Identity politics in morality
Posted Mar 22, 2014
I’d like to begin with a quick apology for the tardiness of this latest update. It’s not that there’s anyone holding me to my usual weekly schedule except myself, but I am disappointed I haven’t gotten around to updating sooner. I had planned to take a week to myself to enjoy a new game (and enjoy it thoroughly I did, so mission accomplished there), but that week ended with my getting sick for another one, and I haven’t been able to concentrate on much as a result. With those excuses out of the way, I’m going to start off today like most middle/high-school students: by summarizing part of a book (or epic poem, really) that I haven’t read personally. Instead, I’ll be summarizing it – or at least part of it – by using the Wikipedia cliff notes. That story, as the title suggests, is Dante’s Inferno. What I really like about this Wikipedia page describing the story is that Inferno is kind enough to order the circles of hell for the reader with respect to increasing wickedness; the deeper one goes, the worse the sins needed to get there. The reason I like this neat and tidy ordering is that it gives us some insight as to the author’s moral sense.
As a quick rundown of the circles of hell, from least bad to worst, there’s: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and finally Treachery. Now what’s particularly interesting here is that, according to Dante, it would seem to be worse to be a flatterer or a corrupt politician than a murderer. Misrepresenting your stances about people or politics is bad bad bad in Dante’s book. More interesting still is the inner-most circle: Treachery. Treachery seems to represent a particular kind of fraud: one in which the victim is expected to have some special relationship to the perpetrator. For instance, family members betraying each other seems to be worse than strangers doing similar harms. In general, kin are expected to behave more altruistically towards each other, owing in no small part to the fact that they share genes in common with one another. Helping one’s kin, in the evolutionary-sense of things, is quite literally like helping (part of) yourself. So if kin are expected to trade off their own welfare for family members at a higher rate than they would for strangers, but instead display the opposite tendency, this makes kin-directed immoral acts appear particularly heinous.
Now, of course, Dante’s take on things isn’t the only game in town. A paper which I have repeatedly discussed (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013) has a different take on the issue of morality. That take is that morality serves, more or less, a coordination function for punishers: the goal is to get most people in agreement about who should be punished in order to avoid the fighting costs that are associated with disagreement in that realm. In order for this coordination function to work, however, the pair suggest that morality needs to function on the basis of acts; not the identity of the actors. As DeScioli & Kurzban (2013) put it:
“The dynamic coordination theory of morality holds that evolution favored individuals equipped with moral intuitions who choose sides in conflicts based, in part, on “morality” rather than relationship or status”
Identity shouldn’t come into play when it comes to moral condemnation, then; it is “[crucial that the signal] must not be tied to individual identity”. As Monty Python put it, “let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who“, and let’s not do that because killing should be equally as wrong no matter who does it and who ends up on the receiving end.
Now in fairness to DeScioli & Kuzrban (2013), they also hedge their theoretical bets, suggesting that identity also ought to matter when it comes to picking sides in disputes. However, it seems that, according to the dynamic coordination model, anyway, when people do take sides on the basis loyalty to their friends or family, they should be motivated by systems that do not deal with morality. This suggestion seems to be at odds with Dante’s less-formalized interpretation of the importance of identity in the realm of morality, who instead would appear to hypothesize, at least implicitly, that the identity of the actors ought to matter a great deal. So let’s take a look at some research bearing on the matter.
The first piece of research comes to us from Lieberman & Linke (2007) who were examining whether the identity of an individual (either a foreigner, schoolmate, or family member) mattered when it came to the wrongness of an act and amount of punishment deemed to be appropriate for it (in this case, stealing $1500). When the individual in question was the perpetrator, participants (N = 268) suggested that the foreigner deserved more punishment than the schoolmate, and that the schoolmate deserved more punishment than the family member. Family members were also perceived to be more remorseful about their act, relative to schoolmates, relative to strangers. On the other hand, people’s rating of the immorality of the act did not vary as a function of the actor’s identity; no matter who one was, the act was rated as just as morally wrong (though ratings in all cases were close to ceiling levels here).
The next experiment (N = 288) examined essentially the same question, but this time the individual in question was the victim of the offense, rather than the perpetrator. When the offense was committed against a family member, people tended to be more punitive towards the perpetrator than when it was committed against a schoolmate or foreigner. Again, however, moral judgments remained uniformly at ceiling levels in all cases. In a final experiment (N = 78) participants were asked about how much they would be willing to personally invest in order to track down the perpetrator of various deeds. As before, people reported being willing to take more days off from work without pay to try and find the thief when a family member had been robbed (M = 12.85 days), relative to a schoolmate (M = 2.24) or a foreigner (M = 2.10). Now whether or not people would actually do these things (I don’t recall many people taking time off work to play Batman and help strangers track down thieves), people are at least expressing sentiments indicating that they think people should be punished to a greater degree for victimizing their kin, and that their kin deserve less punishment.
The results could be taken to favor either account — Dante’s or DeScioli & Kurzban’s — I feel. On the one hand, rating of morality appeared stubbornly impartial: the act was rated as being just as morally wrong, no matter the identity of the perpetrator or victim. This might suggest people were coordinating around the behavior, and not the identity of the actors. However, people were also not coordinating their behavior in the sense that what they actually wanted to see done after they had decided the act was morally wrong varied on the basis of identity. To express this tension in a different context, we might consider the following: imagine that most people agree with the statement, “freedom is a good thing”; good for America. However, that certainly does not mean that most people would be in agreement when it came to what precisely that sentence is supposed to mean: that is, what limits are to be put in place, and how those limits should be enacted?
That said, the paper by Lieberman & Linke (2007) doesn’t exactly get at what Dante was proposing: Dante didn’t, as far as I know, anyway, say that lust was any better or worse when a family member does it. After all, everyone is someone’s family member, or friend, or foreigner. Instead, what Dante appeared to be proposing is that the relationship of the perpetrator to the victim is the crucial variable. As I’ve discussed previously, some initial research has tentatively borne out Dante’s hypothesis: while acts are rated as morally worse than omissions between strangers, this difference is reduced when the interaction occurs between friends, and the act is rated as more morally wrong overall. A more formal test of these competing hypotheses appears to await data. I’ll be sure to get right on that personally; just as soon as I’m done being addicted to this game in the next three or four years.
References: DeScioli, P. & Kurzban, R. (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological Bulletin, 139, 477-496.
Lieberman, D. & Linke, L. (2007). The effect of social category on third party punishment. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 289-305.