One place where the vast majority of human beings fall short of attaining full Homo economicus status is in the perseverance of sanctity, for certain values or objects; for example, the protection of children, the value of human life, and the evil of inflicting pain for its own sake. And the conclusion of this post is troubling from a rationalist, post-Enlightenment standpoint: that it's exactly our most critical values where reason fails, and indeed, must fail if those values are to be preserved. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt points out that sacredness is one of the six moral foundations of human beings, whether or not we think of it in religious or secular terms.
Please note: to make my point I need to provoke an emotional reaction in you, the reader, so it's going to get a little rough when I violate universally sacred values.
A good working definition of sacredness (in a religious sense or otherwise) is for an object or value to meet at least one of these two conditions:
1) Its truth or necessity cannot be questioned. To do so is to cause moral outrage, and a dramatic devaluing of the questioner's perceived moral character. (Hence my disclaimer above, even though I'm clearly speaking in the abstract.)
2) The object or value cannot be involved in transactional discussions, with either non-sacred or other sacred values and to do so is morally outrageous; questions of valuation or exchange are off the table. (More of a sacred value violation is worse than less of the same sacred value violation, but comparisons between two different sacred values are outrageous.) In other words, "you can't put a price on [sacred value]."
These both really boil down to this: if something does not admit of utility calculations, it's sacred. (Questioning why calculations aren't allowed is a meta-calculation that is also forbidden.)
A concrete example of the first qualification: why is it wrong to torture and kill children? If somebody wants to, why shouldn't they? Maybe right now you're reading a blog and your frontal lobe is keeping you from calling me a monster for even asking that, and maybe you defended yourself against the flash of outrage by assuming I'm asking to make a point - but imagine a stranger asking you this earnestly tomorrow, in person, and really pressing you on it. I don't think you'd feel compelled to think of an explanation. For my part (and don't be a jerk and quote this out of context!) in the utility-based rationally self-optimizing way I tend to think (deliberately) about morality and decision-making, I cannot explain why it would not be okay for a sadistic psychopath to do exactly that, if they derived pleasure from it and wouldn't get caught. Obviously I feel that it's about the worst thing you can do. My logical shortcoming does not cause me to reconsider my position on the matter (even for a second), but rather to call my moral theory incomplete. I wouldn't do it or allow it to happen for all the money in the world, and I'm not interested even in being influenced in that direction for all the money in the world. There's no calculation going on around it. To me, it's sacred.
A concrete example of the second qualification: how much would that person have to pay you to torture and kill a child? You would refuse to put a price on it and would likely be offended by the question. You also would likely not want to get involved in a discussion of the relative evil of torturing and killing children, versus deliberately infecting people with AIDS. (10 AIDS to 1 torture-murder? 12 to 1? Come on, there has to be some exchange rate!) So there's just not going to be any talk about relative value. Interestingly, sacred objects do allow comparisons between units of the same sacred-value-violation (obviously it's worse to torture and kill two children than one) but there's no comparison allowed between different types of sacred-value-violations. Of course the world does not always respect our moral categories, and in point of fact when people are put in a situation where they do have to choose between sacred value violations, they suffer badly, but their heads don't smoke and sputter like broken computers; they clearly are capable of making such calculations. In Sophie's Choice, a movie that depresses me just from hearing about it (I haven't seen it and I won't) a concentration camp guard forces a woman to choose which of her two children is taken to the ovens (or if she won't choose, he'll take both). And she finally chooses, much to her bereavement of course.
A way to think about decision-making and morality is to assign utility values to things. We look at utility lost and gained and sometimes we sacrifice utility now as an investment for utility later (as I will in a few minutes when I go back to studying).
But consideration of sacred values is nothing like this. In line with property #1, it's not that the possibility of transgressing a sacred value even crosses our minds in the first place if only to be immediately rejected: "You know, this kid that woke me up in the morning by playing outside my window really made me mad. It would give X amount of utility to get out my frustrations right now and also know that I'll be able to sleep in from now on, if only I torture and kill this kid, and I even know a way to do it without getting caught. But no, I would actually feel so bad about it that I would have infinitely negative utility, so it works out in favor of non torture-murder." That's not what happens. And in keeping with property #2, though it's a dark and sad thing to say, such an act might be one of the worst things imaginable but it's still not really infinitely bad. (If it was infinite, two such violations wouldn't be detectably worse than one.) Of course it's not just child torture-murder that's not within the realm of possible deliberation, but most of our moral values, which were programmed early in life and which give us flashes of disgust or happiness, mostly quite beyond our control to change.
It's worth pointing out that the classic infinite negative utility scenario philosophers discuss is being damned to Hell as in Pascal's wager, a fate literally worse than death if you believe in Hell. But the experience of considering the horrible actions I discussed above is very different than the Pascal's wager consideration. When you imagine suffering in Hell forever, you imagine feeling bad and you become afraid. It doesn't go that far when violating a taboo is suggested to you - you don't picture, as did the moral reasoner in the previous paragraph, the way you would feel if you did such a thing, you just don't even for a second consider it.
Someone who is really making utility calculations about their decisions would not behave in this way. It's as if you're in a "possible actions store", with certain actions on a display shelf, not for sale. If we were really performing "moral reasoning" of some kind, we would at least be entertaining these not-for-sale actions, even if we never did them. The problem is that conscious, frontal-lobe based utility calculations (however they're performed) do tend to be corrosive to traditional values, because utility calculations are effective at creating successful novel actions - and this corrosion in traditional values is frequently effected through markets, once sacred objects or acts have been assigned a commensurable value. Markets are aggregates of utility-based decisions that accumulate massive power to influence actions.
This may explain why people who are otherwise very pro-free-market find market infiltration into certain arenas (especially traditional culture) to be extremely offensive - because now the tradition is subject to utility calculations, and it will surely change, and quickly. The commercialization of Christmas is an excellent example. But the clash of values in healthcare, both in patient perceptions as well as for practitioners, is a much larger and more profound one. (Philosophers like to talk about utility in hypothetical units of "utilons", but in the real world, there actually is a unit of utility that healthcare organizations and policymakers use, the QALY, quality-adjusted life year. You don't want to assign relative values for treating AIDS and cancer? Too bad, because your government is doing it at this very moment, in the real world. Of note, some QALY tables for diseases do recognize fates worse than death, although they still don't assign infinite negative utility. Incidentally I imagine that the committees that build these tables are Sarah Palin's "death panels".)
Once those values are "for sale" - once they enter into the realm of conscious deliberation and value-assignment - they're almost certainly not going back to the display shelf. In a brilliant aside in Predictably Irrational Dan Ariely makes several observations about exactly this problem, in the commoditization of social relationships, particularly by banks.
The following might at first seem a strange observation for a self-described libertarian to be making, but for those of us who think the market (and reason) is usually the best method for increasing utility, it behooves us to understand it, warts and all. Haidt later noted that the business school students he taught (and collected surveys from) were on average low in every one of the six moral foundations he describes, in terms of how their values were influenced. These are individuals who do in fact act out of rational self-interest - they're members of Homo economicus for which everything is for sale, and nothing is sacred. What's more, a study has shown that low empathy predicts utilitarian judgment. (Do note the categories there: if you have low empathy you're more likely to be utilitarian. No word on whether utilitarianism predicts low empathy.)
But my concern is not that eventually all businesspeople (and everyone else) will be lured by utility calculations into becoming child murderers. Some of our sacred values are likely to be very biologically innate, and others taught. Given its universality, protecting children is probably strongly innate. Others, for example treating certain religious or national symbols with respect, are learned and likely subject to erosion over time. The bigger question is what this does over time to our ability to cooperate and sub-optimize over the long-term.
(More interesting relationships between pre-rational neurology and moral behavior here.)
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