Moral Dumbfounding

An excerpt from Mob Morality: The Dangers of Repugnance as Moral Authority by Tauriq Moosa on 3QD:

"Jonathan Haidt famously provided the following example in a study.

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that? Was it ok for them to make love?

Haidt, in an interview, explained the responses of subjects reaching ‘moral dumbfounding’:

People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons. And so in some of the videotapes you can see, they start laughing. But it’s not an “it’s so funny” laugh. It’s more of a nervous-embarrassment puzzled laugh. So it’s a cognitive state where you “know” that something is morally wrong, but you can’t find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what’s wrong, you just say: “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong.” So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes."

Comments

Komal said…
'Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.'

I agree fully with this, but I don't agree with the inference from this to the conclusion that such views are irrational. I believe incest is wrong, and I believe my intuitive sense of aversion to it is a good enough reason for me to believe it's wrong.

The intuitive sense is often the beginning, being followed by an investigation into the source of the intuition. With incest it probably comes from the trust we have with our family, which is a particular kind of intimacy that does not involve sex. Sex amounts to a violation of that trust. We would all feel extremely uncomfortable at the thought of sexual contact with some member of our family, and if the incest-committing people do not feel it, then this indicates that their affective/emotional processes are seriously f***ed up.
Awais Aftab said…
I think that intuitions can be extremely unreliable, when it comes to such matters. The opposition of many people to homosexuality is precisely that, based on an intuition.

We would all feel extremely uncomfortable at the thought of sexual contact with some member of our family, and if the incest-committing people do not feel it, then this indicates that their affective/emotional processes are seriously f***ed up.

I am sure the same has been said about homosexuals at some point or another. Just replace 'member of our family' with 'member of the same sex'. Not a good argument for me.
Komal said…
I knew the homosexuality counterexample would come up.

There isn't much of an intuition against homosexuality. It's not widespread, and one can easily see how it comes from a patriarchal way of thinking (homosexuality defies gender roles, which patriarchal-minded people don't like).

There may be (in fact, there probably are) qualitative differences between the 'disgust' people feel when it comes to homosexuality and what they feel when it comes to incest. This would require some phenomenological investigation.

You can't use the same violation-of-trust argument with homosexuality either. It doesn't involve a violation of trust, clearly, and a lot of people are not averse to it. Your average person in the West, who isn't a religious nut, is not averse to homosexuality at all.

I guess my point was that even though the giving of reasons is good, I don't think it's necessary. This is because there could be a good reason that one just has not been able to articulate.
Komal said…
So, to put it more orderly (it should technically be 'orderlily' but I'll let it go :P), my position on this is the following:

A sense of repugnance, disgust or aversion may indicate an underlying legitimate moral principle and/or virtue, or not. For a sufficiently introspective person, it is enough to see where the feeling is coming from.

As a virtue ethicist, I believe moral principles are articulations of universal facts to do with human and Divine nature. So if something genuinely is immoral, and the repugnance we feel is coming from a good inner state (from a virtuous emotion/inner state), then it ought to be articulable in a principled way. However, it isn't always articulable -- or at least, it isn't always articulated -- since not everybody is capable of 'converting' their inner experiences to moral principles in the proper way, and it's possible that nobody is in some cases (or that nobody has been so far).

One analogy that might be useful here is that of belief in God. Many people -- probably the majority -- have an intuitive sense of God's existence that they cannot account for, and often cannot even properly articulate. Thus, they call this 'faith', and atheists (rightly) condemn the stupidity of the idea. But it is not likely to be faith, at least not in all cases, but is likely to be innate knowledge written into our hearts. There may be subtle spiritual intuitions that such individuals are having, that they just haven't introspected enough to know about, and in that condition they say that their intuition is in fact an example of belief without evidence.
ahish said…
@Komal
Your arguments are still weak.
Homophobia exists in non-patriarchal societies too. Qualitative differences in disgust can be measured no doubt but the point here is the existence of 'disgust' without justification, irrespective of its intensity. I speculate qualitative differences will not be uniform across different societies as it would be largely dependent of existing cultural norms. Such studies have been done on other issues (sex with animals) and cited in for example prof.Singer's essay: http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/2001----.htm ; which Moosa himself cites.

An alternate explanation could be that for a long period in history sex was considered only for 'procreational' purposes and hence an intrinsic disgust for incest developed evolutionarily as it leads to genetic abnormalities. But today with the availability of condoms and contraceptives the notion that sex can be 'recreational' is widely being accepted. This conflicts with our evolutionary intuitions manifesting in repugnance.

What do you think?
Awais Aftab said…
There are moral judgments based on 'intuitions' and there are moral judgments based on some sort of reason. The two may over-lap or the two may not over-lap.

Sense of repugnance, disgust or aversion is much more likely to spring from factors that are psychosocial and which are afterwards secondarily rationalized. Therefore, repugnance in itself can not be a good reason for moral judgment. To believe otherwise is to let the erroneous intuitions continue to exist, beyond all criticism. Moral judgment ought to be always based on some sort of reason, if it is to be taken seriously.

A sense of repugnance, disgust or aversion may indicate an underlying legitimate moral principle and/or virtue, or not.

I do not deny that it may indicate an underlying moral principle, but I believe that this sense of repugnance in itself can not be a good enough reason for us to condemn anything.

And I believe that the current difference in intuitions regarding homosexuality and incest is vastly a difference of social norms. I can easily imagine a society where incest can be as prevalent and as widely accepted as homosexuality is today.
F. said…
"I can easily imagine a society where incest can be as prevalent and as widely accepted as homosexuality is today."

Reminds me of Ancient Egypt.

Anyway, aside from the discussion: I've come to the conclusion I have very few 'morals' left, only musings and curiosity and a dash of hedonism thrown in.
stumblingmystic said…
Well, I agree that *emotional* aversion is not a valid source of moral judgments. However, it's easy to see why the incest taboo has been universal. Not only are there power differentials between parents and children that would lead to some seriously messed up emotional dynamics if sex came into the picture, there are also often power hierarchies between siblings that would mean that sex between them would also lead to major issues.

Don't forget that children are pretty much emotionally at the mercy of their parents and siblings and that leads to a certain type of family dynamic, one that is wracked with emotional co-dependency from the get-go. The family unit is where you are stuck until you are old enough to move out and there is nothing that can be done about that. There is an element of powerlessness inherently involved in your attachment to a family unit, which is why a non-family member is almost always going to be a more appropriate person to have a romantic/sexual relationship with. This is true of parents and children, but it's also true of siblings, with weaker siblings almost always being under the grip of more domineering siblings.

A major developmental task for adolescents and young adults is to emotionally individuate from their families, to cut off the "emotional umbilical" cord, as it were, in order to stabilize as emotionally healthy individuals and adults. This task is hard enough as it is. Can you imagine how much harder it would be if someone were having sex with their family members? It's easy to see why incest would lead to emotional chaos, and has been uniformly forbidden. The taboo against homosexuality has actually NOT been that universal, with many societies (Greeks, Romans, Japanese, Persians, etc.) openly allowing and even elevating male-male love.

A huge problem with people today is that they simply don't realize what sex is. Sex involves letting down your emotional defenses/boundaries for a short period of time to experience a temporary and utterly illusory sense of "merging" with another individual. Illusory because you ultimately have to separate and re-individuate and realize that you never actually "merged" with that person. Sex is an inherently dangerous activity for this reason, and it needs to be carried out with an appropriate person in an appropriate relationship.

There is a reason why the modern fiat has been that sex is something you only have with someone who is a consenting, emotionally stable, independent adult individual who sees you as an equal and does not seek out a co-dependent familial dynamic with you. That's because anything else has led to horrific amounts of abuse and emotional damage throughout history.

There is no doubt in my mind that with incestuous sex acts, the risk of emotional damage is very high.

Could there be a case of an incestuous relationship where there is no emotional abuse going on? Perhaps, if, for instance, this is a relationship between siblings reared apart who never knew each other while growing up. I would be open to that, but as a general rule, the incest taboo is one on solid ground I would say.
stumblingmystic said…
And if you look at my description of what sex actually involves -- a loss of emotional boundaries -- you can also see why, in our egalitarian age, pederasty, pedophilia, and beastiality are also acts guaranteed to lead to a certain degree of emotional chaos or emotional indignity.

Peter Singer's pro-beastiality arguments were ridiculous, btw. If you accept the basic idea that biologically evolved passions need to be ennobled, that such ennoblement, as it were, is the hallmark of civilization, then it is obvious why sex should be restricted to an appropriate amount in an appropriate relationship with an adult human being who is an equal. How could you possibly work on ennobling your biological impulses in a sexual relationship with an animal, or whatever?

In our postmodern, sexually narcissistic age, the entire problem is that people have forgotten that the sex act leads to a temporary loss of emotional boundaries. Let's be very clear about what we're doing when we have sex: we're consenting to temporarily lose our sense of individuality in what is ultimately a kind of undignified act. That doesn't mean everyone ought to be celibate, just that societies have tried to regulate sex for a reason. That we can do so a bit more justly in our age -- for instance by the inclusion of gay/lesbian relationships -- is great, but that doesn't mean the social regulation of sex-activity needs to be stopped altogether.

An interesting discussion on this topic from Dan Savage, who is a gay male sex therapist who is okay with most sex activities but not incest (I don't usually like Dan, but he's spot-on here):
http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/SavageLove?oid=11500&view=comments

He writes:

'What you don't seem to understand, SAY, is that the incest taboo is all about protecting people from the abuse of trust and power. All families--even the healthiest families--are swept by swirling currents of obligation, guilt, mind games, and emotional blackmail. How can children--even adult children--freely consent to sex with their parents? Likewise, older or more domineering siblings can hold enormous power over their brothers and sisters. How does one divine consent when one sibling is having sex with another, or a son is having sex with his mother, or a father is having sex with his daughter? In those situations it's simply impossible to define where "family life" ends and "consent" begins.'

In summary, my argument here is more of a developmental psychologist's perspective on the need for children to emotionally individuate from their families, which is something that they'll never be able to do if they're being drawn into incestuous relationships with family members. From this point of view, there is no possible way you can compare incest to adult, consensual same-sex relationships between unrelated individuals.
stumblingmystic said…
["I can easily imagine a society where incest can be as prevalent and as widely accepted as homosexuality is today."

Reminds me of Ancient Egypt.]

Many genetically transmitted diseases were commonplace in Ancient Egypt because they practiced incest.

Apart from that, Ancient Egypt, like many premodern civilizations, was harsh, cruel and hierarchical. Violence against women and children was commonplace. And the practice of incest was related to a tribal mentality and to maintaining kinship ties within the royal family.

Again, please don't forget that childhood and adolescence are vastly extended developmental periods in our age, and that the recognition of the developing child and adolescent as having completely different needs from adults is a totally modern idea. In premodern times, children were seen as "little adults". We're living in an age that recognizes the emotional needs of children to an extent that has probably never been recognized before. Emotional individuation is a major developmental task in modern individualistic societies and such individuation is the only thing that can be the basis of a liberal democracy.

I think that in our age the fiat has clearly gone out for consensual adult relationships between healthy individuals as the only valid model in liberal democracies and this model makes a lot of sense given the way our societies are currently structured.
stumblingmystic said…
On a side note, one final point I want to make is that the legalization of same-sex marriage is the *logical consequence* of de-gendering heterosexual marriage. That is why Western liberal democracies have begun to recognize same-sex marriages.

Once you give men and women, husbands and wives, equal civil rights, and once the law makes no distinction between spouses in a marital relationship based on their biological sex, then you've effectively de-gendered marriage and same-sex marriage was bound to follow that if you were no longer going to make any special legal distinctions between men and women.

There is an interesting legal dossier on why same-sex marriage got legalized so easily in Canada, but, say, polygamy has not been:
http://www.creum.umontreal.ca/IMG/pdf_04_Vol.2N1_Leckey.pdf
Komal said…
Awais, you seem to have ignored what I said. Read it again.
Komal said…
Awais,

Did you say you were interested in mysticism?

Because this: "Sense of repugnance, disgust or aversion is much more likely to spring from factors that are psychosocial and which are afterwards secondarily rationalized," is almost totally incompatible with mysticism, at least with the Integral Yoga.

Anyway, read my comment again, because you didn't address it.
stumblingmystic said…
'Because this: "Sense of repugnance, disgust or aversion is much more likely to spring from factors that are psychosocial and which are afterwards secondarily rationalized," is almost totally incompatible with mysticism, at least with the Integral Yoga.'

Um, I disagree completely with this. A sense of repugnance is a vital movement, an emotional recoiling, and is something that yogis should be completely liberated from. A yogi's moral intuitions would always come from the higher intellect, totally undisturbed by the vital emotions. In fact, a major task that Sri Aurobindo describes in The Synthesis of Yoga is the need to separate the vital emotions from the functioning of the higher intellect or buddhi. The buddhi is ideally supposed to be functioning in a totally impersonal manner, without any emotional biases or preconceived moral prejudices whatsoever.

I'm with Awais on this.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Komal

Sorry about that :)

So if something genuinely is immoral, and the repugnance we feel is coming from a good inner state (from a virtuous emotion/inner state), then it ought to be articulable in a principled way. However, it isn't always articulable -- or at least, it isn't always articulated -- since not everybody is capable of 'converting' their inner experiences to moral principles in the proper way, and it's possible that nobody is in some cases (or that nobody has been so far).

I think that repugnance can be associated with underlying moral principles that the particular person believes in, and it may be so that he is incapable of articulating those beliefs. However, unless those underlying beliefs are articulated, we can never really know whether they are correct or not. So the inarticulate beliefs may be correct, but we have no way of knowing so, and therefore it is rational to be skeptical, or at least cautious, about it. Telling people to trust their sense of repugnance whether or not they can articulate "why" is to allow all sorts of erroneous judgments that would have been prevented if we had insisted on articulable principles. Furthermore, we have great observational evidence to believe that people's intuitions are erroneously influenced.

There may be subtle spiritual intuitions that such individuals are having, that they just haven't introspected enough to know about

Then we should tell them to introspect more, not to blindly follow their intuitions.
Awais Aftab said…
@ stumblingmystic

If you are right (which I think you are, because it makes sense) that incest causes demonstrable emotional harm, then yes, we have a genuine reason to discourage incestual relationships.

The interesting thing is that the scenario given by Jonathan Haidt insists that no harm came out of that incestual, and it is difficult to say what harm can be said to have occurred in that particular scenario, though much can be said about incest in general.
Komal said…
Awais,

Ok, I don't disagree with what you're saying. Though I don't believe people should blindly follow their intuitions (which you implied I believe).
stumblingmystic said…
@Awais --

"The interesting thing is that the scenario given by Jonathan Haidt insists that no harm came out of that incestual, and it is difficult to say what harm can be said to have occurred in that particular scenario, though much can be said about incest in general."

That's fine, like I said, I'm open to the idea that one or two incestuous encounters might not be all that damaging. I actually felt no moral disgust or revulsion reading this story. I'm also open to the idea that siblings raised apart who meet could have reasonably healthy relationships. As a general rule, I think the incest taboo is a good one.

Consider the following case of an incestuous brother-sister couple:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6424337.stm
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/tainted-love-are-we-wrong-to-treat-incest-as-a-taboo-438707.html

It's an interesting case, though, because it seems the sister in this relationship is intellectually less developed than the brother. The two were separated at birth and it seems to be a classic case of genetic sexual attraction. Their children, however, have suffered genetically -- which is always going to be problem in incestuous heterosexual pairings.

"However, there have been suggestions that Patrick and Susan's relationship is not a good case for legalising incest in Germany.

Three of the couple's four children have been taken into care. Some who have met the couple describe Susan as mentally subnormal; others believe her to be under her brother's bullying manipulative spell."
F. said…
stumblingmystic said...

["I can easily imagine a society where incest can be as prevalent and as widely accepted as homosexuality is today."

Reminds me of Ancient Egypt.]

Many genetically transmitted diseases were commonplace in Ancient Egypt because they practiced incest...


Incest in Ancient Egypt: harmless, no; widely accepted, yes.

stumblingmystic said...
That's fine, like I said, I'm open to the idea that one or two incestuous encounters might not be all that damaging. I actually felt no moral disgust or revulsion reading this story. I'm also open to the idea that siblings raised apart who meet could have reasonably healthy relationships. As a general rule, I think the incest taboo is a good one.


That's how I feel about this issue too.