I’ve written before about righteous indignation, but haven’t even touched its most peculiar property: asymmetry. Ever wondered why people like me find it easy to feel anger towards Tony Blair, but don’t seem to feel the same towards Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Isn’t this irrational and morally wrong? When one approaches this question with the kind of tools I’ve been using (and developing) here, the question unpacks in surprising ways and ultimately leads me to clearly grasp one of the usually hidden limits of rationality.
Let us start with the problem: there is one peculiar phenomenon that is so ubiquitous as to be considered normal. People, and I mean all people, frequently show an exceptional high degree of variability in their moral standards, depending on who is the subject of their judgements. All sorts of asymmetries do happen. To start, let’s look at myself and the archetypical example I’ve already mentioned.
How do I feel with respect to Tony Blair? I hate him, the very thought of him enrages me and makes my blood pressure rise. I find his persona despicable, and the fact that he is the Middle East (peace?) envoy for the United Nations, European Union, United States, and Russia fills me with outrage. Any other feelings towards the man are obliterated by my righteous indignation, my feelings are (for once) well-defined and direct.
How about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi? Quite the opposite: thinking about him evokes the most peculiar mix of fear, puzzlement, an urge to fight him and even compassion (don’t ask! it would take a long time to explain this one). Why not righteous indignation? Surely the man merits at least the same level of spite that I grant to Blair, right?
Well, yes, but looking at the general picture you will find that it is really hard to identify a single person that doesn’t seem to be afflicted by the same asymmetry of judgements (of course, many would deny that they are, but that’s just straight forward self-judgement blindness). Because this mechanism seems to generalise to humanity as a whole, it becomes legitimate to look for a general answer, not something that applies to me alone; to do so, the usual lens seems appropriate: I’ll use the ideas provided by my exploration of biological sources of morality.
Definition: for the purpose of this post, I’ll define righteous indignation (RI) as the kind of anger that is generated by judging something as deeply immoral.
The hypothesis therefore is that for some reason natural selection may favour the emergence of double standards, and this in turn means that such double standards should somehow be useful for survival. If the latter conjecture is true, does it mean that adopting duplicitous moral standards is a rational or at least rationally-utilitarian choice? My first answer is “Yes”, but a yes that is peppered with so many caveats that it is almost a “No”. In fact, I will ultimately claim that there is no right answer.
First, let’s see the “Yes” part. When the second Iraq war started I was still in Italy, so Blair didn’t represent me (he does now, however). Still, his policy meant that Italy went to war, and as a consequence, my tax money were used to kill people in Iraq (and since then, my money have been used for the purpose of killing people around the world without interruptions). From the pragmatic/utilitarian point of view, it was obvious to many (including me) that the war in Iraq (whatever its excuse and real aim) was not going to eliminate the risks posed by terrorism of the Islamic sort. At best, it could be seen as an effort of containing a clear and present danger, and as such, it was all too easy to predict that the risk would eventually rebound with a vengeance. Eliminating that risk requires to remove the reasons why large portions of Islamic populations hate us (Western people); giving them more reasons to hate us is blatantly counter-productive in the long run. So, in terms of direct straightforward self-interest, Blair’s murderous policies do in fact justify my rage.
Looking at the larger picture, one can recognise that:
a. RI is a feeling that is especially appropriate when directed towards your own leaders. For starters, its effectiveness relies on peer pressure: if enough people direct it against their leaders, it can be (and frequently is) enough to trigger a change in leadership and/or policy. Directing the same feeling towards someone or something that is outside your reach (inside the out-group, or if you prefer, towards the straightforward enemy) is certainly going to be ineffective in this direct sense.
b. If left unchallenged, a foolish, selfish, or corrupt leadership is guaranteed to generate trouble; one may not immediately know how this trouble will materialise, but it’s obvious that having bad leaders is deleterious. Since leadership requires consensus, a complex and inherently social reaction like RI (one could discuss its properties of propagation) is indeed the appropriate reaction.
c. Therefore, when dealing with enemies, the emotions that may bring about the appropriate response are different ones: simple fear, anger, groupishness, belligerence and even disgust, but nothing as sophisticated as righteous indignation. In theory I do have some hope to influence the policies of my leaders on the basis of sound moral arguments; but clearly, the chances that I have to make people like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi act responsibly (by showing how morally repulsive he is) are nil, zero, not in a million years.
So, RI asymmetry is (at this level of analysis) indeed rational, in the sense that it is the most appropriate motivational state to deal with a real problem. However, it is puzzling, because it relies on moral judgement, and a moral judgement that is superfluous when directed towards members of the out-group (e.g not “us”). This second observation justifies the cries of cognitive dissonance that are frequently raised by (somewhat naïve?) rationalists when dealing with moral judgements: “How can you condemn Israel and not Hamas?” (see for example here and here). Of course we employ double standards, that’s because the out-group (the enemy) is morally irrelevant.
Aha, so we can conclude “problem solved”, right? I wish! In fact, the number of situations in which the supposedly irrational (at face level), now rehabilitated (at the second level) asymmetry of moral judgement fails to deliver acceptable results is so high that I wouldn’t dare to ignore it. I will start from an example coming from UK politics. I guess no one will object if I say that the parliamentary expenses scandal was met with a generalised reaction of RI and, as predicted, this indeed generated a change in policies (new rules and checks were implemented) and a change in leadership (a few heads did roll, after all).
Right, does this mean that my interpretation is solid and that I can cut this post short? If only! Look closer: are our MPs and the UK policies even marginally less corrupt as a result? My take is “no, not one inch”. The current parliament is selling off the NHS, sold a profit-generating public company (Royal Mail) at discount prices (thus relinquishing the profit and loosing more money in the process), and members of the current government did exactly the opposite of what they pledged (on tuition fees). Compared to these offences (just three examples of a much longer list), the fact that we previously had to pay for vanity duck houses is simply irrelevant. So here we have another double-standard (we get RI for the expenses, but not for much worse offences perpetrated by the same group of leaders) that prevents to apply the ‘correct’ double-standard (hold our leaders to a high moral standard). Why? I could propose an explanation for the particular case, but my point here is more general. What is RI? how can we define it in sufficiently objective terms? In my interpretation, RI is the consequence of an innate bias, a mechanism that is innate (it was selected-for during evolution) because in the long run reduces the risks associated with bad leadership (see my previous post for the full discussion). It is, in other words, heuristic and irrational (or, to say it with Kahneman a fast, type 1 reaction), and as such can misfire and/or fail to fire when appropriate. In fact, in perfect accordance with my analysis of Taleb’s take on heuristics, it is a good rule of thumb, that usually produces “rational” behaviours, but occasionally generates monsters.
My last example is one of such monsters. I’ll hesitantly use the Palestinian conflict here, knowing that I’ll probably offend all of my readers (for one reason or the other). Was Israel military strategy morally reprehensible? Yes, and in fact, a good proportion of the Western public opinion reacted with RI, as expected. This is because Israel is perceived as close to our in-group and the USA (the centre of our political block) are certainly part of it. No surprise here, and also as expected, RI towards Hamas is scant or absent. Almost everyone does condemn Hamas, but such condemnations usually sound as if they lack the urgency that comes with RI. At first, this looks like an unjustified asymmetry, but looking closer, considering the view I’m proposing here, it makes perfect sense. The Western public opinion has some hope to influence Israel and promote more sensible policies, while it has no chance to mitigate the lust for blood of Hamas, right? Yes, but only if you refuse to look even closer.
Hamas, being cornered and militarily hopeless (in the sense that it has no credible chance to defeat Israel in a conventional conflict), has two immediate and imperative objectives:
1. Make sure most Palestinians harbour a strong, passionate and overwhelming hate for Israel. This is necessary to maintain its political influence at home. It’s a matter of simple self-preservation and is cynically obtained by provoking Israel’s murderous and deleterious reaction that we have just witnessed.
2. Make sure that the strategy chosen to obtain 1. remains viable, and to do so it needs to achieve two secondary aims:
2.1 Israel needs to feel somewhat isolated and forced into over-reacting.
2.2 Nevertheless, Hamas needs to secure enough funds and resources to keep provoking Israel’s over reactions.
Both 2.1 and 2.2 rely at least in part on Western public opinion. If we failed to apply our double standards and suddenly started being violently and compulsively against the Palestinian cause (I’m conflating a bit, for brevity sake), Israel’s public opinion could start believing that less draconian policies may work (having the full weight of the “international community” behind them) and at the same time Hamas would struggle to exploit the constant stream of aid that Western countries (privately and via governments) send to Palestine. Conclusion: the (on second analysis) perfectly rational double standard of our asymmetric moral judgement is, on third analysis, a main enabler of the cynical and barbarically effective strategy of Hamas. Is that monstrous enough for you?
Argh! So RI is irrational, right? Not really: I am quite sure that if I continued this digging process, and went on to the “fourth level of analysis” I would find more and more contradictory conclusions. My hunch is that the question “is the asymmetric nature of RI rational?” does not admit a perfect answer. If we could compute the solution, the computations would never stop (but of course, I can’t demonstrate it). And this is my final aim, I am trying to show why I believe in two important general principles:
- Moral reasoning is not additive. The wrong of one side is not balanced by a right somewhere else. This is because well-being is never the result of a zero-sum game: if I’m well, that doesn’t create the need for someone else to feel terrible, and vice-versa. The two sides of a conflict are frequently both wrong, and that’s that.
- Pure reason can easily fail us, even in the absence of direct mistakes. There are situations where complex questions can’t be answered: they initiate an exercise in futile and virtually bottomless recursion (as the example above hopefully exemplifies). In such cases the “rational” conclusions that we are able to reach depend solely on our own capacity: smarter people will be able to dig deeper, but there is no “rational” reason to believe that the deeper answers are correct.
NOTE: my second conclusion is NOT an argument against reason. To see why, we’ll have to wait for another post.