Putting the Moral Back in Moral Dumbfounding (Part II)

Let me briefly review my last post.

First, I assume, along with others, that a core part, even the core part of ethics is harm. It’s unethical to harm people absent some compelling reason. Second, preventing people from doing what they want to do is one really important kind of harm. So, taking those two really simple ideas together, it’s unethical to prevent people from doing what they want absent compelling reason.

Now, from these basic assumptions, I added one piece. Judging something immoral is one way to prevent people from doing what they want. After all, when we all agree X is immoral, then people get punished for doing X, preventing them from doing it. These simple ideas lead to the conclusion if you judge X to be immoral, then you are preventing others from doing something, which is harmful, and so whenever you do judge something immoral, you must, ethically, have a compelling reason for that judgment. If you don’t, you are unethically constraining others’ behavior.

Now, this idea is crucial, I suggested, given moral dumbfounding, the idea that people cannot always justify their moral judgments. So, I suggested, if you are morally dumbfounded – you know, or have the intuition that X is wrong but cannot provide a logical justification – you cannot, ethically, stop there; you must be able to explain and justify your moral judgments that something is wrong.

So then the question is, what do you do when morally dumbfounded? Suppose  you have just read Jon Haidt’s vignette, and you have the deep intuition that incest is wrong. You are willing, for argument’s sake, to grant the hypothetical that no one was harmed, that there was no coercion, and that the sex was non-reproductive. You cannot, however, provide a justification for your moral judgment.

Now, the issue doesn’t have to be incest. The point here is simply to think of anything that you think is wrong but cannot provide a logical and coherent justification for your view. It seems to me that you have a few choices, though others might be possible as well. For the sake of argument, instead of considering the incest case, read the following with something else in mind, such as same-sex marriage.

First, you can simply revise your view. If you try and fail to come up with a principle that you really believe in to justify your judgment that X is wrong, then you can decide that X is not, in fact, wrong after all. There’s no need to feel shy about this. History is replete with examples of things that fluctuate between right and wrong. Right now, marijuana is going from wrong to not wrong in many places, after having gone from not wrong to wrong not all that long ago. It happens. The list of behaviors that used to be considered morally wrong in some time or place but now is not in this time and place is lengthy (homosexuality, inter-racial relationships, consuming alcohol, divorce, lending money, dancing, sex before marriage, to name a very small few from a very large set).

 Second, you can try to think more deeply about your moral principles and try to discover what your principles really say about X. This process can lead you down some interesting roads. Taking the incest example, you might be left with the (morally surprising to many) view that the two characters in the story did not, in fact, do anything wrong. This conclusion will be unsettling to some – though presumably not the Lannisters – who feel that they simply find their intuitions about incest too powerful to allow moral reasoning to have the day.

Now, if you do come up with a principle that justifies the judgment that X is wrong, you must road test it. State the principle as clearly as you can. Now consider all the things that your principle tells you are wrong and all those that are considered right. If you think that the reason that the characters in Haidt’s vignette did something unethical for reason R – it is “unnatural” –  explore what other things R implies are also unethical (e.g., driving).

Now, bear in mind that life and morality are complicated, and many judgments will come down to tradeoffs. Remember, it’s always easy to come up with harm to someone, so restrain yourself from cheating and telling a harm story that is plausible but isn’t really driving your view. Many readers of blogs such as this one can take opposition to same-sex marriage as an example. What did you think of the argument that same-sex argument somehow harmed marriages between the sexes? Probably not much.  

Along the same lines, some situations are so vexing that it’s really hard to figure out how to think about them. Philosophers like to come up with these situations, in part to give our sense of morality a really tough road test. Thus we have the famous Trolley Problem and its variants. Most people think it’s not OK to push the poor person off the footbridge to save five, but are more OK with various other ways of causing the death of one to save five. It’s fine if your moral principles bend and break when faced with such cases. They’re there in part to vex you.

Of course, a third route you can take is to adopt or modify one of your bedrock ethical principles. If you really want to find X to be wrong, but your moral principles as they are won’t let you, well, you could change them. But beware travelling this route. Be sure to road test your new principle to be sure you don’t now condemn something you really don’t want to.

Finally, you can just declare the behavior in question to be an exception. I think this runs into the problem I discussed before – if you allow exceptions, then you can now convince yourself to declare anything immoral – but you could go that route if you wanted.

Now, all of this can be confusing, so I want to end by switching my language from ethics and morality to the simpler language of Good Guy and Bad Guy. (I intend the word “guy” here to be gender neutral. I apologize for this use, but the reason I’m choosing it is because of the role that the word plays in the idioms, Good Guy and Bad Guy. I feel that I would lose rhetorical force if I replaced “guy” with “person” in this context.)

One view is that the two people in Jon Haidt’s vignettes are, in fact, innocents. They are the Good Guys. They are exercising their freedom without harming anyone. They are, to my way of thinking, behaving ethically. In contrast, I take the position that condemning these characters is the act of a Bad Guy. Notice how this flips the script. We think ourselves Good and Noble for condemning the characters, who we view as the Bad Guys, breaking the Rules. This bears close scrutiny.

At the end of last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks gave one of his annual Sidney awards to Helen Andrews for her piece “Shame Storm.” The whole piece – Andrews’, I mean –  is worth a careful read. Discussing online shaming, Andrews writes:

The more online shame cycles you observe, the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie. 

Towards the end of her piece, she talks about solutions to the problem that she sees with online shaming:

The solution, then, is not to try to make shame storms well targeted, but to make it so they happen as infrequently as possible. Editors should refuse to run stories that have no value except humiliation, and readers should refuse to click on them. It is, after all, the moral equivalent of contributing your rock to a public stoning. We should all develop a robust sense of what is and is not any of our business. Shame can be useful—and even necessary—but it is toxic unless a relationship exists between two people first. A Twitter mob is no more a basis for salutary shaming than an actual mob is for reasoned discussion.

It’s really, really important to remember that everyone thinks they’re the good guy. If you are in favor of same-sex marriage, remember that the people who are or were on the other side of the issue aren’t thinking to themselves, “Well, I’m a bad guy, and the bad guy does whatever they can to make sure no one’s happy, so….” Of course not. They think they are motivated by the side of light for whatever reason they have or tell themselves they have. No one joins the online mob because they think that helping destroy another person’s life is the best thing to do with their time. Again, of course not. They see themselves as the virtuous moralist contributing to the common good, holding Andrews, in her case, to account for her supposed sins.

So, ask yourself a key question when you condemn others, whether to yourself, privately, or to others, out loud, whether in a hypothetical vignette, or, as they say these days, irl.

Ask yourself this: are you sure you’re being the Good Guy?

Putting the Moral Back in Moral Dumbfounding

As a kid, just like every other kid, when my parents asked me why I did something bad, occasionally I would answer “just because.” And just like all other parents, my parents did not accept this as an explanation. And imagine if they did.

“Why did you chop down the cherry tree?”

“Just because.”

“Ok, well then, I guess it’s time to get a new cherry tree!”

Parents understand that it’s illogical to accept “just because” as a reason or explanation because, of course, it’s not. And, more concretely, it undermines deterrence. Next time I’m contemplating mischief, I know I can fall back on the (non-)excuse that it was “just because.”

Now, a peculiar thing about the (non-)reason “just because” is that we let ourselves get away with this sometimes.

Many people are familiar with Jon Haidt’s classic work on what he called “moral dumbfounding.” I won’t reproduce it yet again here. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read about it, but the summary is that if you ask people if (harmless, consensual, non-reproductive) incest is morally wrong they’ll generally say that it is, but they won’t be able to give you a principled reason for their view. Just because.

Now, the usual lesson people take from this finding is about how people decide what is right and what is wrong. Moral dumbfounding shows that in such cases, roughly, we haven’t worked through a careful, rational explanation of why we came to that view. It’s “just because.” (If you want to read more, Jon Haidt’s book on the topic is a good place to start.)

I’m not interested in that idea per se, that people use their intuitions to make moral judgments. I’m interested in the next step, the cherry tree part: if you morally condemn something but are unable to produce a principled reason for that judgment, then continuing to condemn that thing is itself unethical.

Maybe it’s obvious that saying “just because” is as bad, or worse, in the case of morality as it is in the cherry tree case. But let’s dig in a bit deeper just to be sure it’s really clear.

When you judge something to be wrong, you are, in essence, trying to prevent people from doing X on pain of punishment. So, in the past, when people said – and they did – that same-sex sexual relationships were “just wrong,” such relationships were prohibited and punished. (Note that in some cases punishment for doing X is and was informal rather than formal – social opprobrium as opposed to jail time – but the argument is the same.) So when you lend your voice (or vote) to the chorus of people who say X is wrong, you are preventing people who want to X from doing so. This perspective shows how important it is to get moral judgments right. Because moral judgments are tools we all use to constrain what others may do, just as in the cherry tree case, “just because” is not a sufficient reason to justify a moral judgment.

Indeed, pushing further, my view is that judging something to be wrong without a justification beyond “just because” is itself unethical. Notice that allowing a non-reason to justify a moral view allows anything to be prevented. If you say that X is “just wrong,” sticking by your view that it’s wrong without being able to provide a reason, what you are saying is that for any X, you are preventing people from Xing if they wish but have no principled reason for doing so. Down this road lies exactly the moral world we don’t want, in which whatever practice people feel like preventing – homosexuality, inter-racial dating, dancing – can be. And anyone who supports moralizing (and so preventing) these practices is complicit in being unethical: preventing people from doing what they wish just because. So, when you are morally dumbfounded and you are content with relying on your intuition that something is wrong, you are saying that you yourself have no particular duty to have an actual reason to try to constrain what other people can do. You are allowing yourself to chop down the cherry tree – and, indeed, other people’s cherry trees – “just because.” That, in my view, is Bad.

Notice that other familiar moral rules, such as those surrounding theft, don’t run into this problem. The principles at work here are the notions of property rights and harm. As a general matter, we believe (in the West) that, foundationally, people have a right to their property, physical and intellectual. Therefore, taking property harms the person – they no longer have the property – and so it is morally wrong. This principle itself lies within a more general set of principles of freedom and harm. People ought to have the freedom to do what they wish with their property (up to certain limits) and that is why theft is a kind of harm – making someone worse off – and so should be prevented.

And on that note, it’s important to bear in mind that reasons to justify moral judgment should be scrutinized. The reason that reasons should be looked at carefully is that people might say that such and such is harmful – because as we’ve just seen, harm is seen as a legitimate justification – but in many cases there is no actual harm, and this reason is simply given as an excuse to justify the moral view.

So, to summarize. First, moral judgments constrain what other people can do. When societies agree that X is morally wrong, people can’t X anymore, or are punished if they do. Second, if we decide that X is wrong and don’t feel the need to provide a principled reason, then we can prevent anyone from doing pretty much anything. Historically, this has led to all kinds of constraints on people’s freedom, as the case of homosexuality shows. This second point is why it’s important to be very skeptical of catch-all reasons, such as appeals to “nature,” religious texts, or (supposed) harm. One can nearly always come up with some plausible reason that others might believe, or find hard to challenge. (In our culture, a religious justification for a moral view is hard to challenge because it is viewed as unethical to challenge others’ religious views. This point makes moral conversations fraught because religious writings can be used to justify a very large array of moral views; religious texts can be “interpreted” in many different ways.)

I’ll discusses some consequences of these arguments in a post I’ll put up shortly.

Note: This entry also appeared at by bog at Psychology Today

The Company Holiday After-Party

Let’s check in again on Nancy and her colleague Diane, who we last saw in a conversation about the ethics of company holiday parties.

               It’s a chilly Thursday evening in Philadelphia, and Nancy is exploring Love Park near City Hall. Seeing Nancy enjoying a mulled wine nearby, she asks if she might join.

               “Of course,” Diane answers.

               “Great! I have been thinking so much about our conversation at the company holiday party. And I think I’m a better person for it, to be honest. I’ve stopped inviting any colleagues to anything outside of work, and I restrained myself from asking anyone to contribute to my son’s school’s drive to raise money for the arts program. I recognize now that it’s coercive and unethical, and I have you to thank for it. It’s weird because my team doesn’t seem all that grateful, but… oh, wait. Is it ethical for us to be having this conversation? I mean, we’re not at work, so if you feel obligated…?”

               Diane smiles wanly. “You really did digest that lesson. I’m happy to see it. And, yes, as soon as you asked if you could join me, there was an ethical issue. But, look, with the echo of the holidays and good cheer all around us, let’s pretend for the moment we’re in a Magical Moral Bubble, just the two of us, and, just for the moment, ethics don’t apply. How’s that?”

               Nancy beams a warm smile, her whole body noticeably relaxing. “That’s wonderful. I’m in.” The two clink their glasses of mulled wine, and a quiet moment of comradery passes.  

               “To be honest, “ Nancy begins, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of our previous discussion. As you know, I studied ethics at Princeton, and I just love these theoretical discussion, even if they don’t really mean anything.”

               Diane’s lips forms a smile, if a little forced.

               Not noticing, Nancy continues, “Here is the part I’m struggling with. Last time you persuaded me that it is unethical for me, as your superior, or the company, as your employer, to ask or invite you to do anything that is not within the scope of your contract because such invitations carry implicit threats if you don’t. Fair enough. But here’s the tricky part. It seems to me that I’m entitled to my personal choices in my personal life. Your argument, as we just discussed, forced us into this bubble. How can it be right that the fact that we work for the same company, Acme Widgets, means that I can’t invite you over to my table for a drink if I see you out? Surely there is an ethical argument to be made here about limits on how working for the same company can constrain my autonomy. You and I agree that the foundation of ethics is the lack of coercion, so isn’t the company coercing me to avoid your friendship?”

               “It might seem that way,” Diane replies, “but no. I agree that individual autonomy is an important, perhaps the important ethical principle. I think we both believe that, everything else equal, people, or companies, cannot restrict what other people may do. (Now, the question of government is another issue, so let’s avoid that for the moment.) The piece that is confusing you is that the invitation constrains my autonomy. Remember our discussion last time. The invitation carries an implicit threat, and the implicit threat diminishes my autonomy because I can’t refuse in the same way that a victim can’t refuse a mugger’s “invitation” to hand over their wallet. So it’s really just a question of your autonomy set against my autonomy. But the key point that’s easy to forget is that you gave part of yours away when you chose to work for Acme Widgets. When we joined the company, we both agreed, as an ethical matter, for the reasons we discussed last time, not to have any non-work social relationships with other people who work at the company.”

               Nancy squints her eyes into tiny lines. “Now that can’t be right. Surely if you want to be my friend and you invited me over, well, that doesn’t run into the problem we discussed last time, that an invitation from me is really a threat, in at least some sense, to you.”

               “It absolutely does. If we weren’t in this bubble, consider the situation I would be in right now. Suppose you were enjoying this debate and I no longer was. I might well feel as if I couldn’t leave because of the professional consequences because you’re my boss. And that’s a problem. An ethical problem.”

               Diane swirls the mulled wine around in her glass, her eyes shifting up and to the side in thought. “So then even if you initiate a friendship outside of work and outside of the office, for me to accept would be unethical? Is that what you’re saying?”

               “Of course. To see it even more clearly, consider what would happen if our friendship grew, but I suddenly, say, developed a new friendship that took all my time. You might come to feel rejected and take it out on me professionally, even if you didn’t do so consciously. If there’s anything our friends in psychology have taught us, it’s the power of implicit biases.”

               Diane nods slowly. “Ok, I see your point. So I guess any two people at different levels in a company can’t ethically have any social relationship, even if it’s mutually consensual, insofar as one is always going to have some formal power over the other. That seems like a bummer.”

               “Oh, it is,” Nancy answers brightly. “But it’s worse than that.”


               “Oh yes,” Nancy continues. “You know Sharon, three cubicles down from mine?”

               “You know that I do. I have been grooming her for my position so that, well, you know why…” Diane trails off.

               “I do indeed. And so does everyone else. And that’s the problem. Suppose that Sharon asked me to, say, go on a nice ski trip for the weekend. Would that be ethical?”

               “I don’t see why not. She’s not your boss, at least not yet, so…”

               “Not yet,” Nancy interrupts. “But we all know that she probably will be soon. She knows that, and I know that, so…”

               “So when she invites you skiing, there’s an implicit threat there too. It’s along the lines of, if you don’t come on the ski trip with me, then I will punish you professionally when I’m your boss.” Diane nods her head sagely. “So really even people at the same level can’t have a social relationship.”

               “Exactly. It’s totally unethical because it’s coercive. You can’t have any non-work interaction with co-workers. But even if you don’t agree with that argument, there’s another ethical problem that makes non-work relationships unethical.”


               “Yes. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that tomorrow, everyone decides that the discussions that you and I have had over the last two blog posts are correct, and now everyone has come to believe that friendships among coworkers outside work are totally unethical.”

               “Ok. I don’t see where this is going, but ok…”

               “Fine,” Diane continues, “Now suppose that on the day after tomorrow I go to your office and tell you that Sharon invited me skiing last week.”

               Diane shrugs noncommittally. “I don’t see the problem. You can’t complain about the invitation because when she invited you, last week, we didn’t think that such relationships were a problem. Therefore Sharon’s actions were ethical at the time under the prior standard. That is, people don’t, as a general matter, condemn or punish others for doing something that was more or less fine at the time, or nearly so, but isn’t now. That makes no sense and would be, in fact, unethical. It would be like passing a law that makes something illegal retroactively and punishing someone for doing it.”

               Nancy nods approvingly. “Exactly. And doing that is such a big no-no the founders put it in the Constitution. Governments – federal or state – can’t pass so-called ex post facto laws.”

               “So we agree,” Diane says. “No one would condemn Sharon for her skiing invitation if it came before the new view of the ethics of such invitations. I mean, nobody of any ethical fiber would condemn someone for breaking a rule that wasn’t in effect when they broke it.”

               Nancy looks Diane straight in the eyes. A moment or two passes. Diane’s brow furrows in confusion. “Diane, can you think of a time when someone you know condemned others for breaking rules that weren’t in effect at the time.”

               Diane begins to shake her head, then stops. “Are you talking about Robert E. Lee?”

               Diane had been a fervent activist for removing any honoring of the general because of his relationship to slavery. “Of course. Or really anyone being reviled for breaking our current moral understanding even if they complied with the ethical rules as they understood them at the time. I’m not saying there isn’t some sort of ethical argument that they should, but I am saying that you don’t know what will be considered unethical in the future. The only way to avoid acting unethically is to restrict yourself to what is in the employment contract. Everything else must be out of bounds. The skiing case is unethical both because Sharon is likely to be my boss, or at least we believe that she might be, and because future norms might make coworker socializing unethical even if it isn’t right now. So, such invitations are completely unethical today.”

               Diane takes the last sip of her mulled wine. “So last time you persuaded me that any social interaction between colleagues of different levels was unethical. And today you’re trying to convince me, with some success, that social interactions between colleagues at the same level is unethical. What’s going to happen next time we get together? Are you going to try to convince me that socializing with anyone in the same business is unethical?”

               “No, not at all.”


               “I’m going to show you that socializing with anyone at all is unethical.”

               A moment of silence passes between them. “Nancy, I don’t think I like you.”

               “I get that a lot.”

               “Happy holidays.”

               “You too.”