To justify our moral judgments, we invent victims even if there are none

We have always been baffled about "victimization".  The teenage sexuality, child porn, irrational drug prohibition witch hunts are based on victimization theories. These victimization theories are so outlandish, they make the medieval "theory that witches cause hail storm" look like sound science.

First come our preconceived moral judgments. Then we find justifications and victims.

In deciding what other people shouldn’t do, people don’t necessarily start with some principle and go from there. It could have been that moral reasoning was not unlike mathematics-start with a few axioms, and see what follows from them. If people did that, then their moral reasoning would be consistent. Everything follows from the assumptions. But they don’t, or at least, not always.2 

All quotes from:
Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind * (Robert Kurzban)
(p. 188 ff | Kindle Loc. 2322-64)

  1. first comes a moral judgment, like "promiscuity is bad", "creeps who possess child porn photos need to be punished", "having sex with adolescents is disgusting" (or "smoking marijuana is bad"). Some of these judgments stem from evolutionary mental modules hard-wired into our minds. Or course, our culture plays a role here too, especially in how we justify our moralistic feelings
  2. After the fact, after we already decided that sex with nubile adolescent women is heinous, our mental "press secretary" has to come up with socially acceptable justifications  for punishing people for apparently victimless crime.  So our mind is made in ways that it finds justifications for our moral judgments. It comes up with logical reasons. It invents victims that need to be protected

Tiger Woods, hypocrisy, moral condemnation of promiscuity: where are the victims of a billionaire’s secret dalliances? Tiger Woods: why can’t he have open marriage and have fun?

For things like sex-which many people want to do-people are very happy to apply moral principles. They think that decisions about what is right and what is wrong, what should be permitted and what should be banned and punished, should derive from principles. In this case, the principle is freedom or liberty: People ought to be allowed to do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others.

[…] But that’s not the way people make all moral judgments, and by moral judgments here I don’t mean how people decide what they themselves should do-what their conscience tells them. I mean how people decide what other people ought not to do, what other people should be punished for.1 […]

People seem to judge acts first, and search for justifications and victims afterwards, which strongly suggests that one coherent set of principles isn’t driving moral judgments.

Human-Stupidity suspects that our modern manipulative language distortion stems from such attempts to justify moralistic interference.

Who are you calling a victim?

One way you can tell people make their moral judgments based on nonconscious intuitions is that they can’t explain their own moral judgments, as we’ve seen with Jon Haidt’s work on "moral dumbfounding." People will say that incest is wrong without being able to give any justification for it. Incest is just wrong.

Kurzban is a scientist. He will not argue if incest is right or wrong, He is analyzing the functioning  of the human mind.  He notices that people are totally convinced of the immorality of incestual relationships and can not explain why it is immoral. Even the incestual couple is adult and infertile, it still is wrong.

Many modules seem to cause people to find certain things wrong and to work to prevent others from doing them.Often, people can’t actually tell you the real reason behind those judgments, any more than they can tell you why they think they’re among the best drivers in the country.

Our moral convictions make us find logical explanations and victims at all cost.

We’ve been studying moral intuitions in my lab as well. Peter DeScioli, Skye Gilbert, and I have done some work looking not at moral justifications, but rather intuitions about victimhood. You might think that when people make moral judgments, they first determine if there’s anyone who is a victim-anyone made worse off by the act in question-and use that when they’re making their moral judgment. But we think that for at least some offenses, it’s the other way around.

Researchers got rid of all potential victims from scenarios. If there absolutely can not be a victim, we find a victim anyway

We presented people with a set of "victimless" offenses-things like urinating on a tombstone, burning a flag, cloning a human being, and so on-and asked our subjects if the act was wrong or not. After that, we asked if anyone was harmed by the action. What we found was that almost anyone who said an act was wrong also indicated a victim. But the victims included entities like "humanity," "society," "the American people," "friends of the deceased," "the clone," and so on.

Now, of course it’s possible to argue that somehow these entities really are worse off as a result of the actions. So in a follow-up, we changed the scenarios to get rid of these potential victims. We had a story in which someone urinated on the tombstone of someone with no living family or friends, or a scientist cloned a human being, but the clone was never alive, so couldn’t ever have suffered, felt pain, or worried that she was a clone.
Doesn’t seem to matter. People still judged the acts wrong, and, when they did, they searched for a victim. If the clone wasn’t ever alive, fine, the clone wasn’t the victim: the scientist (somehow) was. If the dead person had no family or friends, "society" was worse off.
People seem to judge acts first, and search for justifications and victims afterwards, which strongly suggests that one coherent set of principles isn’t driving moral judgments.

Here is the explanation for the amazing theories of victimization with child porn, about consensual sex with adolescents being exactly the same as violently raping the same adolescent. These theories actually have become law and terrorize men with long jail sentences.  

OBS: Dr. Kurzban is not responsible for conclusions Human-Stupidity draws from his work.

Immoral judgments aren’t driven by a set of consciously accessible general principles that are applied to particular cases.


Evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban explains
how we gain reproductive advantage by moral condemnation of promiscuity and interfering in other people’s sex life

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Tiger Woods, hypocrisy, moral condemnation of promiscuity

an evolutionary perspective […] helps us understand why sexual transgressions by successful males, as well as the seemingly irrational levels of moral outrage at those transgressions, are both "natural," regardless of whether you personally feel that either is intrinsically good or bad.

Finally an intelligent comment about the moral condemnation hysteria of Tiger Woods.  Evolutionary Theory by Kurzban and deScioli

Men fantasize about novel women. Rich powerful man can actually get them

Tiger is a man with immense wealth and social status. Throughout history, men with wealth and status have tended to trade it for access to multiple mates. Evolutionary historian Laura Betzig has documented this pattern in modern societies and throughout history, as in the abundant cases of Roman emperors, Indian maharajahs, Arabian sheiks, and Chinese mandarins. Bhupinder Singh, the wealthy and powerful Seventh Maharajah of the state of Patiala, for example, had 350 wives, and he by no means held the record. European and North American states tend to be officially monogamous, but of course they are unofficially polygamous as well. Rock stars, famous athletes, politicians and even television evangelists are reliable sources of public outrage, which fires up every time we learn about their frequently overactive private lives.[…]

Kinsey found that the typical male masturbated with some frequency, during such activities men often fantasize about novel women. What if the man was sufficiently attractive that those fantasy women were actually ready, willing, and eager to turn desire into reality? The average heterosexual man would, under those circumstances, perhaps act like the average homosexual man (who is unconstrained by a more selective target audience), or like the average rock superstar: he would take hundreds of partners.

Psychology Today. December, 2009. Kenrick, D. T. “In "Defense" of Tiger Woods, AND of his critics." [link]


Moral outrage keeps others in check. So powerful men don’t monopolize too many women

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Repressive sex laws in the "Land of the Free". Polygyny in birds & human meddling in other people’s sexuality

Why do we, in the land of the free, have a prohibition of polygyny, a victimless crime? Why does the law restrict people’s freedom needlessly? Why do consenting adults have many legal restrictions to their sexual liberty? Teenage sexuality is full of legal problems (Consult a lawyer before playing doctor. Perverse sex laws traumatize children).  

Why do we feel a compulsion to meddle in other peoples freedom to form whatever form of marriage or sexual relationship they might want to engage in?

Many women would rather be the second (or fifth) wife of an attractive, rich, powerful man like  Tiger Woods or Brad Pitt, then the first  and only wife of boring, fat, jobless, broke alcoholic Joe Bloke in a Detroit ghetto.  Even just being Tiger’s mistress is much more exciting then Joe Bloke. Why does our law restrict the liberty of these women, and of Tiger Woods?

Repression of other people’s sexuality is in the reproductive interest  of older married women, of unattractive men. Even vor the successful alpha male it is advantagous to repress sexuality in others,  while hypocritically pursuing his own promiscuous sexuality (remember Eliot Spitzer?). 

In this post we show that evolutionary theory suggests evolution has created mental modules in our brains to repress sexuality in others,  The gut feelings caused by these modules get rationalized into theories that give rise to repressive legislation.

Polygyny in birds

When good males are scarce, a female bird may prefer to become the second mate of a higher quality male with a bigger territory.

Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban $27.95 0691146748

(all quotes are from Kurzban’s book. This book is a must-read to really understand this topic here)
  • mating pattern of certain bird species illustrates what’s known as the "polygyny threshold model," which has to do with how female birds choose a mate in certain complex environments. […]

  • Is it better to be the only mate of a poorer male or share a better one?
  • I [a female bird]  can either nest with one of the remaining single – but lower quality- males, or I can nest with a [better high quality] male who is already paired, becoming the second female on his [bigger and better] patch. […]

  • When the payoff to being the second female on a patch is greater then the payoff to being the only mate of an inferior male, there will be polygyny. (Kurzban, pg. 208)


Morality for the birds?

To better understand how evolution could have formed modules for anti-polygyny morality, Kurzban analyzes a hypothetical bird population where moral rules prohibit polygyny.  He asks

Which birds stand to gain reproductive advantage when polygyny is prohibited?
  1. "Clearly, female birds already paired with the best male mates will do better. Their mates won’t be able to acquire secondary females whose offspring would compete for the man’s resources." (Kurzban, p 209). Women married with good males have reasons to be feminists. Hillary Clinton only loses if hubby Bill gets entangled with interns. In contrast, Monica Lewinsky probably would have fared very well as Bill Clinton’s second or even fifth wife.
  2. "There’s a natural alliance between monogamously mated females and low quality males because they both gain by enforced monogamy". "low-quality males benefit, since they now might get mates who would otherwise wind up as secondary mates of high-quality males" (Kurzban, p.) In a polygynous animal, primate, or human societies, many low-quality get no wives and no offspring at all. "Low quality males would have a deep, abiding, even crucial interest in rules that force everyone into monogamy" (Kurzban, p 213). Remember, evolution selected for mental modules that gave us reproductive advantage in the EEA, in small groups of hunter-gatherers. It seems that for low quality males, monogamy is the only chance to get a wife, rear  offspring and thus have reproductive success!  Low quality males that successfully prevent the high quality males from monopolizing multiple females would have considerably more offspring then tolerant open minded men who would remain empty handed while the high quality males would get all the females.
  3. Almost all males "benefit from all other males being monogamous, even if they themselves are not [monogamous]? […] "it’s best to constrain others’ sexual behavior. We’re all in favor of moral rule that prevent others from doing things that harm our own interests, but it is to our advantage to not obey our own rule. 
  4. High quality alpha males can profit from imposing monogamy  on other males.  Powerful males have a better chance to remain unpunished if they violate these rules (at least in birds with no feminist dominated court system)
  5. The losers of polygyny prohibition are un-paired females who have to settle for a lower quality male (‘a loser’)  because they are deprived of the freedom to choose to be wife #2 of a high quality male (with better genes, bigger territory, and more resources). 
  6. The other losers  of enforced monogamy are the "cads" the sexy good looking promiscuous players. They are attractive to women for having good genes, but they can’t win the battle over who brings the most worms. "Without promiscuity, sexy males can’t make the most of what they’ve got." (Kurzban, p. 211). 
  7. "Dads, however, win if the sexy males can’t be promiscuous. (They also benefit from keeping their females at home, rather than searching for the good-gene cads)"  (p 211) "Dads" are mated male birds that invest in their family and bring home worms for their kids.
We have an "interfere in other people’s private sex life" mental module.

"Humans are extremely social, and our survival and reproduction are determined in large part by how well we navigate the social world. Given this, it’s reasonable to expect that our minds are designed to compete fiercely-if not subtly- for the benefits in the social world: the best mates, the best friends, membership in the best groups, and so on. The outcomes of these competitions would have had massive effects on reproductive success over the course of human evolution."

So birds, mammals, and humans that increase their reproductive success by restricting other people’s sexual access will out-compete the democratic, personal-liberty-respecting tolerant liberal individuals.

We will post more about Kurzban’s theory of the modular mind, and the evolutionary advantages of internal inconsistency, self-deception, hypocrisy to explain this further. But to get a deep understanding one probably needs to read evolutionary literature

  • Evolutionary Psychology Primer & Reading List | Human-Stupidity
  • Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite (Robert Kurzban) |Human-Stupidity book review
  • Social Evolution by Robert Trivers $40.00 080538507X  (Amazon)


    Humans have "moralistic modules designed to favor rules that promote their fitness interests".

    "The hypothetical birds would vote for policies that prevent others from engaging in sex outside mateships and anything else that goes along with promiscuity. "they probably would not know why they were opposed to these practices. Their decision would be based on the output of certain modules designed to limit other people’s promiscuity.  They would be insensitive to arguments about freedom and individual choice, and unaware of being inconsistent. They would probably rationalize this as being ‘pro-family", pro-life. Their resistance against abortion might be based in the desire to punish the females for having sex, and not in the desire to save embryos or in theories about the beginning of life."  (Kurzban)

    "They might be opposed to abortion -the availability of which by reducing the costs of sex, might well be linked to promiscuity" (Kurzban)

    Feminist anti-promiscuity sex laws are also in the reproductive interest of most (hypocritical) males
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    Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite (Robert Kurzban)

    Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban.
    Robert Kurzban is a student of the “modular mind” theory of John Tooby & Leda Cosmides.

    The modular mind

    “The human mind consists of many, many mental processes – think of them as little programming subroutines, or maybe individual iPhone applications – each operating by its own logic, designed by the inexorable process of natural selection”

    “the mind consists of many different parts. These parts often “believe” different, mutually inconsistent things. Sometimes this is obvious, as illustrated in case of brain damage and optical illusions. Other cases are less obvious, but no less interesting.”

    “the different bits of our brain have functions. Just as some of our mind’s subroutines are for seeing, some for processing language, and some for controlling muscles, […] choosing mates, […] making friends, and – one subject I currently study – some with morally condemning others for doing things.”

    With the concept of the modular mind, human irrationality, ignorance and self deception cease to be a confusing riddle.

    “This book is about contradictions. […] It’s about how you can, and one at the same time, want the government to leave people alone as long as they’re not hurting anyone and also very much want the government to interfere with people’s lives even when they’re not hurting anyone.”

    Evolutionary Psychology Primer & Reading List

    The usefulness of being wrong and ignorant

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