A Disturbing Beginning: Moral Judgment and Moral Error

As some readers are aware, Bob asked me a few days ago to contribute a little something each Wednesday about the stuff I and my friends out east are working on — especially the cross-overs between cognitive science and philosophy. Tomorrow morning is Wednesday, and I won’t have a chance to post anything before starting my day. Then again, it seems that many of you look at the blog in the morning or early afternoon anyway. So most of you will see this on Wednesday; and if you’ve read up to this point tonight (Tuesday), you can just save the rest for tomorrow! It’ll be like Christmas.

Before getting into some of the surprising discoveries that I’m keen to discuss with you, I’d like to set the stage this week by making clear why what I’m going to discuss in future weeks matters — and why it’s disturbing. The reason is that, however you make sense of the research I’m going to present in the coming weeks (well, some of the research, anyway), it seems that we have to radically rethink morality as we know it. I’ve been grappling with these issues for two years now (ever since I started working with Steve Stich on one of his courses) and I still don’t know what to make of it all. But I’ve certainly come to distrust my moral sense in ways I wouldn’t previously have thought possible.

Now, this might sound like no big deal, or perhaps even good news, to many readers. Wouldn’t it be liberating to have an opportunity to be freed from the constraints of silly old morality? I’ve had several students in my introductory courses over the years tell me this. These students, they say, really think that morality is a bunch of nonsense. They can’t understand why I care at all about it!

Well, after having many conversations with such students and lay people, I can tell you (with some relief, actually) that they realized soon enough that they didn’t really mean to reject all morality. What they meant was that they rejected bourgeois morality, or religious morality, or morality about the sexual and romantic choices of consenting adults, or something like that.

If you doubt whether you care at all about morality, please consider your reaction upon hearing of innocent elderly people being badly beaten by youths as a joke as part of a ‘knockout’ game. Or how you felt when you read about Wen Jones, the former marine (oops, marine no longer in active service — sorry, Bob!) from Florida who defended an innocent young stranger from a terrible beating by three lowlife bullies despite realizing that the bullies would turn on him next (and they did — he was beaten unconscious, and the cowardly maggots continued beating him in the face even when he had blacked out from a blow to the back of the head). Personally, I think the bullies and the ‘knockout’ players are doing something very, very bad, and that Wen Jones did something extremely good. Pretty well everyone feels as I do about these cases. But if you don’t care about morality, you won’t share these convictions and won’t really care about the rightness or wrongness of such actions, nor would you if they happened on the street in front of you. Unless by some slim chance you’re a sociopath, you would care!

Now that I’ve convinced you (I hope) that morality does matter to you just as it does to me, I’ll offer you a disturbing fact I’ve come across. An anthropologist who specializes in initiation rituals recently told me about the Etoro and Keraki tribes of Papua New Guinea. From about the age of seven, Etoro boys begin a lengthy ritual meant to transform them into men. As part of the ritual, they regularly fellate and then ingest the semen of adults (this is meant to be a sort of ‘passing on of the seed’ to the next generation). The Keraki have a somewhat similar ritual, except that Keraki boys are sodomized by adults and have the seed injected into them that way.

It’s difficult to write those words, and think of what they mean, without experiencing a visceral reaction of muted outrage. In our culture, even the cowardly bullies, thieves, murderers, rapists and ‘knockout’ players tend to think of adults who have sex with prepubescent children as the lowest of the low. The feeling that such acts are wrong — and would be even if intended as a coming of age ritual — carries with it for me the same level of conviction as does the sense I have that I’m typing this on a computer. I, for one, feel no room for error at all in my moral condemnation of such practices. But then, why do the Etoro and Keraki not share our feelings about this?

Since there seems to be no real question that these sexual encounters with children are very, very wrong, one clear (but non-PC) answer suggests itself. The Etoro and Keraki societies have simply not progressed to the point of moral refinement where they would notice the wrongness of their rituals. But as my anthropologist friend explained, this answer does not fit well with the evidence. For as it turns out, the Etoro are as struck by the wrongness of the Keraki practices, and the Keraki are as struck by the wrongness of the Etoro practices, as we are by the wrongness of either! And needless to say, both tribes think that our cultural practices are deficient in this way.

We all think our moral insights give us clear insight into the nature of moral reality, in just the way that our eyesight gives us clear insight to what large solid objects are in our path. But is that view of our moral intuitions sustainable?

To put it more clearly: do we perceive that things are right or wrong and develop pro or con feelings toward them on that basis? Or is it possible that we develop pro or con feelings toward things on the basis of our environment, our genes, the personal details of our lives, and so on and then make up ‘just so’ stories to justify our moral judgments after the fact?


34 thoughts on “A Disturbing Beginning: Moral Judgment and Moral Error

  1. This post reminds me that I can’t remember my early years apart from one or two incidents. I wonder if part of our growing up is wanting to be a fit with our society and the result is we become what is expected of us. Along the way I was willing to give up the child to become the judgmental adult.


    • We do to some extent “become what is expected of us”. But we also rise above expectations or else there would not be any moral advancement. (slavery, egalitarianinsm. etc.)


  2. Many students believe that morality is only about sexual practices.
    The other widespread belief is what I call “Grade 12 relativism” – the strong belief that moral practices are completely relative. And practices change over time.
    Your examples above seem to support the notion that whatever my tribe does is what is moral. That is the default position.
    What is it to be moral? Ahh, that is the question.


    • But what about the beatings (in the Wen Jones case and the ‘knockout game’ case)? I hope your students don’t believe that those are morally neutral! Do they really?


      • Oh, no! But they would say that those are wrong because they are wrong in our tribe. Or, against the law. Or against the BIG LAW in the sky!


  3. Thanks, jfc! This opening salvo should generate a discussion. I too always found the first day of a moral philosophy class a day that started (not surprisingly) with the sex talk discussion. Followed almost immediately by the “cringe” factor or as some call it the “yuck” factor. I look forward to our weekly “class”. Lots to talk about: including _ When and how does a social practice become a moral matter?


    • After the initial sex talk we begin to talk about just what are the moral aspects of sexual behaviour. Honesty, responsibility, consequences . . .


  4. Good examples to start a discussion.
    – Let me try my Socratic answer: if we know enough we will always do that which is right. Those tribes in your anthro examples will change their practices once they learn some biology.
    – We do have a built in yuck factor, but it doesn’t always lead us to the right action! Or, as I recall from Bob’s class “the man on the Clapham omnibus is not always the best source of moral judgments”.


    • Thanks. So, if I understand you correctly: you’re saying that deep moral disagreements like these come about because at least one side gets the non-moral facts wrong (e.g. biological facts about what boys need to become virile men), and that the side that isn’t making a non-moral error is getting it right and could rationally persuade the other side if it could only persuade that side to accept the scientific, etc. facts?


      • That is part of my claim. The examples you use are supposed to incite us to say “Oh, that is terrible!” but further investigation may determine that in both cases the tribes are simply doing what they believe to be best for their kids! So, you are counting on the “Yuck” factor. If we can show someone in the tribe that these practices do not really have anything to do with the flourishing of their kids then they may come to see that they are wrong. Think of how we in the West have changed our beliefs about slavery, women, gay marriage, and so on.


        • Oh, I think it’s more or less _certain_ that these people are simply doing what’s best for their kids! I was interested in whether you thought that these other cultures were just mistaken in their assessments, and you’ve answered that question for me. Thanks!


  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Just to focus the discussion a bit: what do you think is the best explanation for the fact that the Etoro and Keraki find each other’s practices immoral and disgusting, but not their own?

    In particular: are they confused about what morality really demands of us in this respect, while we alone among the three cultures are getting it right?


    • I do not think they are “confused about what morality really demands of us” for I believe that they are acting on a principle (those that think about it) that says “Do that which will make your children better off in life” (similar to our own standard) – some do it just because it is a long time practice, but I can see a revolt coming led by a young man who urges reform. These people are not much different than our own culture which once held slavery and the oppression of woman as the “moral” thing to do. It is as Bob used to say in Phil. 112, (I still have the notes!) people who have different non-moral situations and beliefs may be acting from the same moral belief. I remember his story about 3 people at Westwood Lake who all observe a young woman in the lake who is in trouble. Each one does something different: one runs off into the woods; one runs to her car; one runs toward the lake to swim out to the girl. But each is trying to save the girl given his/her unique circumsatance. One can swim. Two cannot. One of the two runs to her car to get a rope. One of the two runs to the woods to get a long stick.
      Each has acted morally!


      • I remember this! (I may not know what day it is, but…) I think I had a viewer in a helicopter flying over the lake sending our class reports by radio – “oh, look one chicken-shit is running away toward the forest”.


        • Thanks: I see that what I said was somewhat unclear.

          In determining what we should do morally, it seems we consider two things: the moral principle we ought to follow, and the relevant non-moral facts as we understand them.

          In the case of the drowning woman, the people all agree that the moral principle is ‘all other things being equal, you must save people from drowning’. But each follows a different path to following that principle.

          In the case of the PNG tribes and us, you’re saying we have a _surface_ disagreement about what morality demands (we believe that they should not treat their children that way, and they think they should); but a _deep_ agreement (since all of us think that morality demands that you do whatever will lead to your children becoming healthy and happy adults). Is that it?


  6. It’s a matter of reflecting on how our actions harm or heal others after we have been indoctrinated into our particular societies. We are capable of compassion and empathy.


    • And when these other cultures reflect on how their actions affect the boys in their societies, they think that it’s right for them to undergo these things! Are they wrong?


      • We need to try to determine WHY? they are following the practices they follow. What are their beliefs? Can we engage in a discussion with the tribal leaders? Send jfc to counsel them???


        • It’s to make the young men more manly as they advance into adulthood. While they fellate (or are sodomized by) the older boys and men, they undergo painful ordeals to toughen them up, etc.


  7. Some “advanced” cultures continue to practice circumcision. Some force their children to be baptized and to be confirmed through a painful initiation rite! Some continue to employ female genital mutilation etc.
    It is a good time in the discussion to recognize the difference between Action relativism (AR) and Standard relativism (SR). In both tribes, in fact in all tribes, I take it, the adults are acting in a way they believe to be necessary to advance the welfare of their children.
    But, notice, AR does not imply SR.


      • Thanks, SOB: I’d heard about the Asch experiment before, but had never seen how it looked. Very interesting! And thank you for clarifying the important difference between anthropological relativism and moral relativism, Bob: many people get confused between them.

        Let me see whether I’m clear on the line you’re both taking: you’re saying that
        1) there’s some objective moral fact as to whether or not male circumcision, female genital mutilation, and the initiation rituals of Papua New Guinea are morally permissible or impermissible;
        2) there are non-moral facts (facts about child development, about pain, about hygiene, about religious claims, etc.) such that, if everyone knew the truth about them, they would no longer disagree about circumcision, FGM, and the PNG initiation rituals;
        3) however, cultures have radical disagreements on these non-moral matters, which explains why they disagree on the moral issues;
        4) these non-moral disagreements are on objective matters, so some cultures are just getting them wrong; and
        5) the reason why some cultures get them wrong can be explained in terms of such things as the psychological pressure to conform to one’s social group (as in the Asch experiment).

        Is that what you’re saying?

        Also, do you think there’s a good reason for thinking that our culture is getting these things right while at least some of these cultures are getting them wrong? Or should we just remain skeptical and say that we have no idea, really, whether these various initiation rituals are morally OK or not?


        • Sounds OK. There are many examples one could use. For simplicity and for the sake of some theatrics I used to use the drowning woman case to start the discussion about AR. We also talked about a commandment like,Honour your father and your mother. And when we pretty much all agreed that was commendable we would point to differing practices:
          1. when they get old and cannot remember what day it is, put them on a small ice flow and wish them bon voyage!
          2. put them in a home for the bewildered and never visit them.
          3. etc.


  8. This was the warm-up round. I wanted to get people to invest in a particular view that I used to hold as obviously true until I had to grapple with some other information I’ve come across over the past two years. But for that investment to happen, I needed others here to say certain things… and now they’ve been said!

    I hope that leaves you wondering about what could be coming up on future Wednesdays.


      • Re: virtue = knowledge
        I remember back in Bob’s 112 class we had a visit from an anthropologist during our discussion of moral relativity who talked about a trip with two students to a tribe he had been working with in Africa. The tribe had the female genital mutilation practice. A father of one of the girls told one of the Mal-U female students about the practice. He said if they didn’t do it his daughter would grow a penis which would ruin her life. He knew it hurt her, but believed by stopping her from growing a penis he was acting in her best interest. The female anthro student told him that she had not been mutilated and had not grown a penis. She showed him. Apparently he was going to re-consider the practice!
        The other thing I remember about the visit was the anthro prof’s claim that they had to function as impartial observers who never made value judgments to get any information of value. So, all anthropologists act on the principle of impartiality. One of our class members asked him, “Is that a moral principle?” It was a fun day.
        How does knowledge help? Well, try this: one tribe believes they have to sacrifice a virgin to get a corn crop. Tribe 2 believes that planting corn seed with a fish will produce more corn. They agree to a test. Tribe 2 always produces more corn. Soon Tribe 1 believes that sacrificing a fish will do more good than sacrificing a virgin. Change of beliefs (knowledge) leads to more live virgins and more corn to feed them. (value)


  9. Thanks! I’m glad to have that important point set out clearly and will discuss it in tomorrow’s post.

    However, I’m not sure about the final part (your scenario of two tribes with different beliefs about corn). Tribe 1 believes that burying a fish with the seed is the best way to maximize corn; Tribe 2 believes that sacrificing a virgin is the best way. Tribe 1’s beliefs, as I understand it, are correct (the fish will fertilize the soil?) while Tribe 2’s beliefs are not. Moreover, Tribe 1 is not killing a virgin and Tribe 2 is, so Tribe 1 is acting more ethically (supposing it’s more ethical to kill a fish than to kill a human virgin).

    But isn’t this just a coincidence? Suppose that there are two other tribes: Tribe 3 believes that burying a sacrificed virgin with the corn will increase the yield, and Tribe 4 believes that praying to the fish god and then looking up an unfamiliar word in the dictionary will increase the yield. This time, Tribe 3 will have the better yield (if indeed having some decomposing meat in the soil makes it more fertile), but it’s less ethical and the members of Tribe 3 have no more knowledge than those in Tribe 4.


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