Tuesday, May 05, 2009

"Holier Than Thou" Effect

Bob Somerby
linked to an article in the NYTimes today that was interesting:

In this morning’s “Science Times,” Carey tattle-tales on the whole human race—specifically, on our tendency to attribute moral greatness to ourselves, as opposed to The Others. Naughtily, Carey starts with an oblique reference to the current debate about uses of torture. But let’s focus on the facts—the facts that Carey has discovered in some ongoing research.

“Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness,” Carey’s headline says. And yes: We thought of the growing progressive world as we scanned his tattle-tale work. Here’s the way he started:

CAREY (5/5/09): Most people are adamant: They would never do it. Ever. Never deliberately inflict pain on another person, just to obtain information. Ever artificially inflate the value of some financial product, just to take advantage of others’ ignorance. Certainly never, ever become a deadbeat and accept a government bailout.

They speak only for themselves, of course. As for others, well, turn on the news: shady bankers, savage interrogators and deadbeats are everywhere.

Indeed. I sent Somerby an email and pointed out an additional aspect:

[T]he article refers to another aspect of this phenomenon, mentioned by
Dr. Epley in the paragraph before the one you quoted:

“The gap between how I think I’ll behave and how I actually behave is a function
of how well I simulate the situation, and our simulations are guided by our
intentions,” said Nicholas Epley[.]

(end quote)

I think this is very true. When you think about something in the abstract, how
you would like to think you would respond to the situation can be quite
different to how you respond when actually confronted with it. We all like to
say that we don't condone torture, it's abhorrent, etc. But when actually
confronted with the situation where torture might reveal important information
not obtainable by other means (let's not get into whether that is actually
true), we might find ourselves willing to compromise our ideals in what we see
at the time as the service of the greater good.

That's why having codified laws and established procedures is so critical. If
you have ironclad laws against torture written in times of calm, careful
thought, you will be able to refer to them when the "heat of the moment" might
lead you astray. Of course you can still elect to compromise your principles,
but I'd like to think it's harder to do so if it's right there in black and
white. That's why what Bybee and Yoo did is so reprehensible. They looked for
ways around the black-letter laws that restricted what could be done, and being
good lawyers they found those ways. That enabled the Bush Administration to
violate our laws and the principles behind them that we supposedly fought to

We have laws for a reason. We punish violators for a reason. And when we elect not to pursue lawbreakers because it would be embarrassing or politically inconvenient, we compromise our ideals.