Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Authority and Inequality

In this podcast, Alex Voorhoeve points out that one important problem with inequality is that it gives one person power over another. The problem isn't just that you are rich and I am poor, but that as a result of this, you can fuck with me. I do more than resent your success, I fear for my safety.

Over the last few years, I've grown into the habit of thinking of the moral emotions in terms of Haidt's five fold system, and as a part of this, I thought of all issues of equality and all sorts of Rawlsian concerns as matters of fairness. If one person is rich and one is poor, this is a problem for the "fairness/reciprocity" set of instincts which liberals recognize. But a lot of times that's not the problem. The problem is with the authority/hierarchy instincts. These are instincts that conservatives think of as moral, but liberals are indifferent to. Conservatives believe that obedience and dereference to your betters are good, while liberals think that all urges toward obedience are irrational and should be expelled.

So here's my big revelation: the authority/hierarchy instincts are not just amoral. They are immoral. They aren't just irrelevant for moral thinking. They systematically lead us astray.

If this is right, it is big. The typical liberal critique of the conservative moral emotions is that they are prejudices. The big example here are the moral emotions associated with purity and sanctity, which include the feelings of disgust we have at people whose sexual practices violate our rules. Liberals tend to reject these instincts, which is all well and good when it comes to accepting gays, but is harder to when it comes to rejecting instincts against incest.

Personally, I do accept the moral importance of some purity instincts, including the instinct against incest. But I want to go farther than simply rejecting the moral importance of the authority/hierarchy instinct. It is not just mistaken. It is systematically the opposite of true.

Ok, now I've written that. I'll see if I believe it in the morning.


Bill Hooker said...

Without pretending to understand more than half of your point here, I think it's useful to disentangle two aspects of one of your examples, incest. There's a biological aspect (is it really likely to amplify unwanted recessive traits? -- the answer is mostly no) and a psychological aspect. The latter, imo, is the more important: there's both a power imbalance and a moral obligation to nurture (not sure that phrase unpacks well, but you get the idea) that are being violated.

My point, and I sort of have one, is that you may be able to view the incest example as a problem of fairness rather than purity/disgust.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

I was mostly talking to myself, trying to record my little insight, so I'm bound to be hard to follow.

The important background is Haidt's classification of the moral emotions: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, authority/hierarchy, ingroup/loyalty, and purity/sanctity. Everyone agrees that the first two categories are genuinely morally important. It is wrong to hurt people or to be unfair. The other three categories are the source of political disagreement.

As for incest, obviously most cases of incest involve harm, unfairness and exploitation. But not all do. The standard example is consensual incest between adult siblings. (Which happens a surprising amount.) To capture the wrongness of this emotionally, you have to look at the "purity/sanctity" instincts.

LizardBreath said...

I want to push back against calling authority/hierarchy either irrelevant to morality, or actively tending toward immorality. People are a fundamentally cooperative species: one person can't get anything done without cooperating with other people. And it's incredibly difficult (not impossible, but very difficult) to cooperate if there's no form of respected authority or hierarchy to settle disagreements.

LizardBreath said...

I do accept the moral importance of some purity instincts, including the instinct against incest.

Also, why is it important to preserve the purity instinct to maintain the immorality of (by stipulation) harmless incest. I empirically doubt (not claiming to have knowledge, just guessing what it would show if I had it) that there is much incest that is actually harmless, but if it's out there, why must it be morally condemned?

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...


I start from the methodological principle that moral instincts should be listened to until we have reason to think that they are unreliable, for instance because they clash with other more important moral instincts or because they cannot be articulated into universal rules.

Like a lot of Americans, I grew up feeling an instinctive repugnance at homosexuality, which I overcame, mostly by getting to know actual homosexual people. I think what happened there was a process of moral evolution where I saw that an instinct was misleading because it conflicted with other instincts which were more important. A sense of care for gay friends and acquaintances, the understanding that their relationships were as healthy and beneficial as mine, and a sense that fairness required that our relationships be treated equally.

I suppose I could attempt to set aside my repugnance at harm-free incest by analogy to this process. But I don't really have any reliable information or experience with people in those kinds of relationships, and I don't think I should go through this process unless I have to.

(This is ethics based 80% in emotion and 20% in reason. I'm not going to be able to articulate things much more than this.)

As for authority/hierarchy, I have a distinct sense that people are harmed simply by being put in a submissive position. Authority instincts must give way to harm instincts here. Also, all of the instincts around fairness and reciprocity also evolved to coordinate action. Democracy is an attempt to build a society using only those mechanisms, and not the mechanisms of authority.

LizardBreath said...

Hey, any objection to my linking this over at Unfogged? I've been mulling over it for the last couple of days.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Please link. I'd love to talk more with more people about this.

Devushka99 said...

Are there other instances in which the purity/sanctity instinct seems to be doing important work, or is there a principle that should lead us to conclude that it's an important instinct to preserve?

Because otherwise the justification is looking a little circular-ish, isn't it? We want to preserve the purity/sanctity instinct because otherwise how would we condemn otherwise-harmless incest, and we condemn otherwise-harmless incest because if we didn't, we'd be abandoning this moral instinct?

I'd be pretty leery of condemning something if violations of purity are all we have against it.

For example, in the other-wise harmless incest case, doesn't it just automatically violate fairness to put the burden of proof on people in what we admit to be an other-wise harmless relationship, to show us through multiple, personal example (if it's to be parallel with the ss relationships above) that they really are just as okay as us, before we'll stop condemning them for violations of purity?

It seems like purity instincts would often operate this way - that is, shift the burden of proof in ways that are inimical to fairness. That's why I'd be suspicious that purity instincts are unreliable.

But I could well be missing lots of important jobs done by purity that would make me think very differently. Or I could be misunderstanding you completely - sorry if this is making little sense, the more I think about it the more garbled I feel.

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

There are also cases of bestiality which violate the purity instincts but not the harm/care instincts. Most of the time, you can say that sex with an animal harms the animal. But there are some cases where the animal is unharmed or even enjoys the act. Peter Singer had an article in the online sex magazine Nerve where he concluded that since some forms of bestiality cause no harm, they are morally acceptable.

You're right to say that purity instincts shift the burden of proof, but this is true of all moral intuitions. I'm starting from the assumption that moral intuitions give us prima facie reasons to act. That means that lacking other arguments or intuitions, we should follow them.

The difference between the hierarchy and purity instincts is that I think I have an argument that defeats all the intuitive judgments that come from the hierarchy instincts. Subordination is always a harm. I don't have a general argument like that for the purity instincts.