Golden Means*

I’ve been terribly bad at doing my work today. But then again, what I’ve been doing instead of work has been pretty good, in the sense that it has involved discussions, sports, food, more discussions, reading, coffee, talking, and laughing. Rather a lot. And all of these things – particularly due to the social aspect of it all – are things that I value.

Which brings me to…

a rather clunky segue. One of the things I read this afternoon was a post by Tauriq Moosa, about When Good Values are Bad for Us. As he concludes, it is less about the good values per se, and more about the absolutism that sometimes (often?) goes along with them – for example,

“Virtues themselves can become poisoned by fetish. Tolerance, generally, is a good thing for societies to have, but when tolerating differing views means there is no “true” perspective (“only interpretation”, as Nietzsche mocked) or that any criticism is “intolerance”, then we have tossed freedom and reality into the bubbling cauldron of paranoia.”

Etcetera. I thought it was an interesting read, and an important argument, so I just wanted to add a few comments.

1. There is some empirical evidence for the idea that “fetishizing the virtue of being “not a bad person”” can have negative effects. Merritt, Effron and Monin (2010) have studied something called “moral licensing”, whereby “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviours that are immoral”. As the researchers point out, there are some unanswered questions about how moral licensing works in theory, but it’s still worth keeping in mind, if you ever catch yourself thinking of yourself as “a good person”.

2. On the other hand, this article by Skitka, Bauman, and Lytle (2009) shows that moral convictions (which would be similar to Moosa’s absolutist values) can influence the perceived legitimacy of authorities. Moosa would probably use this as support for his argument as well (especially since the article is about physician-assisted suicide), but I’m in two minds – surely there are cases when having a conscience which challenges authority is going to serve a society well?

3. I guess the scenario I am picturing is probably something like Germany in WWII. If only more soldiers had said no to their orders…? (speaking of consciences of soldiers – have you seen this?) Mostly, though, war is a perfect example of where absolutist values have negative outcomes. In fact, in this research by Ginges and Atran (2011), deontological moral judgments about war (roughly analogous to absolutist values, again) lead to participants being “strikingly insensitive to quantitative indicators of success, or to perceptions of their efficacy”. (I blogged about these weird findings earlier.) Bad news for Israel/Palestine…

4. Finally, there’s the idea (talked about at MMPL earlier) that having a moral reason for acting in a given scenario (as opposed to “merely” a material one) can provide legitimacy for acting (in a particular way, in that particular scenario; Effron and Miller, 2012). Again, I’m sure this could have negative consequences as well, but I guess that further supports Moosa’s argument: there are some circumstances under which good values have bad effects.

The challenge, then, is to keep a close eye on those circumstances and work to get the balance right. Which sounds like something Aristotle would say… and he was a good person, so surely he can’t be wrong.

*Not to be confused with the Golden Rule, which can either be about the ethic of reciprocity, or a rather funny song by Lonely Island, depending on how you google.


"Which sounds like something Aristotle would say"

I always liked this quote:

Some vices miss what is right because they are deficient, others because they are excessive, in feelings or in actions, while virtue finds and chooses the mean. - Aristotle, the nicomachean ethics

Thanks for your comment!


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