Misreading others' minds: Moral Dyads
The robot and the baby
Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray’s The Mind Club describes research into how we view the minds of other humans. It turns out that we think of other minds as having two clusters of capabilities. One cluster gives a human the ability to plan and act. Call this agency. The other cluster gives a human the ability to feel, especially to feel pain. Call this feeling.
Some entities seem to have the ability to plan and act, but without feelings. A robot is one example. A telephone voice-response system is another.
Would you accept an apology from a computer? It seems odd to do so, given that a computer has no capacity to feel remorse.
Some entities seem to have feelings without an ability to plan and act. A baby is an example.
The moral dyad is a phenomenon where we attribute agency only to one side and feeling only to another side. This is the villain-victim mindset.
In graffiti, George Floyd is often depicted as a big baby. But he had agency. He could have not taken drugs. He could have cooperated with police.
Palestinian sympathizers treat Israelis as having no feelings and Palestinians as having no agency. But many Israelis are sad not have achieved peace with dignity for the Palestinians. And Palestinians have made choices that have not served the goal of achieving peace with dignity.
In most interactions, both sides have feelings, and both sides have agency. We seem to prefer not to see conflicts that way. Instead, we gravitate toward the moral dyad.
This essay is part of a series on human interdependence.
Haven't read the book but read some of Gray''s journal articles which explore some of the implications of the agent-victim (patient) dyad. It seems that morality is centered on the harm suffered. "The Theory of Dyadic Morality (TDM) suggests that moral judgments revolve around a cognitive template of harm. In dyadic morality—and throughout this article—harm has a very specific definition: It involves two perceived and causally connected minds, an intentional agent causing damage to a vulnerable patient...". See:
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1088868317698288. They further suggest that the asymmetric information problem arises from pluralistic notions of harm:. "Grounding moral judgment in perceived harm provides a new—and hopeful—perspective on moral disagreement, suggesting that liberals and conservatives share fundamentally the same moral mind, but just see harm differently (Landy, 2016; Schein & Gray, 2015). By helping people understand that “the other side” respects the sanctity of harm, dyadic morality may help reduce the vindictiveness of moral conversations. Perhaps moral chasms can be crossed with bridges of perceived harm.". This may entail abandoning objective notions of "harm":.
"A review of the literature suggest that harm should be redefined: rather than objective, reasoned, and binary, TDM defines harm as a synthetic combination of agents causing damage to patients, and suggests that harm is perceived, intuitive, and a continuum."
Moreover, " dyadic morality predicts that any exceptions to dyadic morality are rare, unstable, and maintained only with effortful reasoning. In fact, we suggest that most apparent exceptions to dyadic morality are not exceptions at all; rather, they are cases in which harm is misunderstood to be an objective, reasoned fact rather than a perceived intuitive continuum...."
The article concludes:
"There are two quotes which best summarize the aspirations of dyadic morality. The first is from moral anthropologist Rick Shweder (2012), who advocates for “universality without the uniformity” (p. 88). We suggest that a flexible harm-based template allows for a universal understanding of morality in tandem with rich cultural diversity. The second quote is from Felix Mendelssohn, who suggested that “the essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.” The essence of morality is also unity in variety—cognitive unity in the variety of perceived harm.".
This all seems to recall The Three Languages of Politics in that the secret to manipulating others is to understand their notion of harm and to appeal to that. Perhaps the polarization of politics has to do with the internalization of these lessons by politicians and other professional propagandists to focus exclusively on notions of harm with high levels of return -on-investment and to distort and inflate the severity of high ROI harm notions to maximize the resulting moralizing.
It applies to how many people react to the homeless and to street people, too. Nice. Thanks.