Some time ago, I wrote on the topic of whether there might be something ethically problematic about purchasing a home that has been foreclosed on. The basic thought behind the argument is that when someone does this, they are benefiting from the misfortune of others, and in some sense using that person as a means to their own end.
This was met with a very intelligent chain of comments, which rightly pointed out that the presence of a violated contract between the original purchaser and the bank renders the subsequent purchase of a foreclosure home permissible. The idea there was that once the original buyer violates the terms of the contract, they forfeit any stake in the home that they might have had, and thus cannot be negatively affected by the subsequent purchase of their home at a discounted price.
I bring this up because my wife and I are presently shopping for a home, and the market is literally flooded with homes that are either bank-owned or available for a short sale, where the bank accepts an offer that is below what is still owed on the home. Short sales allow homeowners to get out from under a home that is no longer worth what they owe on it, so this can be a very good thing for them.
What I find particularly interesting is that now that I am in the position of possibly benefiting from a bank-owned or short sale home, I am not particularly swayed by the concerns that motivated my earlier arguments that this practice might be morally problematic. Thus, I want to engage in a bit of moral psychology, to try to determine how a person well-trained in deductive reasoning, who has identified valid arguments against a practice, can nonetheless fail to be moved by the conclusions of those arguments.
My hope is that by identifying some plausible explanations of this all-too-common phenomenon, we can better understand the moral shortcomings that we have, and make sense of why those shortcomings are often resistant to rational modification.
Option 1: Some of my premises are not true.
This is a possibility that should be entertained whenever we fail to see the force of our own arguments. Valid arguments are not necessarily good arguments. Perhaps I should go back and consider whether some of my assumptions are illegitimate. This option has the advantage of being both simple, and explaining why I am not moved by my own arguments. However, it will only succeed if at least one of my premises turns out to be false.
Option 2: My willingness to consider purchasing a bank-owned home is not a rational decision.
It is now well-established that the brain has at least two distinct pathways for processing information. One of them is a rational pathway, and it engages cognitive centers of the brain, primarily the prefrontal cortex. This is the pathway of reasoned deliberation, and the source of my valid arguments.
The other pathway is an emotional pathway, running more or less directly from our perceptual faculties through the amygdala. This pathway is responsible for things like our near-immediate fear response upon seeing a snake or a spider, or our avoidance behavior when something is thrown toward us at a high speed. Because these two pathways are discrete, it is possible for them to diverge wildly, even over time.
This dual pathway model of brain processing suggests another explanation of my failure to be moved by my own arguments. It may be that though my rational pathway leads me to worry about the ethics of purchasing a bank-owned property, my emotional pathway is sending me a “go-for-it” signal that I interpret as indicating permissibility. If motivation stems from the emotional pathway, as many people think, this would account for why I am not moved by my own conclusions, even if my arguments are sound.
Option #3-I am more motivated by self-interest than I realize.
This is no doubt true of all of us, and I think moral philosophers sometimes neglect the extent to which self-interest still dominates many of their deliberative processes in real life. Although I don’t particularly like this option, it does explain the data rather well. In a “cool moment,” I find the arguments against purchasing a foreclosed home convincing, but when the rubber meets the road, I am moved to do what benefits me.
I’m no psychologist, and none of this is intended to be definitive. Rather, I simply want to offer some plausible explanations of the sort of moral dissonance that many of us experience. Perhaps there are other explanations that work better. The point is that the problem of moral motivation has a practical dimension, and is not simply a matter of theoretical interest. Failing to be moved by moral considerations is a phenomenon that occurs with troubling regularity. Perhaps by developing a thorough explanation of how this can occur, we can redirect our efforts at moral education in a way that makes it less common.
If reasoned arguments do not move us to do the right thing, it may be time to consider other strategies.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.