Morality is not a zero-sum game

March 19, 2010

Ah, mankind, I haven’t patronised you lately. You do make it really easy though, as this story stands as evidence. The chap at the end appears to be claiming that humans instinctively practice a sort of transactional approach to morality; maintaining their moral character as some sort of checking account.

Now, to a large degree, this appears to be true: how many times have you said to yourself, “Well, I’ve done my good deed for the week,” after perhaps helping an old lady onto the bus? How many times have you justified to yourself not giving money to a beggar by reminding yourself of your previous purchase of a slightly more expensive FairTrade chocolate bar? How many times have you justified your purchase of chocolate by reminding yourself you took the stairs rather than the lift this morning?

Perhaps the answer is none; I’m asking rhetorical questions into the digital space of the internet. But it is a compelling narrative which accords with personal experience. It’s also stupid. The actual paper itself is here, and a cursory inspection reveals that all the experiments were carried out on students from the University of Toronto.

While I’m sure they did their best to come up with proper controls (although there’s no mention of this in the paper), focusing on a body that traditionally has low levels of disposable income in a study on consumerism will necessarily skew the results. The papers’ authors do not discuss this as a potential factor, which leads me to question its effectiveness at proving its claims. There is, however, a bigger potential bias.

I would argue that the conceptual framework that produces the form of ‘moral accounting’ on display here has its roots in the Christian concepts of sin and atonement. These are still prevalent in our society; I’ve met many people who believe that in order to make up for doing something bad, you need to do something good. The flip side of this, of course, is that doing something good entitles you to do something bad. The extreme example of this is the self-flagellation practiced by certain Catholic sects like Opus Dei, ‘popularised’ in the Da Vinci Code. The intent is to mirror the suffering of Christ during his crucifixion, by which means – according to the New Testament – he absolved mankind of original sin.

This is mirrored in a strangely pathetic way by people who claim they’ve expelled their moral guilt by buying the Big Issue. It is, however, not an attitude towards morality that is universal. The obvious rejoinder at this point would be to say, “But Adam, surely this is exactly what karma is all about!” That would be wrong. Karma, in the Hindu sense of the word, is a kind of rationalisation of how shitty the world can be. If something bad happens to you, it’s because you did something bad. If something good happens to you, it’s because you did something good. Here, the agent of judgement is the world, whereas in the above moral accounting model it’s the individual who determines their own punishment.

For this study to carry weight, it needs to be carried out in a multitude of societies that aren’t largely based on Christianity. Conceptual frameworks like the one given above carry far greater weight in our thinking than we typically realise.


31 Responses to “Morality is not a zero-sum game”

  1. Neil Craig said

    You don’t seem to be actually arguing that thec eexperiment didn’t happen or that the result wasn’t as stated but simply that you don’t like the answer. This doesn’t make you right & the real world wrong.

    If course you are probably the sort of person who thinks being a member of a genocidal political party entitles you to some moral superiority o=ver ordinary humans.

  2. declineofthelogos said

    Actually, I said that the experiments didn’t prove what the paper’s authors claimed they proved, and gave reasons for it. I would accept that it certainly proves that students of the University of Toronto apply the moral accounting model to decision making. I wouldn’t broaden it to ‘people’

    If you want to attack my reasons for rejecting the broader conclusion of the paper as not being relevant to the experiments, then do so. But just bizarrely stating that I didn’t like the answer and that’s why I’m wrong doesn’t constitute an argument.

  3. Neil Craig said

    The only reason you gave was that the experimenters live in a Christian society. As do we & about half the world’s population & I suspect every reader of your blog. That does not in any way reduce its relevance here & barely so for anybody else. By those terms you should not criticise what I said because it was written in English & thus any alteration would not have been understood by more than half the world’s population. Can you not come up with a more sensible excuse?

    • declineofthelogos said

      I don’t think you understand what a conceptual framework is, or indeed what the writers of the paper purported to prove. If being in a Christian society is a relevant variable with respect to morality, then the experiment proves something for a limited subset of mankind, but doesn’t reveal a universal truth. The writers of the paper claim the latter. Why is the conceptual framework I discuss not a relevant variable?

  4. Neil Craig said

    Because it is not variable within the set of people, not only within the readership here, but within the all of the civilisation either of us are aquainted with. It could also be pointed out that Christianity is hardly a dominant influence today & there is no objective reason to think it is influencing the result – you are merely putting forward an entirely untested hypothesis with no supporting evidence which is thus not alone enough to discredit firm experimental evidence.

  5. declineofthelogos said

    You haven’t argued with my point, you’ve merely asserted that it’s not true. For your point to stand, you’ll need to demonstrate that it is possible to make moral judgements outwith a conceptual framework that as minimum determines the arbiter of moral value. Failing that, you’ll need to demonstrate that moral conceptual frameworks do not differ across the world. You’ll need to establish that traditional Christian, Islamic, Buddhist & Hindu moralities all make moral judgements using the same conceptual tool kit.

    I would be fascinated to see the results if you succeed.

  6. Neil Craig said

    No. The default position is that you must establish the existence of the biases you are claiming. The mediocrity principle assumes that, unless there is some actual evidence, you do not assume the subject under observation is different from the rest of the universe. Possibly it is but the onus is on the persons claiming it to at least establish a balance of probability that they are right.

  7. declineofthelogos said

    You neglect the role of a priori inferences in morality. A conceptual scheme is a condition for the possibility of moral judgements; how can one determine whether something is right or wrong without having a system of determining how to do so?

    I’m not claiming that conceptual schemes are an a posteriori variable like shoe size or similar. I’m merely pointing out that if you wish to measure shoe size across a population, you have to control for whether people have feet.

  8. Neil Craig said

    “You neglect the role of a priori inferences in morality”

    Not at all I merely say that the onus is on those bringing them into play to show reasonable cause they exist.

  9. declineofthelogos said

    Reasonable cause isn’t an appropriate test for a priori inferences. Before we go any further, can you please explain what you believe a priori inferences to be? Otherwise this debate could be pointless.

  10. Neil Craig said

    Well your a priori inference is that the probable Christian background of the student subjects (or at least most of them) has been sufficient to seriously skew the results so far from what a theoretical subject with no cultural influences whatsoever would believe as to make the experiment useless. It would not be a priori if you had produced good evidence for that but I doubt such exists.

  11. declineofthelogos said

    That’s not an a priori inference. The a priori inference I’m talking about is that conceptual schemes are conditions for the possibility of moral judgements. I make the a posteriori inference that a variety of conceptual schemes already exist in the world – I detail the Christian and Hindu versions. If you wish to dispute this inference, it would constitute a valid counter-argument to my claim, although of course you’d need to show why they weren’t different.

    My argument, in its essence, is that given a variety of conceptual schemes determine decision making across various populations, any experiment that assesses moral judgements must control for conceptual schemes. The authors of the paper do not. Therefore, while they do have evidence that a given population behaves in the way they claim, they cannot make the further claim (which they do) that this is a feature of manking in general.

  12. Neil Craig said

    Of course it is a priori because you are taking it in advance before, inded without, proof.

    Now what you are saying is simply repeating that that the differences bewteen cultures (& those without any culture if that is possible) must be so large as to make the experiment absolutely worthless, still without even attempting to introduce any evidence whatsoever that this is corect. If you have evidence for your theory lets see it. If you haven’t your dismissal of the experiment cannot “carry weight”.

    Of course since your criticism is written in English (with a little Latin to appear impressive) rather than in all possible languages simultaneously it may be your cultural biases are interfering with your logic.

  13. declineofthelogos said

    I become convinced that you have no idea what an a priori inference is. Please read this:

    Once you have read it, please tell me why I am not justified in claiming that ‘Moral judgements require a conceptual scheme’ is a true analytic proposition. To do so, you will need – as I said above – to demonstrate that moral judgements can be made in the absence of a conceptual scheme.

  14. Neil Craig said

    “a priori justification is a type of epistemic justification that is, in some sense, independent of experience. There are a variety of views about whether a priori justification can be defeated by other evidence”

    I take it your variety is that mere evidence & facts do not & should not impinge on what you assert.

    Mine is that they do & should.

    I would produce evidence that facts impinge in the real world too but that would merely be evidence & thus not comparable to your visions.

  15. declineofthelogos said

    You have just arrogantly dismissed the entire 2,500 history of Western philosophy, all the way from Plato to Quine. You clearly have no idea even what you mean by ‘fact’. I am tempted to simply close this thread, but I’d much rather watch you swivel the wind while you try to justify your own conception of facts without recourse to a priori knowledge.

    Go on then. Tell me what you mean by ‘fact’. And simultaneously, tell me what you mean by ‘evidence’. I bet you can’t do it without using either word, and thus producing a circularity.

  16. Neil Craig said

    fact   /fækt/ Show Spelled[fakt] Show IPA
    1.something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact

    ev·i·dence   /ˈɛvɪdəns/ Show Spelled [ev-i-duhns] Show IPA noun, verb,-denced, -denc·ing.
    1.that which tends to prove or disprove something; ground for belief; proof.

    c.1300, “appearance from which inferences may be drawn,”

    Not original. I find that using words the same way the rest of the world does makes communication easier, though I grant sometimes people don’t use language for that purpose. If in doubt the derivation or original use of a word helps.

  17. declineofthelogos said

    But, fascinatingly, that’s not how you’re using ‘fact’, or indeed ‘evidence’. An a priori inference from an analytic proposition can fall under both definitions you give there, but you’re claiming it doesn’t. So either your definitions are wrong, or your understanding of a priori is wrong.

    To give an example of what I mean, take the following argument:

    Socrates is a man.
    All men are mortal.
    Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

    This is an a priori inference from analytic propositions. It is true. It is a fact. And its being a fact is not impacted by whether Socrates is real or not – its truth comes wholly from the propositions involved.

    Nothing you have said so far has demonstrated that my inference was incorrect. If moral judgements exist, then they must be governed by conceptual schemes.

  18. Neil Craig said

    No your a priori assumptions are assumptions not facts.

    In that example were Socrates to walk in the door today & say he had just been out for a beer that would cast serious doubt on the a priori assumption of his mortality (at least as compared to the rest of us).

    Your example actually shows the Principle of Mediocrity (see above) being applied to Socrates in that it is assumed, he being visibly a man, that his lifespan will be of the order of that of the rest of humanity. Under that principle it is not necesary to wait for his death to assume it, just as the working assumption should be that the humans in the experiment react like normal humans until, at least a little, evidence is produced for the opposite.

  19. declineofthelogos said

    You do know that you’re claiming logic doesn’t exist, right? You just made the claim that ‘If A and B, then B’ is false. The point of the example wasn’t the content of the argument, but the structure of the premises. Analysis of the premises gives the conclusion; that’s rather the point of inferences.

    Now that you’ve demonstrated you’re completely illogical, I have no idea where you can go from here. You can no longer claim that anything in particular is true or false, and can therefore no longer claim that anything is a fact. Your argument is quite literally nonsensical.

  20. A.H. Gillett said


    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  21. Neil Craig said

    “logic doesn’t exist, right”

    Now whos flying in the face of, nost of, 2,500 years of philosophy?

    “Analysis of the premises gives the conclusion; that’s rather the point of inferences.”

    Well again we disagree. I believe that any premise has to be tested against facts. Its called the “scientific method”. Since your method is to declare your opinion, assert that whatever your opinion alone says is right, unsullied by mere facts, (premise gives the conclusions) I assume you are not aware of it. Arguably that weakens any claim you may have to pontificate on whether scientific experiments count.

  22. declineofthelogos said

    This is bizarre. It’s like you actually can’t read what I’ve written. I claim that logic exists, it’s you that doesn’t. For example, the proposition: “X is true inasmuch as it is a hypothesis demonstrated by experiments that follow the scientific method” is something that you can’t claim to be true, as it’s a hypothesis that ISN’T demonstrated by the scientific method.

    You can’t rely on the scientific method to verify the truth of the scientific method; that’s circular. At some point you will need to make inferences from analytic statements. That’s what logic is, by the way. Maths is full of a priori inferences, like 1+1=2.

  23. Neil Craig said

    Well obviously anybody reading this can see that your claim that I have claimed “logic doesn’t exist” is (A) essential to your entire argument & (B) wholly & completely untrue.

    Or perhaps you can point out where I said those words.

    If you understood the scientific method & it is not possible to understand western culture & philosophy without doing so, then you would never have tried to put that quote in my mouth. No serious researcher understanding it would claim that one experiment “proves X is true”. The most they would say is that the result is consistent with what the theory predicts & the theory can be treated as true, subject to further testing.

    The point is that you have dismised the experimental result not on on any the basis of any actual fact but simply on the assertion that your prejudices must, because they are yours, be true & if mere facts suggest otherwise the facts don’t count.

  24. declineofthelogos said

    You said it here:
    “In that example were Socrates to walk in the door today & say he had just been out for a beer that would cast serious doubt on the a priori assumption of his mortality (at least as compared to the rest of us).”
    The argument I gave you contained no further facts beyond those given in its premises, yet you failed to realise that logic works by making inferences from the information to hand – regardless of the source of that information. The Socrates argument is ancient, indeed it was first put forward by Aristotle. Its structure runs as follows:

    A is B.
    All Bs are C.
    Therefore A is C.

    The a priori inference is not ‘A is B’ or ‘All Bs are C’, rather the inference is from the first two lines to the third. An a priori inference is in effect saying, “We know this, therefore that”. It’s deductive reasoning, while you appear to be claiming that only inductive reasoning is possible – which is ironic, as induction was famously demonstrated by Hume to not necessarily lead to truth.

    My argument is this:

    A moral judgement involves a proposition akin to ‘X is good’.

    Therefore, making moral judgements requires a system for determining how X is judged to be good, unless those moral judgements are to be arbitrary.

    That system is typically known as a conceptual scheme.

    Now, there are many points where I could be wrong on this, as I indicated earlier on in this discussion, I can’t see how you can dispute this.

    To give you an example of a conceptual scheme, imagine someone who took the Ten Commandments as the sum total of morality. Therefore, their check on whether X is good is to check X against the Commandments. In this conceptual scheme, the arbitrer of morality is the individual and their capability of assessing acts & consequences against the Ten Commandments.

    In the conceptual scheme I mentioned at the beginning of this debate, X is assessed as being good or bad by an individual in the context of their other choices. A bad act is no longer a bad act if it is compensated for by a good act. It’s a ridiculous notion of morality, but one that nonetheless some people seem to hold – which this experiment does demonstrate. It just doesn’t demonstrate that everybody does.

  25. Neil Craig said

    Your claim that the words “logic”, “doesn’t” & “exist” are contained, in that order, in the phrase “In that example were Socrates to walk in the door today & say he had just been out for a beer that would cast serious doubt on the a priori assumption of his mortality (at least as compared to the rest of us)” clearly shows that absolutely nothing you say can ever be expected to be constrained by or represent any sort of honesty, intelligence or indeed logic.

    Also I made it quite clear that the logical conclusion, of Socrates being more than mortal was dependent on evidence that he is currently alive. Something which you had not specified & indeed for which there is no current evidence.


  26. declineofthelogos said

    You have absolutely no idea what you’re claiming, do you? What you’re saying is tantamount to claiming that:

    A is B.
    All Bs are C.
    Therefore A is C.

    Is not true, therefore there can be no such thing as deduction. Are you saying that the third sentence does not follow from the first two in this formal structure? Because if you are, then there’s little point in continuing this debate, because you’re insane.

  27. Neil Craig said

    “Insane” eh. Well I’m not the one who claims to see words that aren’t there.

    As I have said repeatedly you asserting that, in the given case, all Bs (men) are C (mortal) would not make it so if there were some actual evidence to the contrary (there isn’t but that doesn’t affect the logic).

    Even though you are a member of a corrupt, racist, child raping, organlegging, pro-Nazi political party that is no justification for saying your will is so triumphant it trumps mere facts.

  28. declineofthelogos said

    No. Not the particular case of the Socrates argument. Put that out of your tiny little mind (indicated by your bizarre description of my party; I will happily block you if you continue to lie so weirdly), and answer this.

    Is this:

    A is B.
    All Bs are C.
    Therefore A is C.

    true? Yes or no? Do not appeal to any particular case, but just look at the structure.

  29. Neil Craig said

    And your evidence for any of these is?

    But then evidence doesn’t have any influence on your assertions does it.

    Lets try something more concrete.

    If A your party has made it a requirement of membership that all members support C war crimes, genocide & the sexual enslavement of children to promote Nazism

    And you B are a member of A do you have a way out of admitting you support C other than denying that A is provably true.

    I await seeing if you will deny your own position by saying that it matters if A is not proven true – although that does not greatly help since I strongly suspect you know it is.

  30. declineofthelogos said

    With that post, you’ve demonstrated that you cannot conceive of abstract concepts (like, y’know, numbers) and have just said something equivalent to stating that 1+1=2 is not true because it doesn’t refer to any specific instance of quantification. As such, you’re mentally ill. I’m not being pejorative here; if you can’t conceive of abstract concepts there is something actually wrong with you.

    Given that I am not a mental health worker, I have now closed comments on this entry. I recommend you go and get yourself checked out.

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