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A Theory of Moral Change

October 24, 2010

At the NYT book review, Jonathan Haidt reviews Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s new book on honor and “moral revolutions.” I haven’t read the Appiah book, but I say it’s about time a moral philosopher investigated the question of society-wide moral change. Appiah examines three practices of old–dueling, foot-binding, and slavery–and investigates why they were given up. It appears to be some sort of trickle down status based theory, where the elite come to denigrate a practice and then, by a pattern of imitation, the lower orders change. What I find most striking is that rational argument appears to be useless. What matters most is international comparison to other, higher status cultures.

Take Haidt’s summary of the abolition of foot-binding:

Allied with members of the Chinese literati, they made arguments that appealed to China’s national interest, like the need for strong and healthy women to bear strong and healthy children. Yet these arguments had no effect on the practice until members of the elite class discovered that they and their nation had become objects of ridicule. Foreigners were taking pictures of women’s tiny feet and sending them around the world. Combined with the shame of recent military and commercial defeats at the hands of Japan, Britain and other foreign powers, the thirst to restore national honor created an opening. The anti-foot-binding societies recruited high-ranking families to make a dual pledge: to refrain from binding their daughters’ feet, and from marrying their sons to women with bound feet. With upper-class boys growing up ready to marry a new pool of upper-class, unbound girls, there was now an honorable alternative, and the practice essentially disappeared within a generation.

Totalitarian regimes, particularly the USSR and China, faced similar problems. Whenever the elite of these brutal governments visited Western Europe, Hong Kong, or even the U.S., they were struck by how worse off their societies were. They saw for themselves that non-totalitarian states were patently wealthier and happier. Such international comparisons would drive dissent at the highest levels and ultimately incite change from the top down.

All of this speaks to the need for maintaining (or increasing!) inter-governmental competition. Belabored moral arguments about the good tend to fall on deaf ears. As Richard Posner has argued, moral philosophers are really poets and novelists manque. Instead, the best hope for moral progress is to instantiate first, flourish second, and then hope others imitate later. Telling someone what they’re doing is morally wrong–stop that, you savage!!–lowers their status. It’s unsurprising that they retrench on the defensive. But raise your own status by any objective measure and status-seeking behavior might lead to socially desirable results. Criticize by creating Michelangelo said. So for those who think they have the moral high ground, it sounds like a good reason for starting a new country.


  1. jack rabbit permalink
    October 26, 2010 12:12 am

    I’ve read Don’s book at the link mentioned. The book is excellent.

    Directing people to a site that challenges the group-think crowd – the herd that all agrees on the same things – and mentioning a book he took the time to write – is not “spamming.” How else to make a point without pasting the entire text of the book here in the comments section?

    He’s thought the topic through and took the time to write a book about it. He challenges the herd to think for themselves.

    I recommend the book mentioned and the flip-movie book on that blog as well. Especially if you consider yourself a forensics “expert.”

  2. Don Robertson permalink
    October 25, 2010 1:05 pm

    This article crudely mistakes ethics for morality.

    It is really irksome when uneducated people talk about things they know very little about, as here. There is a sort of philosophical pollution going on here. Yech!

    Now listen up.

    Morality is absolute and universal. This is morality-

    The moral imperative of life is to live a life that detracts not at all from the lives available to those who will follow us into this world.

    This is ethics (and political theory)-

    From the article – “[…] Such international comparisons would drive dissent at the highest levels and ultimately incite change from the top down.”

    You will note, one statement is categorically true, the first statement, the moral statement.

    You will note the second statement is subjective, and entirely contingent upon one’s often skewed and just as often mistaken conceptions and perceptions.

    If we are to be accurate in ANY sense, we must first agree to observe certain rules about what different words mean. While this is no easy task, we can try to agree on what words mean, even if the effort is bound to fail to some degree.

    In future, do not mistake personal ethics (all ethics are personal) for morality.

    Morality is a universal statement of absolute truth.

    Morality is not the science of anything.

    Science by comparison to morality is hackneyed, and very like witchcraft, as in the political science and economics discussed here. But also even physics is hackneyed in this sense. It is a witchcraft, a scientific witchcraft.

    Physics is not logical. There is no sense to physics. There is no sense to physics as a human study in this infinitely complex reality, when we realize the absolute reality, that the study of physics is suicidal for our species. How is that logical? It is not logical.

    It can very cogently be argued all the sciences are suicidal for our species. It is difficult to make it a steadfast rule because the exceptions might be endless, but as a rule of thumb, science is a witchcraft, regardless the science that it is.

    Exampling this I would point to the environmental sciences. This new holier than thou science, is rapidly creating a scientific knowledge set. Within the body of that knowledge set is the knowledge of exactly what will destroy the planet. How is it logical to develop such a scientific knowledge set, given that every previous scientific knowledge set has been misused by humanity in an immoral fashion? It is not logical at all. Nor does it have any especial life-preserving quality that can be substantiated.

    These sciences are hackneyed because scientific theorists constantly change their results by modifications in theoretical understanding. It can be shown to a certain degree these modifications to science that are made by theorists are in fact mere circular reasoning.

    All these sciences are also hackneyed in other ways. One deficiency is adequately reflected in the notion that science must be given the pass of being amoral in order to withstand critical logical tests.

    Science is not amoral. A rock is amoral. A tree is amoral. Science is not amoral.

    Doing science is no moral amoral than it would be to leave a loaded gun in a place where small children might find it. These things are very dangerous, these things created by science, and no less so the political science or economics.

    Science is also easily shown to be made of circular reasoning because science is a discussion of universals, universals that do not exist in the infinitely complex reality in which we all reside, and about which we can know very little when we measure what we can know by placing the sum total of what we might know -before the massive entirety of that infinite complexity.

    Try harder. Expect no better results until you understand philosophy though.

    For instance, what about China?

    China only exists in our head, and in the head of the Chinaman. China itself, is a myth, if a widely believed myth. It does not exist beyond what we think of it.

    And furthermore, no two people on the planet have the same conception of China. So, it clearly is not real in any sense we can know it.


    Don Robertson

    • Ben permalink
      October 25, 2010 7:17 pm

      Don, why do you feel the need to spam this blog and pimp your books? Does it make you feel big and important? Does it let you think people listen to you?

  3. October 25, 2010 3:49 am

    I’m reminded of Robin Hanson’s post China Ascendant and Bryan Caplan’s paper The Totalitarian Threat.

    • Mike Gibson permalink*
      October 25, 2010 4:27 am

      Very good. I was specifically drawing on Caplan’s chapter in Global Catastrophic Risks, which I see is the paper you’ve linked to.

      Foot-binding notwithstanding, China may come to influence the west in unforeseen ways. The Rising Sun of the 80s led people to make similar claims about Japan. I recently saw a movie where one character commended another for having utilized Japanese management philosophy before anyone else. In retrospect, this seems laughable.

      But if China continues its economic growth in a northeasterly direction, then all sorts of status-games will come into play.

  4. October 24, 2010 9:32 pm

    These “philosophers'” quoted here are little more than burnt-out academics.

    Philosophy is not the academic tripe taught in university.

    That is just the history of popular intellectual junk.

    All men are mortal. Socrates was a man. Socrates was mortal.

    Baloney. 1) We do not know all men are mortal. 2) We do not know Socrates was a man. and 3) We therefore do not know that Socrates was mortal.

    As it turns out, we know very little, syllogisms not excepted.

    The Enlightenment gave us all -a scientific reality, stripping-out the spiritual reality that has ruled human consciousness for tens of thousands of years. The scientists called it “superstition”.

    But it turns out, science is not logical at all. It turns out, science too is a superstition.

    Click my book-link, order and read The New Epistemology of Morality and Truth.

    And then, you will be able to understand the state of philosophy today. This is not your grandfather’s philosophy at all.

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