Philip Zimbardo Interview

Believer Magazine has a very interesting interview with Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the Stanford prison experiment. There’s a lot of great stuff, but I particularly liked Zimbardo’s emphasis of the inertia of institutions:

Yes, even there, you know, what comes out of that is the guilt or innocence of each of the leaders. So tribunals say, “We have the power to put leaders on trial, even though they in fact—none of them actually killed anybody—it’s just they created a policy, they created a system.” But I would hope they would go to the next level and make explicit: “In punishing this person we are really publicly declaring that this ideology produced the crimes against humanity. And so we, as an international body of humanists, of jurists, decry the horrors of this kind of system.” So you’re really sending out a message: it’s the system that’s wrong, and these people helped create it. Hitler helped create it, and Pol Pot.… But once it’s created, once the Stanford Prison Experiment was created, I’m irrelevant. If I had died during the thing, it would have gone on. The guards would have been happier. If Hitler had been killed, the whole thing would have gone on only because it had already corrupted the legal system, the educational system, the business system. With all these mechanisms in place, he became irrelevant. In fact, he would have been a big martyr.

There’s also a lot of talk about the implications of Zimbardo’s situational theory of evil for moral responsibility, how Zimbardo was sucked into the situation and became evil himself, and the war on terror.

Read the whole thing, especially if you enjoy despair.

Moral Monopolies of Church and State

Benito Arruñada has a fascinating post at Organizations and Markets:

Moral codes can be produced and enforced through markets or through organizations. In particular, Catholic theology can be interpreted as a paradigm of the organizational production of morality. In contrast, the dominant moral codes are now produced in something resembling more a market.

The organizational character of Catholicism comes from its centralized production and enforcement of the moral code by theologians and priests and the mediation role played by the Church between God and believers. (…)

Instead of centralized decisions by popes, councils, and theologians, the moral code is now written by millions of human decentralized interactions of all sorts. Now that there are thousands of gods, including the environment, mediation has also been transformed or disappeared. These market features make for lesser specialization. Most morality producers also play many other functions, from teaching to advertising.

Thinking about the production of moral norms in these terms certainly seems like a useful way to approach the problem, but I’m not so sure production is really so decentralized today.

My historical knowledge is weak, but I doubt that the moral authority of the Church was anywhere near complete in even the most ardently Catholic societies. The Church claimed a monopoly on morality, and many people went along with it to a greater or lesser degree. This seems pretty close to what government does today. The state doesn’t simply create laws aimed at resolving the inevitable conflicts among people, but attempts to influence public opinion through various types of propaganda – telling people not to smoke or get drunk and dance, for example.

Of course, government is the emergent (and I would say dysfunctional) product of the decentralized interaction of many individuals, rather than a unitary decision-making entity. I would suggest, though, that this is also true of the Catholic Church. The church claims to derive its authority from God, but the economics of religion teaches us that churches do not survive unless they meet the needs of practitioners. The Catholic Church would not have become so dominant in so many places if it weren’t attuned to the preferences of many people, even if its later market power increased the slack available to the clergy.

Church and state both claim a monopoly over legitimate morality, and have often done so quite successfully. Catholics in Ireland and Italy will almost universally pay lip-service the religious diktat against birth control, for example, and it will affect their behaviour somewhat. The same seems to be true of contemporary government diktats against smoking or getting drunk. The moral scope of the government in Western democracies is probably less than that of the Catholic Church at various times and places, but that scope is endogenous and increasing.

Moral Argument and Political Force

I agree heartily with this from Wendy McElroy:

One danger of arguing for or against a position is that everyone thinks you are saying, “there ought to be a law.”

Take the issue of discrimination on the basis of sex or gender as an example. If you argue against it, people assume you want to prohibit discrimination. If you argue for the right to discriminate, they assume you want to return to Jim Crow laws and force women back to the kitchen.

“There ought to be a law” is the unspoken message underlying much of public discourse. And that message makes people reluctant to listen impartially because agreement might lead to yet another regulation.

On most of the issues I address, my underlying message is “there ought not to be a law.” This is because the issues involve personal ethics, not public policy. The difference: Personal ethics involve moral decisions concerning the use of your own body and property — that is, virtue and vice. Public policy involves those actions that threaten or violate the rights of others — that is, crime.

The problem with politics, of course, is that people use it to express moral distaste, even if they don’t really think the activity they wish to ban should be punishable. When someone says ‘there ought to be a law’ they often don’t mean to say ‘there ought to be a punishment,’ but a punishment is what the political system produces anyway. Democracy, sheesh!

The Morality of Drunk and Drowsy Driving

Driving while sleep deprived can be as dangerous as driving while drunk. Why are drunk drivers treated like the devil incarnate while drowsy drivers barely raise an eyebrow?

There is a reasonable case for having drunk driving illegal and ignoring drowsy driving: since the former is much easier to objectively measure, the cost of enforcement is lower. Legality is not what I’m talking about, though. If I’m at the pub, have had a few and declare that I’m going to drive home, there’s going to be an uproar. How could I do such an irresponsible thing?

If I’m at the office, admit to not having slept in 30 hours, and make the same declaration (perhaps half-joking that I hope to make it home without falling asleep), people might tell me to be careful, but will not attempt to stop me or even question the morality of my decision.

I can think of five possible explanations for this:

1.      People don’t know that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving.

2.      Drinking is a demerit good, and people are thereby more willing to criticize its negative externalities.

3.      People think drink driving is immoral because it is illegal.

4.      People have been inundated with anti-drunk driving propaganda* and have internalized it.

5.      People really feel the same way about drunk and drowsy driving, but criticism of the former is socially sanctioned while that of the latter is not.

I don’t think 1 works, since when I’ve made this argument to people, they’re still inclined to see drunk and drowsy driving as morally asymmetric. They get that look of cognitive dissonance as they realise their moral judgements aren’t entirely consistent. As for 2, I’ve seen the anti-drunk driving reaction among twenty-something New Zealanders many times. This is not a demographic which sees drinking as a demerit good.  

I’m going for some combination of 3, 4 and 5. As a libertarian, this displeases me greatly.

*I wish there were a less morally-charged word for what I mean, but there isn’t. 

How Sincere are Anti-abortionists?

I find this video [hat tip: Francois Tremblay] confusing. Anti-abortion protestors are asked whether abortion should be illegal, and answer in the affirmative. When asked what the punishment should be, however, most say they haven’t thought about it and will not endorse time in prison, or any punishment at all. 

In addition to having a strange conception of what “illegal” means, these people  have something morally very strange going on. At one level they think abortion is murder, yet at another level they clearly see that it’s not. It’s as if they happily see abortion as murder at an abstract level when there is little at stake, but back off once they start to think about the practical consequences of what they propose. They are only being asked about punishment, however, and so there is still nothing at stake. Seems plausible to me that the punishment question puts them in a consequentialist state of mind. 

In one sense, this is heartening for those with liberal values: people aren’t really that willing to impose penalties on women who have abortions. In another sense it’s very worrying: with an appropriately framed policy platform, a political candidate could gain popular support for banning abortion, punishment and all, even if few people actually support punishment. 

The degree to which I favour anarchism just increased by at least .1, though it’s still slightly below .5. A couple more videos like this could well push me over the edge.