Moral Modes and subjugating humans

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Today we are going to explore subjugating humans. Treating them as a resource. Trying to compete against other human beings, and to win.

The required reading is Siderea's great series The Two Moral Modes (part 1, part 2, part 3). It goes: some people treat everyone as having rights by default. Some people don't. We'll call these "Mode 1" and "Mode 2".

Mode 1:

In Mode 1, one's moral standard of conduct for interacting with other people by default (there can be exceptions) applies to all other human beings, simply for the fact of their being human beings. Given the demographics of who reads my stuff, Gentle reader, this is probably the mode in which you reason, and with which you are most familiar. Mode 1 is the mode of Kant's Categorical Imperative and "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" and the idea of the universal brotherhood of man.

Mode 2:

[Mode 2 is] understood as a kind of right – the right not to have to moderate one's behavior towards out-group members. The right to compete against other groups and win if you can.

Most crucially, it is the right to treat other humans – out-group members – as as much a natural resource to be exploited as ore to mine, timber to log, game to hunt, or livestock to domesticate. Mode 2 has in it – or can – a right to subjugate, as an outgrowth of this notion of group self-defense.

I claim that it's not a difference in "modes of operation". Everyone, except for psychopaths, can feel both the desire to be kind, and the desire to subjugate.

  • The "Mode 1" people have either completely repressed the viciousness in themselves, or redirected it towards a narrow set of acceptable targets — e.g. Mode 2 bigots.
  • The "Mode 2" people have a richer spectrum of emotions, but still they could not integrate the modes, and had to resort to dividing the world into "our side" and "the other side" in order to be able to express both the kindness and the viciousness.

In fact, both are exactly the same — just humans. But they repress different things. In Mode 1, you heavily repress the desire to be vicious; in Mode 2 you heavily repress the fact that you want to be kind even to those who your society has chosen to count as "non-people".

In this post, I will focus on the Mode 1 perspective. However, it's likely that everybody represses both kindness and viciousness, and there might be another post in which I will describe how to stop repressing kindness if yourself.

Spotting the viciousness

If you have spent your whole life repressing any good emotions related to subjugating people — like I have — they are not going to be easy to spot. Here Siderea's posts help a lot.

This is the most charitable phrasing of Mode 2 she offers: "people have a right to fight for limited resources". If one of you has to lose, you have a right to want it to be the other guy.

In Mode 2, we might similarly say that morality has a social organizing function, but where Mode 1 tries to make all humans into one society, Mode 2 is about organizing subsets of humans to out-compete other subsets of humans.

That's a somewhat bloodless way of putting a very bloody idea. In its most benign form, Mode 2 is predicated on the idea that people have a right to band together to vie for limited resources. Imagine two villages racing to sail out to fishing banks first to get the best haul.

And this is the most important bit: "Trump supporters enjoy having social sanction to revile others". Read the quote. Read the bolded feeling names.

What the cheering throngs at Trump's rallies are feeling is joy. They're delighted by the uplift of being told, both implicitly and explicitly by Trump, that their Mode 2 morality is good, worthy, and valid. They're energized by and giddy to find themselves in a movement with hundreds of thousands of like-minded people. They're thrilled by the prospect of an overturn of the Mode 1 hegemony in American culture, and the possibility of making Mode 2 the dominant norm of the land. They're feeling glee.

If it helps, we could perhaps separate out this other thing, this subjugatory behavior of expressing an aggressive, contemptuous, scornful, disrespectful, bigoted attitude, which Trump supporters do with such relish, by using another term for it. I propose revile. What they're enjoying that Trump does, and what they're enjoying having social sanction to do themselves in public, is reviling others.

Now consider: this is exactly, down to a T, the impression I get from the social justice Twitter. Read it again, but skip "Trump".

At this point you might say: "Oh yes, the Left does something superficially similar to what the Right does, so everything is a-OK. Heard this one." This is not what I'm claiming.

I am claiming that everyone is capable of enjoying reviling others, with no judgment of the object-level beliefs. And once you notice that in yourself — once you realize that you cheer not only for your cause but also for the misery of the people you hate — you will be able to judge for yourself how much your fight is fueled by [love for the cause] vs. [hatred of the other side].

In which Siderea proves my point

Siderea has another, even better, post: Class. It's an incredibly honest discussion of social class in America, written just a few months before The Two Moral Modes.

After a detailed description of how classes work in America, Siderea describes her own class affiliation. And here, Mode 2 shines through, unabashed. Look at the yellow bits:

[...] I, too, have my own social class affiliation, and it is as dear to me as anyone's is to them. I am in no way transcended over my class loyalty. I look at other classes and go, "Ew", and, "Oy". I have in no way bought into the idea that all classes are equally good ways to be. I'm on-board with the idea that all people have equal rights before the law, and entitled to a baseline level of respect as fellow humans, but I'm not sure how much further than that I go. Somedays, the extent of my charitability is the possibly very problematic and never actually said aloud, "Well, what with how hard it is to change social class, you probably can't help being like you are."

I empathize when social classes not mine find themselves on the short end of the stick, such as in the above account of smoking regulations, but that doesn't mean I'd do anything to change that outcome. Like, "Wow, it must suck to have your class' norms so disrespected by a change in the law like that. Welp, I'm off to buy a burger in this now refreshingly smoke-free burger joint, and discuss with my class-peers how else we can change public policy to make it more support my class' norms – even, if necessary, at your class' norms' expense."

[...] I'm not even entirely sure I can get on-board with the idea that all US social classes are equally valid and worthwhile cultures, but it would sure be nice to see somebody working from that premise.

This is a description of a well-understood Mode 2, which has not been integrated with Mode 1 yet. How do I know it is not integrated? Now look at the red bits. There's a "but". There's another "but". There's a third "but". That's how I know.

In which Scott Alexander also proves my point

Siderea is not the only thoughtful writer who has noticed the shadow and bravely confessed it. Scott Alexander's I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup comes to mind.

Scott observes the same thing I do — outgroup hatred is a constant, it's just that in case of the Left the target is the Right:

The outgroup of the Red Tribe is occasionally blacks and gays and Muslims, more often the Blue Tribe.

The Blue Tribe has performed some kind of very impressive act of alchemy, and transmuted all of its outgroup hatred to the Red Tribe.

So far so good. He manages to be compassionate both to the Left and the Right, the blue tribe and the red tribe. But then, at the very end of the essay (same as in Siderea's case), he notices the shadow in himself.

This essay is bad and I should feel bad.

I should feel bad because I made exactly the mistake I am trying to warn everyone else about, and it wasn’t until I was almost done that I noticed.

[...] I had fun writing this article. People do not have fun writing articles savagely criticizing their in-group. People can criticize their in-group, it’s not humanly impossible, but it takes nerves of steel, it makes your blood boil, you should sweat blood. It shouldn’t be fun.

[...] I can think of criticisms of my own tribe [the Grey Tribe, distinct from Red and Blue Tribe]. Important criticisms, true ones. But the thought of writing them makes my blood boil.

So far, there is still no evidence of anybody actually not being in Mode 2. Oh well.

Integrating the modes

If you keep repressing Mode 2, you will be shitty to others anyway — just also hiding it from yourself, because being shitty is unacceptable. What's worse, everyone who depends on your well-being, like friends, family, colleagues, or employers, will suffer as the result. I can write a lot about how exactly they will suffer and why — maybe in another post.

Instead of banishing Mode 2, it is possible to integrate the modes. Winning does not mean being cruel to losers. Treating others' as a resource doesn't mean they have to be worse off. Being glad about someone's misfortune doesn't mean causing them misfortune.

The general rule is — replace the "but" with an "and".

  • I don't like hurting others' self-esteem,
    • and I love being better than others, and knowing that I am so, and bragging about it to friends.
  • I think everyone has worth,
    • and I love my family/tribe/nation and want them to win against other families/tribes/nations.
  • I think having different opinions is important for the sake of getting better outcomes,
    • and I will fight for my own opinion as fiercely as I can, while trusting that my opponent will do the same.
  • I will be genuinely grateful for my friends' time and resources; I will help them whenever I can;
    • and I will use their time and resources unabashedly, without keeping the score or trying to "repay the debts".
  • I will be happy when my employees leave me and start their own successful companies,
    • and I will use their labor for my own profit and in service of my own vision while they remain my employees.

If you do that, you will be happier, more productive, and — surprisingly — kinder to others.

P.S. Does competition diminish kindness?

You might object: "Okay, even if it is impossible in practice — wouldn't other people still be better off if you never exploited them at all? Wouldn't humanity benefit from universal cooperation, working towards one shared goal?"

I suspect that the answer is — no. Other people would not be better off. Humanity would not benefit. Long-term, competition is important.

But I also suspect that the expanding circle of moral concern actually has nothing to do with the efforts we've put into beating "be good! don't be bad!" into others' heads over the last couple thousands of years. Don't know enough history to say for sure, though.