Identity vs. Image in moral action and reasoning

Let us start with a hypothetical situation:

Supposed there were a celebrity, whom we will name “Clifford.” Cliff is not only a well known actor, but he has cultivated an image as moral authority on family and culture. Now lets say, that in this hypothetical situation, Cliff was discovered to have a 50 year history of committing sexual assault against a dozen women.

How could he be such a moral hypocrite, and how could we fall for it?

First we need to establish how people really make choices of moral reasoning. We like to think that we look at all options presented and use philosophy and reason to identify and commit to the most morally correct choice. We like to think we think that way because it grants us a feeling of control over our choices, and a sense of the moral rightness of those choices. We like to think we think that way, but we are wrong.

We actually make choices first and add the reason to the decision later. We have and exercise a “moral intuition” that guides our decisions, and then we reverse engineer a justification for that decision using logic and reason afterwards. This moral intuition operates according to our emotional reactions to the choices we are presented with. In the presence of a screaming child, for instance, your emotional reaction to the option of striking the child, i.e. whether you find that option to be morally permissible, morally disgusting, or even morally enjoyable, dictates whether or not you will actually strike the child. Whatever explanation for your desire to strike or not to strike the child is added on after you’ve made and acted on that choice. Now, your moral affect is not fixed, it can be trained to later meet a philosophical ideal, but it is what determines the actions you take.

In the case of Clifford, in this hypothetical situation, his emotional reaction to the choice of sexual assault made him more prone to commit the act. As the planned and repeated nature of his acts show, he not only lacked the moral disgust that would inhibit him from committing the act, but found the act to be emotionally rewarding. If you just had a strong reaction of disgust to that last part, feel free to congratulate yourself on your moral intuition, but in that reaction is also a inability to understand how such an act could be emotionally rewarding (and again, congratulate yourself on that). Sexual assault, along with most other forms of abuse, involve a sense power over the victim, and a sense of moral authority to exercise that power. Exercising that kind of power feels good, and creates the reward. For most people, the moral disgust is so strong that it overpowers the reward from the exercise of power, but Clifford was able to disable that moral disgust, and he did so by crafting his hypocritical image.

There exists a phenomenon known as “moral licensing.” For moral licensing to occur, a person  first needs to establish their moral rightness to the people around them. That established moral rightness creates a sort of moral currency that the person can then spend to make a less moral decision. A person, for instance, can give to charity and then follow by spoiling themselves with an expensive dinner, or the person can proclaim racism to be wrong, but then talk about how black teens should not dress in hoodies because they frighten people. In most situations, moral licensing usually is only invoked in issues of moral ambiguity or mild indulgence. However, in the case of Clifford, he cultivated an image of such moral authority that he felt he had enough moral currency to spend on an act of not so ambiguous abusive indulgence. His mentoring was was so sincere because he needed it to get that moral paycheck that he needed so that he could dismiss his moral disgust and invest in that twisted emotional reward.

But does that mean there are no real good people?

This is where the issue of identity vs image comes into play. Moral licensing does show that people can use morally good actions to create an image of moral rightness that can later lead them to make less moral decisions and actions. However, this does not mean that good people like the Dalai Lama are ticking time bombs of depravity. There are other psychological mechanisms that can and do generate authentic goodness. For many people, past actions of morality encourage future moral actions. This is because those moral actions are based on a sense of identity and people are driven to act consistently with their concept of self. People act according to what is consistent to their identity, and to act in a way that is contrary to that identity creates an uncomfortable internal conflict (aka cognitive dissonance). This cognitive dissonance informs and shapes the person’s moral affect. A person who does something for the sake of image has no real investment in that value, but if the person commits to a value, that person makes it part of his identity, and to contradict that value creates moral disgust while living up to its creates moral reward. The Dalai Lama, for instance, has committed to the value of compassion, and so will consistently act compassionately no matter how much moral currency he acquires. He finds emotional reward in acts of compassion, and reacts to lack of compassion with emotional disgust. As such, his moral intuition will be oriented to compassionate decisions.

Why did we fall for Clifford’s hypocrisy?

We bought into Clifford’s authority because his moral license empowered our own. Speaking a value is a lot easier than committing to it, and the indulgences allowed as we spend moral credit are easier to come by than the emotional reward we get from identity congruent commitment. All he had to do was speak authoritatively on moral values, and we could gain our own license from agreeing to him, and no one had to actually do anything. We considered the costs of challenging his authority on our licensing to be greater than the moral costs of taking his crimes seriously. Because of this, few thought to challenge his actual moral commitment. He was an actor who created a character and played a role, and bought in because we wanted to share in his moral paycheck

Going forward, our task is to learn how to separate those who cultivate a moral image from those who truly make morality part of who they are. We need to challenge our leaders to show that they are not just making statements to establish their moral license, but are actually committed to the morality they espouse. But to do that, we need to first examine our own moral identity and outline how we are committing to our values. Because without our own commitment, we leave ourselves open to the next actor looking to acquire and share a moral paycheck, with the hidden expense of moral hypocrisy.

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