In episode 04 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I answer the question: What can we do with people who just don’t care about morality, nor about other people – people like Ebenezer Scrooge?
Every five episodes we answer audience questions, so please do post your questions and objections below. Make sure your questions address the topics of this episode only. If we plan to address the subject of your question in later episode, we will not answer it in the next Q & A episode. You can also leave your question in audio and we will play it back during the Q & A episode and respond to it: call 413-723-0175 and press 1 to leave a voicemail.
Transcript of episode 04:
LUKE: Listen to this.
MUPPET: Now then sir, about the… donation?
SCROOGE: Well now, let’s see. I know how to treat the poor. My taxes go to pay for the prisons and the poor houses, the homeless must go there.
MUPPET: But some would rather die!
SCROOGE: If they’d rather die, then they’d better do it! And decrease the surplus population.
MUPPET: Oh dear, oh dear.
ALONZO: Hey! That sounds like Beaker!
LUKE: Yes, but I want to talk about Michael Caine.
ALONZO: Ebenezer Scrooge.
LUKE: Ebenezer Scrooge.
ALONZO: A paradigm case of an immoral person who doesn’t care about anything but his bank account.
LUKE: Here’s why I bring this up. A lot of people, when you tell them that some theory of morality demands they should care about other people, will say, like Scrooge, “Yeah, but why should I care about morality? Why should I care what other people want?” So what I want to know is, what can we say to Scrooge? Why should he care about other people?
ALONZO: I’m not saying he should. Maybe he shouldn’t. Even if he should, talking to him probably won’t do any good, at least not in the short term.
LUKE: Alonzo! What do you mean, “Maybe Scrooge shouldn’t care about other people”?
ALONZO: Well, a lot of people seem to think that morality is concerned with finding some magic phrase or syllogism that will automatically turn somebody like Scrooge into a nice person. They look at a theory like desirism and ask, “What is your magic phrase?” When they don’t see a magic phrase that works – and they won’t, because there is no magic phrase that works – they say that the theory fails.
Desirism actually says that there is no magic phrase that works. You won’t find one. Not here. Not anywhere.
LUKE: Okay, so, you’re not gonna give us a magic phrase for making Scrooge a nice person, but what are you doing, then?
ALONZO: Well, since we don’t have a magic phrase for getting Scrooge to at least act like a nice person – even if he isn’t a nice person – what tools do we have?
LUKE: Well… how about a nice two-by-four to the side of the head?
ALONZO: Okay, that will work. We can threaten him – and make good on our threats if he tests us. We can say, “Scrooge, if you don’t act like a nice person, we will thwart some of your desires. To keep those desires from being thwarted, you now have a reason to act like a nice person.”
All forms of punishment – fines, imprisonment, execution, branding, whipping, caning, detention, time-out – all of them deprive a person of the ability to fulfill their desires. All of them give a person a reason to act in ways that will avoid punishment.
LUKE: I think I can think of some problems with that option, though. I mean, first, we have to catch him in the act. I can imagine that Scrooge might be pretty good at covering his tracks, like the guys at Enron. And if Scrooge thinks he can get away with it, then our threats won’t give him much of a reason to act nicely.
And second, what if Scrooge has a bigger weapon than we do? What if we’re not powerful enough to carry through with our threats, because he bribes the police, or something?
ALONZO: So, okay, Scrooge is avoiding our threats either because we do not know what he is doing or we do know but we are not powerful enough to threaten him successfully.
So, it seems what we really need is an all-knowing, all-powerful invisible judge of some sort that Scrooge cannot hide from, and who he can’t beat. We will tell Scrooge that our invisible judge will always know when he is not acting like a nice person. We will tell him that our judge will punish him mercilessly – say, burning him alive forever or something like that. And our invisible judge is so powerful that there is nothing Scrooge can do to avoid punishment. Now, Scrooge has a reason to act like a nice person all the time.
LUKE: That might work if we can convince him of all that. But, it’s a lie. Our invisible judge doesn’t exist.
ALONZO: That’s just a technicality. We convince ourselves that he does exist – then we’re not lying. People convince themselves of useful fictions all the time. Or, maybe, we can convince our children that this invisible judge is real, then they can pass the story onto their children and they will not be lying. They are going to think that we told them the truth.
LUKE: Okay, but, what’s to stop Scrooge from making up his own invisible judge who thinks that being mean to people is okay? And Scrooge isn’t the only one who can make up an invisible judge. I mean, John the Fish Monger can say that the invisible judge wants all of us to eat fish every day, and Bob the Wheat Farmer can say the invisible judge wants us all to eat bread every day, and Sally the Marketing Executive can say the invisible judge wants us all to watch 4 hours of TV every day, and Tom the Slave Owner can say that the invisible judge thinks it is okay to own slaves as long as you don’t treat them too badly. Or Fred, who thinks gay sex is gross, can say that the invisible judge thinks homosexuality is an abomination.
ALONZO: Enough already! I get the point.
ALONZO: Do you think something like that might actually happen?
LUKE: It’s possible.
ALONZO: Well, listen, here’s something that I noticed. If you leave a kid alone, unwatched, in a room with a spinach souffle, and he hates spinach souffles, and he knows that this is a spinach souffle, he’s not going to try to sneak a taste.
LUKE: No, he won’t.
ALONZO: Because he doesn’t like it.
LUKE: Yes, you are very perceptive.
ALONZO: So, we can get Scrooge to act like a nice person if we can get him to like to do the things that nice people do, and not like to do the things that nice people won’t do.
Here. You leave something valuable at your desk at work. One good way to make sure other people don’t walk off with it is to make it so that they hate walking off with things that belong to you. They will be like the kid with the spinach souffle. People who do not like the “taste” of walking off with your stuff aren’t going to do it, even when you aren’t watching them.
It works better than the two-by-four because you don’t have to catch them and you don’t need to be more powerful than them. And you aren’t inventing invisible judges.
LUKE: Hmmm. So giving someone a distaste for walking off with your stuff is actually more effective than threats or invisible judges.
LUKE: But how do you get somebody to have a distaste for stealing?
ALONZO: Well, the short answer is that this is done by praising people who don’t steal and by condemning those who do steal. Praise tends to cause people to want to do the types of things that are praised, while condemnation tends to cause people to have an aversion to the things that are condemned. And not just the person praised or condemned, it works on those who witness the praise or condemnation. It even works if they hear it in a story.
It’s not perfect, but it tends to work that way.
LUKE: You know, you’re right about that. I mean, think about slavery. For thousands of years, most people thought slavery was okay – it was just how things were. But then all of a sudden, in the space of just a few generations, a lot of people changed their minds about slavery. And why? It was not because the laws changed. Obviously the people’s feelings about slavery had to change before they started to change the laws.
And the reason I don’t own slaves isn’t because it’s illegal, it’s because I don’t want to own slaves. I mean, the very idea of owning another person is just ~ughlhh~ to me.
ALONZO: And the question is, where did that ~blek~ come from.
LUKE: Actually, it was more of a ~ughlhh~
ALONZO: Okay. Still, whatever it is, people living 300 years ago didn’t feel it – unless they were slaves. And that distaste for slavery makes it so that we would not want to own slaves today even if somebody managed to make it legal.
ALONZO: We don’t have to be threatened to prevent us from enslaving others, and we don’t need stories of invisible judges.
LUKE: Yeah. And here’s a more personal example, to me. Back when I was a Christian, I actually signed a petition against gay marriage in Minnesota – because that’s what I thought God wanted. But when I went to college I ran into a lot of really cool, smart people who served up a lot of condemnation against people like me who were prejudiced against homosexuals. They also had a lot of praise for people who let others live the way they wanted as long as they weren’t hurting anyone.
All that praise and condemnation really had an affect on my feelings toward homosexuals, and it’s part of the reason I don’t object to homosexuality or gay marriage or any of that. Praise and condemnation changed my desires, and the same thing is happening to millions of people across the country. Support for gay marriage is more widespread today in America than it was even 5 years ago, according to the polls.
ALONZO: If we’re confessing our moral failings, it used to be the case that I didn’t care about making others wait for me. I would take my good, sweet time and I’d get there when I got there. That’s something I got soundly condemned for, and now I’m only late when I really can’t help it.
ALONZO: So, we have three tools for getting Scrooge to act like a nice person. There is the two-by-for method – the option of punishment and reward – we can call that the “law” option. There is the “religion” option – inventing an all-knowing invisible judge. And then there is this third option of using praise and condemnation to cause people to want to do nice things, and have an aversion to doing not-so-nice things.
LUKE: There’s still a problem with that third option, though. Scrooge is already a mean person. He’s going to do mean things. If you condemn him, he’s probably just gonna shrug and keep being mean to people. So, now, how are you going to get him to act like a nice person?
ALONZO: Well, unfortunately, there are no more options. In that case, Scrooge is going to act like . . . well . . . Scrooge. You can threaten him and, if he thinks your threats have weight then that would work. You can lie to him and tell him about your invisible judge – or maybe use some less exotic lie, like saying that he can get richer through niceness than through meanness. If you can convince him of that, your lie then that could work. Or, you can try praise or condemnation, but those are only rarely going to work overnight – well, unless you have three ghosts handy with magic powers and a gift for knowing exactly what to say.
In the absence of ghosts and magic words, threats will require knowing when he does evil and the power to make good on the threats, lies about invisible judges can be hijacked, and praise and condemnation will take some time to have an effect. Like I said at the start of this episode, if you’ve turned to desirism to discover the magic words that will cause anybody to do good and avoid evil, then you might as well be looking for the fountain of youth.
LUKE: But maybe, if we had been using praise and condemnation on Scrooge for 20 years, maybe by now he would want to do the nice thing.
ALONZO: Or if those who knew Scrooge when he was younger and more susceptible to the effects of praise and condemnation had done so, and he was not under the influence of people teaching him selfishness and hatred for those who are poor, maybe then he would be a nicer person today.
LUKE: But Alonzo, I want magic answers!
ALONZO: But, Luke, I want that fountain of youth! However, this podcast is about morality in the real world, not an imaginary world with magic words that will make anybody nice.
LUKE: Fine. So are we talking about morality yet?
ALONZO: Well, actually, yes we are. But we’re trying to ignore that for now. Remember, we’re trying to explain desirism without moral terms first, because moral terms bring with them all kinds of baggage from 10,000 years of people using them who had lots of wrong ideas about morality.
In this episode, we’re discussing three ways to get somebody to act like a nice person: Threats and rewards, stories about invisible judges, and the use of praise and condemnation to get them to want to act like a nice person.
LUKE: Okay, so we’ve looked at desirism through the lens of Alph and Betty on the distant planet, and through the lens of what we can do with Ebenezer Scrooge. What’s next?
ALONZO: Well, let’s make sure we’re making sense to people so far. For our next episode, we’ll be answering questions from our listeners.
LUKE: Okay. So if you want to ask a question about what we’ve discussed so far, you can leave that question in the comments on the website, or you can call 413-723-0175 and leave your question in the voicemail, and then we’ll play it back on the air and respond to it.
ALONZO: Hold on. What was that number again? I wasn’t ready.
ALONZO: Okay, Luke. See you next time when we face the inquisitors.
LUKE: See you then.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- clip from The Muppet Christmas Carol
- “Roy G Biv” from Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada
- “Knights of Cydonia (Symphonic)” by Muse / Ian Cologne
- “Justin Bieber U Smile Ambient Version“
- “The Deboutonner” from Happy Birthday by Modeselektor
- “The Suckerpin” from Happy Birthday by Modeselektor
- 9 Beet Stretch by Leif Inge
- “Home” from You Are Not Alone by Nichole Alden
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