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The Perils of Virtue

February 22nd, 2008 · 5 Comments

J.P. Freire zooms in on a point that was presumably supposed to be central to the New York Times‘ big McCain story, but has been largely neglected:

The NRA and the ACLU both can’t buy ad time in the days before an election because doing so, by virtue of the ethical senator’s own philosophy, is manipulating the people and hurting democracy. But when McCain hops a flight with a campaign contributor, it ought to be obvious that he’s maintaining his integrity. Why is it that associations comprised of every day citizens are suspect, but a powerful politician is not?

What I found really intriguing in the piece—and I’ll agree that the decision to publish it displayed incredibly poor editorial judgment—was the notion that precisely because McCain has fashioned himself as a champion of integrity against corruption in politics, he has found it difficult to recognize when his own actions might seem ethically questionable.

This is actually a pretty well-established point in social psychology. Recall those famous Milgram experiments in which basically decent people are induced to gradually turn up the voltage (or so they believe) on phony “subjects” when ordered to do so by a scientist in a white coat, even after they are given reason to think the “subject” may have suffered a heart attack. The lesson here, in part, is that precisely when people are convinced that they are good and virtuous, it is not all that hard to induce them to commit immoral acts by small steps. Step one seems innocuous. Step two is just a slight increase, and the virtuous person, knowing himself to be virtuous, infers that he cannot have acted improperly at step one, so step two must be admissible as well. And so on through all the steps. When the progression is gradual, the man who knows he is good will not stop to wonder whether he has crossed some imperceptible line.

And so it is with influence. If—as a politician or, for that matter, a journalist—I know I’m immune to being swayed by free dinners and lavish junkets, I’ll never pause to consider how, over time, such things might be subconsciously affecting my judgment. If I’m more acutely aware of my own fallibility, I may need to stop for a periodic mental inventory.

Tags: Obedience and Insubordination



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 lemmy caution // Feb 22, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    There is probably something to that. On the other hand, the reason McCain has fashioned himself as a champion of integrity against corruption in politics is because he was a member of the Keating 5 and wanted to clean up his image.

  • 2 Sam McManus // Feb 23, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    I think the point of that article wasn’t “OMFG MCCAIN FUCKS LOBBYIST LIKE A MILLION TIMES” but more that McCain’s reputation as an ethical stalwart could do more to damage his reputation than help it because perceived hypocrisy is more politically dangerous than poor judgment on its own.

  • 3 Kat // Feb 23, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Sure. One recent article is here, via Overcoming Bias.

  • 4 LarryM // Feb 24, 2008 at 11:15 pm

    A perfect explanation as to how the United States has, though a series of gradual steps, become a nation of monsters.

  • 5 Dave W. // Feb 25, 2008 at 11:05 am

    Another point to consider is that the dinners and junkets may prevent you from being open to changing your mind in light of ever-developing events.

    Lets say that on day one you are strongly pro-X and believe that X can do no harm.

    On day two, X does you a bunch of gratuitous favours.

    On day 3, X declares an unjust war on Lebanon and drops a whole bunch of bombs on them and kills one thousand civilians.

    On day four, you have to write a column saying how you feel about X’s war. If you write a strongly pro-X column, is it because you were strongly pro-X on day one, or is it because of the favours of day two? Do you know? Can you know?

    To ask a different, and more nuanced, question: lets say that on day four you condemn X in what you consider to be strong terms. You give them a tongue lashing and say their war was unjust. You do not, however, consider whether military aid to X should be suspended, or whether the US should declare war on X for behaving badly. Was your criticism of X as restrained as it was because X such restraint is appropriate, or because of the favours of day two? Since you were basically critical of X in the day four column, can anyone say that you are biased in favour of X?

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