Around the middle of last month, CNN came under some social-media fire. The source of this fire came from the perception among some people that CNN had covered the Steubenville rape case inappropriately. More precisely, the outrage focused on the notion that CNN had not demonized the two convicted male teens enough; if anything, many people seemed to feel that CNN had humanized the pair. Here’s one of the major quotes that people took issue with:
”It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”
The issue, it would seem, is that many people felt that it ought not have been hard emotionally for the reporter to witness the event; if anything, she should have been angry that the teens were not sentenced more harshly. Other debates raged on in the comments sections of various articles about whether being placed on the list of registered sex offenders for the rest of their life was too harsh of a punishment for the two teens on the one hand, with those advocating the castration or death of the teens on the other extreme. I think these reactions, along with the case itself, happen to highlight some of the adaptive problems that bystanders face surrounding the moral judgments they make.
The first of these problems highlighted by the story is that third-party condemners (those who are not directly involved) need to pick a side in a moral dispute, and being on the wrong side of that dispute can be costly. Accordingly, third party condemners face the problem of figuring out how to coordinate their condemnation with other third parties (DeScioli & Kurzban, 2013). The problem runs deeper than choosing a side, though. As people’s reactions to the CNN story show us, even being on the “right” side of the dispute can be costly, provided one isn’t on the “right” side in the “right” way. Just to be clear, the first “right” in the previous sentence refers to being on the side with more social support; the second “right” refers to the agreement within a given side as to what the appropriate response of its members ought to be. The CNN coverage described the crime as “very serious” and the teen who was raped as “the victim”, suggesting that the reporters were certainly not of the opinion that rape is good or the boys were the real victims. The outrage was that the reporters for CNN did not appear to be appropriately outraged at the boys or offended enough on the part of the victim. CNN’s crime was not treating the teens as viciously as others would have liked.
It would seem that not condemning a behavior thoroughly enough can be interpreted by some as actually condoning that same behavior. Indeed, it was likely when the reporter for CNN said that it was emotionally difficult for her to witness the scene that she sparked the subsequent outcry against the network. This leaves us with a somewhat standard question: why should this be the case? Imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about rape anymore, but about theft. You and I both agree that stealing is wrong and deserves to be punished. However, while you think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of five years in jail and a permanent brand that says “car thief”, I think that stealing a car deserves a sentence of a year in prison and no brand. It would seem silly to conclude that, from these differences in opinion on the extent of deserved punishment, that only one of us is actually against stealing while the other is a morally condemnable “stealing-apologist”. Yet this is precisely what we see happening. Why?
A potential answer comes in more than one part. The first part of this answer is to note that, in cases of moral condemnation, the activity of certain parts of the brain associated with empathy seem to be inhibited. A neuroscience paper by Singer et al (2006) examined the responses of 16 men and 16 women in an fMRI to viewing confederates receiving painful shocks. Before the viewing took place, however, the confederates had either behaved fairly or unfairly towards the subject in a trust game. The results of the analysis found that men, but not women, showed a reduction in activation of presumably empathy-related regions of the brain when viewing the confederates receiving the painful shocks; in the case of the fair player receiving the shocks, subject’s brains showed more signs of empathy-related activation. Similarly, men, but not women, showed increases in brain regions associated with reward when the unfair player received the shocks. Post fMRI measures confirmed that men were more interested in seeking revenge against unfair players
There are a few shortcomings of the Singer et al (2006) study to bear in mind as it relates to the current questions: the sample size wasn’t terribly impressive, but sample sizes in neuroscience studies seldom seem to be. The second piece to bear in mind is that these brain scans do not necessarily add much (or any) value beyond what the far cheaper survey did. At best, the brain scans were icing on the explanatory cake. Further, this study only examined cases of direct revenge, or second-party involvement; not the reactions of bystanders to the fair or unfair behavior. Nevertheless, the results hint at something interesting: the amount of empathy that people (at least men) feel towards the suffering of a perpetrator (i.e. how much they care about the consequences of the punishment to the perpetrator) might be indicative of how morally wrong they view the behavior as being, at least to some extent. One requires certain assumptions to make that leap, but it doesn’t seem too unreasonable.
The picture is not nearly that simple, however. It is at this point that the discoordination problem that DeScioli & Kurzban (2013) raised again rears its head. It is unlikely to be adaptive for condemners to completely – or partially – inhibit their empathic responses towards the perpetrator in all moral cases. While the inhibition might be adaptive in terms of avoiding the condemnation of other condemners (i.e. not being labeled a rape apologist and subsequently socially shunned), it also carries costs, chief among which is that the perpetrator often has social supporters as well. If a condemner has completely inhibited such empathic systems, they’re likely to seek greater punishments of the perpetrators which, by extension, are also punishments leveled against the perpetrator’s social allies. To put the matter more plainly, if my friend goes to jail, I’m out a friend and worse off for it. This can lead to retaliation on the part of the perpetrator’s allies: case in point, it was not long after the verdict was handed down that the rape victim received two threats from other girls who seemed to be socially aligned with one or more of the perpetrators.
This puts third parties in an unpleasant situation: no matter who they side with, they’re likely to face some condemnation, either for condemning one party too much or not condemning that party enough. Similarly, if the third party happens to be socially connected with either the perpetrator or the victim, any harms that befall that party are, by proxy, harms that befall the third parties themselves. Thus, inhibiting an empathy reaction towards a perpetrator might entail the related need to inhibit empathy towards the perpetrator’s social allies, at least to some degree. Such a need could potentially expand the costs associated with the conflicts surrounding moral condemnation and punishment, as the number of people to be punished has grown beyond the initial disputants. The fact that the coordination problem is actually a series of many different problems makes the matter of third-party coordination all the trickier to solve. In fact, it would seem that in many cases, perhaps even most cases, it is not at all clear that people actually do manage to consistently solve the coordination problem.
The previous analysis puts the matter as to why ostensible third parties become involved in moral disputes into a new light. Getting involved in these disputes is clearly a potentially costly endeavor, so why would an uninvolved party bother getting involved in the first place? What are the benefits to joining in the disputes of others that offset these very real costs? Part of that answer would seem to be that these third parties, as previously mentioned, are indirectly personally affected by their outcomes: my friend being condemned or harmed is bad for me to the extent that the condemnation or harm prevents them from delivering me benefits they previous did or potentially might. Further still, if a friend of a friend has been affected in some way it is still potentially detrimental to me. The extent of that detriment would, of course, decrease as social distance between the parties increased; my best friend’s friend is more valuable to me than my acquaintance’s friend. A final possibility is that my not siding with one side could be taken as implicit support for the opposing side, making me the target of moral condemnation by assoication. The result of that perception of implicit support being that it can be similarly costly to me to not become involved. In other words, saying that one doesn’t care at all about the perpetrators or the victim in the Steubenville case is unlikely to earn you many friends, but it will likely still earn you plenty of condemnation.
References: DeScioli P, & Kurzban R (2013). A solution to the mysteries of morality. Psychological bulletin, 139 (2), 477-96 PMID: 22747563
Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Stephan, K., Dolan, R., & Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others Nature, 439 (7075), 466-469 DOI: 10.1038/nature04271