Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Being moral, being human...

It is probably just my mood of the moment, but I seem to notice more examples of stark contradictions in personal moral decisions.  We don't want government health care, unless we are the recipients (Medicare), for example. The willingness to find ways to explain how others deserve less than us from government or life in general seems to be highlighted right now.

We see this in our ideas about farm policy. Many cry to lower government spending, but certainly not the part we get - just those who are angling for a new handout.

This rather disturbing, but certainly enlightening post by Jonah Lehrer provided some explanation, but little comfort.
The moral of the Just World Hypothesis is that people have a powerful intuition that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. While I’m sure this instinct makes all sorts of social contracts possible, it also leads to one very troubling tendency: we often rationalize injustices away, so that we can maintain our naive belief in a just world. This, I believe, is what happens when we read about innocent people getting sent to Guantanamo, or the wrong immigrant getting waterboarded, or why it’s so easy to brush aside calls for prison reform. We might acknowledge the awfulness of the error, but then quip that he shouldn’t have been hanging around with the Taliban, or that the guy who got sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit was still a creep, or that the Madoff victims should have known their money manager was a fraud. In other words, we act like the subjects in the Lerner experiment blaming the innocent volunteer, as we search for reasons why the wrongfully treated deserved what they got. Subsequent studies have found that people with "a strong tendency to believe in a just world" tend to exhibit certain characteristics: they're much more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. Furthermore,they "feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims." [More]
The Just World Hypothesis seems to be surging to the fore as we all grapple with real threats to our livelihood and lifestyle.  Mostly, I think we are looking for moral cover to allow us to live with self-centered choices we are making concerning our resources and actions.

Too many of us are struggling with a budget that will not allow the generosity we would like to exhibit, for example.  Consequently, when we look at cutting back our giving to any given charity, it helps when our brains provide reasons why we are doing the right thing- other than the real reason: it's every man for himself.  If the recipient can be seen as failing some standard of ethical behavior, we can rest easier.  Even if it's not actually true.

I suspect we will not look back on this time with nostalgia, at least until we've had time to reconstruct the memories in a way that displays our selfishness in a more positive light.


Anonymous said...

Thanks John. Insightful yet pessimistic. Who is more selfish: the person who works for a living and doesn't want to pay another 10% in taxes, or the person who doesn't work and would like to receive another government benefit? I guess it depends on whose definition of "justice" is applied. There is a difference between a "hand-up" and a "hand-out."

Anonymous said...

I would add demographics to this conversation. Quite frankly, the "boomer" generation has set policy and benefited greatly from said policy over the past 20 years. Now, protection of said gains is paramount to this group and your discussion of rationalization is appropriate. My generation will have to support the load for both what has already been given and what will be refused to give back.