Moral psychology has no answer as to whether brother-sister incest is wrong, but I have given the below dilemma, made famous by Jonathan Haidt, many times in classes to undergraduates. It is particularly useful in that it allows people to experience, rather than just learning about, the social intuitionist approach to moral reasoning.
Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.
Is what Julie and Mark did wrong? Many people feel that moral reasoning is (or should be) rational and that introducing emotion into the process leads to error or irrationality. Recently, in my writing about libertarians, I have had people argue that I am a closet libertarian because I ascribe the "compliment" of rationality to their moral reasoning. The social intuitionist hypothesis is really a restatement of what many (e.g. Hume) have said for years, that the true origin of most moral reasoning is intuition or emotion, and that we rationalize these intuitions later. The above scenario is useful because people experience, rather than being told about, moral intuitions. It is powerful because people know the actions in the story are wrong, but they often don't know why, if standard arguments about offspring and emotional damage are pre-empted.
Personally, I've come to appreciate my emotionality, that gives me a rich moral compass. It limits me (I get embarrassed or react defensively at times.), but it also brings me closer to others. I recognize when others are hurt, as I've been hurt similarly. I can understand fear, as I am sometimes afraid myself. At the same time, sometimes others have emotional reactions that I don't share. Conservatives are likely to be more disgusted by sexual deviance than I, and are more likely to moralize that disgust. The point is not to scientifically figure out issues of right and wrong. Rather, the point is to understand why I think some things are wrong, while others disagree...and vice versa. Even in the most liberal of classrooms, some people are disgusted enough by the idea of incest (especially if they have a sibling) that they intuitively feel that the above scenario is wrong, no matter how rational they believe moral judgments should be. I encourage you to try it with your liberal friends.
I have always thought (perhaps naively) of the brother-sister incest story as a hypothetical, fabricated story, and so I was fascinated to be forwarded this story of true life brother-sister incest where nobody appears to have been hurt, except through the efforts of those who wanted to punish such deviance.
Tony Wells Washington was a joyful kid, the sort of boy other parents wanted to have over for barbecues and board games....He was 9 years old. Too young, he says, to see what he saw. Too small to endure what he endured. Exposure to pornography. Unbidden touching. Sexual misconduct that he stops short of calling abuse.
His family moved to a rougher neighborhood, then moved again. "We couldn't make rent," Washington says. Four more times they moved, putting him in three different schools. His only constant was Caylen, younger by a year. He looked after her, helped her with homework, made sure she ate dinner. She gave him purpose, reminded him of the person he used to be, before.
On May 9, 2003, Washington pleaded guilty to having consensual sex with his biological sister, Caylen. He was 16, she was 15.
"Incest," he says, looking straight ahead.
He says he didn't plan to do it. He was a teenager. Unstrung. Unsupervised. His world was at war. He was scared. Isolated. Except she was there, the two of them best friends, close as book pages. They loved each other, trusted each other. And one day that tipped into something more. Something neither one felt was wrong in the moment. "We were just sitting there, and it was like, 'Do you want to?'" he says. There was no discussion. "We did it. And it was like, 'OK, what's next?' We never talked about it after that."
"I feel for my brother," Caylen says calmly. "I was so happy when he got out of jail. He had no reason to be in there."
She wants this to be known, to be clear: "My brother never, ever raped me. He never tried to hold me down. Or threaten me. Or abuse me. Or frighten me. Or anything like that. What some of these people are speculating, none of that ever happened."
The above excerpt is part of a much longer, very moving story that likely touches many emotions. Tony Washington is now trying to make it in the NFL, or otherwise, we might never have known his story. Without the meager minor league football salary he earns, who knows where he might have ended up. I don't have any particular insight to share as your reaction is likely to be too nuanced to be summarized in a bar graph. But as you read the story, if you are interested in moral psychology, I might try watching your own emotions and considering how those emotions are affecting your own moral judgments. And then perhaps consider whether you really would like your moral judgments to be completely rational.
- Ravi Iyer
ps. Tony, if you ever read this, I'm rooting for you.
Tony Hsieh, liberals, and libertarians prefer buying experiences to materialism – A Review of Delivering Happiness
I recently finished Tony Hsieh's book, Delivering Happiness, which is partially a business book, detailing his remarkable story where he has won (selling Link Exchange to Microsoft in his 20s for $265 million) and lost (selling almost everything to turn Zappos around) fortunes. Zappos, an online shoe seller, has gone on to become the model for online retailers and was acquired by Amazon for almost a billion dollars.
However, Tony Hsieh's book is clearly about something more than business. I recently saw him speak at the Miliken Institute in Los Angeles and the last 10 minutes of his talk could have been from a class we teach at USC, the Science of Happiness. In fact, I think the introduction to that series of slides was entitled the Science of Happiness and Delivering Happiness has a healthy dose of psychological research on happiness in it. His basic thesis is that if he makes his employees happy, they will in turn be able to authentically make customers happy, which will allow Zappos' brand, which is all about "WOW"-ing consumers (and suppliers actually). For example, Zappos surprise upgrades shipping for customers and tries to pay for dinner when dining with suppliers, who normally have to woo their clients. Zappos actively seeks to hire and fire employees based on their 10 core values, in order to maintain a happy harmonious workforce that can deliver happiness.
Hsieh gives a very succinct view of happiness/positive psychology research in his talks in a far more interesting manner than most psychologists, but there is one bit of new research that I bet he would be interested in. Specifically, more and more research is showing that people who buy experiences are happier than people who buy objects. In the book itself, Hsieh explicitly talks about his preference for experiences over objects.
From p.76 & p.106 respectively -
"ever since selling linkexchange, I'd committed to living by the philosophy that experiences were much more important to me than material things. Most people assumed that I would have gone out and bought a fancy and expensive car, but I was content with my Acura Integra."
(re: visiting Africa when it might not be financially the best decision) - "For me, summiting the tallest mountain of a continent was one of those things that I wanted to check off my list of things to do at some point in my life. It went with my life philosophy of valuing experiences over things."
In collaboration with Ryan Howell and Paulina Pchelin at San Francisco State, we've been developing a measure of experiential buying. In validating that measure, we've found that happiness->less materialistic values->experiential buying->more happiness. Conversely, neuroticism->more materialistic values->less experiential buying->less happiness. The simple correlational pattern indicated that those who were more approach oriented were more experiential, while those who are more avoidance oriented are more materialistic in terms of the purchasing styles.
I've since extended this model in looking at the relationship between values and experiential buying. Consider the below graph and notice that liberals (in blue) prefer experiences over possessions compared to conservatives (in red), who value experiences and possessions more equally. Libertarians also prefer experiences to possessions.
In further analysis, these differences were mediated fully by differences in values between liberals and conservatives. Specifically, liberals valued experiences due to their valuation of stimulation (using the Schwartz Values Scale), while conservatives' relative preference for material objects was mediated by endorsement of power. I subsequently experimentally manipulated values by having participants recall a low or high power situation (based on the idea that people of low power will seek power and work by Dacher Keltner that high power->stimulation). Sure enough, having people recall low power situations leads to more materialistic buying, while recalling high power situations leads to more experiential buying (preliminary graph below).
My plan was to take almost everything that I had left in my name and liquidate it in a fire sale. I would bet the farm and put all the proceeds into Zappos.
And he thought of his possessions as a means toward stimulation, rather than power or security. From p.115...
selling the party loft symbolized the end of an era for me. It was hard not to feel wistful and nostalgic. The loft had created so many experiences and memories for so many people.
Of course, it's easier to think about stimulation rather than power, when you've made millions in your 20s. But perhaps it explains some of the Zappos culture which includes approach/stimulation oriented statements like "Embrace and Drive Change", "Create Fun and a Little Weirdness", "Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded", and "Pursue Growth and Learning". One of Zappos' core values ("Be Humble") seems almost the opposite of power. Perhaps the key to Zappos' success is that its culture is conducive to selling shoes as experiences, rather than possessions.
- Ravi Iyer
I was immediately attracted to Moral Foundation Theory (MFT) due to the utility of breaking down partisan and policy differences into questions of what one values. The idea that different people believe in different moral principles is one of those obvious ideas that is yet still under appreciated in every day life, where we attribute differences to ignorance, stupidity, or evil, rather than to underlying value differences.
However, I have never been convinced that there are specifically five foundations or even that the idea of thinking of moral concerns as categorically 'foundational' is better than thinking of them in some other less categorical way. Fortunately, those that originally conceived of Moral Foundations Theory do not require such homogenous thinking and even welcome the idea that the five foundation model is likely to undergo changes. I have outlined a few changes I would make previously, as well as the criteria that one might use to posit a new moral category. Even if one does not believe in the categorical distinction that some moral concerns are 'foundations', while others are not, it would seem clear that some moral concerns are more common, distinct, and important. I would now like to make that case for honesty.
Honesty is common.
One of the distinctive traits of MFT is the evolutionary focus. People moralize various things (e.g. eating pork or driving while using a cellphone) in various cultures, but the purpose is to identify those moral concerns that appear cross-culturally and have an innate quality. Innate, in this instance, means "organized ahead of experience", such that people can make intuitive judgments beyond their socialization. Put more concretely, if concern about honesty is innate and universal, one might expect individuals to be able to intuitively signal and detect honesty in others, as this study, where participants are fairly successful in figuring out who will cooperate or cheat, shows. The idea that concern about honesty is universal enough that one might posit an evolutionary story is almost self-evident, but this paper provides evolutionary models about how honesty might evolve. If one subscribes to the evolution of groups that out-compete other groups, one can witness the evolution of honesty in modern society as nations that have low levels of corruption tend to have better economies than countries with high levels of corruption, mirroring the evolutionary processes theorized.
Honesty is distinct.
The same paper I cited above has some evidence for this, but from the perspective of Moral Foundations Theory, it would be useful to show that honesty is distinct from other moral concerns. We asked users on YourMorals 4 questions about honesty (alpha=.69, .76 if we remove the relevance question) in addition to the standard Moral Foundations Questionnaire that measures the existing five foundational concerns. Factor analyses tell the same story, but examining the correlations tells the story more simply. Specifically, the highest correlation between endorsement of honesty and any other foundation is .31 (with Purity), while all other foundations have fairly high inter-correlations with other foundations (e.g. Purity/Authority/Ingroup inter-correlate >.5, Harm/Fairness inter-correlation = .57). Concern about honesty is empirically distinct from other moral concerns.
Honesty is important.
The pragmatic utility of using the moral foundations to predict ideological differences is perhaps the primary contribution of MFT to date. Are questions about honesty also pragmatically useful?
On a 7 point scale, those who are more conservative endorse questions about honesty more than those who are liberal, but the amount of variance in political attitudes predicted by endorsement of honesty is smaller, though significant, compared to other foundations (beta = .10 vs. other foundations which range from .12 (ingroup) to .33 (purity)). However, if we look at economic conservatism, we do find that endorsing honesty does predict identification as being economically conservative (beta = .13) as well as authority, ingroup & purity concerns (betas = .10, .09, &.11).
I looked at some political attitude variables and the predictive power of endorsing honesty was not impressive. However, endorsement of honesty is a strong negative predictor (in a regression equation, including the other five foundations) of psychopathy (beta = -.23) and utilitarianism (beta = -.26, e.g. willingness to sacrifice one life to save five others). Measurement of endorsement of honesty may have important pragmatic utility, but not for political outcomes.
- Ravi Iyer
Wikipedia defines a moral hazard as "when a party insulated from risk behaves differently than it would behave if it were fully exposed to the risk." By this definition, the financial crisis is a classic tale of moral hazard. I recently stayed up til 3am finishing Michael Lewis' book, The Big Short, which explains the financial crisis in character driven terms that are accessible to non-experts. The quick summary of the crisis is that people and companies made big bets on the real estate market not falling (since it hadn't fallen recently), and did not understand the risks they were taking. However, what people did is nowhere near as interesting as thinking about why they did it.
The most classic case of perverse motivation and moral hazard is the case of Wing Chau, who "was making $140,000 a year managing a portfolio for the New York Life Insurance Company. In one year as a CDO manager, he'd taken home $26 million." (p.142) For what was he paid? CDO's are the instruments that allowed people to bet on the housing market. Wing Chau's clients, pension funds that only looked at the AAA ratings these instruments got from rating agencies (more on this moral hazard later), lost a ton of money, but Chau himself was "paid a fee of .01 percent off the top, before any of his investors saw a dime, and another, similar fee, off the bottom...His goal, he explained, was to maximize the dollars in his care." Simple put, he was paid on volume, not on performance. This may seem odd, but other such situations exist. Real estate agents also get paid largely on volume, as they don't get you a higher price, but do make more money the more homes they can sell quickly. Loan originators, such as New Century (p.169) or Countrywide, had similar incentives as they made loans and sold them, making them indifferent as to whether the borrower could actually be paid back.
The ratings agencies themselves get paid on the volume of bonds they rate. "Moody's...revenues had boomed, from $800 million in 2001 to $2.03 billion in 2006. Some huge percentage of the increase...flowed from the arcane end of the home finance sector, known as structured finance. The surest way to attract structured finance business was to accept the assumptions of the structured finance industry." Pension funds often have rules that state that they can only invest in bonds that have high enough ratings, but how useful are these ratings likely to be given that the companies that create these bonds pay the agencies to rate them. It's the same practice that incentivized Arthur Anderson to "audit" Enron, with the fees paid by Enron, with similarly disastrous consequences for those who believed in such audits.
Still, some CEOs are paid based on the performance of their companies. Are those incentives enough to create a lack of moral hazard? The book gives many instances where there is still much moral hazard, as individuals have lots of upside, but very little risk. If the company makes money, they make millions. If the company loses money, then maybe they find a new job, but they lose nothing. Consider the tale of Howie Hubler, whose group was at one time responsible for 20 percent of Morgan Stanley's profits. He was paid $25 million a year, but was "no longer happy working as an ordinary bond trader. The best and the brightest Wall Street traders are quitting their big firms to work at hedge funds, where they can make not tens but hundreds of millions." Morgan Stanley made a deal with Hubler to pay him a lot more money, whereupon he subsequently lost $9 billion. Hubler appears to have been honest, but mistaken, and now runs a company where the slogan "100% of the shots you don't take don't go in". That makes perfect rational sense. If you go to a casino and earn 10% of the winnings and lose 0% of the losses, you can make a lot of money just by making bigger and bigger bets.
Having limited risk, but huge potential gain means that even the dumbest individual can make money. Based on performance, Hubler's previous gains weren't necessarily due to skill, but rather to circumstance. Steve Eisman, a central character in the book who foresaw the collapse "got himself invited to a meeting with the CEO of Bank of America, Ken Lewis. 'I was sitting there listening to him. I had an epiphany. I said to myself, 'Oh my God, he's dumb!'' They shorted Bank of America along with UBS, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers, and a few others." (p. 174) Dumb is perhaps too strong a word, but it seems self-evident that money managers are rewarded as if they are better at money management than they actually are. There is a psychological dimension to this. Both liberals and conservatives attribute their success in work life to ability and effort more than luck or circumstance. Conservatives and libertarians (likely a majority of those who read the Wall St. Journal) are slightly more likely to attribute success to effort and less likely to attribute it to context. Below is a graph of our YourMorals data, which mirrors previous research.
Of course, there is plenty of blame to go around for creating moral hazards. Conservatives tend to focus on government organizations like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, as well as the government officials that do not let firms fail, creating a moral hazard as firms no longer suffer the consequences of their actions. In contrast, many liberals might focus on the moral hazard created by executive compensation packages given to upper management. This blame bias mirrors this psychology study, where Scott Morgan et. al, show that attributions are influenced by one's feelings for the groups involved. As shown below in our yourmorals data, conservatives feel warmer toward upper management, while liberals feel warmer toward government officials.
Both types of moral hazard are evident in The Big Short, and perhaps we as a society, can work to reduce moral hazards for both companies (e.g. let them fail) and individuals (e.g. proportional risk/reward in compensation). Or Barry Schwartz articulates another, perhaps idealistic answer, in this video: that we need people who are less motivated by incentives and more motivated by wisdom.
- Ravi Iyer