The ugly little brothers of the moral instincts

The Judgement of Solomon by Nicolas Poussin

Let’s face it. Our popular moral vocabulary is a bit on the fluffy side.

When we think of what constitutes moral traits and behaviours, we tend to invoke “motherhoood and apple-pie” concepts like altrusim, helping, kindness, empathy, co-operation and consolation.

This is all well and good, but it fails to take into account the need to discourage defectors, cheats and aggresors to defend the space in which co-operation is possible. Reciprocity is at the heart of morality, and the flipside of recopricity is retribution. Evolution has equipped us with emotional impulses to repay both kindness (gratitude) and cruelty (indignation).

But much of the language associated with moral enforcement is inflected with negative associations – like revenge – and two of the key emotions which drive moral enforcement are generally associated with immorality!

These neglected emotions are none other than spite and schadenfreude. Let’s take a moment to reflect on the moral dimension of these two overwhelmingly unpopular emotions.

Spite, of course, is the urge to make another suffer even when it disadvantages yourself. This admittedly sounds pretty bad at first, and it definitely characterises some of the meanest, pettiest, most vindictive behaviour we encounter. Perhaps the archetypal example is related in the Judgement of Solomon, where a woman falsely claiming to be the parent of an infant is prepared to let it be slaughtered rather than give custody to the true mother.

But now lets take spite and recruit it to moral enforcement: it now becomes the urge to punish norm-breakers and defectors even when it incurs a personal cost. It becomes the emotional motivator of heroism, encouraging self-sacrifice in defence of the community. Revealingly, ethology (the scientific study of animal behaviour) uses the term “spite” to describe both the prosocial and antisocial variations of the urge.

Similarly, schadenfreude (literally “harm-joy”) is commonly understood as the perverse pleasure we take in observing another’s suffering. It is essentially spite for bystanders; spite without the personal cost. But let’s again recruit this emotion to moral enforcment and it becomes the moral satisfaction of the social community in seeing justice carried out, be it human or poetic.

In the examples above, I’ve talked of spite and schadenfreude being “recruited for” moral enforcement, but it strikes me as more likely that these nastier emotions are spin-offs of moral impulses which first evolved to advance the survival and reproductive fitness of our anscestral communities. Garden variety spite does not advance the evolutionary interests of anyone involved.

This reading also gives us a helpful insight into the psychology of everyday evil. We are all prone to recruiting moral frameworks and language to justify our petty grievances, jealousies, and personal humiliations. We are all liable at times to confuse common hatred with moral contempt, spleen for outrage, and vindictiveness for justice. Some people are habitually prone, and will even interpret legitimate moral reproval as a personal affront.

This all-too-human tendency to confuse common aversion with moral aversion is not helped by the paucity of our language to distinguish them. Perhaps we need to coin new words to do so, or revive old ones that have fallen out of use. I’d be interested to hear readers suggestions on this front, as I don’t think Gutschadenfreude will take-off anytime soon!

A better vocabulary to describe the morally retributive emotions, or at least a better understanding of them, might also play an important role in bridging the deep inchoate moral divisions which traditionally separate the political left from the political right.

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3 Responses to The ugly little brothers of the moral instincts

  1. Bonobo says:

    My congratulations, gratitude and compliments to you, Damien, for carving out this little piece of the world for discussion of an issue that is both fascinating and imperative for self-understanding.

    An interesting rehabilitation of “spite”. I think something along these lines was mentioned in Matt Ridley’s “Evolution of Morality” in relation to competitions of strategies in a continuously iterative computer Prisoners Dilemma. Initially “tit-for-tat”, or reciprocation, was the most successful strategy but this was eventually pipped by the addition of a spiteful “enforcer”, who will forever refuse to cooperate with any cheaters, even at cost to himself. Just the knowledge that “enforcers” are present can be enough to deter cheats. Also note that in this example, as well as Solomon and the general context you use it, spite is still a response to some violation or for some gain, albeit disproportionate. It may be rational and justified, if not in the first order, but maybe in the second or third (which incidentally, is what advocates of “realism” in international relations often miss when they pooh-pooh the altruism of idealists).

    But spite might also be pure unrewarded and undeserved hatred or cruelty. This is harder to explain.

    Perhaps the disproportionality of spite can be attributed to the cost we pay for having emotions as hard-to-fake signalling mechanisms. In order to cooperate, we need to trust, but so much can be faked. Nuclear anger at least lets others know you’re probably sincere in your position.

    I’m also intrigued by schadenfraude. I think it might be linked to the morbid and near-universal fascination we have with murder, rape, war, public executions etc (as reflected in movies, most-read articles in newspapers, bestselling novels, sport etc). I think we are drawn to be acquainted with these things because they have featured so heavily in our evolutionary past that we need, for our own protection, to know their dynamics so we can avoid it altogether, or at least make sure we’re on the less pointy end of the stick. It’s an interesting shadow to the mirror neurons that help us viscerally empathise with others. Perhaps it operates as a simple inversion of that mechanism to balance it.

    And I definitely second your call for a better vocabulary to describe emotions (especially good ones to fill the gulf between “like” and “love” so I don’t keep getting into trouble with women!). There are probably more words to describe the contents of a box of Derwents than the contents of the heart.

    Look forward to more of this, Damien! I know bonobos will make an appearance soon!

  2. PhilM says:

    This is closely related to a point that’s been sitting in my own blog as a draft for a while. Maybe I’ll finally finish it and post.

    But, yes. You’re spot on. All the impulses that drive humanity can be recruited, if need be modified or tempered, and shaped into constructive outcomes; the question is how we choose to license and express them (and how well we actually manage these unruly forces consistent with those choices). In some cases, they may never be expressed outside the internal flux of our own psyches, but they can still serve a useful purpose there keeping other forces in check.

    Perhaps the single most important trick is keeping ourselves as potential targets of these initially other-directed impulses: anyone who’s cultivated any kind of discipline – athletic, academic, creative or other – will know that the ability to take pleasure in one’s own defeat (by oneself and one’s own insistence on other goals) is a key way to transform a moment of frustration into one of reward, and to maintain the state of focus and flow.

    Great post!

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