On Moral Hypocrisy

A short review of types of moral hypocrisy:

Although individuals might easily recall worthy behavior, unethical incidents might “disappear” from their memory. … Even when people recognize their ethical inconsistencies, there are various ways to redefine unethical behavior as morally acceptable or at least as not entirely unethical. For example, participants can interpret not cheating to the maximum extent as maintaining ethicality or as resisting obvious temptations. … They can reframe taking a newspaper without paying the full price as paying something despite the absence of external enforcement measures. … People may justify their actions by reference to norms (“everyone is doing it”), to external pressures (“if I do not do it, I’ll be fired”), or to altruism and a greater cause (“this is what it takes to ensure people do not lose their jobs”). Other factors attenuating perceived unethical behavior include lack of intent, lack of clear harm, or absence of a concrete victim. … redefinitions, reinterpretations, and justifications allow one’s own small deviations from ethical standards to go unnoticed and give way to gradual relaxation of one’s ethical code and moral criteria.

That is from a paper focused on one particular type:

A recent example of … “the pot calling the kettle black” was the forced resignation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dean of admissions. The dean, known for her harsh policy toward students who puffed up their credentials or lied on their résumés, had embellished her own credentials when MIT first hired her; she had never received the bachelor’s or master’s degrees she claimed to have. …

Six studies demonstrate … [this] phenomenon. … Recalling an undeniable ethical failure, people experience ethical dissonance between their moral values and their behavioral misconduct. Our findings indicate that to reduce ethical dissonance, individuals use a double-distancing mechanism. Using an overcompensating ethical code, they judge others more harshly and present themselves as more virtuous and ethical (Studies 1, 2, 3). We show this mechanism is exclusive for ethical dissonance and is not triggered by salience of ethicality (Study 4), general sense of personal failure, or ethically neutral cognitive dissonance (Study 5).  …

The distancing response appeared when the ethical misconduct was both undeniable and hidden. Once the wrongdoing was visible and/or once participants could in some way justify it, participants abandoned the distancing solution. ….

Distancing differs from moral hypocrisy in three respects. First, distancing is elicited when solutions of moral hypocrisy such as rationalizations and justifications fail. Second, distancing refers to self-presentation rather than to judgment of the self. Third, in the distancing response a person uses the same — overcompensating — ethical code for judgment of others and for self-presentation. … [Researchers] found that following unethical behavior, people morally disengaged and were more lenient toward cheating. Such leniency resulted from participants’ justifying their own misbehavior as morally appropriate. In our research, participants could not rationalize their ethical misconduct. Thus, instead of showing lenience toward cheating (causing further threat to the self), they had to solve the internal tension with a distancing response and demonstrate stricter (rather than relaxed) criteria.

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  • Poelmo

    “Other factors attenuating perceived unethical behavior include lack of intent, lack of clear harm, or absence of a concrete victim…”

    If no harm is done and there is no victim and if this is not just a lucky fluke (as in, a reasonable and informed person would have expected, beforehand, the act not to do harm) then it is not an immoral act to begin with. If I grow 1kg of weed for my own “consumption” then that is not an immoral act, even if it happens to be illegal currently in the United States.

    • Dremora

      Notice the words “clear” and “concrete”. Where there is no clear harm, there can be probabilistic harm, i.e. risk increases. Where there is no concrete victim, there may be a larger set affected others who don’t fall into a victim category. A good example may be pollution: There’s no clear harm to any concrete victim caused by any one polluter, but the total sum of pollution increases health risks of many.

      • Poelmo

        Yes, I know that, but that’s not what I was talking about (a reasonable, informed person would expect pollution to harm a lot of people).

        I was talking about things that are often considered immoral (in the Puritan States of America) but really aren’t, such as smoking weed and pre-marital sex, on one hand and flaws in the justice system (if you try to stab someone but trip over a rock just before the act you’re not considered to be a criminal, even though it was luck, not your own conscience that stopped you) on the other hand.

      • Daniel

        “if you try to stab someone but trip over a rock just before the act you’re not considered to be a criminal”

        That’s attempted murder. It’s not punished as harshly as murder, but you’re still a criminal.

      • Poelmo

        If no one got hurt you could get away with it and even if you didn’t, why should the coincidental presence of the rock reduce your sentence? I think the most dramatic example of this fallacy is when someone is stabbed and shot and the perp is charged with armed assault, then the victim dies in the hospital and suddenly the perp gets charged for manslaughter. How can the nature of a crime change after it was committed? Why do the sentences for shooting someone 1mm above his heart (he survives) and shooting someone in the heart (he dies) differ, surely it can’t be a reasonable assumption that the perp is such a good marksman, with extensive anatomical knowledge, that he had actual control over where the bullet ended up, down to the millimeter?

        This is something I really just don’t get about the justice system (in addition to things like relying on witnesses and having judges who don’t understand statistics).

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

        Pollution may not be what you’re talking about, but I think that’s just the sort of thing the study was talking about.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        You are neglecting the real purpose of the criminal justice system (in the US). The real purpose is political, to differentially benefit politicians and to differentially injure minorities who are “the other” and to enrich those who control the police industrial complex (who then support “tough” politicians). The for-profit criminal justice system is why the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. With ~5% of the population, the US has ~23% of people incarcerated.

        Are Americans really that much more likely to commit crimes? Or is it a reflection of ethnic diversity where the majority uses the criminal justice system to suppress those of ethnicities different than the majority?

        That the US is such an aberration is a clear indication that the US is doing something seriously wrong. Either putting people in prison doesn’t deter crime but makes it worse, or there is something about the US education system that encourages criminality, or Americans have a very hard time getting along with different ethnic groups.

        If there were some “genetic” cause of crime, where US minorities were genetically predisposed to commit crimes, then the crime rate in their native regions should reflect the different gene pool composition and it does not (or the US would not be the highest).

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

        daedalus, I’d encourage you to read Mark Kleiman’s “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment”. Kleiman actually does think that at the current margin imprisonment isn’t effective, although in previous decades he was an advocate of greater incarceration (and doesn’t appear to regret his stance at that time). You can’t really understand mass incarceration in the U.S if you don’t understand the crime surge which preceded it (and the popular impression that switching from lenient to punitive policies improved it). The U.S is in a high crime high punishment equilibrium where the crime rate exceeds the justice system’s ability to easily get a handle on it, but when we do lock someone up it’s for a long time (and for the hyperbolic discounting reasons Richard Herrnstein could tell you about the marginal deterrent effect of each additional year drops a lot, and even the incapacitation effect does as well because the old are less criminal).

        Ethnic disparities in incarceration are not that different in the U.S compared to other common-law countries, blacks form a larger part of the population here than in the U.K. I have heard that England tolerates a higher violent crime rate (excluding homicide) than the U.S (although the surge increase in their crime rate seems to have come after our Great Sixties Freakout), and Kleiman (see the link in the previous sentence, after the bit about Uzoaba) thinks they are less punitive (at least with respect to the death penalty) because policy is more determined by educated than mass opinion. Except that as I showed with the GSS (you can find it through the link), educated people in the U.S are still in favor of the death penalty. Even restricting matters to homicide (where the U.S is unusually high, often attributed to the large number of guns in circulation), the U.S is not #1. Wikipedia has it at #35 as of 2010 (see their list of countries by intentional homicide rate), and in their longer list for the 1990s overall the only sub-saharan African countries below it are the Seychelles and (largely Indian) Mauritius. Both islands, oddly enough. The biggest problem in the data for a strictly racial theory of homicide to explain is why latin american countries seem to have higher rates than african ones, even while hispanics in the u.s have a considerable lower rate than african americans.

        The argument that crime policy is about politicians seems strange to me. What would criminal policy be like if it were entirely determined by citizen’s referenda? Like Kleiman, I actually expect it would be more populist & punitive.

      • Poelmo

        @deadalus

        Many of the same flaws can be found in the justice systems of continental Europe as well, so it’s not a strictly American matter. Europe does have a better system in many regards (less reliance on juries and entrapment is illegal), but you still have flaws like the one from my example with the victim dying in the hospital mid-trial.

        @TGGP

        Britain does not have a higher violent crime rate than the US. That’s a myth espoused by sensationalist Rupert Murdoch-owned British tabloids and NRA-lobbyists in the US. They all (ab)use statistics that compare Britain to the US, but, conveniently, fail to mention that the two countries use very different definitions and methodologies.

      • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com/ TGGP

        poelmo, do you have a link that can given an apples-to-apples comparison? When I try googling I mostly get Brit papers (I don’t know who owns them) and pro-gun forums. I also found a paper by three Italian academics on a “reversal of misfortune”, but it seems to be about crime generally speaking rather than violent crime.

  • http://deron.meranda.us/ Deron Meranda

    Does it follow then that people who exhibit a stronger than normal level of judging others against some moral criteria, that those same people are in fact more likely to have transgressed those same moral flaws because they are distancing themselves? If somebody makes a bit deal out of other people doing X is wrong, are themselves more likely to have done X.

    • Poelmo

      Maybe, but more research would have to be done to find that out. All they did here was claim that (on average) A –> B, but that doesn’t mean that A is the predominant source of B.

  • Evan

    A recent example of … “the pot calling the kettle black” was the forced resignation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dean of admissions. The dean, known for her harsh policy toward students who puffed up their credentials or lied on their résumés, had embellished her own credentials when MIT first hired her; she had never received the bachelor’s or master’s degrees she claimed to have. …

    From a purely consequentialist perspective the pot calling the kettle black isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I mean, would you say that if she’d ignored those false credentials it would be a good thing?

    I’ll use a really extreme example to illuminate things better: Imagine a serial killer who found out the identities of several other serial killers. If he turned them in would it be a good thing, or would it be a bad thing since that’s “the pot calling the kettle black.”

    The fact that the pot is black too doesn’t make the kettle any less black.

    I think the reason people find “the pot calling the kettle black” upsetting isn’t because it shows hypocrisy, it’s because it signals a lack of empathy and mercy.

    Because of akrasia, no one can live up to their moral ideals all the time. This doesn’t mean they’re hypocrites, it just means the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

    People know this, so we often show some measure of mercy to people who are suffering from akrasia, since we know their behavior is not 100% their fault. When someone has suffered from akrasia in the past it should be especially easy for them to understand what others are going through and show mercy. When they do not show mercy that is a strong signal that they are a merciless and unempathetic human being.

  • dovhenis

    Re hypocrisy:  meanwhile, back in the ranch…:

    Natural Selection Is Built-In Hypocrisy In US Science
    Structure

     

    A.

    http://www.nas.edu/

    Where the
    Nation Turns for Independent, Expert Advice

    THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES

    Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine

     

    B.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_policy_of_the_United_States

    In the Executive Office of the President, the main
    body advising the president on science policy is the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
    Other advisory bodies exist within the Executive Office of the President,
    including the President’s Council of Advisors
    on Science and Technology and the National Science and Technology Council.

    Further advice (on
    legislating science policy) is provided by extra-governmental organizations
    such as The National Academies, which was created and
    mostly funded by the federal government,[2] and the RAND Corporation, as well as other
    non-profit organizations such
    as the American Association for the
    Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society among others.

     

    C.

    Conflict of interest arises whenever the personal or
    professional interests of a board or committee member or of an expert adviser
    are potentially at odds with the best interests of the nonprofit…by the people
    for the people…

     

    D.

    I rest the people’s case…

     

    Dov Henis

    (comments from 22nd century)

    http://universe-life.com/