe recession in order to cut labor costs (no pun intended). Clearly she will not be able to pound the pavement looking for a job at this advanced stage of pregnancy. She had previously received good performance appraisals and the layoff appears unjustified and unnecessary. Is this a moral outrage?
  • The research on environmental change is strong despite the recent hullabaloo over a few mistakes in some research. If acting on environmental issues was a neutral event, with no downside to anyone, would the reaction of today’s opponents to notions of limiting the pollution we spew into our environment be any different than it is? Is their opposition to protecting our planet for future generations based simply on current economic gain and comfort for themselves today? Have both sides in the argument made moral judgments as to what is right and wrong? The consequences of being wrong if the planet is not in peril is the perhaps the loss of some economic performance or some discomfort as we move to a new economy. And while no one knows for sure, the consequences of being wrong if the planet is in peril is perhaps the loss of humans as a species and potentially the Earth itself as a place that can sustain life. What is the morally correct choice?

Standards of morality do change over time and vary by culture. Slavery for instance was once acceptable in the USA and is now generally frowned upon (even though it still occurs). Suffrage, which person has a right to vote in society and is given a voice, has been a moving target over the years within the United States and elsewhere. Standards on whether gays have a right to and should be allowed access to the happiness that heterosexuals enjoy by entering into marriage is changing right now in our society. At what age should children be allowed to work, to drink alcohol, to vote, to die for their country? Some of the rationales for these decisions are based on the physical and psychological development of the children and some simply on what is perceived as morally correct.

Standards of morality do change and vary by culture, but as humans the physical and psychological mechanisms that cause us to judge some behavior and positions as moral, while others are judged as immoral are unlikely to. Knowing and understanding these mechanisms can perhaps lead us to making better moral judgments, and perhaps to a better understanding and more toleration of those who disagree with our own points of view.

I can see the family dog sitting on the floor next to me as I write these words and I give her reassurance that she has nothing to fear about becoming the next meal for this family, unless of course she really misbehaves or our moral standards significantly change. Just kidding.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

March 15, 2010 at 9:52 am

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