Moral event horizons
I realized that there are some aspects of my moral compass which I’ve never really touched upon here on the blog before which might help readers better realize ‘where I’m coming from’.
So yesterday I was thinking about which acts people might do to me (or to people I care a great deal about) that would put them outside the narrow circle of people I’d be interested in ever interacting with again. Unforgivable acts. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept mentioned in the title, here’s a link.
Highly educated people, which most of my readers presumably are or at least will be at some point, are less likely to be religious, and they’re probably also less likely to be moral absolutists and more likely to take situational factors and -details into account when passing judgments than are most humans. If you’re better able to handle complexity you’re able to make use of more complex moral algorithms. Which probably means that readers of this blog will have a harder time coming up with unforgivable acts than are people in general.
I’d be curious to know what’s on your specific list (even if you’ve never made a list – no, especially if you’ve never made a list).
All actions for which I’d support the death penalty naturally go on my list – so burning people alive because you like to burn people alive and think that it’s a lot of fun, for example, will make you cross my horizon. But the relevant punishment metric here is permanent punishment by social rejection undertaken by an individual, not death – so limiting myself to such types of criminal behaviour is very, well, limiting; surely there are actions which I consider to be unforgivable but which I do not believe should merit capital punishment? It turns out that the answer is yes – two things which immediately sprang to mind to me was 1) violence as a (not self-defence-related) conflict resolution mechanism, and 2) serious threats used as status signals/power displays/bargaining tools. If you behave that way it’s game over – we’ll never interact again, at least not if I remember who you are or recognize you. You may think these preferences are very common, but through the chess club I’ve interacted with people from different social and educational backgrounds and I can tell you they’re certainly very far from universal. Presumably part of what sets me apart from people who think differently in the West is the fact that I do not consider alcohol intoxication (or drugs) to be a mitigating factor in such circumstances. This is relevant because a lot of bad behaviour, including criminal behaviour, is alcohol-related. My motivation for rejecting people based on these metrics is not only that I perceive of such acts as reprehensible, but also that such behaviour covaries strongly with a variety of other unfavourable traits and behaviours, and so I take it that the acts can reasonably reliably be used by me as an indicator variable for whether I’d be likely to get enough out of the relationship for it to be worth pursuing.
I have been considering if severe breaches of trust should be treated in a similar manner, and I do believe that in severe cases I would react that way. But what constitutes a ‘severe breach’ is not entirely clear to me ex ante, and to complicate matters further a breach of trust is always a two-sided affair; it’s always partly your own fault if you’re subject to such an act because you were the one who chose to trust the other party, which is the entire reason why that trust could be violated (if one trusts a fool, who’s the fool?). Most cases of rape incidentally to some extent belong in this category as well; stranger rapes only make out a small fraction of all rapes, and many of the others involve to some extent a breach of trust by one party – the concepts of consent and trust are closely interrelated.
In the past I tended to punish political divergence from my own viewpoints much more severely than I do now when it comes to social stuff. It’d not be easy for me to identify a lot of truly unforgivable viewpoints, but I know that at least one such viewpoint does exist – if you favour executing people who leave your religion, like a lot of people do even today, then we don’t have anything to talk about. Game over, I can’t ever trust you.
On a related if also different note; it’s not a specific thing he does, but there’s a certain ‘type’ of domineering male (arrogant, sense of entitlement, likes power) which I’ll actively avoid just because of his personality characteristics. I mention this type specifically because that type of person will sometimes want to interact with me; most other ‘types’ I avoid, to the extent that such types exist, generally don’t want to interact with me either so I don’t really need to do anything to achieve the preferred outcome in those cases.
My impression is that I tend to punish impoliteness much more severely than most people do. Behave like a jerk when you’re around me and you won’t be around me for long. You don’t need to be particularly polite, you just need to not be impolite – the two are not collectively exhaustive.
I should point out that I’m perfectly aware that the rejection strategy I employ involves potentially missing out on stuff – people may change their minds and become pleasant people with whom to interact even though they did something ‘unforgivable’ at some point in the past. So there’s no need to think up a counter-example where you illustrate that it’d be absurd for me to keep rejecting the guy, and so it’s better always to retain the option of reconnecting. I know such ‘counterexamples’ exist – some people do change, but on average it still seems smarter to me not to interact with people who did X, because a lot of people never did X in the first place and they’re on average more likely to be pleasant people.
As mentioned I’d love to know what you guys think about these (and related) matters. It doesn’t necessarily need to be outright unforgivable actions; it could also just be opinions/viewpoints/actions which will mean that you’ll cut contact (but may consider reinitiating later).