Beware The Moral Spotlight

Imagine a large theatre with a singer at center stage. A single bright spotlight illuminates this singer, and the rest of the crowded theatre is as dark as can be, given this arrangement. Morality can do the same thing in the theatre of our mind. Once one issue or choice gets a strong moral color, we can focus on it so much that we just don’t see a much larger theatre of action. This is fine when our moral sense works well. If one murder were happening in a stadium of 50,000 people, it could make sense for the Jumbotron to project it onto the big screen, and for the whole stadium to focus on it, to help them do something about it.

But our moral sense often doesn’t work well. We are so obsessed with showing off our moral feelings and inclinations, relative to being useful to a larger world, that we neglect large theatres where we could be useful, to obsess with a small circle highlighted by our moral spotlight, where we can’t actually do much. Let me give three examples.

1. Some friends were recently arguing about the motives of CEOs, relative to politicians and heads of government agencies. One person was arguing that people go into government in order to help others, but go into business to make money. Thus it is better, all else equal, for activities to be run by government. Another person argued that real business people have a wide range of motives, as do real government people. But first person pointed to official statements of purpose, claiming that governments say on paper that they are to help people, while businesses say on paper that they are to make money.

But even if business and government people do differ on average in their motives, you don’t get to elite positions in either area without paying close attention to the great many practical constraints that each area imposes. Business people must attend to customer reactions, employee moral, media coverage, etc. Government people must attend to official procedures, voter sentiment, rival factions maneuvering, etc. Elites must usually navigate such treacherous shoals successfully for decades before they are allowed to make big decisions on behalf of any organization.

Those selection pressures are what determine most behavior in both areas. If business or government is better at running activities, it is mostly because of differences in those pressures. Any remaining behavior differences due to fundamental motives being influenced by official statements of purpose must be small by comparison. While your moral spotlight might want to focus on purpose-statement-induced-motives, most of what matters is elsewhere.

2. I recently watched the documentary The Red Pill, which mostly reviewed Men’s Rights Movement arguments that I had encountered decades before in the book The Myth of Male Power. They point out that many official rules and widely held expectations, as well as many concrete typical outcomes, are unfavorable to men. Their talks and meetings have faced rude and violent interference by those who see this as undermining feminist consciousness-raising regarding areas where official rules and widely held expectations have been and to some extent continue to be unfavorable to women.

The conflict seems to come down emotionally to a perception of which sex is getting the worse deal overall. And there may in fact be some truth of that matter; maybe one sex does have a worse deal. But many seem eager to infer the existence of an entire system, e.g., “patriarchy”, designed in detail to achieve this worse-for-one-sex outcome, entrenched via the direct support of malicious people from the favored sex, and implicit support from most of the rest of that sex.

This seems to me to mostly result from a moral spotlight in overdrive. Yes one sex may have a worse deal overall. But most of the ways in which we’ve had sex-assymetric official rules and widely held expectations did not result from a conspiracy by one sex to repress the other. They were mostly reasonable responses to sex differences relevant in ancient societies. We may have failed to adapt them quickly enough to our new modern context. But many of them are still complex and difficult issues. We’d do better to roll up our sleeves and deal with each one, than to obsess over which sex has the worse overall deal.

3. When people think about changes they’d like in the world one of their first thoughts, and one they return to often, is wanting more democracy. It’s their first knee-jerk agenda for China, North Korea, ISIS, and so on. Surely with more democracy all the other problems would sort themselves out.

But in fact scholars can find few consistent difference in the outcomes of nations that depend much on their degree of democracy. Democracy doesn’t seem to cause differences in wealth, or even in most specific policies. Democracies today war a bit less, but in the past democracies warred more than others. Democracies have less political repression, and our moral spotlight finds that fact to be of endless fascination. But it is in fact a relatively small effect on nations overall.

Nations today have huge differences in outcomes, and we are starting to understand some of them. But most of them have little to do with democracy. Plausibly larger issues include urbanization, immigration, foreign trade, regulation, culture, rule of law, corruption, suppression or encouragement of family clans or religion, etc. If you want to help nations, you’ll have to look outside the moral spotlight on democracy.

Yes, why should you personally sacrifice to help the world? The world will reward you for taking a clear moral stance regarding whatever is in the shared moral spotlight. And it will suspect you of immorality and disloyalty if you pay too little attention to that spotlight. So why should you look elsewhere? I think you know.

Added 3 July: Bryan Caplan points out that democracy can reduce the worst excesses of totalitarian governments. I accept that point; I had in mind less extreme variations, so North Korea was a poor choice on my part.

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  • DavidRHenderson


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  • blink

    What determines the action that appears on stage? What directs our focus? Different families, nations, religions, etc. seem to emphasize different moral points.

    Given that spotlights turn in different directions, I wonder if there is a sense in which the population is not doing badly. Individuals may face increasing returns when concentrating effort on one problem, so perhaps it is best for each of us to focus our moral outrage on one item. Then there is an analogy with game theory: Looking at the population, we each appear as moral automatons, but overall might be playing the equivalent of an optimal mixed strategy, effectively allocating our combined moral energy among problems.
    While your observations identify an genuine problem, perhaps the consequences are less severe than they first appear.

    • Stephen Diamond

      While your observations identify a genuine problem…

      A problem compared to what, I would have to ask Robin. Compared to humans being instinctive utilitarians? I think Robin sometimes selectively forgets that coordination is hard.

  • Flavio Abdenur

    “Democracies today war a bit less, but in the past democracies warred more than others.”

    Is this statistically true? There’s an argument that historically there have been very very few wars between functioning democracies (Note that the “functioning” condition excludes for instance Germany by the time WWII broke out) .

    This Wikipedia post for instance lists only 12 wars-between-democracies during the 20th century, and even then many of those were skirmishes or involved very flawed democracies:

    • Robin Hanson
      • Flavio Abdenur

        Thanks! The paper shows that *early* democracies got into wars frequently, but modern ones (e.g., from the 20th century on) rarely fight each other. Here’s the paper’s first paragraph:

        “Institutionally mature democracies rarely go to war against one other (Maoz and Russett,
        1993, Dixon, 1994, Dafoe, Oneal and Russett, 2013). This result comes “as close as
        anything we have to an empirical law” in international relations (Levy, 1988, p. 88).
        Nearly all empirical evidence for the democratic peace, however, concerns warfare from
        the Congress of Vienna (1815) onward.”

      • Flavio Abdenur

        Thanks! So you’re right: *modern” democracies indeed very rarely go to war with each other, but early ones warred quite frequently. From the paper’s first paragraph:

        “Institutionally mature democracies rarely go to war against one other (Maoz and Russett,
        1993, Dixon, 1994, Dafoe, Oneal and Russett, 2013). This result comes “as close as
        anything we have to an empirical law” in international relations (Levy, 1988, p. 88).
        Nearly all empirical evidence for the democratic peace, however, concerns warfare from
        the Congress of Vienna (1815) onward. “

  • Stefan Schubert

    Vaguely related: “Don’t use the heuristic of what a good person would do” (Helen Toner, ‘Choosing for effective altruism’).

    • Philon

      Why does Helen Toner say this? Does she mean : Don’t necessarily embrace what would be the initial reaction of a typical good person who had neither thought much about the matter nor made a special effort to gather relevant information?

  • Alistair Wilson

    Professor Hanson,

    I agree with the general thrust of this post, however I am somewhat skeptical of the following claims:

    “…in the past democracies warred more than others.”

    “Democracies have more political repression…”

    What evidence are you able to cite in favour of these propositions?

    • Robin Hanson

      “more political repression” was a typo, it should have been “less”. Fixed now.

  • arch1

    What a well-written piece. With regard to item #1, however, I do think that the making-money goal is a hugely important factor in determining the behavior of for-profit businesses and their leaders, though not because that’s what their purpose statements say (and in fact many purpose statements seem to play down this aspect).

    • Dave Lindbergh

      Re #1, the importance of profit varies tremendously among firms. In particular, closely-held firms (where the owners are not subject to outside investor demands or SEC oversight) often prioritize other things. But even public firms don’t pursue profit at all cost (or even pretend to), and are under the constraints Robin mentions.

      Just as not *everyone* who goes into government does so in order to wield power for the purpose of enjoying the cringing respect of the powerless, sadism, self-enrichment, or social status.

      • arch1

        Right, money-making isn’t the only factor. But it is in general a hugely important one.

  • anonymous

    With respect to democracy wars in the past, I don’t think that the point you are making is the point the authors were trying to make: “In this regard, early parliamentary regimes in pre-modern Europe were a type of”“transitional” autocracy, bridging the gap between the traditional absolutist model and institutionally mature modern democracies (Mansfield and Snyder, 2002). Such regimes were quite representative and accountable by historical standards (Stasavage, 2016, pp. 147-9). Still, early parliamentary regimes differed in important ways from modern democracies.
    Contemporary definitions of democracy often include open competition and contestation, the right to participate and vote in elections, and civil liberties (Lipset, 1959, Dahl, 1973, Jaggers and Gurr, 1995, Vanhanen, 2000). Pre-modern parliamentary regimes, however, generally lacked such democratic practices (Marongiu, 1968, p. 31). These differences may help explain why institutionally mature modern democracies can prevent the outbreak of wars in ways that early parliamentary regimes could not.”

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  • Curt Adams

    Less political repression is a small thing? If you lived in a country where thousands were executed in a soccer stadium, like Chile, or shoved out airplane hatches over the South Atlantic like Argentina, you might think it’s a big thing. Even in less brutal regimes the secret police and censorship are oppressive to everybody. Comparatively benign authoritarian regimes like Singapore are very rare, and even they aren’t a match for an ordinary democracy. Democracy lets you live a normal life in a way few if any authoritarian regimes do. That’s a huge win, and that’s why they’re preferred. Any benefits to economic growth or avoiding war are just gravy on that big meal.