Sexist Narratives, Moral Dumbfounding and Our Broken Narrative Faculty
by Dan Haggard
Generally what I do on this blog is interpret narratives, and try to give my readers a more sophisticated understanding of the narratives they encounter during their day to day lives. This is no academic exercise. Being able to interpret narratives in a sophisticated manner is an important skill. Why? Because we all create and react to various narratives on a daily basis. The default way that humans interact with the world is through narrative. But here’s the problem. We suck at it. And I don’t just mean, we’re lazy and don’t put much effort into it (which is certainly true as well) – I mean we are fundamentally bad at it. In fact, evidence is starting to come in that we actually evolved to get it wrong a great deal of the time. I’m going to present some of this evidence to you. And if you’re convinced by this evidence then you should feel very disturbed. The very faculty we use to interpret and respond to the world around us is innately broken.
Why is it broken and what is to be done about it?
So why should you believe our interpretative faculty is broken? Let me start with an example. Consider the following video and ask yourself whether you think it is sexist toward women.
Plenty of people believe that it is sexist toward women. The argument they will usual offer is that it presents the woman in the story as being superficial in her character. She seems to be interested in the man only for his material worth, whereas the man himself seems to be completely devoted to her irrespective of what her material desires of him may be. If you want an example of people interpreting the video in such a manner, then consider this Google+ discussion.
A lot of you won’t be convinced. Many will try to explain away the apparent sexism in various ways. Maybe you’ll argue that a narrative isn’t sexist if its accurately presenting what women actually do. Maybe there is some other intent behind her circling practices for which we could argue. If you are tempted in these directions – that’s okay. You can at least see why a lot of people would consider it sexist. That’s all we’re going to need for this demonstration.
Now watch the following advertisement for Coke Zero. Again ask yourself if it’s sexist toward women.
Most people are going to agree that this advertisement really is sexist toward women. Look at how the women simply exist to gratify the man’s sexual desires. Surely if this anything is sexist toward women – then this video is.
A large percentage of people will indeed claim that both videos are sexist toward women. The problem with this is that the narrative structure of the two videos is essentially the same – with the roles reversed. In the first video, the woman objectifies the man since she is only interested in him insofar as he can satisfy her (material) desires. In the second video the man is objectifying the woman because he is interested in her only insofar as she satisfies his (sexual) desires. So if you use the same logic applied to the first video that had it fall out that it was sexist toward women, then the only consistent interpretation is that the second video is sexist toward men! This is because the logic applied to the first video was that it was sexist toward women because it depicted them as being superficial through their objectification of men – well that’s just how the man is behaving toward the woman in the second video.
Many of you who found both videos to be sexist toward women will be scrambling now to qualify your rationale. That’s okay – but that’s not the point of my demonstration. I don’t want to convince anyone that either video is correctly interpreted in one way or the other. All I want to point out is that reasons we give for our interpretations in the first instance - very often don’t cohere with one another. What’s more, being able to refine your rationale after the inconsistency has been pointed out doesn’t make your original intepretation any more rational. Or to put it more precisely – it doesn’t confer any greater rationality on the brain state you possessed when you made your original interpretation. This is because it is very unlikely this refined rationale had occurred to your brain when you first offered your interpretations. Thus it was never a cause of your interpretation.
In fact – there are lots of examples where our interpretations switch from one case to another – even though the cases in question are structurally very similar. Given that we can flip our beliefs in such an arbitrary manner – it seems very unlikely that the reasons we offer for believing what we do ever have anything to do with why we believe what we do.
The Trolley Problem
Consider a moral problem developed by philosopher Philippa Foot called ‘The Trolley Problem’. One formulation by Judith Jarvis Thomson is as follows:
A trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?
A study by Robert Kurzban showed that eighty seven percent of people would answer negatively to this question. I’m going to assume that you the reader are one of these 87 percent. Now consider the following example:
You are exploring a seemingly abandoned house when you stumble upon a room containing 6 people and a mechanical contraption with a sign and a button. Five of the people are locked together in a transparent box of some kind in one corner of the room. Locked by himself in the opposite corner is the other one of the 6 people. It is impossible to free any of the hostages. The sign explains that if you don’t press the button then the man by himself will be injected with nutrients sufficient to meet his caloric needs for that day but not the other five. If you do press it then the five people will be similarly fed but not the single man. No one will starve either way (this day at least). They’ll just suffer the mild fate of being malnourished for a day.
If you’re like me – then you would press the button in this second example – but you wouldn’t throw the guy off the bridge in the first. Yet the two cases are structurally similar. Perform a certain action, then cause a harm to one instead of the many. Remain passive, then harm is performed to the many instead of one. But in this case, I bet most of us would push the button. May as well have five well fed instead of one.
Some of you might not want to press the button. You might think that because no permanent harm is coming to the five people, then just walking away isn’t going to have any significant effect on the world. Others will try and view the two examples as structurally different because of degree of harm at stake in each is so different. If you fall into either of these two groups then extend the example in the following way:
After making your choice it occurs to you that if you don’t return each day to press the button, the man by himself will live, but the other five will eventually starve. In fact – the sign explains that once one group has starved to death, the box of the other will be opened and the people (or person) will be allowed to go free. If you try to keep both alive by pressing the button one day but not the next in an alternating fashion then all six will eventually starve, albeit at a slower rate which extends their suffering. Do you keep pressing the button and save the five people? Or do never come back and let the man by himself live?
I’d press the button repeatedly until the single guy is dead and the group of five are free. But I wouldn’t throw a guy off a bridge.
Now again – maybe with a bit of work you’ll figure out what is different between my starvation example and the original Trolley Problem. But it doesn’t really matter. The fact is we have these intuitive responses to these imagined scenarios and the reasons we initially offer lack consistency. As such, our initial belief states which cause us to respond as we do don’t seem likely to be the result of the reasons we offer.
Jon Haidt, a psychologist from the University of Virginia described our responses to these sorts of moral problems as ‘Moral Dumbfounding“. He observed that in the end most people (except philosophers) eventually give up trying to justify their moral choices in the face of these sorts of examples, but nevertheless stay true to their original view.
GPA and Income Re-distribution
Here’s another example I found on Robin Hanson’s blog – Overcoming Bias. Have a watch of the following video. In it, college students are asked why income re-distribution is okay but not GPA re-distribution. The college students struggle to come up with any good reasons.
I’m not going to explain this example in depth. You can read a discussion of it over at Overcoming Bias. Just ask yourself – as you try and defend your position that likely riles against re-distributing GPAs while supporting income re-distribution – do your further rationalisations really have anything to do with why you believe what you do? And if not – why are you putting so much effort into developing these additional rationalisations anyway?
Our Broken Narrative Faculty
I see the way we respond to these sorts of cases as a form of narrative interpretation. We get told various little stories and are asked to respond to them. Then we present the reasons why we responded as we did. In these reasons, we find an interpretation of the narrative presented. We give an account of what it is about, its structural features – how it’s similar or dissimilar to various other cases. By responding to these various little stories we gradually build a map of how we navigate the world. This map should be able to give us some information about how we would act when faced with any given situation. But examples like the ones above should cast considerable doubt on the usefulness of any such map.
And what about the stories we tell about the world? Think about it – we tell stories every day: when we relate something that happened to us on a previous occasion, when we gossip about other people in our group, there are all sorts of occasions that we employ our capacity for story-telling. But if it’s likely that our capacity for interpreting stories is broken – then it’s likely our capacity for telling them is broken as well. If our interpretation of narrative is supposed to provide a map of how we would respond to the world, then our narratives serve as the primary means by which we describe that world. So not only are we responding badly to the narratives that are presented to us, the narratives that get told to and by us, aren’t that crash hot in the first place. Truth seems to lie behind a doubly thick veil.
So the question is – if our capacity for interpreting and creating narratives is broken – then why are we so invested in them? Why do we never seem able to give them up? Why are we so concerned with justifying them at all?
There are a few theories out there and I’ll be looking at them in a future post.
If any of you out there can’t wait and want to get some answers now – then one interesting theory is offered by Robert Kurzban in his book: Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind (Disclosure, this is an affiliate link). This is a very interesting book that offers a modular theory of mind as an explanation to the sorts of questions I raised above. It’s written for a non-technical audience and is a pretty easy and entertaining read. I’ll be talking about his theory in my next post.