Moral Privilege

by ACrackedPot3 min read30th Apr 202121 comments

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World Optimization
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Imagine, for a moment, living in a society in which toddlers routinely stab infants with knives, and adults routinely smash toddlers with rocks.  You, naturally, are horrified by this state of affairs, and are thus flabbergasted when everybody suddenly notices that toddlers stabbing infants with knives is a bad thing - and pushes for a solution of increasing the rate at which toddlers are smashed with rocks.

You, having come from moral sensibilities that arose in an entirely different place in time in which stabbing infants and smashing toddlers are both considered horrifying, are naturally going to feel pretty conflicted about this.  Yeah, it's great that they've decided that it's a bad thing that toddlers stab infants with knives, but also their solution actually kind of makes everything worse.  They've progressed to a morality more similar to your own, but the increased similarity has, in a sense, made everything worse.

Your friend in this society, whose views you find abhorrent, is puzzled by your reaction.  Why are you so upset?  Sure, you didn't get everything you wanted, but society has progressed, hasn't it?  Shouldn't you support this new initiative, which is, after all, a step in the right direction, the direction you want everything to progress in?  Why are you so insistent that knives be taken away from toddlers, as access to knives is part of every human's natural rights, when there's a much more moral solution that leaves everybody better off and doesn't harm anyone's rights, which is to say, smashing the toddler's heads in with rocks?

Setting aside how contrived this scenario is, I think it basically describes a routine state of affairs in the world: From any given moral perspective, progress in one moral dimension will basically always amount to regression in another, even if it's only the inverse moral position.  We frequently find ourselves biting repugnant bullets, and it's difficult not to be at least a little bit cynical about the state of affairs.

It's hard not to get annoyed at those who never have to make these trade-offs, particularly in situations where they get upset about having to make a trade-off, or acknowledge a moral perspective they don't really care about.  Because the privilege referenced in the title of the post relates to the idea that a majoritarian moral perspective may find itself making no moral trade-offs; that is, a person who agrees with the majority moral perspective on every single issue may find society to be a wonderful place with constant moral progress in the right direction, and more, may find anybody who feels anything less than enthusiasm about the progress of society to be, well, evil.

Where the rest of us find ourselves dealing with people who act like there aren't any trade-offs whatsoever, like their solutions to problems, which happen to maximize all of their values as much as possible, are completely perfect, and we are absurd or evil for questioning the value of those solutions.

 

In our toddler-smashing society, the radio is full of songs about smashing toddlers' heads in with rocks.  There used to also be songs about toddlers stabbing infants with knives, but as sensibilities have changed, now those songs are getting censored, and removed from the radio.  So now all the songs are about smashing toddlers' heads in with rocks.  Since this society has only two hats, and they've hung one of the hats on the rack, that's all the songs they have; you've lived in this society for a while, and, while you don't like the content of the songs, they are all the music that exists, and you've come to be able to appreciate the artistic qualities of the songs in spite of their lyrical content.  You find yourself objecting to the censorship; they're censoring half the good songs that exist.

Your friend is puzzled why you're annoyed about the censorship - you're against stabbing infants with knives, after all, why are you complaining about it?  All decent people who hear those horrible lyrics are naturally offended, so why  should those songs get any airtime?  Are you secretly for stabbing infants with knives?  Censoring the old infant-stabbing songs is pretty much the only decent thing to do.

And it's difficult to express the problem you have with these arguments, because they're reasonable, in isolation.  The problem is that -all- music is offensive to you, but only -some- music is offensive to them; so you've been forced to get used to hearing offensive views, and so offensiveness has become somewhat tolerable.  They, however, are not used to hearing offensive music - the experience is raw and painful to them.

They have a kind of moral privilege, with respect to you; they never have to experience living in a society full of moral evils, whereas that is your default experience.  Everything exists to cater to them - and they get rid of anything that doesn't.  Their newfound morality, even though it is agreeable in an of itself, has come with some profound losses, losses which are justified entirely on the basis of their own unwillingness to experience anything which they find disagreeable.

Now, we could construct a utilitarian argument for censoring the music in our toddler-smashing society; you're literally the only one who is upset by the loss of the music, the only one who had to put up with disagreeable moral notions in the first place.  But that's somewhat beside the point.

 

I don't have any particular recommendations here; mostly my purpose is to gesture at, and maybe help other people notice, something which I think encapsulates a common experience, because I think it may be a useful concept to some people.

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I think this post would benefit from having at least one real-world example, as well as your fictional example. I can't tell what actual situations you're pointing to.

One high-level summary that occurs to me is that "trying to solve problems sometimes makes them worse" - but I think you meant something more specific than that.

I think most of the examples with any juice to them would make the post worse by dint of distraction. Examples relating to moral frontiers we no longer care about might work.

One high-level summary that occurs to me is that "trying to solve problems sometimes makes them worse" - but I think you meant something more specific than that.

Yes.

Consider "value" as meaning "moral value" for convenience in the following scenario: Imagine a straw-environmentalist, who values reduced CO2, and who also values regulation on industry (for its own sake).  From this straw perspective, regulations which reduce CO2 are a total win.  Supposing you value reducing CO2 and disvalue regulation, this is a trade-off between two values.

With respect to a proposal to regulate CO2, the straw environmentalist is in a position of relative moral privilege to you.  In a Democracy, the majority moral position confers a specific privileged position - whereas in a monarchy, those who share the moral values of the monarch may enjoy a specific privileged position, in that their moral values are expressed in society, and they can reasonably expect to not have to make any meaningful trade-offs in terms of their values, and any suggestion of such may seem outrageous from their perspective.

This is useful for oneself and also for having compassion and understanding for people who are outraged all the time because this is their experience of the world. They are experiencing the execution of 'galvanize the tribe against destructive things' circuitry.

Not sure if you are familiar with Paul Graham's "Orthodox Privilege", but your article reminded me of it.

I was not; that was an interesting read, thanks!

Here's an example that comes to mind of the same phenomenon but in the domain of economic policy rather than morals.

A government can choose to be somewhere along the line of more or less regulating the economy. On the far ends you have centrally planned economies where the government directs all economic activity and on the other you have a totally open market regulated only by contracts into which parties are willing to enter.

If you are a proponent of either extreme, you may actually regret small moves in the direction you prefer. For example, partial regulation/deregulation of an industry can screw up the incentives and be worse than when you had less/more regulation and is worse than having yet more/less regulation.

Consider housing. In the past, housing was basically unregulated, you could build whatever you wanted to live in on your land and that was the end of it. Now in most countries we having zoning laws and deed restrictions and various other things that restrict what can be built. This creates a world where things can be broken and it's nobody's fault, e.g. can't build higher density housing because of regulations, can't change the regulations because there's too many people benefitting from the current environment in the short term, and can't take direct action to just build more housing when needed because that's more direct control than the relevant government bodies are permitted to take. Better options might exist for housing more people, like Soviet style apartment blocks or the free-for-all of the past, but instead we're trapped in a state where the currently solution is worse than either of them.

And if we try to make nudges in one direction or another it can easily upset the balance and make things worse. For example, try to impose a little more regulation, like rent controls, and you decrease the profitability of building new housing so much that no one will build it even if you let them. On the other hand, relaxing zoning restrictions just a little and you get sprawl or gentrification that displaces people and also doesn't offer the displaced people anywhere to move. In both cases small moves towards what might be a better system actually make things worse because the gradient between the extremes is nonmonotonic.

An alternative title:

(Moral) Comfort Zones

From any given moral perspective, progress in one moral dimension will basically always amount to regression in another

In my life experience, this is the type of observation which has led me to try and come up with a concept of Social Physics. This is a decent low level example of how I believe Newtons third law of Motion "For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction" applies to social studies. 

I think Newtons laws of motion apply well here to an idea of privilege, and I'm debating currently doing a top level post on my ideas. 

Interesting take.

Thank you, and I'd definitely enjoy reading a Newtonian take on morality, when you're ready to write it.

I know this isn't really what you're looking for, but I couldn't resist sharing Scott Alexander's satirical essay "Newtonian Ethics": It starts out like so:

We often refer to morality as being a force; for example, some charity is “a force for good” or some argument “has great moral force”. But which force is it?

Consider the possibility that it is gravity. In statements like “Sentencing guidelines should take into account the gravity of the offense”, the words “gravity” and “immorality” are used interchangeably. Gravitational language informs our moral discourse in other ways too: immoral people are described as “fallen”, sin is a “weight” upon the soul, and we worry about society undergoing moral “collapse”. So the argument from common usage (is best argument! is never wrong!) makes a strong case for an unexpected identity between morality and gravity similar to that between (for example) electricity and magnetism.

We can confirm this to the case by investigating inverse square laws. If morality is indeed an unusual form of gravitation, it will vary with the square of the distance between two objects. 

I somehow haven't read this one.

Thank you, I do appreciate that.  It's an odd satire, because I think it is unintentionally correct, since the inverse square law arises in gravity basically because that is the relationship between the surface area of a sphere and the radius of that sphere.

Add social connections as an additional spacial dimension, and people's morality will be observed to follow the inverse square law for approximately the same reason as gravity.

That is actually really helpful, thank you. I get a lot into how words are used, as sometimes it's not so much the 'things' themselves which are the cause of disagreement, but rather the words used to describe our concepts of them in discussion. The concept of Gravity as a 'Moral' Force is a great example, one I've actually written about a little bit, actually around the same time as the post you're referring too, a little after I believe. 

My take is both similar and different, and I'm currently trying to work out how to explain it, as it seems to need something similar to the Sequences EY has put together, in order to show the logical progression of ideas I have. That's a lot of work, so I'm trying to introduce the ideas in my comments on other peoples posts a bit at a time as it helps me compare my thinking with others. Going back and stitching my comments together into a 'Sequence' of sorts seems like a decent working model.

I put this to you though: Without having already made a name for myself in the fields associated with the LW community, without already having a literal job making money and doing the work, so as to be formally recognized as someone with competence in these areas of discourse, if my ideas turn out to matter in terms of pushing the sciences forward, instead of just meaning something interesting people discuss and then forget, what does it matter to me? Rationally speaking. 

How would putting the time and energy into explaining things in a way that points to my hypothesis being correct actually affect my life? If I already had work in these fields, it would improve my status, and give me more opportunities for advancement, there would be people who would come to my aid if someone took my ideas and tried to pass them off as their own without giving me credit. 

Since I don't already work in these fields of Academia, Science, Legislation and the like, and I don't have a community of those types of people waiting in the wings to come to my aid, none of those things seem likely to occur. 

If my theories turn out correct, will that rocket me to fame? Give me a job (I'm currently unemployed and am attempting to work my out of close to 4 years of living in the shelter system) or get me scholarships to go to graduate school or get me federal funding to continue my work? Will it motivate some people to try and engage with my work more intentionally, offering help and productive assistance? Or will it just give people with social media savvy the opportunity to take the wheat for their own purposes and leave the chaff for me to try and barter with in the 'sharing/information economy' trap house that seems to have developed with the digital age?

Not that I won't attempt to navigate this maze either way, as I've already pointed out in my post "Psyched Out" I have 20 years worth of sketchbooks and journals sitting in boxes in my living room I've never really tried to do anything with, and this is the first time I've tried putting my name to some of these ideas online. I've posted before under psuedo-nyms, but sporadically, trying to just get my ideas out there sort of hoping it would lead to something and maybe help other people.

It seems sometimes like engaging in online forums is sort of like gambling, and at this point rationally speaking, I'm at a point of 'going all in' and looking at the potential of either 'getting lucky' or 'folding'.  Not that online cred isn't something of value, but I'm trying to make all my work matter directly to me, instead of just stringing together meaning in to more complex albeit insightful thoughts. 

These are some of the thoughts I wonder about when I consider, rationally, what the actual payoffs for anyone attempting to engage with an online community are, instead of just waiting for the opportunity to try and go to graduate school and just work on their own ideas in a more supportive environment. Certainly, depending on the amount of energy and resources someone has available to them, the greater chance they will 'bubble up' to the top instead of sinking to the bottom. I do believe in something like Social Physics; but how do I work it out by myself so I can benefit from the info first, before other people have a chance to do so? It's seems to be a moral question of sorts, looking for a rational answer.

BTW, sorry for the extraneous detail. Things have been stressful lately.

This jumps from baby-murdering to censorship, and only briefly mentions any actual points of discussion or reasons for anything.  I find it mostly incoherent, and can't tell if what you're pointing at is even a thing, let alone an important thing.  Almost all moral judgements at that level are so context-dependent as to be meaningless when applied to a radically different situation.  

Also, I think reality is correctly privileged over hypotheticals.  It's the only thing we know to be possible and self-consistent.  

A relatively morally privileged position is one which, with respect to a specific change-in-context, can view that change-in-context as a strict pareto improvement.  A relatively unprivileged position is one for which that change-in-context is a trade-off between moral values, or a reduction in their moral values (I'm unaware of a good antonym for a pareto improvement).

Infant Annihilator has a song describing a priest having sex with a fetus still in the womb.  A religious person who thinks free speech is the devil's work will find censorship of this song to be a net good; a religious person who thinks free speech is an important value will find censorship of this song to be at best a complicated question.

Depending on whether society censors the song, at least with respect to this specific issue, the relative state of moral privilege may exist with respect to society as a whole.

If somebody shares their moral values with the majority of a society (assuming functional Democracy), they exist in a state of general moral privilege over somebody whose set of moral values conflicts with society.

That first paragraph is so good, it should be in the post.

I think it requires a particular way of modeling the world in order not to be even more confusing, unfortunately; I do like it.

You haven't described any pareto improvements.  When you say "net good", you're acknowledging tradeoffs between agents (and perhaps tradeoffs within agents, but that's generally resolvable via utility functions).

Casting majority support as privilege doesn't add anything to the discussion - it's still just bullying of the minority.  And still probably the most stable outcome and a net improvement by utilitarian (flawed) calculations.

I think you may be extrapolating over all people's preferences, whereas I'm modeling a limited perspective; that is, I'm evaluating the pareto improvement from the set of known-to-the-modeler's preferences.  A privileged moral perspective doesn't need to be aware of unprivileged moral perspectives; that's a major component of the basic privilege involved.

I can see why that would be confusing.  But I don't think it is necessarily useful to characterize the behavior as bullying; that definitely can be how it feels, granted.  Hrm.  "It isn't that they don't think you matter, it is that they don't know you exist."

Almost all moral judgements at that level are so context-dependent as to be meaningless when applied to a radically different situation.  

I think that's why the premise for the initial world is so extreme.