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Old 02-10-2006, 10:50 AM   #1
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moral relativity ... or, i know it's wrong, but i do it anyways

interesting piece in the NYT from earlier in the week that has stayed with me. thought i'd toss it out here ...



[q]When Death Is on the Docket, the Moral Compass Wavers

By BENEDICT CAREY
Published: February 7, 2006
Burl Cain is a religious man who believes it is only for God to say when a person's number is up. But in his job as warden and chief executioner at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Mr. Cain is the one who gives the order to start a lethal injection, and he has held condemned inmates' hands as they died.

He does it, he said in an interview, because capital punishment "is the law of the land."

"It's something we do whether we're for it or against it, and we try to make the process as humane as possible," he said, referring to himself and others on the execution team.

But he concedes, "The issue is coping, how we cope with it."

Common wisdom holds that people have a set standard of morality that never wavers. Yet studies of people who do unpalatable things, whether by choice, or for reasons of duty or economic necessity, find that people's moral codes are more flexible than generally understood. To buffer themselves from their own consciences, people often adjust their moral judgments in a process some psychologists call moral disengagement, or moral distancing.

In recent years, researchers have determined the psychological techniques most often used to disengage, and for the first time they have tested them in people working in perhaps the most morally challenging job short of soldiering, staffing a prison execution team.

The results of this and other studies suggest that a person's moral judgment can shift quickly, in anticipation of an unpalatable act, or slowly and unconsciously.

Moral disengagement "is where all the action is," said Albert Bandura, a professor of psychology at Stanford and an expert on the psychology of moral behavior. "It's in our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards, and it helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next."

The crude codes of behavior that evolved to hold early human societies together — taboos against killing, against stealing — would have been psychologically suffocating if people did not have some way to let themselves off the hook in extreme situations, some experts argue. Survival sometimes required brutal acts; human sacrifice was commonplace, as were executions.

The innate human ability to disconnect morally has made it hard for researchers to find an association between people's stated convictions and their behavior: preachers can commit sexual crimes; prostitutes may live otherwise exemplary lives; well-trained soldiers can commit atrocities.

[...]

Now, psychologists at Stanford have shown that prison staff members who work on execution teams exhibit high levels of moral disengagement — and the closer they are to the killing, the higher their level of disengagement goes.

[...]

"You have to sanctify lethal means: this is the most powerful technique" of disengagement from a shared human moral code, said Dr. Bandura, who has expressed serious moral reservations about capital punishment. "If you can't convince people of the sanctity of the greater cause, they are not going to carry the job out as effectively."

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/07/he..._r=6&th&emc=th

[/q]



so, what does this mean?

it sounds as if ignoring morality not only gives human beings an evolutionary advantage, but in some cases it requires the religious or philosophical sanctification of pernicious actions. it seems to be not so much that religious and spiritual beliefs are suspended when acting out of moral disengagement ... rather, they are simply shifted. they are as bending and malleable to our will as anything else. when the situation necessitates, our philosophies and theologies change focus, allowing us access to new rationales that justify our violation of our own moral code.

or, does this become an argument for humanizing sentimentalism and for knowing when to turn off the logic with growing evidence that people can shift between coherent reason and insidious rationalizations with the ease of pressing a button on a remote control. or, are we capable of manipualting even logic in order to justify what we perceive that we "must" do in certain situations -- is it all a series of rationalizations, all of it, that lead us to what it is we "must" or "want" to do?

pushing it a bit further, how culpable are we as a society when we have things like the death penalty -- or even physician assisted suicide -- which might require (and let's not get into the whole, "well, they chose their job, didn't they?" because people, especially someone who works in the prisons, have less real choice than we might initially think) precisely this kind of rationalization and weilding of logic and reason as weapons to justify something that seems morally reprehensible.
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Old 02-10-2006, 11:47 AM   #2
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Irvine, I know you and I have spoken infrequently but I must say, you are one of my favorite posters here. This thread is no exception.

And now to your article and your thoughts. Moral disengagement seems very similar to psychological disassociation whereas a person can separate their mind from their body and sense of self. This occurs with a lot of victims of abuse and their disassociation is a self-defense mechanism; a means to survive.

I never viewed the human capability to remove ourselves physically and in this case morally, as advantageous but it does make logical sense. With the socio-cultural pressures we face everyday, it does seem like when we disengage morally or otherwise, we do it because we are forced to or because we want to fit in with our peers. Either way, we would be "following the crowd" and in doing so, reinforcing our "normal" place in society. It's survival.

You mentioned that those who work in the prison industry have less choice in choosing their occupations than we think. In what ways do they face less choice?
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Old 02-10-2006, 02:41 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally posted by angel_of_L.A.
With the socio-cultural pressures we face everyday, it does seem like when we disengage morally or otherwise, we do it because we are forced to or because we want to fit in with our peers. Either way, we would be "following the crowd" and in doing so, reinforcing our "normal" place in society. It's survival.
Wherever your place in society, it comes in varying degrees at the expense of everyone below you in the heirarchy.

That said, everyone has a choice. Everyone. About everything. No exceptions.

People generally choose to maintain status quo or to move up the heirarchy. But at what cost to others? That permeates every aspect of our lives.

When we are overwhelmed with moral dilema, we either disengage (rationalize/ignore) or choose change.
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Old 02-10-2006, 03:13 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally posted by angel_of_L.A.
You mentioned that those who work in the prison industry have less choice in choosing their occupations than we think. In what ways do they face less choice?


first, thanks for the kind words.

i think it's better to say "probably have less choice" or "may have less choice." i'm guessing that death row work (of the logistical kind, not work done with inmates on death row) isn't terribly well paid, nor does it require much education.

i could be totally wrong, so please correct me if i am out of line.

by notions of choice what i mean is that it might appear as if we have a choice, but the costs are so great that choices are eventually made for us. two examples might be, first, the idea that the US Army, for example, is all volunteer. well, on the face of it, yes, but there are many kids who have no way out of their towns or communities except through the army. another example might be coal mining. it's well paid work, but doesn't require anything beyond a high school diploma (i don't think). so, if you are young and haven't been to college but you want to better yourself and support a family while remaining in the community into which you were born, coal mining might seem like a good choice, when the reality is that there really isn't much of a choice to begin with, or at least a choice that doesn't come at a significant cost.

i suppose what i was trying to draw out here is that the legality of the death penalty makes individuals killers in the service of the state.

for me, one of the best arguments against Physician Assisted Suicide is not the morality of one choosing to end one's life, but of the morality of involving another human being into that decision. it doesn't seem to fair to ask a doctor to kill you.

likewise, what about those involved in administering the death penalty. is it "moral" to ask them to morally disengage at the request of the state? and what does that require them to do? and might there be a cumulative effect?
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Old 02-10-2006, 04:27 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
i suppose what i was trying to draw out here is that the legality of the death penalty makes individuals killers in the service of the state.

for me, one of the best arguments against Physician Assisted Suicide is not the morality of one choosing to end one's life, but of the morality of involving another human being into that decision. it doesn't seem to fair to ask a doctor to kill you.

likewise, what about those involved in administering the death penalty. is it "moral" to ask them to morally disengage at the request of the state? and what does that require them to do? and might there be a cumulative effect?
Why is it wrong to end the life of someone who wants to die?

Is it morally wrong to ask someone to compromise their moral values? I say it is. So I don't agree in asking someone who is opposed to the death penalty to administer it. But the final moral decision still rests rests with the executioner...who has a very real choice of occupation.

Even if choice involves a high cost or high level of risk to do what you feel is the right thing, it's still a conscious, deliberate decision.

But the dilema of making a conscious, deliberate decision to do something you feel is morally wrong for self-preservation (or family or whatever) at the expense of someone else is what leads to moral disengagement. That's how wars and genocide happen as extreme examples of the cumulative effect.
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Old 02-10-2006, 06:56 PM   #6
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this thread is really interesting and stimulating

Thank you for posting this news snippet
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Old 02-11-2006, 12:00 AM   #7
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I like these topics too. Keep 'em coming, Irvine! Although it's more fun when people come at me with but but but but.... lol

It's kind of strange that the tone of the article suggests that moral disengagement is somehow a new concept. I thought this kind of subject was studied in depth post-Holocaust. Maybe it's just the new sexy buzzword.
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Old 02-11-2006, 06:48 AM   #8
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Re: moral relativity ... or, i know it's wrong, but i do it anyways

Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511

it sounds as if ignoring morality not only gives human beings an evolutionary advantage, but in some cases it requires the religious or philosophical sanctification of pernicious actions. it seems to be not so much that religious and spiritual beliefs are suspended when acting out of moral disengagement ... rather, they are simply shifted. they are as bending and malleable to our will as anything else. when the situation necessitates, our philosophies and theologies change focus, allowing us access to new rationales that justify our violation of our own moral code.
There is not much I can add to that.

Human beings have great capacity to twist and turn and rationalize to retain our good image of ourselves. What works to our advantage is ultimately our real moral code and we will be aided and abetted in it to give a stamp of moral approval.
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Old 02-11-2006, 12:01 PM   #9
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Re: Re: moral relativity ... or, i know it's wrong, but i do it anyways

Quote:
Originally posted by BonosSaint
What works to our advantage is ultimately our real moral code and we will be aided and abetted in it to give a stamp of moral approval.
And what's makes this facsinating is the ebb and flow between individual vs group advantage and group vs group advantage and the never-ending struggle to strike the right balance.
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Old 02-11-2006, 01:26 PM   #10
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I don't really think this is new. I think that in the 50's morality was very rigid. It was the talk of the town when someone got a divorce. No one was having babies out of wedlock (unless you were Ingrid Bergman, and she got banned from the movies for awhile). Every woman either got married or became a nun. Entertainment was Judy Garland movies. Catholics didn't eat meat on Fridays, period. Lent was one long period during which no one did anything celebratory for Catholics, and perhaps some Episcopalians. Then the sixties came along. People started to question things. The Vietnam war heated up, and people started to get angry about the news reports coming in showing the human carnage in Vietnam. People started having sit-ins and demonstrations. The birth control pill came in and people started limiting their family size. Drug use was endemic. People were smoking dope right here in Birmingham in two local parks in public and there were several massive busts at one and it shut down as a drug dealing place. Grace Slick and Paul Kantner had a baby out of wedlock and it was no disgrace. Pretty soon after this people started to have babies out of wedlock, and to hell with any community standard of morality.
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Old 02-11-2006, 09:00 PM   #11
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I think some instances of "moral disengagement" touched upon here--executioners, physician assisted suicide, killing in the service of one's country--could just as plausibly be framed as moral competition, i.e., a choice between two moral values which are not normally seen as conflicting, but appear that way under certain situations.

Ever read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Irvine?
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Old 02-13-2006, 11:23 AM   #12
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Quote:
Originally posted by yolland
I think some instances of "moral disengagement" touched upon here--executioners, physician assisted suicide, killing in the service of one's country--could just as plausibly be framed as moral competition, i.e., a choice between two moral values which are not normally seen as conflicting, but appear that way under certain situations.

Ever read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Irvine?


nope. have heard of it.

what would the competing moral values be for the examples you outline above? how, ultimately, do we decide (for we are choosing) which moral value wins out as the more moral of the two in these situations?
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Old 02-13-2006, 12:51 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by yolland
I think some instances of "moral disengagement" touched upon here--executioners, physician assisted suicide, killing in the service of one's country--could just as plausibly be framed as moral competition, i.e., a choice between two moral values which are not normally seen as conflicting, but appear that way under certain situations.

Ever read Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Irvine?
I read it in high school.
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Old 02-13-2006, 02:10 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
what would the competing moral values be for the examples you outline above?
Taking a human life VS

Executioner - providing for family.

Doctor - hypocratic oath.

Soldier - protection of country's citizens or propogation of country's ideologies


Quote:
Originally posted by Irvine511
how, ultimately, do we decide (for we are choosing) which moral value wins out as the more moral of the two in these situations?
Whichever one we feel we control the most and fear the least is how we decide what works best to our advantage.
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Old 02-13-2006, 02:15 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally posted by AliEnvy
Whichever one we feel we control the most and fear the least is how we decide what works best to our advantage.


so, ultimately, for many people, there is no higher standard to which we hold ourselves to -- ultimately, it's all there for us to manipulate to our advantage, that all seemingly "objective" standards -- notions of right and wrong -- are never absolute, and further, we take notions of being absolute and use them to justify our actions?
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