Moral Rules Are To Check Power

Three recent papers from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology combine to tell an interesting tale:  We fundamentally care about outcomes, but have rule morality to keep powerful folks from doing bad things to the rest of us. This is of course not a new idea, but new data offers new support.

From August:

Thinking about and having power affects the way in which people resolve moral dilemmas. … In determining whether an act is right or wrong, the powerful focus on whether rules and principles are violated, whereas the powerless focus on the consequences. For this reason, the powerful are also more inclined to stick to the rules, irrespective of whether this has positive or negative effects, whereas the powerless are more inclined to make exceptions. … The power–moral link is reversed when rule-based decisions threaten [powerful] participants’ own self-interests.

From March:

A distinction is made between two forms of morality. … Prescriptive morality is sensitive to positive outcomes, activation-based, and focused on what we should do. Proscriptive morality is sensitive to negative outcomes, inhibition-based, and focused on what we should not do. Seven studies profile these two faces of morality. … Both are well-represented in individuals’ moral repertoire and equivalent in terms of moral weight, but proscriptive morality is condemnatory and strict, whereas prescriptive morality is commendatory and not strict. … proscriptive morality was perceived as concrete, mandatory, and duty-based, whereas prescriptive morality was perceived as more abstract, discretionary, and based in duty or desire; proscriptive immorality resulted in greater blame, whereas prescriptive morality resulted in greater moral credit.

From June:

Three studies tested the hypothesis that people would be particularly sensitive to the fairness of decision-making procedures when they experience deprivation of autonomy needs. Study 1 indicated that procedural justice judgments indeed were influenced more strongly by variations in decision-making procedures among participants who experienced little autonomy in their life.

The basic idea here is that moral norms are enforced via social censure, which requires that observers be able to tell who has violated moral norms.   When there are norm ambiguities, powerful people will find it easier to falsely claim they have followed norms, implicitly threatening those who contradict them.  To avoid this, powerful folks are held to rule norms that are easier for observers to verify.

Here is a somewhat-related result, from the July Psychological Science:

Among people who are highly identified with a group, learning about the group’s injustice leads to short-term increases in group-serving behavior.

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  • The personalities and lab (Tiber, Netherlands) this study came out of is interesting.

  • beanie

    Robin Hanson. Stating the obvious, one blog post at a time.

  • Any restriction is a check to power–morals are just a kind of restriction that we have a positive feeling towards based on ideals (such as justice, benevolence) that have been inculcated for centuries.

    Justice is only kind to the victim. Those who have power most often are not the victims. The concept of Justice appeals to people not because it is fair and fairness is inherently good, but instead because Justice elevates certain principles above where it is believed the currently powerful can strike at them. All men are judged equally under Justice, regardless of how much power they have. Naturally, Justice will favor he who is exploited. Unfortunately, the machinery of justice is controlled by the powerful (and perhaps can only be controlled by the powerful), which is a kind of self-negation.

    So the morals, which are the calibrations of the scales of justice, are restrictions on everyone, but these restrictions are most felt by the most powerful. The powerful have the best resources to work around this, though, which compromises a lot of the gains that could otherwise be had by the less powerful and exploited ones.

  • This implies that as a unified idea of public morality is replaced by relativism, inequality will increase. This hypothesis looks good so far.

  • There are several reasons why powerful people should use rules-morality more.

    1. Powerful people typically have more judgements to make, and must make them faster. Using rules is faster.

    2. Powerful people may be under more suspicion of being biased, and more motivated to be biased. Consistently using rule-based decisions makes it easier to defend against bias.

    3. Powerful people make judgements at a higher level of abstraction, that affect more people, and that are used as precedents by others; so it is important for them to use rules-morality in order for the entire system to maintain coherence. A Supreme Court judge might really want to judge in favor of a particular defendant. But she knows her ruling will be used as a precedent; and that the only purpose of the Supreme Court is to clarify the rules.

    Supreme Court justices claim to use rule-based judgement, but do not. Explaining the way individual judges vote based on their preferences over the consequences is a very powerful way of predicting how they will vote; and the rule-following rationalizations they give are often silly. If their decisions were rule-based, then their judgements would not break along conservative/liberal lines (unless they were based on interpretations of rules that break down on conservative/liberal lines, which they often are not). Something motivates these particular powerful people to pretend to use rules more than they do.

    • These are good points.

    • Supercrunchers had a section comparing a mathematical model vs experts making predictions on how different Supreme Court judges would vote. The mathematical model beat them hands down and didn’t have to know any of the rationalizations, but it did have to know which was the “liberal” vs “conservative” conclusion to come to (as well as whose ox was being gored).

      • Constant

        It would be interesting to see how that played out specifically for the Kelo verdict. If ox-goring is what distinguishes who voted which way, does this reveal that liberals are the party of big business and conservatives are the party of the small guy? Or what?

    • Are rules really faster? To me it seems that emotions and especially intuition are by far faster than rational thought. Intuition research seems to support my view. (see for example Intuition at Work)

      Also, people seem to override rational thought with emotions all the time. The reverse is much less common.

      When we really use rules for decision, not just rationalization, we seem to use more rational thought and less emotions and intuitions.

      • fburnaby

        The rules are written in the first place to prevent the types of emotional responses which end up being harmful or deemed unfair within our society. I would presume that this high level of efficiency (which granted, it would provide) isn’t really an option.

  • Douglas Knight

    Like with medical studies, I would rather not trust what they’re trying to measure, but prefer to get information that they accidentally measured. But it’s a nice hypothesis they have.

  • Warrigal

    Hey, now. The papers you cite state that people hold themselves to more rule-based moralities the more powerful they are; how do you conclude that they are held by others to more rule-based moralities the more powerful they are?

  • N Jack

    All this stuff seems to go around in circles. Social censure… I think all this should be judged in the context of sexual selection. No matter how elevated human activities seem to be it all comes back to that fundamental drive. The opposite sex (for most people), especially sexy women, are the most influential arbiters of value/s… not Allan Greenspan, or Bernanke, not the Judiciary etc.
    The thing is, do you maintain thousands of years worth of strategy i.e. Marriage (conservative)? You most probably will if you have little choice i.e. under conditions of scarcity or an oppressive regime. Or… if you have a Prairie vole type relationship as oppose to a Montane vole relationship. Absurd? Going off in seemingly irrelevant directions?
    My main point is, as Per Bak’s work on sand pile complexity, power laws, illustrates rather nicely, ambiguity blah blah… etc you can have fun going round in circles but really I think the best answers probably lie in what Bill Moyers and Daniel Goleman discuss on youtube, look it up.

  • Illuminatus?

    Whose morals should apply? Whose view on outcomes?

    Fascism/national socialism, the strongest leader
    Socialist/communist, working class, mob rule
    Left liberals, moral relativists, mob rule
    Social conservative, objective morals from god
    Classic liberal, natural law and by mutual agreement of 2/3 majority
    Anarchist, only if mutually agreed by each individual?

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