Gail and I were recently at a dinner table with a couple that live in rural California. The male half of this couple, who I will call Paul, told a story that I found quite revealing about how we humans may rationalize hurting others.
Apparently Paul and his wife live in a free shooting zone where regulations allow one to use firearms on his or her own property. One day Paul and his wife could see people that they knew were in the business of raising and kennelling dogs being shown a vacant lot next door to where they live. Paul and his wife knew that if these people built on the lot that the noise of the dogs and the traffic would ruin the lifestyle they had grown to love.
Paul took action. He walked over to the vacant lot and joined the conversation with the realtor and prospective buyers. Paul intentionally mentioned that any loose dogs might be in danger because this was a free shooting area and people were inclined to shoot first and investigate second.
A few minutes later, after returning home, while the conversation between the realtor and prospective buyers continued, Paul took out his 22 rifle and fired a round off his back porch. That was the last time they saw those people viewing the property.
Everyone at the dinner table including me had a good laugh at the story. Afterwards I reflected on this conversation and found it instructive. It was very unlikely that anyone in the neighbourhood would shoot a dog. Paul had been misleading and not straightforward, perhaps a little dishonest, but everyone including me felt fine about it.
Why was spinning a story that would mislead the prospective buyers acceptable? I think the short answer is because it served a higher good; it seems unfair for kennel owners to be able to set up shop next door to Paul and his wife.
The renowned ethical scholar Lawrence Kohlberg has written about how people solve moral dilemmas with moral reasoning. When there is a higher concern it may become ethical to engage in behaviour that would otherwise be prohibited. An example he used is stealing medicine from a closed pharmacy in order to save someone’s life when it is the only way to acquire the medicine in time.
I believe that people in conflict engage in similar (what I will call) moral calculations, or at least they misuse them to rationalize adversarial responses to conflict. I suspect that Kohlberg would find their moral reasoning deficient. Here are a couple of examples. “I’m suing him because I don’t want anyone else to go through what he did to us, even though it will cost more than we are likely to win.” Or, “I know I said that I would get her the information, but I decided after saying so that she didn’t deserve it because of what she has done.”
I find that such questionable moral reasoning is usually associated with emotional pain. The parties have been hurt in their interactions with each other, and as a result they become defensive and seek revenge. They don’t, however, acknowledge being vengeful. Instead, they engage in a moral calculation that they find justifies revenge as moral action, as in the examples above.
Self-defeat sometimes involves the use of a poorly applied strategy that has been been highly effective in many other situations. Take the dramatic example of the tightrope walker who fails to grab his safety line during a fall because he continues to hold on to his bamboo balancing pole. Holding the pole saved him countless times by enabling him to easily regain balance. But, during an extremely rare fall, holding on to the pole resulted in falling to his death.
To be morally effective in complex situations we have to engage in moral calculations that sometimes result in us acting in a manner that would normally be prohibited. Under the influence of pain in conflict situations we may be misapplying this capacity and using it to justify hurting others through revenge. When misapplied, the moral ‘calculations’ could also be called moral ‘rationalizations’.