[Warning: This post uses sexual imagery and a satirical tone to make a serious point.]
The authors of the disgusted conservatives study I discussed earlier reveal their ivory-tower bias when they sniff at the way real people make real decisions.
Disgust seems to be particularly implicated in many of our moral judgements (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999b). But should disgust play any role in these judgements? According to many liberal, educated Westerners, the answer is no. Whether a practice or behaviour is considered morally palatable or reprehensible should depend on whether that behaviour harms or infringes on the rights of another individual; disgusting but harmless behaviours do not deserve moral condemnation (Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993). According to this view, consuming faecal matter, engaging in sexual intercourse with animals, or masturbating to pornography is not immoral, as long as no other people are harmed by one’s behaviour (Bloom, 2004b).35
Up until a few years ago, I would have agreed with that reasoning. (Except for the sex with animals part. Animals have a right not to be raped. Moo means moo.) I would have agreed with it for the same reasons that most “liberal, educated Westerners” would: (1) I would have evaluated moral dilemmas using highly abstract models which ignored critical real-world information, (2) I would have assumed that if I personally could not see any harm in a practice then it automatically followed that no such harm existed, (3) I would have assumed that if a behavior did not cause a significant problem if one person did something then it would not cause significant problems if half of the entire population did it, and (4) I had no understanding that unarticulated, evolved, information encoded into cultures even existed.
Let’s just talk about number (1) right now.
The word “abstract” comes from the latin for “draw off” in the sense of “to remove.” We create an abstraction by removing information from a problem until we get the problem stripped down to something we can work with. Unfortunately, thanks to the Greeks, we tend to think that abstractions are somehow more true than actual reality. This is not the case. Abstractions are cartoons. While useful for breaking the universe’s complexity down into manageable chunks, they sacrifice accuracy. In many cases abstractions work fine, but the more complicated and interconnected a system, the worse an abstraction can describe it. For example, abstractions don’t work well in biology. Missing just one rare enzyme out tens of thousands of enzymes is the difference between a working model and gibberish. It is also the difference between life and death.
The authors of the paper blunder into the fallacy of abstraction rather humorously.
This view of purity as a moral virtue, and of disgust as a morally relevant emotion, is common even in Western democracies. A large majority of working-class Philadelphia adults surveyed by Haidt et al. (1993) thought that disgusting but harmless behaviours*such as buying a dead chicken, having sex with it, and then eating it for dinner were morally wrong.
Man, those working-class Philadelphia adults are a bunch of Neanderthals!
No doubt Inbar, Piazarro and Bloom constructed their little chicken-f*cking thought experiment something like this: Assume that a guy likes to screw chicken carcasses and then eat them. Assume that he doesn’t otherwise interfere or harm anyone else in any way. Would his disgusting behavior be immoral?
In such a simplified model the behavior isn’t immoral, because it has no consequences and signifies nothing.
However, out in the real world, no behavior occurs in isolation. In the real world, especially in 1993 working-class neighborhood in Phillidelphia, anyone giving the old in-and-out to one of Tyson’s best broilers would most likely be mentally ill. In the real world, if a parent caught their kid having sex with the Sunday dinner, they’d ship the kid off to therapy. In the real world, in this cultural milieu, a person has to have a high degree of impulsiveness and a disregard for the opinions of others to look for dates in the meat drawer. In the real world, chicken-f*cking would always be a sign of bigger and more dangerous problems.
The stripped-down abstraction does not capture this reality. People believe chicken-f*cking is immoral because of the halo of real-world consequences that would realistically be associated with it.
It is also not hard to think of realistic scenarios of a society in which such behavior was accepted. Beyond the entire nervous-chicken problem, a society so sexually indulgent would probably be a society which did not value self-denial, delayed gratification or impulse control. It’s hard to think of a pro-McNugget-bonking society reinforcing these traits. Most people intuitively understand that impulsive, self-gratifying behavior does not occur in isolation and that a society that endorses extremes in one area is more likely to endorse extremes in another.
To drive this point home, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose a guy really liked Nazis. In his house he had a secret room in which he stored collected Nazi memorabilia, dressed in Nazi uniforms and listened to Nazi speeches. Suppose that he never otherwise acted on or gave any other sign of his obsession. Would you still consider such behavior disgusting and immoral? (Note that I didn’t say anything about whether such behavior should be illegal. I just asked if you feel disgust and/or a sense that this was immoral behavior.)
Most people do feel a sense of disgust towards the Nazi-lover and they would feel his behavior was immoral. If his fetish became public knowledge and publically talked about, most people would feel obliged to condem the behavior. Why do we think this way? After all, given the bounds of the thought experiment, the Nazi guy’s fetish has no other consequences. We feel disgust and feel his behavior is immoral not because we are irrational but because we intuitively grasp that the bounds of the thought experiment are unrealistic. We intuitively understand that in the real world a veneration of Nazis in any form indicates a dangerous psychology. We understand that, in the real world, there would always be a high probability of negative consequences if such behavior were allowed to spread.
Non-academics don’t have the luxury of evaluating the surprising scene in their kitchen by tossing out information until they reach a level of abstraction that gives them the answer they want. Instead, they have to integrate everything they know about human behavior, social incentives and the actual culture that they find themselves in to make a decision most likely to produce a good outcome. A simplistic abstraction cannot do that.
Morals don’t exist to be philosopher’s toys. They exist to provide practical guidelines for peoples’ day-to-day lives. If you dig deep enough into the morality of every culture you will find a practical underpinning for most moral rules. The goals of many of these rules don’t always align with our modern goals, but the practical underpinnings are there nevertheless.
We intentionally created a protected environment for academics in which they pay no penalty for being wrong. This is good in that it allows truly-original thinkers to thrive, but bad in that it leads its inhabitants to believe that abstract ideas that win academic debates automatically have relevance to the real world.
Thought experiments like the chicken-f*cker fail to illuminate the validity of real-world moral choices, because such experiments have been pruned of the detail they need to accurately model the consequences of the choices. Those who base decisions on such simplifications are heading down a dangerous path blindfolded.
Of course, in this particular case, it’s just being used to make ordinary people look irrational.
The previous post in this series is here.