Decency, righteousness and the add-more-morality error

By Lorenzo

Having what we might call a moral sense, but which is better called a normative sense, has been basic to the evolutionary success of homo sapiens. The ability to accept, and internalise, constraints on behaviour hugely expands the range of practicable social interactions. Particularly important over the longer run in “scaling up” human social interaction has been the constraint of accepting the right to control specific objects, for that allows exchange to take place. The virtue of exchange is that it permits positive social interactions in the simple swap sense–this thing I have for that thing you have–between individuals with little or no other social connection: an obvious prerequisite for significant “scaling up” of human interaction and resource use.

But the normative sense lowers the costs, and so expands the ambit of, embedded exchange between people with strong social connections, such as those which operated within foraging groups–those who hunt and those who gather sharing the fruits of their labour while shaming or excluding those who attempt to free ride. In other words, normatively constraining aggression–whether active (protection of life and person, blocking theft or deceit) or passive (taking without contributing)–hugely reduces the actual or potential costs of transacting, thereby greatly expanding the range of possible transactions. The increased intensity and extent of socially connected interactions within foraging groups was likely the key arena within which the normative sense evolved due to the high level of interaction and information (pdf) within said groups.

Normative cognition

Expanding the range of social interactions expands both cognitive demands on individuals–particularly the ability to “read others” and to communicate–and increases the return to cognitive ability. If better social cooperation means more children surviving to adulthood, then increased cognitive ability is selected for. Potentially quite strongly. It is likely not accidental that tool using (more specifically tool making) and strikingly swift (in evolutionary terms) cognitive expansion went together. Putting effort into tool making will have rather better returns the more it is embedded within constraints on action (such as accepting tool ownership) that increase the range of, and return on, social interaction.

The interactive expansion of cognition and cooperation pushed homo sapiens across the cognitive threshold of becoming a cultural species: that is, to rely far more on learning and learned patterns than on “hard wired” patterns. The normative sense is about capacities and propensities; that goes with homo sapiens being a cultural species. So it is moulded by experience, example and teaching.

Culture could be used to transmit knowledge and expectations. This also provided a mechanism to transmit norms that did not rely on specific genetic mutations: homo sapiens evolved into permitting social mutation, social diversity. We became a multi-level selection species in a very particular sense beyond that otherwise experienced (pdf) in biology. Human culture built on, directed and, via evolutionary advantage, expanded the normative sense.

Culture exists both as generalised framing (what Anglo-Indian economist Deepak Lal calls cosmological beliefs) and as transmitted techniques (what Lal calls material beliefs). The second, being far more immediately and narrowly instrumental, are more pliable to changes in information and incentives than the first, which is about creating and managing common (or at least sufficiently convergent and coherent) expectations and purposes. Such framings can be so unthinkingly basic to the way folk conceive people and the world that it can be hard to even conceive of people having, let along continuing to be committed to, seriously different framings.

Commerce (exchange) involves beneficial interaction with strangers and people with low social connections. It demonstrably fosters pro-social behaviour. “World religions” (i.e. widespread religions with strong ethical teachings) also foster cooperative norms, particularly (but not only) for fellow-believers. The two factors can work together: it is not surprising that trade routes often spread moralising religions–notably Silk Road Buddhism and Nestorian Christianity as well as Islam in the Malay world.

Norms, by positively or negatively constraining and motivating, are ways for ideas to have great social power. In particular, norms + cognitive abstraction permit generalised notions of status, setting up shared expectations. But status hierarchies can also block various forms of cooperation, as well as discouraging or blocking innovation. The more generalised notions of common status are, the greater the ambit of possible social cooperation and innovation. Shifts from highly hierarchical structures of status to much more generalised notions of status can be expected to have very positive effects on (pdf) social cooperation and innovation. Conversely, shifts in the other direction can be expected to have negative effects on both.

The ability to internalise norms which constrain anti-cooperative, and enjoin cooperative, behaviour is not some incidental side benefit of expanded cognition. It is a fundamental part of the evolutionary process which led to the evolution of (greatly) expanded cognitive capacities. Hence language, face recognition, character reading, agreement, bonding beyond kin: the evolved cognitive consequences that make homo sapiens distinctive in so many ways. Hence homo sapiens having a normative sense.

Normative variation

Though not necessarily universally so having, or to the same intensity. The genetic dice are always being thrown, and patterns of variations in underlying normative tendencies can nevertheless be sufficiently stable to persist. Different cultural and institutional contexts can also have quite different outcomes. For example, given a population of knaves (non-cooperators), saints (always cooperate) and moralists (cooperate but punish non-cooperators), blocking the capacity (pdf) to punish has strong negative effects (pdf) on cooperation as moralists withdraw in the face of unpunished free-riding. Add in churls (those who punish “excessive” cooperators) and, even with the ability to punish, the introduction of such anti-social punishment means that social cooperation plateaus. Social cooperation can clearly achieve stable social equilibria, but there is no reason to presume that such equilibria cannot be maladaptive or exclusionary (i.e. not universal): indeed, the historical records shows both are eminently possible.

Internalised norms, in order to have any effect, have a trumping capacity; that is, they override narrow self-interest: often by simply removing options from consideration. Since that creates the danger of easier exploitation by the normatively challenged, the failure of always-cooperate to become the universal normative posture is not surprising. But it also means that norms have to operate, at least to some extent, as ends-in-themselves, otherwise they are going to fall to “trump” other motives and considerations; they will fail to constrain behaviour in the required ways. It is therefore not surprising that norm fulfilment has the capacity to activate reward centres in the brain.

I have resisted calling this morality and a moral sense because it is quite obvious that homo sapiens can accept a wide range of norms, some of which can lead to dramatically immoral actions. In-group and out-group divisions are, after all, normative.

But, to the extent that we are considering morality and moral commitment, it has been what we might call everyday morality–don’t kill, steal, cheat, etc. What we could also call decency. Not what a Victorian lady might call “decency”, since that had a set of taboos embedded in it that led to treating certain vulnerable groups very badly. Just a commitment to a level of other-regarding constrained and enjoined behaviour towards people in general. This is the morality which is necessary to have any sizeable social order at all.

Generalised, such everyday framing of normative constraints can have a strong utilitarian feel to it. It is not big-U Utilitarianism, as it does not try to reduce morality to a single trumping principle. But, in its other-regarding what-do-folk-want? positively constraining practicality, it can seem very utilitarian.

We could speak of everyday norms as a more general concept extending to patterns of civility or courtesy. But systems of courtesy are a bit more like road rules–highly convenient social lubricants but whose actual content is somewhat path dependent and can be used to signal group membership. As for everyday morality, C S Lewis made a notable attempt to identify common elements across a wide range of ethical traditions. While the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues has attempted to map, via moral foundations theory, basic elements in human moral reasoning. (The current nominations are care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity.)

Normative exclusion

Everyday morality is also a form of morality that people can be, to a greater or lesser extent, excluded from (as they can also be excluded from courtesy). Which is to say, normatively excluded from. One does not understand bigotry (in the sense of moral exclusion) unless one understands it is always and everywhere a moral (or, at least, normative) claim. It is a claim about standing within the moral/normative order; about what behaviour is, or is not, constrained or enjoined towards members of the excluded group. It is always and everywhere a normative status claim. It arises, not from a lack of “morality”, a lack of normative concern but, in a sense, from an excess of it.

In other words, in arguments over moral exclusion, both those for and against a particular moral exclusion think the other side is betraying basic norms, is supporting immorality.

At its most extreme, moral exclusion casts the so-designated entirely outside the circle of moral protections. Alternatively, they might have a narrowed realm of protected action, movement outside of which then strips them of moral protection. They might simply have a lower level of moral protection than others. Whatever the specific pattern, such moral exclusion remains a normative claim, a claim about standing within the moral order. A claim which is, moreover, specific to the excluded group or groups, not a generalised penalty or constraint applying to everyone.

Though such exclusion can sometimes parade itself as a generalised injunction. Sexual taboos in particular can have this form. Injunctions against same-sex activity, for example, looks general but, in fact, it impose wildly divergent penalties–imposing no direct cost on the only-opposite-sex attracted majority but huge costs on the same-sex-attracted minority. (Pretending that sexual attraction is chosen is, of course, a way to evade the huge difference in normative burden.)

Moral exclusions can derive from two origins. One is simply a view that normative (including moral) constraints are based on connection–they apply to kin and tribe and otherwise to those with some personal connection but either not at all, or far less, to outsiders. We can call this limited or narrow morality (pdf). Such exclusion is more a strategy of failure to include rather than one of deliberate and specific exclusion. Tribal and strongly clannish peoples tend to have this type of normative strategy. Confucianism is a philosophically sophisticated version of this normative strategy. A particularly restrictive (even pathological) version of the normative strategy was famously described as amoral familism, though whether it was an accurate social diagnosis is doubtful (pdf).

Alternatively, groups can be actively excluded from normative protections that would otherwise cover them by a process of stigmatisation. Unlike failure to include, such active exclusion requires justification, as it is withdrawing what would otherwise operate. More specifically, it requires stigmatising justification. The more complete the exclusion, the more intense the stigmatising justification required, as the more intensive is the taking-away.

Righteous grandeur

Such deliberate exclusion requires a normative override of everyday norms by something normatively trumping, something with grander normative status. Such an over-arching normative framing we can call grand morality or righteousness.

Grand morality/righteousness is a normative framing that claims some grand, over-arching purpose and status: obedience to God, providing the path to salvation, freeing society from exploitation, or whatever. It can be religious or secular, but regardless of its grounding, such a normative framing claims the right to limit, or otherwise trump, the constraints of everyday morality. Such trumping can, and often does, extend to stigmatising particular groups with various levels of moral exclusion.

The basis for such grand morality, such righteousness, can be as simple as “God says”. It can be done on the basis of defining the “properly human” in ways which explicitly or implicitly excludes groups of humans–for example, definitions of “human flourishing” which exclude the same-sex attracted. It can be done on the basis of theories of what is required for social order. Or on the basis of what is required for a morally trumping conception of social order. Or postulating some inherent malice in the stigmatised group. Or some combination thereof.

Whatever the justification, such exclusion uses the trumping nature of morality to trump morality–to expand the cognitive reach of morality in purposeful claims but, in so doing, open up the possibility of dispensing with the constraints of everyday morality. A classic example of grand morality/righteousness trumping everyday morality/decency is found in Deuteronomy 13:6-11:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known,  gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other),  do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them.  You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

But human history is replete with examples, both religious and secular. Leninism, for example, is a giant exercise in grand morality trumping everyday morality. The Enlightenment, in generating streams of secular grand moralities, did not abolish righteousness, it merely secularised it.

Normative grandeur

It is not surprising that grand morality developed. It marries the ability to abstract, generalise and theorise which goes with expanded cognitive capacities with the normative sense.

Ever since philosopher Karl Jaspers proposed the concept, the Axial Age has been seen as a period of increased sophistication of abstract thought and perspectives. The period saw an upward shift in size of empires (pdf), likely due to the development of disciplined iron-weapon infantry and militarised mounted warfare in the steppes, encouraging more juxtaposition of cultures, and so perspectives. The era saw the development of coinage, which tended to disrupt old social hierarchies and create more fluid social interactions while creating a token-content distinction. Increased trade encouraged more specialisation and more urbanisation, which further encouraged juxtaposition of perspectives and created critical masses of thinkers.

In China, intense inter-state conflict, culminating in the Qin unification, encouraged abstract thought about social order–most famously Confucianism and Legalism. In India, the development of new religious perspectives encouraged abstract thought about cosmic order. In the Greek world, the development of heavy infantry city-states in Greece encouraged the development of that form of social bargaining known as citizenship, which encouraged attention to public persuasion and generated a wider range of political forms, encouraging abstract analysis.

But elements of grand morality are rather older than that. The cosmic-good-versus-cosmic-evil perspective dates back to Zoroaster, who likely lived around 1500BC, which would put him well before the Axial Age. But even older than that, we can see order-versus-chaos perspectives, such as in the Egyptian concept of Maat. With farming societies being susceptible to drought, flood, disease, etc, it is not hard to see how an order-versus-chaos perspective would make sense and frame folks’ hopes and fears.

Hierarchical grandeur

So, more complex social orders are likely to generate systems of grand morality. Particularly as, once one gets hierarchical societies, stories of justification are required–since hierarchies are normative. The constraints of hierarchy have to be internalised to have any strength or stability, so social stratification builds on the normative sense.

Note that being internalised does not require belief, in the sense of cognitive commitment, merely that they be routinised; that folk know what is expected and routinely act upon that expectation. Attempts to turn legitimacy into a descriptive characteristic typically claim too much, turning legitimacy into the analytical equivalent of phlogiston–how do we know a structure of power was regarded as legitimate? People obeyed it. How do we know that people stopped regarding it as legitimate? People stopped obeying it. Nevertheless, that justificatory stories are told in an attempt to get cognitive commitment illustrates the importance of the normative sense in socially-embedded behaviour.

One of the signs of increased social ranking is the switch from egalitarian ritual houses to hierarchical temples. And an effective source of social power and status is to be a gatekeeper of righteousness; someone who specifies what is required by the shared normative order and who is excluded from the same, why and to what degree. A role priests and clerics have taken down the ages and which secular clerisies have also adopted. A Soviet commissar was a gatekeeper of righteousness every bit as much as a Catholic priest, a rabbi or an iman. In the contemporary world, democracies can also throw up bodies that act as would-be gatekeeper’s of righteousness.

Mainstream Islam, by positing a huge moral gulf between believer and unbeliever, is a limited morality with universalist claims. The believer/unbeliever gulf profoundly limits its doctrinal commitment to everyday morality and sells a powerful status claim exulting believers while its complex, revelation-grounded, rules and taboos undermine ordinary moral judgement and reinforce the normative believer/unbeliever gap. Sharia, as the laws of God, sovereign of the universe, make Islamic religious scholars, through the process of fiqh, pervasively gatekeepers of righteousness. Whether mainstream Islam can shed the patriarchal misogyny, the queer- and Jew-hatred, the disdain for the religious “other”, the social imperialism which is so built into its traditional structure is precisely what so many people are currently killing, and being killed, over.

Christianity is grand morality via love God, but everyday-morality-on-steroids in its love thy neighbour as thy self. Hence the development of asterisk Christianity: love thy neighbour as thyself except *(Jews, queers, heretics, … )–add in excluded group as required, as has been perennially done by Christian gatekeepers of righteousness selling believer-virtue.

Normative overkill

The profound difference between everyday morality and righteousness is why adding more morality can be the opposite of a solution to social ills: the greatest crimes in the modern age have been from an excess of moral fervour, not the lack of it. It is far from silly to write of, for example, The Nazi Conscience. The Armenian genocide, the Greek-Pontic and Assyrian genocides were all built on Islamic teachings turning religious difference into a profound normative distinction. While the democides of Leninism were perpetuated by self-identified Left regimes who engaged in mass murdering tyranny in the name of a world-historically grand normative framing. They mass murdered, oppressed and tyrannised not because of a lack of moral purpose and commitment, but because of a grand-morality-trumping-everyday-morality excess of it. Indeed, the denial and excuse-making, the apologetics that occurred about the actions of such regimes within Left-circles in the West were precisely because of the shared commitment to a system of secular righteousness. A pattern which lives on with the memory-hole treatment of that bleak history within large sections of contemporary academe.

Morally deformed individuals dispense with the requirements of everyday morality if it is personally convenient for them to do so. But how do we systematically dispense with the constraints of everyday morality? By trumping it with grand morality. Bigotry is indeed a deforming of everyday morality, but it is invariably based on some sort of grand morality.

So, the grander the moral project, the more everyday morality is likely to be sacrificed in its name.

In the realm of grand morality, of righteousness, one can play a game of normative one-upmanship–our moral project is so much grander than yours. With all the implicit, or explicit, status claim that goes with that. Worse, by exulting righteousness as an all-trumping concern tied to moral status, an upward bidding process can be set in motion whereby each upward righteousness cycle dispenses with another layer of everyday morality. There can also be self-reinforcing networks of righteousness.

Minorities are easy targets for gatekeepers of righteousness, operating either as authority-holders or networks. Sexual and gender minorities particularly, as they are born as isolated individuals in overwhelmingly straight families and social milieus and the differences involved lend themselves so readily to normatively differentiating rules of righteousness that look general but in fact impose massively uneven burdens–effortless virtue for the straight majority, intense burdens on the queer minority. But religious minorities, particular occupations, ethnic minorities, belief minorities–they have all proved easy targets for gatekeepers of righteousness.

Normatively knowing

Being a gatekeeper of righteousness uses a certain form of human capital–education in the system normative framing used. And certain forms of social capital–setting the requirements and policing the membership of social networks.

Possessors of human capital have a long history of seeing themselves as the purveyors of virtue. They may even present (to themselves above all) as the purveyors of “sweetness and light” (capital). In fact, they are possessors of we-know capital, which easily becomes we-know-better-than-you capital, which easily becomes we-are-so-more-knowingly-virtuous-than-you capital. There is nothing more grand, after all, than knowing the “proper” ordering of society and the “proper” direction of history. It is particularly grand if it involves wholesale reconstruction of what currently exists.

By contrast, commerce generates no inherent tendency to care about grand morality, but operates in the realm of everyday morality. (Despite perennial claims to the contrary, market integration is actually generally a moral positive, fostering social cooperation.) Even the charity commerce finances is typically everyday morality writ somewhat larger.

Alas, commerce’s indifference is, in many ways, the worst possible insult to the proponents of self-evidently-so-important grand morality. While the dynamism of commerce threatens the inherently static nature of Virtue orders (with none being more static than income equality). Hence the millennia long disdain by “virtuous” intellectuals for “grubby” commerce.

Grounding purpose

But it is not only a delusion that adding morality is automatically a social positive, though a very useful delusion for status-building and seizing social power. There is a more basic problem–norms may have to operate as ends-in-themselves but they are not as fundamental as they present.

The point of the normative sense is to permit social cooperation in an expanded social order. Morality is not the most important thing in the world: having something to be moral about is more important.

Yes, morality is necessary to have a social order of any size or complexity—but everyday morality (don’t kill, steal, assault, etc). Grand morality (or righteousness) is often about over-riding everyday morality. In claiming to fulfil the “true” normative purpose, it often damages, limits or abolishes normative protections. In its trumping of ends, it corrupts means.

The core of morality is not about purposes, not even grand purposes, but about constraining the means we use to achieve whatever purposes we have. For our ends may never be achieved but the means we choose affect others very directly. Hence the problem with grand morality—it uses its trumping grand purpose to justifying brushing aside normative constraints: it subverts the core of morality in the name of morality.  As C S Lewis noted:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

No, adding more morality is not an automatic social gain. Indeed, it can be very much a matter of grave harm and profound social loss.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *