Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness

Even people who are inclined to believe in a universal, objective foundation for morality are sometimes prone to the impression that in certain situations invoking “moral” arguments is rather insincere. For example, moral arguments in favor of (income) equality are often dismissed by libertarian-leaning individuals as just a sanitized expression of resentment and envy by “losers.” But can this argument be generalized? Is moral rhetoric simply a way of pulling someone’s leg, and often employed when faced with a poor bargaining position? In a remarkable experimental philosophy paper, Moral Rhetoric in the Face of Strategic Weakness: Experimental Clues for an Ancient Puzzle (1997), Yanis Varoufakis throws some much-needed light on this topic.

A series of elegant games were designed to test the hypothesis that the “strong” would have a tendency to maximize their strategic advantage and the “weak” would have a tendency to choose “quasi-moral acts,” even when this is clearly against their own interests. In all three variants of the game, the cooperative solution was dominated by the solution to “cheat” but, quite remarkably, as the incentive of the “strong” to “cheat” increased, the “weak” displayed even more “cooperating” behavior. In the third version of the game, the tendency of the “weak” to cooperate slightly declined but this was only because the payoff for the “strong” to cheat was decreased (but still a dominating strategy). Since the participants of the game alternated between being “strong” and being “weak,” and long-term reputation effects were ruled out by not allowing the same pair of players to play the game twice in a row, we cannot claim that different kinds of people will play the game differently, or that the cooperative behavior of the “weak” was motivated by reputation effects. And since players varied their strategy depending on whether they were in a strong or weak bargaining position, moral theories that would predict that players in both roles would recognize the value of having a cooperative disposition (a la David Gauthier) can be dismissed, too.

Since it never makes sense in these games to cooperate against an uncooperative opponent, the most credible explanation of the “weak” to often cooperate is that this kind of behavior (or rhetoric) comes with being in an “unfavorable” strategic situation (i.e., one’s “social location.”) As the author of the paper notes, “Many (and on occasion most) of our participants swapped happily their cooperative choices for strategic aggression when they moved from the weaker to the stronger role.”

What to make of these results? For one thing, they could be seen as evidence that “power corrupts” and that the (formerly) “oppressed” will exhibit the same kind of aggressive behavior when they are in a position to become the oppressors. This is a popular view, and it does not seem these experimental results contradict it. This perspective also seems to reinforce political views that aim for the abolition of political power (anarchism) instead of giving all people (as represented by parties or coalitions) equal access to it (democracy). Of course, differences in bargaining power do not disappear in the absence of political power so even in a stateless society we would still expect to see the tendency of those in a strategically “weak” position to moralize. Also, in the real world there will often be “reputation” effects, and we would also expect people with natural (hereditary) advantages to find themselves more often in a stronger bargaining position.

It is undeniable, however, that “moral rhetoric” is often used by those in power (sometimes even more so), too, instead of just naked appeals to strategic advantage.  In a sense one could argue that in modern societies the division of resources is not exclusively settled by strategic advantage (or strength) but by a combination of strategic self-interest and moral rhetoric. We then would expect political actors that reconcile self-interest (or group interest) with evolved (“hardwired”)  moral outlooks (egalitarianism) to prevail.

Experimental evidence that those in a weak strategic position tend to play the “morality card” does not necessarily imply that the idea of a objective morality is a chimera. Many people still seem to believe that universal normative ethics is possible. On the other hand, a position of moral skepticism or moral nihilism does not mean that morality can be exclusively explained as a (psychological) response to a weak strategic position. In this sense, studies like these cannot provide definitive answers concerning the truth value of normative statements (or the lack thereof) or the evolutionary psychology of  moralizing. Also, the tendency to cooperate is not identical to moral rhetoric (or moral behavior in general) and additional research is needed to further differentiate between the two in the face of strategic weakness.

Our best understanding of moral behavior at this time is that it is an outcome of evolution and specific to species and their life history. In such an evolutionary perspective the question of which moral perspective is “correct” simply does not make sense. As this understanding of morality will come to dominate in society, bargaining will gradually come to replace traditional ethics and moral rhetoric will increasingly be seen as either ignorant or (deliberate) manipulation. Such a development  could be classified as the end of “morality” as we know it, but it can also been as the beginning of an era where modern (secular) humans arrive at a new understanding of what morality means. It is difficult to predict what a society will look like in which “a-moral” humans settle disagreements and conflicts about scarce resources exclusively by strategic interaction and conventions, but some efforts to understand and predict this have been made by writers like David Gauthier, Anthony de Jasay, and James Buchanan (albeit from different perspectives).

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