Negative Moral Sentiments

Ard: So, Molly, are there bad moral sentiments, or moral sentiments that lead us astray?

MC: We can think about a set of moral sentiments that are to do with retribution and punishment. So when we think someone has harmed us, or harmed someone we care about, or they’ve violated a social rule, they’ve been unfair, they’ve desecrated something, people can get very angry. And this anger, this sort of retribution, can motivate a lot of very harmful behaviour. I think a lot of the intractable religious conflicts of today are reflections of this.

Ard: Yes.

MC: People have harmful moral sentiments in situations where they think that they’ve been done wrong, and this can fuel very destructive cycles of violence.

Ard: And do you think that’s linked to a very deep moral instinct that we have?

MC: Yes, I think so, and I think it’s very unproductive. The research shows that people’s motivation to punish is largely driven by a desire to harm. Even though if you ask people after the fact, ‘Why are you punishing?’ they’ll say things like, ‘Well, we want to prevent this from happening in the future.’
But we’ve done experiments, actually looking to see whether in the lab people are motivated when they punish more by retribution or more by deterrence. The way that we’ve done this is we’ve set up a situation where people are able to punish, and there’s no possible way that the punishment can deter a crime in the future.

So, we set up two different situations. In one case, Ard, you can punish David. It takes away money from him and David learns that you’ve done this, so he might be less likely to do that in the future because you’ve deterred his bad behaviour. But we’ve also given people the opportunity to punish in secret. So you can take money away from David. David doesn’t know that this has happened. So there’s no way that your punishment could deter him from behaving unfairly towards you in the future.

The question is, do people use punishment when there’s no deterrence possible? And the answer is a resounding yes. People punish almost as much when they’re just taking money away, but not sending the message that you’ve done something wrong, as they will when they are able to send this message that teaches a lesson. So what that shows is that a lot of punishment behaviour is really motivated by this dark motivation to harm. And it’s not concerned with the future. It’s not concerned with teaching a lesson and making things better off for everybody else by deterring this bad behaviour.

Ard: And how about something like racism? Because racism is all pervasive in the world. Is that because of a moral sentiment that we have that inclines us towards that?

MC: Josh Greene, in his recent book, argues that this is, sort of, the other side of the coin of psychology that really evolved to help us solve cooperation problems. So, there’s the Me Versus Us problem, and moral sentiments, he thinks, evolved to help us solve this tragedy of the commons and to help us sacrifice our own personal interests for the sake of the group.

But then that also leads to this conflict between us and them, because the same sentiments that seem to motivate us to help our kin are those that make us suspicious of people in the other group.
I think the overall lesson is that these sentiments evolved for certain purposes that, in the complexity of today’s world, we have to be very careful with how they’re deployed, because what can produce a very beneficial behaviour in one context can actually produce a very harmful behaviour in another context.