Sources of error: the twisted rationality of double standards

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.

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Posted in Ethics, Politics, Stupidity
8 comments on “Sources of error: the twisted rationality of double standards
  1. I don’t really understand the problem you are describing. I think my issue is that I don’t view assigning moral blame as something that is done toward individuals in isolation from their history and society. The prototypical example of this is questions of racism, sexism, and other negative views of disadvantaged groups. There is a good argument to be made that in white-dominated societies, you simply can’t be racist (or it is much harder to do so) against white people; or that you can’t be sexist (or it is much harder to do so) against men. This is because those groups are already privileged with power, so applying the ‘same’ standard to them allows them to continue to entrench their power. A lot has been written on this, and I am not familiar with most of it, but I think that feminist thought is where one should turn to appreciate this question more.

    I will try to to illustrate the ‘same standard’ with a less emotionally charged example. [As a side note, I am not sure if it is worthwhile to develop your philosophy in such an emotionally charged setting as your current post, because there are too many tangents to distract from clear thought].

    It is relatively obvious that the idea of ‘fairness’ is a difficult one, and in many ways embedded in the structure of our times and society. However, a lot of people think that ‘equality’ is somehow objective, and I will argue that it very much is not. Hopefully it is clear that this is not tangential to your post, since in order to see something as a “double standard”, you have to see an ‘unequal’ treatment of to people in an ‘equal’ context.

    Consider the following two laws:
    [1] “If you punch a man then you will be fined $100”, and
    [2] “If you punch a man then you will be fined 10% of your weekly income.”

    Which of these laws is more fair? Which is more equal? Consider two individuals, one that is (western) destitute and maybe earns $100 a week, and another wealthy earning $10,000 a week. The two men are in a fight (completely unclear who started it) and each punches the other once (at the same time). Are they treated equally under the law if they are each fined $100 (100% of weekly income for one, 1% for the other)? Or are they treated equally if they are each fined 10% ($10 for one, $1000 for the other)? It is almost impossible to separate the discussion of equality in these cases from thoughts of fairness and the contexts of the individuals and their societies.

    So my point is that equality is subjective and depends on the terminology you use (do we measure in % or $, in my example) which itself often encodes our ideals of fairness, and social context. I think this dissolves a lot of issues of your ‘double standard’, but maybe I am missing the point.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      You make solid points, as always.
      Yes, the problem I’m trying to address may be eluding you, probably because the bubbles we live in don’t overlap much.
      In my online world, populated by rationalistic scientists (see the links on the right column to find a few examples), a criticism that appears very frequently is “your judgement isn’t rational, and you are biased against this side” (links in the main post provide two examples).

      All things considered, I don’t know how to better exemplify the question I’m trying to answer than with what I’ve already written:

      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?

      As per my usual method, this post comes from realising that I get much more inflamed when people that I consider on “my side” do things that I consider wrong.
      Unfortunately, the phenomenon I’m addressing here only appears in situations where strong feelings are involved, righteous indignation is never mild, if you allow me this shortcut. Furthermore, my bias-analysis method is fairly dependent on the recognition of my own biases, so as a result I couldn’t find a way to address the topic while using neutral examples.

      In some sense, it all stems from the moral relativism that has been gaining traction in the last 20 years, and in the large picture, I’m trying to explore the possibility of reaching strong conclusions without abandoning moral relativism in full. It comes with my natural inclination: I tend to think that if you can find a common ground you’re more likely to foster constructive dialogue instead of destructive confrontation.
      Using your own example, and in the long run, I’m exploring a method that tries to acknowledge that your two punchers may each subscribe to a different definition of fairness, but that wasn’t the point of this post, it’s a longer term ambition.

      In this post I was addressing the obvious observation that frequently we (human beings) don’t judge other people by applying the same standards, and that, perhaps surprisingly, we apply higher and higher standards to people that are somewhat closer. This looks irrational and enrages a lot of rationalists (especially when they have a stake in the argument), but it becomes much more of a grey area when you look at it from the evolutionary psychology perspective.

      Overall, clicking “Publish”, and then refusing to “un-publish” is costing me a lot. I’m very uncomfortable with the conclusions I reach on my 2.1 and 2.2 points. But I’m writing with the expectation of making mistakes, so I’m trying to stand by my words and open myself up to criticism. Something that I can afford to do because I’m a perfect nobody, I suppose.

  2. This is in response to your response, but I couldn’t nest deeper, so I made it top-level. If you want to play around with evo-psych explanations of holding people in your own group to higher standards then there is a straightforward way to do some modeling. You can take your favourite model of costly-punishment and combine it with a tag-based model and then if you have agents that only punish those in the in-group as they are, but don’t punish those in the out-group then you can get an example of the higher standard idea that you are describing.

    I think there might be some interesting dynamics. On the one hand costly-punishment is a mechanism for promoting cooperation, so you would expect it (like other cooperation promoting mechanisms) to be in-group specific. On the other hand, some of my old work suggests that in certain settings you just want to cost the out-group as much as possible (irrational defection in the harmony game) even if it costs you a bit (as long as it costs you less than you hurt them); from that you would expect out-group specific (instead of in-group specific) costly-punishment. This gives me hope that you could have some natural to vary perimeter that lets you transition from the two regimes, and I think that would be an interesting result. It is not one I am familiar with already, but I haven’t searched the literature for it specifically.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Artem, you are consistently trying to tempt me to enter the game-theory evolutionary arena… 😉
      If you keep it up, I fear that you’ll be successful sooner or later.
      In this case (and it does seem to be an established pattern), I can resist the temptation, because I don’t think a simple in-out group distinction will be meaningful for what I’m discussing here.

      My whole idea of Righteous Indignation (RI) is based on the premise that the generally accepted approach is wrong: in my previous post, I’ve strongly claimed that a fundamental ingredient is usually missing. You can’t explore sociality without considering hierarchy. Groups of mammals are almost never made out of peers, hierarchies are ubiquitous and should be always considered when exploring the biological/evolutionary sources of morality. In the context of RI, in my main post (but not my previous reply to your comment) I do outline this fact: “RI is a feeling that is especially appropriate when directed towards your own leaders”, that’s the central claim of the first part.

      As a result, modelling would become quite complex, in addition to what you suggest, one would need to add at least a binary distinction: each group will have one leader and (for simplicity’s sake) peer group members. Then one needs to assign different levels of prosociality/effectiveness to group leaders, probably model how RI of one group member may propagate across the group, and then find a way to represent the cost of trying to bring about a leadership change, etc. You get the point, as I’ve hinted in the previous post, to me evolutionary games look intractable/uninterpretable if you try to include leadership or hierarchies. Your position may be very different (after all, I’m just an interested observer on this subject), but to me, it boils down to: how do you balance the need for simplicity with the requirement of building a meaningful model?
      Specifically: if mammal societies are always based on hierarchies, do we have something to learn from evolutionary games that do include the notion of groups but assume groups are made of peers? In this case, since I’m talking about a social bias (RI), my guess is that producing a model based on meaningful premises will produce impossibly complex results.

  3. This is in response to your nested comment above, since I can’t nest further.

    I don’t know too much about modeling hierarchies in an evolutionary settings, but that is just my personal reading bias. But it is definitely done. For a particularly relevant example, see Adam Benton’s “How were leaders born?” and the references there-in, particularly:

    Powers, S. T., & Lehmann, L. (2014). An evolutionary model explaining the Neolithic transition from egalitarianism to leadership and despotism. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 281(1791): 20141349.

    I will win you over eventually ;). Remember, these sort of heuristic models aren’t meant to convince you or prove something, they are just fun case studies in your bouquet of theoretical tools.

  4. […] another example of a situation where a strictly rational and deterministic approach degenerates into endless and fruitless recursion. The same conclusion is also one more reason to adopt heuristic approaches inspired by […]

  5. […] of the best known, already existing ones. For example, it is well known that we are inclined to use double standards in our moral judgements, and there are reasons for this, even if the practice flies in the face of […]

  6. […] wonder). This isn’t good, because it ignites a self-sustaining feedback (see my last example here, for a glaringly obvious case) – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of war and […]

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