22 October 2018

The cruelty is a means

There's been a bunch of people asserting that the cruelty is the point.  I can see where they're coming from, but, no, the cruelty is a means.

Any moral system is fundamentally arbitrary; you can get any result you want through selecting context.  (You can watch this happen in most of the press.)

If moral systems are widely used, this creates a social role for "selector of moral context"; it doesn't matter if it's as priest or a psychologist or a tabloid editor or a judge or a local gerontocracy.  Someone's social role involves picking the context for the moral judgement.

Once you've got the role, you want to keep it.  Keeping it requires that other people in your social system acknowledge that you have the power to declare the moral context.  Arguments over who has this power have historically tended violent; "a priesthood of all believers" is a statement that everyone (in context of its time, every male head of household) got to set their own moral context and make decisions on that basis.  There was a generation of war in consequence, because any existing system wants to keep existing and will not and cannot tolerate having the basis of its social power removed.  And this is a kind of power that must be used to be maintained; there's a constant competition for who really gets to say, socially.

That's what the cruelty is for; you use cruelty to demonstrate your power to set the moral context. (If it doesn't have a potential social cost to agree with it, it wouldn't be a demonstration of power.)  Facts explicitly and necessarily have nothing to do with it.  (This is why you have a class of very rich people proud of their innumeracy.)  People go along so they can reinforce their goodness, which is inherently what people say they are.

It's not the poor who go anti-vax; it's the upper class.  They go anti-vax because having to acknowledge intractable facts is equivalent to having to admit that good and bad are not what they say they are; that they do not have entire control of the moral system.  And in a moral system, either you have the power to declare the context -- to say what is good, and what is bad -- or you do not.

This is precisely why authoritarians insist that the problem is _saying bad things_, rather than doing bad things; saying bad things about people questions their authority, which is functionally the power to declare the context for moral judgement.  It's precisely why low-status authoritarians support the whole system; it's a known context in which they are good.  That's pretty much what it's "for" at the participant level; you've outsourced a lot of your insecurity management to the people deciding what the moral context is.  You get a lot of truly vehement responses, because any threat to this, even apparently entirely trivial threats, is equivalent to "I am going to hurt you until you admit you're a bad person".

Pretty much anyone engaged in that exercise of power started as a child in a moral system social context, and they aren't necessarily conscious of how it works and they either want to be good -- which requires a greater authority to convey -- or they're completely disinterested in anyone else's notions of good and bad, having defined "good" as "I get what I want".

The fix for this is not a better moral system (that great trap of the social left); any moral system inherently requires that selection of context because "good" and "bad" are preference statements and inherently contextual.  (Someone has to be doing the preferring.)

The fix is to argue measurable material outcomes and organize society around those; the difficulty is that most people would rather be good.  It's not a live-and-let-live circumstance.


Kai Jones said...

As usual your explanation is more useful than anything else I can find. Okay to post else-Net?

Graydon said...

+Kai Jones linking is just fine! Please don't just copy the text, though.

Glad it's a useful explanation.

Zeborah said...

"The fix is to argue measurable material outcomes"

But how do you decide which measurable material outcomes? It's preferential all the way down.

Graydon said...

+Zeborah oh, you do have to argue about which objectives!

Materialism doesn't keep you from having to decide what you want for collective values of "you", but it does allow questions to be resolved.

Thing about going materialist is the nature of facts; they're independent of any one person's head. ("when you stop believing in it, and it doesn't go away...") So you have a mechanism of decision that doesn't depend on imposing a cohesive moral system, which is effectively an infinite effort sink. (and generally a nigh-infinite fount of autocracy and oppression.) This is a feature unless you're already powerful in setting-the-moral-context (and thus the social outcomes) sort of way.

Peter T said...

I'm largely with you, but cruelty in and of itself is rarely openly said to be "right". If you have to routinely resort to it, your position as moral arbiter is likely weakening, and increasingly implausible even to oneself (at this point you go crackpot with talk of the master race, divine right and similar notions).

Graydon said...

+Peter_T Depends on how your group does group formation. If it's exclusionary, cruelty to a designated outgroup gives you status. Given the general pattern of white supremacy (which is absolutely exclusionary group formation), there's a lot of kinds of cruelty that increase moral status. It's cruelty to the ingroup that loses you standing with respect to that group.