In His Mother’s Basement: Failure and Moral Judgment

In my studies of moral judgment, what and who people think are moral seldom comports with what is actually moral. The title of this piece refers to the common trope that losers get what they deserve as if there is some great moral justice that is awarded to people on Earth. If someone is down on their luck, in their 30s, and for purely financial reasons, moves in with their parents they rightly fear the judgments of society. Society’s reply would be that the person shouldn’t care what society thinks but both since that is neurologically impossible and since reputations can have material effects, that’s not going to happen. Also, if someone has no friends, it suggests they are offensive and suffer deservedly according to people. Conversely, those rich in friends and financially successful are seen to be morally superior.

I addressed a similar and overlapping phenomenon to this in one of the first articles posted to this blog about the cognitive bias that the less successful seem to have a lower moral status in cultures that equate social status with work ethic and work ethic with general character. That was, specifically, with regards to the South. Yet, assigning moral worth and moral virtue based on social status and personal success or failure, according to the academic consensus about social psychology, is applicable to every culture. People always believe that those who suffer get what they deserve. It strongly relates to the cognitive bias fundamental attribution error where one blames one’s own failings on circumstance and another’s failings on character. Furthermore, as people gage moral status relative to others, the worse someone else is, the better oneself is.

Before we knew about the Russian interference in the 2016 election, the most shared stereotype of an internet troll was a geek “in his mother’s basement”. If you think about it, that’s exactly like an old-fashioned bully calling a computer geek a loser. Of course, that targeted Autistic people heavily. Socially awkward geeks, although mostly innocent, were painted as the villians of a phenomenon by pop culture. The people who actually lived that life of a struggling geek were not masturbating to strangers’ instagrams or, if they were, not more than the average person. They weren’t creeps wearing hoodies. The very people whom society should have viewed with sympathy, they kept viewing with contempt and then played them in blackface while blaming them for an internet phenomenon they had nothing to do with.

South Park, famously, attributed the trolls of 2016 to that demographic. More concerning was how much my people, the left, did that. Every chance they got , they would laugh at how those attracted to the alt-right were losers who lost in life. There is some truth to that. The hardline nationalists gave a community to losers in life their communities never gave them but the Daily Kos crowd’s response was cruelty. It was laughing at their failures in life. They also got the sequence of events wrong. Their failures in life were not a divine punishment for their Nazism but their Nazism was a desperate answer to their failures in life. Full on Dawkins-crushing atheists sunk into magical thinking about the universe doling out just karma. As someone who believes in God, I will testify that their life failures were not the just punishment of a righteous God but the unjust cruelty of this world.

The idea that high school is life and after is the afterlife where people get their just deserts is not how anything works. The nerds in high school don’t become tech gurus and the jocks don’t become mechanics. It’s just as likely the jock gets hired by his daddy’s friend to work as middle management at a major company and the nerd’s PTSD from bullying makes them drop out of college and work a menial job and unable to afford rent due to housing prices and end up homeless. In fact, in my experience, that’s a much more likely scenario. Ten years later, the nerd will be seen as a pathetic creep for no rational reason outside of their personal failures and the jock seen as an upright and contributing citizen to society merely for their attractiveness and personal success. 

Of course, this makes solving people’s problems much more difficult. These ideas lead to inaccurate views on what precisely is the thing that isn’t working in the life of the person it’s not working for. Oftentimes, the person making the moral judgment of the person experiencing personal failure will tell them something to the effect of reforming their life rather than considering external factors. Even if that person has no traditional vices such as myself who doesn’t drink, do drugs, have sex, do tobaccoo, or anything else. I’ve gotten lectures from people about why I’m a super-senior who hasn’t graduated from college yet and almost invariably the majority of people attribute my failures to a character flaw. One they seem to rationalize exists and that rationalization is made in real time as a grasping effort to explain a problem they usually have very little knowledge of since these people may have seen me around thrice in the past two years amounting to a total of ninety minutes of interaction, none of which involved personal depth. They aren’t qualified to psychoanalyze me but because of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, their lack of knowledge of a topic equates to a lack of understanding of a topic’s nuance and thus leads to a belief in its simplicity.

I wouldn’t be offended if these lectures were anywhere close to reality but when someone with that little knowledge of a situation attempts to diagnose it, the diagnoses are fantastically delusional. When I attempt to scientifically breakdown all of the nuances and history of the situation in ways that avoid logical fallacies so I don’t come across as emotionally defensive, it’s utterly useless. It’s impossible to build a support network to help me when a large percentage of the people who need to be in that network refuse to accept a scientific analysis of the issues and instead insist on their poorly analyzed, mostly emotional, assessment with no relation to objective truth. Which is all to say that these biases not only insult the dignity of people who have fallen on hard times but also prevent solutions from being created. That is a major problem. Not only is it cruel, it is also extremely counterproductive.

I’ll end with this. It is often said to be “karma” when something bad halpens to someone. Firstly, karma is something in religions I don’t believe in so I don’t believe it exists and my religion is extremely against deriving sadistic schadenfreude from the life failures of other people. The religions that do have karma are also against deriving sadistic schadenfreude from another’s life failures. A few moral philosophies like John Rawls’s would be okay with it but that is not because they are for it but because they lack any virtue ethics which say things like hatred and sadistic schadenfreude are wrong. They are wrong and evil and people should not do them.

Click to access 4_J_Personality_Social_Psychology_203_(Lerner).pdf

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