Moral dumbfounding, statism and you

published Mar 13, 2016, last modified Mar 14, 2016

That thing which happens in every debate with a statist, and which every libertarian knows full well, is actually well-studied. It even has a name.

Dear libertarian: have you ever had a debate that went the following way?

— Statist: well, I think your conclusions are silly because how could we get roads if it weren't for our omnipotent State?
— You: ummm, roads have been built privately for eons .
— Statist: well, I still don't believe you because how could we get health care if it wasn't centralized?
— You: mmmm, look at all this evidence that shows decentralized voluntary provision of health care works better .
— Statist: well, erm ...

... and so on, ad nauseam.

At some point, your intuition told you that the statist was merely listing flimsy excuses to disbelieve what he just didn't want to believe to begin with.

Did you ever second-guess that intuition of yours?

Well, turns out, you needn't have to.  Your conclusion about the stereotypical "debating statist" isn't just correct — there's actually a proper term to describe this conduct, which is well-researched in this glorious year 2016.  Enjoy:

THE BELIEVER: I want to start out talking about the phenomenon you call “moral dumbfounding.” You do an experiment where you present five scenarios to a subject and get their reaction. One of these scenarios describes a brother and sister Julie and Mark vacationing in the south of France. They have some wine, one thing leads to another, and they decide they want to have sex. They use two different kinds of contraception and enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. How do people react to this, and what conclusions do you draw from their reaction?

JONATHAN HAIDT: People almost always start out by saying it’s wrong. Then they start to give reasons. The most common reasons involve genetic abnormalities or that it will somehow damage their relationship. But we say in the story that they use two forms of birth control, and we say in the story that they keep that night as a special secret and that it makes them even closer. So people seem to want to disregard certain facts about the story. When the experimenter points out these facts and says “Oh, well, sure, if they were going to have kids, that would cause problems, but they are using birth control, so would you say that it’s OK?” And people never say “Ooooh, right, I forgot about the birth control. So then it is OK.” Instead, they say, “Oh, yeah. Huh. Well, OK, let me think.”

So what’s really clear, you can see it in the videotapes of the experiment, is: people give a reason. When that reason is stripped from them, they give another reason. When the new reason is stripped from them, they reach for another reason. And it’s only when they reach deep into their pocket for another reason, and come up empty-handed, that they enter the state we call “moral dumbfounding.” Because they fully expect to find reasons. They’re surprised when they don’t find reasons. And so in some of the videotapes you can see, they start laughing. But it’s not an “it’s so funny” laugh. It’s more of a nervous-embarrassment puzzled laugh. So it’s a cognitive state where you “know” that something is morally wrong, but you can’t find reasons to justify your belief. Instead of changing your mind about what’s wrong, you just say: “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just know it’s wrong.” So the fact that this state exists indicates that people hold beliefs separate from, or with no need of support from, the justifications that they give. Or another way of saying it is that the knowing that something is wrong and the explaining why are completely separate processes.