Tangents From a Psychologist IV: What Does It Mean to Be Immoral? Jamming, 08/06/2015

Continued from last post . . . But since the last post was on Friday and I can’t seriously expect anyone to remember the details, I’ll give a brief recap. I was, basically, riffing on a small experiment in Dan Ariely’s years-long studies on the psychology of dishonesty, whether the presence of an image of terrifying eyes watching you would promote honest behaviour.

I'm not quite sure if these are the kinds of eyes Ariely used.
I'd be more amused if they were, so I'll imagine them to be.
In an office, there is a subsidy jar, where the workers would throw some change after pouring themselves a cup of coffee or making a fresh pot. An image of horrifying eyes sits on the wall above it, and every act of pouring a drink makes you feel them watching, watching, watching.

So yeah, a little weird if I can take it there. I have what I call a philosophical critique of this psychological experiment. The question isn’t about the design of the experiment, its purpose, or even interpreting its results. It even applies to more than this one experiment – all the experiments he describes in Dishonesty. I’m not sure what I’d call this question, except to say it’s philosophical. That’s all I can think of right now.

When the participants (the people who are being experimented upon) throw in their change, are they really doing it with reference to what is morally right? 

We all agree that it’s immoral to cheat and lie. If we have a setup in our office where employees pitch in a little change – no more than 25¢ per cup – for coffee to subsidize the cost, then it’s cheating to take coffee for free. But that’s not a moral law that exists over and above the agreement for everyone to chip in for coffee subsidies.

The refusal to pay your fair contribution according to the deal doesn’t break any morality over and above that deal. It breaks the deal itself. 

Here’s what I mean. There doesn’t need to be a general instruction or imperative “You should not break your promises and agreements among comrades, friends, neighbours, or co-workers.” There only needs to be those promises and agreements themselves.

See, I've always had kind of a minority position among a lot of the people I’ve known over the years who worked in philosophy. I don’t actually believe in morals as things. I believe in moralities, systems of rules for proper action and assigning responsibility that people create together and manage as historical and social circumstances change. 

But I don’t believe there are such things as moral facts over and above the moralities we build together. I believe that human moralities can only function within some basic constraints, the minimal conditions for people to trust each other. One such constraint is that we’ll follow through on our promises. At least frequently enough that the whole system doesn’t break down.

I admit that this post drifted away from my
original topic of security and surveillance. But
it can be relevant in understanding how to deal
with Edward Snowden and what he revealed
about our governments. A society is only as
strong as its bonds of trust, and the strongest
safeguard of public trust is trustworthy action.
Here’s something I only thought of as I was writing this post. When I was at McMaster, I frequently taught tutorials in undergraduate courses that gave brief introductions to major theories in moral philosophy. One of these was Immanuel Kant’s moral thought.* As we basically introduced his concept of the categorical imperative, we taught it as a tool to identify genuine universal moral laws.

* Now this is a pretty damn complicated set of ideas, because his critical philosophy is an enormous system that deeply integrates morality and the possibility conditions for human knowledge. 

The idea was that if a particular behaviour that breaks a moral injunction were universalized – if literally everybody did it – it wouldn’t even make sense to call the behaviour what it was. The activity contradicts itself logically. The example my frequent teaching supervisor would use is adultery. If everyone cheats on their spouse, then the whole institution of fidelity promises no longer makes sense.

My way of thinking about morality puts a materialist spin on this idea. Instead of adultery, think of a public transit system. Everyone is supposed to pay some kind of fare to use public transit, whether cash, a token, or a pass. That payment subsidizes the whole transit system. 

When you’re drawing up a budget for the transit system, you always expect there to be a few people who sneak onto a vehicle for free. The system’s physical structure (how conspicuous it would be to jump a turnstile, for instance) and enforcement patrols deter people, but some always manage, and so you budget for a few riders who sneak free rides.

The transit system can handle this up to a certain threshold, a tipping point where there simply isn’t enough money coming in to maintain services and labour. This is more than a transit system usually permits, but it’s not the universal disobedience of Kant’s vision. A material limit has nothing to do with logic; it’s about the flows of material necessary to maintain a system in relative harmony.

That’s true of society. A society doesn’t collapse when literally everyone becomes a raging asshole. The collapse comes much sooner than that: when there are just enough raging assholes that they ruin all the good stuff for everyone else. 
• • •
A History Epilogue

I once had a professor with whom I was constantly at loggerheads, and the question of what morality was, was a major conflict (among many others). He thought there were universal moral facts over and above all the moralities we developed, whether as societies or an individual philosophers. And he thought one of the tasks of philosophy was to argue its way toward discovering these truths and proving them unequivocally true. 

One of his common examples of a moral universal that philosophy discovered through argument was about slavery. Philosophy had proven that slavery was univocally wrong, he’d say. 

But I don’t think philosophy proved that slavery was wrong. I think philosophical discussions and traditions helped provoke conversations that showed the immense social, physical, mental, and cultural harms that slavery did. And I think philosophy helped show that you couldn’t be a democrat and believe in slave-holding without hypocrisy. 

Neither of those identifies some universal truth over and above the institutions of slavery or the physical existence of human people and societies. One recognizes how destructive slavery is, and the other proves that two kinds of political belief – democracy and slave holding – are incompatible and can’t be made to combine no matter how hard you try.

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