The Causes of Human Rights Violations (27): Harmful Moral Judgments

Human rights violations have many possible causes, but it’s reasonable to assume that a lot of them are caused by some of the moral convictions of the violators. For example:

  • One of the reasons why people engage in female genital mutilation (FGM) is the fear that if women are left unmolested they won’t be able to restrain their sexuality.
  • Discrimination of homosexuals is often based on the belief that homosexuality is immoral.
  • The death penalty is believed to limit the occurrence of violent crime.
  • Etc. etc.

The rational approach

It follows that if we want to stop rights violations, we’ll have to change people’s moral convictions. How do we do that? The standard answer is moral persuasion based on moral theory (in most cases, this will be some kind of intercultural dialogue). This is basically a philosophical enterprise. We argue that some things which people believe to be moral are in fact immoral. For example, we could use the Golden Rule to argue with men who support FGM that FGM is wrong (and the Golden Rule is present in all major traditions; Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism etc.). We could argue that the consequentialism used in the defense of capital punishment is in fact an instrumentalization of people and doesn’t take seriously the separateness of individuals.

You can already see the obvious difficulty here: this approach appeals to concepts that are strange and unfamiliar to many, and perhaps a bit too esoteric, and therefore also unconvincing. They may appeal to people who regularly engage in philosophical and moral discussions, but those people tend not to be practitioners of FGM, oppressors of homosexuals etc.

That is why another approach, which you could call the internal approach, is perhaps more successful: instead of using abstract philosophical reasoning, we can try to clarify people’s traditions to them. FGM is often believed to be a practice required by Islam, whereas in reality this is not the case. There’s nothing in the Koran about it. Authority figures within each culture can play a key role here. One limit of this approach is that many cultures don’t have the resources necessary for this kind of exegesis or reinterpretation, at least not in all cases of morality based rights violations.

One way to overcome this limitation is to dig for the “deep resources”. We can point to some very basic moral convictions that are globally shared but not translated in the same way into precise moral rules across different cultures. For example, killing is universally believed to be wrong, but different cultures provide different exceptions: some cultures still accept capital punishment, others still accept honor killings etc. One could argue that some exceptions aren’t really exceptions to the ground rule but in reality unacceptable violations of the ground rule.

The emotional approach

The problem with all these approaches is that they are invariably based on a belief in rationality: it’s assumed that if you argue with people and explain stuff to them, they will change their harmful moral judgments. In practice, however, we see that many ingrained moral beliefs are very resistant to rational debate, even to internal debate within a tradition. One of the reasons for this resistance, according to moral psychology, is that moral judgment is not the result of reasoning but rather a “gut reaction” based on emotions such as empathy or disgust (which have perhaps biologically evolved). (This theory goes back to David Hume, who believed that moral reasons are “the slave of the passions”, and is compatible with the discovery that very young children and even primates have a sense of morality – see the work of Frans De Waal for instance).

Indeed, tests have shown that moral judgments are simply too fast to be reasoned judgments of specific cases based on sets of basic principles, rules of logic and facts, and that they take place in the emotional parts of the brain. This emotional take on morality also corresponds to the phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding” (Jonathan Haidt‘s phrase): when people are asked to explain why they believe something is wrong, they usually can’t come up with anything more than “I just know it’s wrong!”.

If all this is true, then reasoned arguments about morality are mostly post-hoc justifications for gut reactions and therefore not something that can change gut reactions. The rational approach described above is then a non-starter. However, I don’t think it has to be true, or at least not always. I believe moral psychology underestimates the role of debate and internal reflection, but I also think that in many cases and for many people it is true, unfortunately. And that fact limits the importance of enhanced debate as a tool to modify harmful moral judgments. But the same fact opens up another avenue for change. If moral judgments are reactions based on emotions, we can change judgments by changing emotions. And the claim that our moral emotions have evolved biologically doesn’t imply that they can’t change. The fact is that they change all the time. Slavery was believed to be moral, some centuries ago, and did not generally evoke emotions like disgust. If the moral approval of slavery was a gut reaction based on biologically evolved emotions, then either these emotions or the gut reaction to them has changed.

The most famous example of the emotional approach is Richard Rorty’s insistence on the importance of the telling of sentimental stories like “Uncle Tom’s cabin” or “Roots” etc. Such stories, but also non-narrative political art, make the audience sympathize with persons whose rights are violated because they invite the audience to imagine what it is like to be in the victim’s position.

The problem with the emotional approach is that it can just as easily be used to instill and fortify harmful moral judgments, or even immoral judgments.

Both emotional and rational processes are relevant to moral change, and when the rational processes turn out to be insufficient, as they undoubtedly are in many cases (especially the cases in which change is most urgent), we’ll have to turn to the emotional ones. (The emotional approach can be very useful in early internalization. Early childhood is probably the best time to try to change a society’s “gut reactions”).

The diversity approach

Apart from the rational or emotional approach, there’s also the diversity approach: put people in situations of moral or cultural diversity, and harmful moral judgments will, to some extent, disappear automatically. People’s morality does indeed change through widened contact with groups who have other moral opinions. And widened contact is typical of our age in which travel, migration, trade and political and economic interdependence are more common than ever. This automatic change can happen in several ways:

  • In a setting of social diversity, people see that a certain practice which they believe is immoral doesn’t really have the disastrous consequences they feared it would have. For example, when you see that people who haven’t endured FGM usually don’t live sexually depraved lives, you may modify your moral judgment about FGM. Some moral beliefs are based on factual mistakes. If we point to the facts, or better let people experience the facts, they may adapt their mistaken moral judgments in light of those facts.
  • When people live among other people who have radically different moral beliefs or practices, they can learn to accept these other people because they see that they are decent people, notwithstanding their erroneous moral beliefs or practices. This kind of experience doesn’t necessarily change people’s harmful moral judgments, but at least makes these people more tolerant and less inclined to persecute or oppress others.
  • Tolerance is generally a wise option in diverse societies, from a selfish perspective: intolerance in a diverse society in which no single group is an outright majority can lead to strife and conflict, and even violence. So all groups in a such a society have an interest in being tolerant. Tolerance in itself does not cause people to reconsider their harmful moral judgments, but at least removes the sharp edges from those judgments. However, tolerance can, ultimately, produce change: if you treat others with respect they are more likely to think that you have a point. Hence, they’re more likely to be convinced by your arguments that their moral judgments are harmful.
  • People can get used to things. Being exposed to different and seemingly immoral beliefs or practices can render people’s moral judgments less pronounced and therefore less dangerous.
  • Also,

When we are required to confront things that bother us we sometimes (often?) reduce cognitive dissonance by changing our preferences so that we are no longer bothered.  Thus [we should] encourag[e] the intolerable to come forward, thereby forcing the intolerant to reduce cognitive dissonance by accepting what was formerly intolerable. (source)

Of course, this “contact-hypothesis” or “diversity-hypothesis” doesn’t explain all moral change. For example, it’s hard to argue that the abolition of slavery in the U.S. came about through increased social diversity.

Perhaps there are cases when we shouldn’t do anything. People can get more attached to harmful moral convictions when their group is faced with outsiders telling them how awful their convictions and practices are, especially when the group is colonized, or when they are a (recent) minority (e.g. immigrants). In order to avoid such a counter-reaction, it’s often best to leave people alone and hope for the automatic transformations brought about by life in diversity. However, that’s likely to be very risky is some cases. A lot of people can suffer while we wait for change. Also, one might as well argue that the use of force to change certain practices based on harmful moral judgments will, in time, also change those moral judgments: if people are forced to abandon FGM, maybe they’ll come to understand why FGM is wrong, over time.


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