Is Moral Progress Due to Moral Imagination or Condemnation?

Throughout the nineties, and to some extent in the last decade, there has been a certain brand of political thinker who just can’t imagine the motivation for cruelty. So alien is the concept that these folks (Richard Rorty and Judith Butler, for instance) have developed a deflationary theory of moral philosophy that simply advises us to identify with the Other. Perhaps driven by their emigration to literature and rhetoric departments, they advocated the substitution of fiction (think Precious or Slumdog Millionaire) for ethical inquiry. The novel and the memoir were meant to replace Mill and Kant.

On this topic, my friend Michael Sigrist at Ends of Thought writes that the latest has it wrong. Where Robert Wright and Steve Pinker hold that the moral progress we’ve seen has been due to our growing technological and institutional capacity to imagine ourselves as someone else and to understand that they suffer when we are cruel to them, Sigrist counters that any moral progress can only be attributed to the growth of norms of outrage and condemnation for cruelty. Though I think this is right, I would add that condemnation is a luxury, literally, in the sense that moral progress is a side effect of affluence, and the casualty of poverty.

Sigrist is certainly right in his evaluation of the moral psychology. The theory of moral progress through an ‘enlarged mentality’ enabled by increased access to images and narratives that force us to acknowledge the humanity of the Other is pure bunk. The impetus for decency does not come from imagined access to another’s mental states. Empathy just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

In cruel acts, I take pleasure in the fact that I can empathize with your pain, helplessness and humiliation, I put myself in your shoes, understand that you are suffering, and delight in being the agent of that suffering. Such cruelty is not a failure of moral imagination or empathy, but a result.

That’s obviously true. Cruelty is a pointless waste of effort if the perpetrator doesn’t even acknowledge the suffering she’s causing. Yet we continue to assure ourselves otherwise, because empathy combined with decency is an asset in our culture. We remind ourselves just how incomprehensible cruelty is, and that all evil acts are the result of a kind of ignorance. Thus we fail to comprehend it and are left in the dark about the very phenomenon under investigation. In fact, it’s really our failure to imagine the mindset of the torturer or the genocidaire that allows us to maintain this premise. I find it supremely ironic that proponents of moral imagination are so bad at it. In a way, it’s laudable. We tell ourselves that human beings are basically decent, because we want to signal to ourselves and others just how decent we are.

Unfortunately, I think that Sigrist is a little too Pollyanna-ish in his claim that cruelty has become truly rare, even though Steven Pinker is clearly right that the population-wide incidence has dropped off. Sigrist takes this a bit too far:

Only in the darkest depths of Hitler’s genocide in Eastern Europe or Stalin’s in the Soviet Russian Empire has anything approaching routine standards of ancient cruelty been witnessed by any living human.

This just isn’t true, but the error is illuminating. We don’t see that kind of routine cruelty IN EUROPE except under totalitarian regimes, but this mass cruelty has popped up throughout the globe in the last century with pretty jarring regularity. The genocide of ethnic minorities in Cambodia and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, the brutal genocide of Tutsi minorities in Rwanda, the use of amputation as a terror tactic in Ivory Coast and Somalia, disappearances and political torture in Chile, Argentina, and South Africa, rape camps in Bosnia, the janjaweed in Sudan, our own use of torture in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq. (The worst thing is that in making this list I’m sure I’m leaving things out….)

It doesn’t really make sense for Sigrist to ignore most of these because they’re not acts of out-group cruelty: with the exception of the behavior of the Indonesians in East Timor and our own behavior in Iraq, they seem to prove his thesis: they are all examples of people who have had plenty of opportunities to get to know each other, people who ought, by rights, to have the requisite moral imagination to see that the people they were torturing and killing were human beings who suffered like themselves. Each of these moments are moments in which our condemnations broke down, when new allegiances formed new in-groups, deserving respect and especially revenge, and out-groups against whom acts of cruelty were no longer morally relevant or shameful.

If we’re looking for a generic explanation for these acts of cruelty, we’ll be doing a disservice to each of them, which is something a decent person generally shouldn’t do. But I think we’re obligated by decency to quell our desire to seem decent, and so I’ll repeat my claim (grounded in work done by Paul Collier) that condemnation-free cruelty occurs in transitional democracies where absolute poverty levels are too great:

We so want to believe that elections foster peace that we assume it must be true. Unfortunately, the effect of democracy on the risk of political violence depends on a country’s income. Above $2,700 per capita, democracies are less prone to violence than are autocracies. But most political violence happens in countries where income is far below that threshold; there, democracy is associated with a greater risk of bloodshed.

Rich countries that transition to democratic institutions after having created relative wealth simply don’t treat each other the same way as poor countries forced into elections and allegedly democratic institutions without any of the prerequisites like parties or a public sphere.

One reason that most human rights activists eschew any heavy metaphysics in favor of mobilizing outrage, is that there doesn’t seem to be any non-moral reason for moral obligations not to torture each other. Without a rational basis, we’re thrown back onto the moral imagination, which Sigrist rightly notes oculd just as easily lead to cruelty as decency. If it’s shame that does the work in preventing cruelty, and only condemnation can produce shame, the question is: what produces condemnation? What causes an in-group authority to condemn cruelty against out-group victims without actually inviting them into our in-group? Which comes first, the empathy or the condemnation?

Here it helps to note that all moral imagination theories are not created equal. Martha Nussbaum’s version of the moral imagination, as articulated in her essay “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible,” uses Henry James’ fiction to demonstrate the way in which ethical reasoning begins with examples and particular cases before it can work up to rules and principles. That’s a much better and more subtle claim than Rorty’s assertion that reading novels teaches empathy, but that teaching human rights doesn’t. Thinking about moral questions in a selfish mode leads to the development of principles with an obvious extension to others, and the challenges of generalizing our own rights-demands leads to a willingness to condemn. (This is what we call reflective equilibrium.)

Robert Goodin has also taken a swing at the role of imagination, in his case in the development of adequate prerequisites for democratic deliberation. He proposes a kind of internal dialogue with the imagined Other in his essay “Democratic Deliberation Within,” but he concludes that reading fiction or seeing news reports won’t do nearly the kind of work of actual encounters:

It is obviously far easier to imagine what the world looks like from the perspective of a black person or an immigrant or a person from some religious minority if you actually know people like that personally. [S]ocial mixing… constitutes a necessary first step towards firing the imagination in the ways that ‘democratic deliberation within’ would require.

This is known as the ‘contact theory’ and its been largely discredited in school desegregation, at least in the short term. ‘Social mixing’ doesn’t produce empathy all by itself, and at the margins it appears to exacerbate interracial mistrust. Because group members come to each other as competitors for the scarce resource of respect and deference, with ready-made in-group solidarities in the marked differences of race, national origin, or religious affiliation, predictable game theoretical competition results.

Though contact generally leads to an increase in negative judgments of out-groups, there is some evidence that a properly structured school with opportunities for dialogue may be able to trump the general distrust that attends busing. There is also evidence that affluent school districts where bused students suffer wealth inequalities do much, much worse. The structured opportunity for racial dialogue  requires more than just rubbing elbows, it requires students to exchange reasons and engage in full blown ‘external’ deliberation, and it requires moderation, with condemnation for hate speech so that the opportunities for dialogue don’t really model affective moral imagination at all: they model norm setting and rationality!

Obviously, I side with Habermas in these issues: the prerequisite for decency is a reasonably accessible public sphere where widespread agreement on normative standards can emerge. That space can’t work if participants are weighed down by absolute poverty or massive relative inequality. Deliberation is a luxury, available only in relatively affluent societies, which produces consensus on cruelty as shameful. Recognizing that forces us to confront just how contingent our anti-cruelty feelings really are. Predictably, the contingency of our decency standards is what drives so much of this attempt to identify a middle-ground theory based in moral psychology or speech act theory. The result of all this contingency is also predictable: such middle-ground theories inevitably fail. Without any effort to think consistently about what a right is, rights-claims and the attendant outrage can attach as a free-floating signifier to almost anything, including mutually incommensurable rights. Though deliberation can produce a widespread consensus on the existence of outrageous rights-violations, it ends up asserting a dogmatic overlapping consensus and treating theoretical disagreements, including efforts to point out its contingency, as if they undermine the anti-cruelty standards we’ve bought ourselves with our affluence. The terrible thing about these condemnations of further inquiry is that they just might be right: cruelty is entirely too easy to imagine if you are willing to try.





3 responses to “Is Moral Progress Due to Moral Imagination or Condemnation?”

  1. […] I’ve been writing the last few days on a number of only tenuously related themes: cruelty and torture, probability and prediction markets, testability, middle-range theories, and moral realism. Today […]

  2. Richard Holmes Avatar

    I have only just begun looking into the question of moral progress. This is the best article by far that I have yet enncountered. Thank you very much for the education!

  3. […] only one he thought valid within the bounds of critical reason as it applies itself to history and the prospects of moral progress. Kant’s insight was simple: though human reason searches for a supernatural cause and the […]

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