Moral Legacy Myths

Imagine that you decide that this week you’ll go to a different doctor from your usual one. Or that you’ll get a haircut from a different hairdresser. Ask yourself: by how much do you expect such actions to influence the distant future of all our descendants? Probably not much. As I argued recently, we should expect most random actions to have very little long term influence.

Now imagine that you visibly take a stand on a big moral question involving a recognizable large group. Like arguing against race-based slavery. Or defending the Muslim concept of marriage. Or refusing to eat animals. Imagine yourself taking a personal action to demonstrate your commitment to this moral stand. Now ask yourself: by how much do you expect these actions to influence distant descendants?

I’d guess that even if you think such moral actions will have only a small fractional influence on the future world, you expect them to have a much larger long term influence than doctor or haircut actions. Furthermore, I’d guess that you are much more willing to credit the big-group moral actions of folks centuries ago for influencing our world today, than you are willing to credit people who made different choices of doctors or hairdressers centuries ago.

But is this correct? When I put my social-science thinking cap on, I can’t find good reasons to expect big-group moral actions to have much stronger long term influence. For example, you might posit that moral opinions are more stable than other opinions and hence last longer. But more stable things should be harder to change by any one action, leaving the average influence about the same.

I can, however, think of a good reason to expect people to expect this difference: near-far (a.k.a construal level) theory. Acts based on basic principles seem more far than acts based on practical considerations. Acts identified with big groups seem more far than acts identified with small groups. And longer-term influence is also more strongly associated with a far view.

So I tentatively lean toward concluding that this expectation of long term influence from big-group moral actions is mostly wishful thinking. Today’s distribution of moral actions and the relations between large groups mostly result from a complex equilibrium of people today, where random disturbances away from that equilibrium are usually quickly washed away. Yes, sometimes they’ll be tipping points, but those should be rare, as usual, and each of us can only expect to have a small fraction influence on such things.

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  • Daublin

    It’s quite similar to voting, isn’t it.

    As for why people do it, I’d hazard two reasons. For many people, they don’t want to be ostracized for being on the wrong side of an issue. I see this among a lot of women who feel like they have to take the “feminist” position on any issue.

    Another reason is to gain influence by exploiting this response in other people. It’s good to be the person who decides what the next big moral movement is going to be. You can slant the rules in your favor.

  • Katja Grace

    It seems unfair to include ‘visibly taking a stand’ in the large group morality hypothetical, but not in the other hypothetical. It seems very likely that people expect more visible things and things that are ‘taking a stand’ more to more influence the future on average than private, passive actions, but these axes are orthogonal to your point. I expect if I visibly take a stand on hairdressers, this will affect the future more than my usual hairdresser choices.

    • I could believe that visible actions have more influence, but I expect most people expect much more influence from the visible moral act than the visible hairdresser act.


    “So I tentatively lean toward concluding that this expectation of long term influence from big-group moral actions is mostly wishful thinking.”

    Mostly, but not completely (tipping points exist and they won’t be tipped by someone randomly going to another hairdresser), and that’s what matters…

    In any case many people are fully aware their personal actions don’t have much of an effect, but they hope the collective action of the group does. Because people do such things many times during their lives the changes of the total system actually do depend on people putting effort into such actions. It’s a form of responsibility that humans are unconsciously drawn to, like all social animals. Democracy is a clear example: your vote doesn’t carry much influence and the majority may vote agaisnt your position but if you don’t vote the whole system of democracy can’t work and that means more than just maintaining the status quo, it means some other (worse, according to Churchill) form of government would rise.

    • But the collective action of the group can also influence for big-group-moral actions as well.

      • IMASBA

        Could you rephrase that sentence?

        Anyway, what I meant was that individual actions do have a profound influence on the world, just not directly and not always in the way you intended it to. Your moral actions don’t seem to have much influence on the world but if everyone stopped putting effort into moral actions that would have a profound effect on the world, just like a lot of things would change if everyone stopped voting. That most humans do not become societal freeriders is just the result of us not being 100% homo economicus in practice. Ants help build a colony that they won’t live to see the completion of, humans put effort into moral actions that only have indirect effects on the world and mostly for later generations.

      • IMASBA

        Of course the mechanism that makes humans consciously justify putting a lot of effort into moral actions might very well be pre-programmed severe overestimation of the direct effects of individual moral action, just like you described.

      • My post is not about collective vs. individual action – it is about big-group moral vs other actions.

      • IMASBA

        “My post is not about collective vs. individual action – it is about big-group moral vs other actions.”

        So was my reaction. Big-group moral actions often become collective actions: there are usually only two camps on a moral issue, whereas there are many different hairdressers in one city alone, that doesn’t mean random changes of hairdresser cannot create a new fashion trend (that happens all the time), it’s just that people are right to believe big-group moral actions also have an effect (though they overestimate the extent of the effect), and that the effect of big-group moral action on big-group moral issues is stronger than the effect of hairdresser choice on big-group moral issues. Maybe what you’re trying to say is that fashion trends decide the state of the world just as much as the set of laws on some big-group moral issue and that people don’t recognize that. To that my answer would be that the laws on big-group moral issues “feel” much more important to people and in a way that makes them more important.

      • It is in far mode that big group moral stands feel more important. In near mode, hair and hangnails seem more important.

      • IMASBA

        “It is in far mode that big group moral stands feel more important. In near mode, hair and hangnails seem more important.”

        Sure, but people tend to regard their far selves more as their true selves (for things we do in near mode and do not agree with in far mode we have expressions such as “I wasn’t being myself” or “insanity defense” or “addiction”). Ideals and laws are based on far mode and there’s actually a rational explanation for that: you can’t base a society on near mode thinking (in near mode we do things like panicking, every man for himself, etc… things you cannot base solidarity on), of course knowing people behave differently in near mode is very important when building a society (we see this daily in economic matters).

  • We feel social pressure to conform to moral beliefs but diverge on logistical questions. “That barbershop is full. Let’s go down the street.” Vs. “Looks like gays get respect these days. I’ll respect them, too.”

    As a society, logistical questions are stationary processes while moral beliefs are random walks.

    Moral stands probably influence the future more than mundane personal decisions, but for most it’s probably not much.

    • There is a lot of random walk in non-moral actions.

      • This is true. However, people care most passionately non-moral actions which have rw components. For instance, there’s almost tribalism in consumer choices which feature network externalities such as Xbox vs Playstation or Android vs iPhone.

  • blink

    Doctors and hairdressers are inherently private goods whereas morality is largely about coordination. Visibly taking a stand creates common knowledge that a position is “out there” and provides a focal point for coordination. I might have a very weak personal preference about the issue and still change my belief to match the social norm. On this view, moral sentiments are likely to be fragile, path-dependent, and highly susceptible to tipping points.

    • There is a lot of coordination in our collectively choosing what hairstyles are in fashion, or in deciding of chiropractors should get respect like doctors.

  • It’s not a whole lot different to how the free market works.

    If one vendor has a marginally better product than another, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference whether you chose one or the other. But in aggregate, it makes all the difference – it’s what makes the market work.

    It’s a facile and juvenile argument anyway. Individual choices are almost all pointless and ineffectual in isolation, yet add up to more than they seem to warrant, just like Brownian motion add up to the gas pressure laws. It’s not myth. We’re simply not built to intuit aggregate action.

  • What about Timur Kuran’s theory of “preference falsification”? Publicly acting in some morally salient manner may cause a sort of “tipping point” effect where others are also willing to act in such a manner, even to the point that the act becomes normative. Fewer people take notice if you switch doctors.

    • The world of non-moral actions is full of tipping points as well.

      • A lot of arguments Kuran makes in work like “Private Truths, Public Lies” apply more to political/moral matters. For example, the phenomena of “political correctness” (in its most abstract form) is about discouraging the expression of certain ideas/attitudes (and to some extent the encouraging of others), which is a lot easier to do when the expression is below a certain critical mass. When something is discouraged like that, it pretty much by definition becomes a normative matter.

      • People can and do falsify all sorts of non-moral preferences.

  • Owen Cotton-Barratt

    Here’s my take at unravelling the riddle:

    I guess the world bears enough resemblance to a chaotic system that random actions do have long-term influence. I think if I go to a different hairdresser that the world may well end up different in the particulars in many ways further down the line (and some of these may happen to have larger consequences). However, I have no idea of the direction of that difference, so my expectation for added value is close to zero, and it is this which is decision relevant.

    I don’t think that the moral stance will necessarily result in a larger change, but I’m more confident about the direction of the change — so in expectation the value added is much bigger.

    • If you wear your hair long, you are likely to push hair fashion to be longer. That seems just as predictable as moral pushes.

      • Owen Cotton-Barratt

        But I don’t have any idea if hair fashion being longer is a good or a bad thing, in the long run. (Similarly the actual example of using one hairdresser rather than another is predictably going to increase the chance of one rather than the other staying in business. But I’m very unconfident about which will lead to a better world.)

        I do think there is something to your explanation as well. But not that that explains the whole difference.

      • People care a lot about their hair today. I think what you are saying is that in far mode people care more about far things. So when you think about the distant future you care more about morality than hair.

      • Silent Cal

        I think Owen is onto the right answer here. People mostly don’t care about hair length in the future, so they don’t consider it an important change if they help drive a trend towards long hair. You could say that a long-haired future and a short-haired future are the same macrostate.

        That is, when people talk about ‘impact’ on the future, they don’t mean some kind of value-neutral ‘edit distance’, they mean ‘impact on far-mode values’, so of course their moral choices will have more of this ‘impact’.

        There’s a good chance they’ll overestimate the ‘edit distance’ too, but the argument here doesn’t prove that.

  • Will

    Choices now probably affect the opinions of the future, but future hairdressing opinions don’t matter much. Future moral opinions could matter much more. I think people usually do imagine small changes influencing the future, just mostly things that don’t matter.

    Also, we see in fashion more than morality a strong negative feedback, where if long hair is cool for too long then short hair becomes cool as an explicit reaction. While this effect may occur on reality, it is less pronounced, less clear-cut, and less explicit.

    Morality has undergone some long-term trends. Have some fashion areas undergone long-term trends? I’ve heard arguments about some. On such a fashion matter, would people imagine their actions helping to continue or fighting against the trend? I think so, at least more than hair length.

    • As measured by how much effort people today put into their hair and doctor choices, those choices are more important to them than basic moral choices. So why shouldn’t those be more important to the future as well?

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    A nuance to that proposed above is where the distinction between a moral ‘opinion’, or ‘belief’, and an action based upon one’s moral inclinations are drawn. For example, the opinions of abolitionists in eighteenth-century mattered very little, in that in the ratification of the United States constitution in 1789 only paid lip service to the personhood of Black slaves. However, over the next eighty years, the influence of these individuals expanded to ever more individuals in the Northern half of the United States, to the point where the nation’s ruling politicians saw value in at least signaling that they wanted to abolish slavery in the United States. This became a major basis for the United States Civil War. For the record, if you’re reading this, and you have information that the US Civil War wasn’t very much about slavery at all, please share. I’m interested, because I could be wrong here, and I’m not well-versed in modern American history.

    Anyway, as more of American individuals became abolitionists, their influence grew. Also, the influence of some individual abolitionists became much greater, as at some point in time their opinions grew to influence more people than they might have even hoped for. Of course, the influence of the moral opinions of an individual depends upon who that individual is, and that need not be a function of their purely moral standing. A wealthy person, a senator, or a well-known author would have much more social capital with which to signal their abhorrence of the slavery of fellow humans than a factory worker, or a farmer. Beyond the end of the American Civil War, to the present, the moral opinions of more influential individuals, and the flow-through effects of those opinions, have shaped the course of politics, and race relations, in various parts of the United States.

    Another caveat to my above example is that Dr. Hanson is probably referring to a ‘far future’ time scale which is more than the inception of the United States as an independent nation-state, to the present. I wouldn’t bet that the moral opinions of modern individuals of the last few hundred years will affect the coming millenium as we would hope they would. So, I’m wondering how big of an event, as a product of moral opinions of today’s civilization, would it take to shape the values of the descendants of humans living one thousand years from now.

    • The inception of the US until today seems a fine example timescale to me.

  • Evan Gaensbauer

    Also note that non-moral, practical considerations of one form, or another, will effect moral considerations we make. Firstly, people will be less likely to publicly send costly signals about their care for others if there is great chance of harm to themselves. For example, under the rule of an authoritarian state, without the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech, the average individual is much less likely to speak out against what actions of the powerful they perceive as atrocious, compared to, like, a Western democracy.

    Secondly, people will be more likely to signal a moral concern for others if it’s to their personal (and political) advantage to do so. For example, in most areas of the United States, it’s much more costly for politicians to publicly declare their support for discrimination of race, or sexual preferences, i.e., be openly racist, or homophobic, than it was for politicians elected fifty years ago.

  • orthonormal

    Evidence screens off argument, and we have plenty of evidence that there are knowable circumstances where making a visible stand can influence other people. (Most notably, as in Asch’s conformity experiment, the first person in a social group to espouse a cause can get others to come forward.) That has a nonnegligible flow-through effect on donations, public opinion, etc.

    Of course, most people take their public stances precisely in the contexts where they’ll have the least effect (preaching to the choir or preaching to total strangers) because that’s the least frightening, or even when taking stances within the right context they’ll optimize for variables besides effectiveness of influence, but I don’t think your main point carries over to (say) the effective altruist movement, which does optimize for influence better than the average cause.

    • I didn’t say that visible stands never have influence. I said that I don’t see why big-group moral stands should have more influence than all the other visible actions we take all the time.

      • Jess Riedel

        Because big-group stands are coordinated actions that all push toward a goal, while the influences caused by many people each getting a haircut are uncorrelated and therefore average out? Insofar as people coordinate to get a certain kind of haircut, I expect them to have a similar effect on future hairstyles as moral stands have on future moral behavior, i.e. tiny but non-zero. And if you care more about future moral behavior than future hairstyle, you’ll choose to take moral stands today.

      • IMASBA

        Yes, that’s a good explanation.

      • It isn’t obvious that moral stands are in fact more coordinated that other actions, nor that coordinated actions tend to have more long term influence.

      • Jess Riedel

        I find both of those obvious.

        Are you claiming that current haircuts and current moral stands will have the same expected impact on future moral behavior (where “expectation” is defined in terms of our real-world predictive abilities)?

      • I of course expect that hair acts today are more likely to influence future hair acts, relative to other sorts of acts.

      • Jess Riedel

        I’m not sure if you are moving ahead in the argument in a way I don’t understand, or whether you simply misread my question. My question was comparing the separate effects on future morals of (1) current hair and (2) current morals. If current morals have a greater impact on future morals than current hair does, and if we care about future morals more than future hair, shouldn’t we take moral stands and neglect our haircuts?

      • It is in far mode that we think we care much more about morals than about other future things. In near mode we might well care more about hair.

      • Jess Riedel

        Are you really claiming that we care more about the hair of our far-future descendants than about their morals? In any mode?

        It sounds like you’re retreating to the claim that we care more about our own, current hair than about the morals of our descendants.

  • I agree that the expectations of long-term effectiveness of large-group moralism are based on illusion; but I don’t think CLT explains it so directly. You write:

    longer-term influence is also more strongly associated with a far view.

    Not so fast! Of the two, the far is the more permanent. To test your explanation, you should consider far matter that isn’t moral. We are more prone to see a certain far future as predetermined than we are, in that manner, to see tomorrow.

    It isn’t, really, that we are prone to think that humans have long term-moral influence. The “we” is particular: “we” (each) think “our” moral acts (and those of others who agree with “us”) will be influential … because “we” believe “our” morals are true. Naive moral realism explains the moral presumptuousness you describe. (For an anti-realist approach to morality, see “Why do what you “ought”?—A habit theory of explicit morality” )

  • michael vassar

    Isn’t the simplest explanation for certain types of acts, such as those involving the more distant future and bigger groups, seeming far is that such acts *are* far? That’s usually why things seem one way or another. Acts *aiming* to produce an effect of a given sort (e.g. an effect on the long term future) seem, on priors, much more likely to produce such effects, while acts aiming to produce effects on hair length, for instance, seem more likely to produce effects on hair length

    • But big-group moral acts are not usually framed primarily in terms of their long term influence. People usually give other reasons for them. And even if they did usually give that reason, our inability to identify a plausible causal path to more influence should cause us to doubt, if we would have predicted people giving that reason anyway.

      • But big-group moral acts are not usually framed primarily in terms of their long term influence.

        CLT predicts that people will tend to frame big-group moral acts in terms of their long-term influence; their doing so “primarily” isn’t required to distinguish the alternatives by degree of long-term orientation.

        You can’t rely on CLT only when it suits you!

        our inability to identify a plausible causal path to more influence should cause us to doubt

        It should affect your “priors” somewhat adversely, but not necessarily enough to cause “doubt” (assuming, of course, there was other reason for belief).

  • costaric

    Good post Robin. Thoughtful as always.

  • brendan_r

    Seems right. Folk’s *positive* social beliefs sway with fashion more than evidence. On *positive* racial equality, the evidence is little different today than 100 years ago, but conventional wisdom has radically inverted. Moral claims are obviously more arbitrary than positive ones, so if positive claims are so fashion prone, then moral claims are even more so; maybe just as much as hairstyles.

  • John Salvatier

    Interesting, but I think could use more examples.

  • Sebastian_H

    “When I put my social-science thinking cap on, I can’t find good reasons to expect big-group moral actions to have much stronger long term influence.”

    In group dynamics. Except for very limited circles, disagreement over which hairdresser you use won’t risk ostracism for being on the wrong side of the disagreement. Moral questions are part of how we define who counts as the good “us” and who counts as the barbarian “them”. Taking a public stand on a moral question is more likely (though perhaps still very very unlikely) to change the in/out dynamic than hairdresser choice because people fear being on the wrong side of that divide.

    • But why would changes to current in/out dynamics be more likely to have lasting influence?

      • Sebastian_H

        Because they are structural changes to the background assumptions rather than detail changes to day-to-day operations (who cuts your hair…)

  • Philip Goetz

    It isn’t a question of the size of impact. It’s a question of its importance. Choosing to get a new haircut style may have a large impact by some ways of measuring, but we don’t care. It’s morally random. And morals means something like “things we care about”.

    • And morals means something like “things we care about”.

      There are many nonmoral things we care about. In fact, I bet there are things you care about much more than any morals!

      As to what morals really are, see my habit theory. ( )

      • Philip Goetz

        Hmm, let’s say morals are about the things that we still care about even when they happen to other people? My point is Robin is trivially correct in that what kind of shoes I wear may have a big “impact”, if we measure impact in square inches of matter affected, because my shoe choice changes my footprint. Robin’s post is meaningless unless you specify how you measure impact. Morals, especially what I would consider “rational morals” (rather than, say, religous proscriptive morals), mean something close to how you measure the impact of your actions on other people.