Wednesday, February 12, 2014

No, My First Name Ain't 'Baby'.

If you've been reading EE long enough, you may recall me using the term "pedestrian morality" from time to time. I'm not sure I've adequately explained what I mean there, so let me give it a shot now. Pedestrian morality is not formed from high theory, but it may possibly be described by high theory. Pedestrian morality is the workhorse of the moral mind, getting the basic work of "don't steal", "be nice to old people", "honor your obligations", "refrain from lying" and stuff like that done without too much extra effort. Pedestrian morality is useful for most people in most situations. But it's not, to unrepentantly borrow a term from computer science, Aristotle complete. It's not sufficient for the full flowering of human experience, for areté, nor should it be. Pedestrian morality, with its heuristics, its general rules, its aphorisms, and its allegories is an efficiency device: it civilizes cheaply.

So this cringe-inducing piece from Reason and the ongoing row over a controversial art installation at Wellesley got me thinking about the role of disgust in guiding pedestrian morality. Recall that it's something we've discussed before here at EE. But something odd happens to me reading tales of turpitude and corruption. And the something that happens suggests to me that Jon Haidt is either just a wee bit off the mark or that any pretense I have to the little-l "libertarian" label that might stick to my posterior from time to time doesn't actually belong there.

Jonathan Haidt conducts some truly remarkable research. If you're not already familiar with his work, here he is chatting with the Great Russ Roberts on his opus, The Righteous Mind. One of the great pleasures of casually observing his research unfold in the past few years is how he's updated his understanding of how moral intuitions inform political party affiliation, policy preferences, and most importantly, political views. Specifically, I've had the pleasure of watching him move from a very simple moral interpretation of libertarians (something like "libertarians care about liberty/oppression to the exclusion of all other moral dimensions") to a growing acceptance of the power of framing and the possibility of hidden saliency. If you're of the opinion that libertarians don't care about loyalty, for example, you've probably not spent enough time asking one about the career of one Murray Rothbard.

But it's disgust that got me thinking. Foundation #5. Here's an updated version of a quiz you can take to see how you score. Disgust is a belly-deep reaction. It's visceral, atavistic. Loyalty swells in the breast, but disgust is buried below, stirring the bowel to revolt, the gorge to rise. Disgust rejects reason. Again, in the language of economics, the private opportunity cost of corralling disgust is higher than for muzzling fairness sentiments.

And what does the rational animal do when faced with high private opportunity costs? Politics. If thine eye offend thee, why pluck it out when you can beggar thy neighbor to remove the log from your brother's? The path from "I'm offended" to "you can't do that" is short, rational, and leads ultimately to a world where only the blind roam.

Alas, there are no solutions. Only tradeoffs. It's facile of me to say that we shouldn't legislate disgust. The third link up there in the second graf is a tale of "voluntary" cannibalism. That's gross, dudes and dudettes. And as long as some apparatus for imposing force on civil society exists (excepting perhaps the dregs of the Roman emperors at their most depraved), it seems reasonable to expect to find disgust encoded into the law of the land to a greater or lesser degree. That degree itself is likely a function in part of both historical accident and deliberate rhetorical penetration.

I suppose I don't speak for other libertarians, but for myself, the opportunity cost of overcoming my disgust is one I resolutely refuse to foist on others. It's not just because I'm trenchant in my support for freedom of association, it's for the consequentialist reason that the world produced by cheap censorship is one I find hopelessly dull and for the virtue-aspirational reason that my ability to weather objectionable material enriches my character and affords me the opportunity to investigate the breadth of the human experience. Legislating disgust aversion constricts the universe of euvoluntary exchange on what strikes me as a fairly important margin.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?