Flight Papers

feminism and creativity, art, madness, and play

Wrong Things

There’s a somewhat-interesting article in the NYT magazine that’s making the rounds today, in which Steven Pinker describes his theory of the basic components of morality. Pinker is kindof a SCIENTIST!—distinguished from unexlamatory scientists by their propensity to write mass-media books which contain all of: experimentally-collected evidence, their personal theories, little to no connection between the two—and if that’s what you’re looking for, the article doesn’t disappoint. It’s an interesting read anyway, significantly because the article presents a bunch of moral thought experiments, and it’s always funny to see how well your morals align with the supposed norm.

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense.

Which already seems kindof questionable, at least insofar as we’re claiming some kind of instinctual or biological basis for these moral themes. But then, I’m biased—I buy into some of them a lot, and some not at all.

(For the moment, let’s ride right on past how much this feels like it could fit into Dogs somewhere. There’s probably some a bit of there there, at least as far as game mechanics goes, but I don’t think it runs a lot deeper than that.)

Haidt asks us to consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

Stick a pin into your palm.
Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)

Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)

Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)

Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)

Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)

Pinker tells us, “in each pair, the second action feels far more repugnant,” and I’m really glad he does, because I wouldn’t have known. I’m pretty on-board with not pin-sticking a random kid, but the TV? It’s insured! It’s a victimless crime! Saying something bad which I don’t believe is about equally bad wherever I do it, and I really can’t imagine someone I’d have a problem slapping (consensually). The last one is even weirder—I think the second is kindof gross, but I’d actually like to see it, where as the first just sounds painful.

This says, apparently, that I’m much more in tune with Harm and Fairness than I am with Community, Authority, or Purity (I kinda see how you can build a game with this now.) Apparently, this particular breakdown makes me a Typical Liberal, which is an assertion I kindof believe, but I’m not sure what to think about. If you’ve just said that three of your five universal moral themes don’t resonate with a lot of people, what exactly does that do for your theory?

Let’s look at two of Haidt’s stories.

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cook it and eat it for dinner.

This I find pretty repulsive. But this one,

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other.

I find pretty cute—though I also find myself needing to say that no, I don’t want to have sex with my sister. I think that’s a hint as to how we may be pulling out moral implications from these situations. We (or I) believe the second narrative—the storyteller says that everything’s okay, and I find that plausible, because I can imagine people with emotional makeups that make it so. The first one is revolting to me, though, not just because I’m veg (I actually think it would be okay to eat found meat, if perhaps unwise), but because I can’t buy that these are happy people with compassion and the ability to form human relationships who just decided to eat the family dog post-mortem. It seems like there’s something darkly sinister going on behind that—like these are the kinds of people who have been trained or are training themselves to be able to cause harm. And that’s, well, kinda fucked up.

Or maybe I just rolled really high with my Purity of 1, I guess.

(Addendum with my actual stats, determined here: Harm 49, Fairness 48, Loyalty 11, Authority 1, Purity 0. They range from zero to fifty.)

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