Morality's Structure and the Myth of Harmless Wrongs

There are many different moral concerns across cultures, but at the core of each of them is a psychological template—a moral prototype—consisting of two perceived minds, a wrongdoer and a victim. Whenever we see an action that seems wrong, we automatically and intuitively squeeze it into this prototype. This means that all moral acts are perceived to have victims, even if they objectively lack one. When conservatives say that gay marriage is the "equivalent" of a nuclear holocaust, it isn't mere rhetoric, but legitimate perceptions of harm. In the human mind, when something is wrong, someone is harmed; the idea of a “victimless crime” may be psychologically impossible.

 

Learn more:
Beyond Good and Evil (PDF)

– The Boston Globe

 

Suffering and Religious Belief

The dyadic template for morality means that we not only link wrongness to suffering, but when there is suffering, we try to find an agent to blame. After a tragedy—for example, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina—we oftentimes blame another person (the president) or the government (e.g., FEMA), but sometimes we need a more powerful agent: God. The more suffering in a state, the more people believe in God

 

 

Learn more:
Book Excerpt: Why We Blame God for Our Problems

–  The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking

 

The Genesis of Us and Them

Some speak of the possibility of a post-racial, post-religious society in which we are all friends. Could everyone get along if there were no physical or cultural differences between people? But even without these differences, you get "us and them." Completely homogenous populations still divide into in-groups and out-groups. Just two simple principles—reciprocity (I help you, you help me) and transitivity (friends of friends are your friends)—interact through time to make groups that are kind within themselves, but are cruel to outsiders.


 

Learn more:
From Football Fans to Communist Regimes, It Doesn't Take Much to Form a Group
– Science

Us vs. Them: As Simple as ABC?
– Yale Alumni Magazine

 

The Illusion of Online Activism

It seems like social media has transformed social activism and civic engagement—but perhaps it only gives the illusion of change. “Save Darfur” was once one of the biggest Facebook causes, with about 1.2 million members, but it raised much less than offline campaigns did. Few members of the online group participated deeply; the vast majority didn't donate any money or recruit any other members to the cause. In other words, these online activists weren't very active.

 

Learn more:
Raising an Army of Armchair Activists?
– UC San Diego News Center

The Structure of Online Activism (PDF)
– Sociological Science