Why Moral Progress Feels Annoying

Illustration: Painting, Irshad Salim (2008)

Daniel Kelly at Aeon: It’s not that you don’t care about animal suffering. In other contexts, you actually care quite a bit – you would definitely do something if you thought a neighbour was mistreating their dog. You’re a good person – an animal lover even! But it’s hard to care that much about the ethics of meat-eating when these vegan types are just so preachy and annoying.

This is, we suspect, a very common experience. When we’re told that something we see as ordinary – like eating meat – is actually wrong, our first reaction is to get irritated and dismissive. If it’s not about bacon, it’s about plastic straws. Or a phrase we’ve been using for years but is now considered offensive. Or having to share your pronouns.

This is nothing new. In the 1990s, nascent attempts to combat casual forms of sexism, racism and homophobia – such as calls to end so-called ‘ethnic parties’ on university campuses, or efforts to use the term ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’ when referring to people who have been sexually assaulted – were also seen as preachy and annoying, and were often derided as ‘political correctness’ run amok. Women complaining about sexual harassment in the workplace used to be met with a similar reaction. For instance, a 1975 article in The New York Times reported that such women were told by their employers that they were being prudish and couldn’t take a joke. A 1980 article about new federal guidelines on workplace sexual harassment quotes ‘an indignant personnel vice president’ complaining that these regulations would cause men to ‘be afraid to speak to a woman in the office without first speaking to a lawyer.’

Today, these reactions land a bit differently. Most would agree that, even if those activities were once common, they were never OK. That we no longer consider them acceptable is actually a form of moral progress. It’s good that we take sexual harassment in the workplace more seriously than we used to! It’s a step forward that we no longer find casual homophobia funny, and that we try to be more considerate when we talk about sexual violence. ‘Ethnic parties’, it turns out, were always stupid and offensive. This all might seem obvious now, but many people at the time probably weren’t expecting things to turn out this way. They listened to their guts, and their guts said ‘Ugh.’

What is happening here? Why, rather than taking the moral concerns behind social reforms seriously, do we so often respond with this kind of petulant, knee-jerk defensiveness? It’s not that we don’t care about right and wrong. But cases like these can feel like a far cry from the sort of moral issues that we’re inclined to take seriously – you know, like murder and human rights. In fact, there seems to be an unspoken expectation that when we’re confronted with genuine, important arguments for moral change, they’ll be easy to recognise. Probably they’ll be accompanied by a flash of righteous anger, or a pang of compassion. And of course we will rise to the occasion. Annoyance and irritation, though, are often taken as a sign that the concerns aren’t that big of a deal, that the arguments are mere quibbles that can be safely dismissed. Call this the eyeroll heuristic: if it’s preachy and annoying, it’s OK to ignore it.

As philosophers who work on moral cognition, we think that the eyeroll heuristic is a serious obstacle to moral progress. Many genuinely good arguments for moral change will be initially experienced as annoying. Moreover, the emotional responses that people feel in these situations are not typically produced by psychological processes that are closely tracking argument structure or responding directly to moral reasons. Instead, they stem from psychological mechanisms that enable people to adapt to local norms – what’s called our norm psychology. While this aspect of the human mind is a critical part of our facility for navigating our social world on a day-to-day basis, it can also make us resistant to social change – even when that change is for the better.

More here.