Moral Acrobatics: How We Avoid Ethical Ambiguity by Thinking in Black and White

Philippe Rochat
Pub date
Jan 2021
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Although it is difficult for us to fathom, pure monsters do not exist. Terrorists and other serial killers massacre innocent people, yet are perfectly capable of loving their own parents, neighbors, and children. Hitler, sending millions to their death, was contemptuous of meat eaters and a strong advocate of animal welfare. How do we reconcile such moral ambiguities? Do they capture something deep about how we build values? As a developmental scientist, Philippe Rochat explores this possibility, proposing that as members of a uniquely symbolic and self-conscious species aware of its own mortality, we develop uncanny abilities toward lying and self-deception. We are deeply categorical and compartmentalized in our views of the world. We imagine essence where there is none. We juggle double standards and manage contradictory values, clustering our existence depending on context and situations, whether we deal in relation to close kin, colleagues, strangers, lovers, or enemies. We live within multiple, interchangeable moral spheres. This social-contextual determination of the moral domain is the source of moral ambiguities and blatant contradictions we all need to own up to.


INTRODUCTION Moral battlefield and the illusion of moral unity
PART 1: FACTS What does it mean to be moral?
1 Human self-reflective curse
2 Double standards
3 Moral acrobats
4 Value creation and moral comfort zones
5 Hitler was a vegetarian!
6 No pure monsters
PART 2: PROCLIVITIES What guides our moral decisions?
7 Moral sphere collapses
8 A heart made of abundance
9 Spherical alliances
10 Exclusivity instinct
11 Love as exclusion
12 Belonging instinct
PART 3: MECHANISMS What shapes our moral decisions?
13 Blind spots and shortcuts
14 Fundamental attribution error
15 Clustering and stereotyping
16 Pervasive fetishism
17 Ingrained essentialism
18 Essentialism and prejudice
19 Group essentialism
20 Self-essentialism
PART 4: DEVELOPMENT What are the origins of our moral decisions?
21 Self-consciousness in development
22 Self-deception in development
23 Lying and deceiving in development
24 Natural roots of moral hypocrisy
25 What about culture and development?
CONCLUSION Human moral frailty
Postscript: Moral acrobatics and human violence

About the author: 

Philippe Rochat is Professor of Psychology at Emory University. He received his PhD from the University of Geneva, and studied infants as a pre-doctoral and post-doctoral fellow at Brown University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Johns Hopkins University. A 2006-2007 John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has written over one hundred scholarly articles and is the single author of five books, as well as the editor or co-editor of three books.

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