Nathanael Garrett Novosel, March 1 2023

Relative Ethics (i.e., Being Able to “Take It”)

Ethics are an interesting topic because they are based on so many situational factors. Before we discuss the one that is of particular interest in modern times, just a quick recap of the five factors that are necessary for ethical accountability:

The Five Required Attributes for Human Ethical Accountability

If you are new to these five, basically they are the requirements to hold someone accountable for socially unacceptable behavior. When any five are not fully met, you reduce or eliminate accountability. For example:

These are all examples of how ethics are not always applied consistently given a variety of circumstances. The five required attributes also explain why animals are not held to the standards of the human justice system and instead are assessed based on their threat to humans and other factors.

Okay, so with that quick recap, let's get to this idea of relative ethics. I need to clarify because I'm not talking about "moral relativism", which is an idea that people have different moral codes and so you can technically justify any act as long as you're viewing it through the eyes of the person who was rationalizing it. We're not talking about that; instead, we'll assume that hurting people or taking their stuff is generally a bad thing (hopefully, something that everyone can agree on for the most part). What we are talking about is that someone's capability makes the harm done relatively less bad even if the act is absolutely and objectively the same.

Where is this the case? The most popular today is when someone is talking about harm toward a strong man or a rich person vs. a fragile child or woman or a poor person. Because, relatively speaking, the strong or wealthy person is more capable than the other individuals, any harm to them is considered less bad ethically. In a vacuum, however, punching someone should be equally bad regardless of the target, and stealing from someone should be equally bad regardless of the victim. But it's not because of the underlying assumptions being made: men are expected to be more durable and better able to defend themselves than women or children, so harm done to them is less condemned; wealthy people have more money and are likely capable of making more money more quickly and easily, so property taken from them is less condemned.

Now, you might think that this is completely consistent because the same punch would be less damaging to an adult man and the same amount of money taken would be less life-threatening to a wealthy person. However, people would still rate the harm done to the more vulnerable party as worse even if the harm were relatively equal (meaning that you accounted for the increased strength or calculated the theft by an equal percentage vs. absolute amount). Some people push the logic to conclude that men are "expendable" and that wealthy people "shouldn't have that much money, anyway"—but those points are not the driving factor for the difference. It's about overall capability that gives them more responsibility and, therefore, makes the harm less unethical in people's eyes than a more vulnerable party. In popular culture, they call this "punching down" to refer to harming the less capable.

This reality is quite interesting. For those of you who know behavioral economics, you know that there is a comparison that economists do between what "econs"—i.e., perfectly rational individuals with no biases—would do vs. what human beings actually tend to do. Dan Ariely popularized this idea in his book, Predictably Irrational, where he described many ways in which you can manipulate human decisions that shouldn't affect a person who was acting perfectly rationally. This scenario where a perfectly rational person would judge equivalent harm as equally bad—or at least relatively equivalent harm accounting for the difference in capability—but a normal person judges the harm done to a vulnerable party as much, much worse is an example of that kind of behavior in action in psychology.

Which brings us to the colloquialism used in the title of this blog post: "Being able to 'take it'". That is a way to commonly assess whether behavior is ethical or not relatively speaking. You hear that kind of language from people who are being attacked: "It's okay; I can take it," as well as from people who are defending others: "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?" (size implying that they are more capable and can "take it") You also see it regarding rules and punishments: "You should never hit a woman," is both said and enforced, as hurting someone is more likely to get the offender sent to jail vs. two men fighting (or a woman hitting a man) that might never see a courtroom. It's based on vulnerability, but note that a man might be similarly vulnerable but, based on biological sex and age, might still get viewed as better able to "take it" and so slightly less protected by the ethical rules of society.

Why does this matter? Two main reasons: this "take it" measure is creeping beyond individual assessments to group-based assessments, and the capability assessment people use to judge how unethical an act was is, shockingly, being used to justify the act as not even unethical. Those are two very scary trends that you should look out for in your life.

Let me give you one example of each:

These two situations are much worse than the original description of someone more capable being less sympathized with than someone who is more vulnerable. That is at best an amusing difference and at worse a flaw in the degree of protection and punishment by both bystanders and the justice system. But these latter two are very dangerous because it opens the door to harming and stealing from people based on race, gender, income, and a variety of other factors that in modern times people boil down to the word "privilege". It takes otherwise normal, law-abiding people and causes them to commit unethical, criminal behavior and call it righteous.

But as any parent or child knows, two wrongs do not make a right. Burning down a building because you are angry and the business owner has insurance—i.e., they can "take it"—does not excuse it or make it right. Ironically, most damage being done against the people they claim to hate—recently, by race or wealth—has been done to the very people they claim to be supporting—i.e., vulnerable communities.

So while the original part of this post is mostly a "huh" fact of life that won't affect you tomorrow, remember when you see this effect get taken to the extreme and you find yourself justifying harm done because someone similar to the people being harmed did something bad beforehand. That is the rationalization for bad behavior that begets worse behavior. To offset this bias, each person needs to be treated as an individual on his or her own merits, the relative ethics applied because a person is more capable should be kept in check, and someone being stronger, wealthier, or otherwise better off in life should not be a reason to view harm as some sort of positive or win for the person doing the harm or for society. This applies regardless of whether the bias is due to a previous harm that makes it feel like revenge or due to jealousy, perceived unfairness, or another factor that makes it feel like retribution is right.

This is a difficult bias to overcome, so be careful.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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