Thursday, 27 January 2011

Criminals are Masters of Moral Anthropology

It is often said that criminals lack a sense of morality. If this is taken to mean that criminals don't understand the difference between right and wrong this is demonstrably false. In fact a great deal of successful criminality – I mean the profitable kind rather than say drunken violence on a Saturday night – depends on a nuanced appreciation of moral norms that is often much more sophisticated and thorough than their targets, together with a willingness to ruthlessly exploit them. They are accomplished moral anthropologists and parasites upon morality. Consider the con-artist and the extortionist.

The con-artist occupies a position on a spectrum of moral exploitation that is familiar to us, and in more moderate ways is quite legal, if dubious. For example, the advertisers who selectively focus on and exacerbate our fears and concerns for others, such as for our children’s health or safety. Or the innocuous tourist trap carpet shop, evangelical church outreach programme or “free” weekend offered by a timeshare company. The aim is to lure you in – “No obligations!” and then deliberately tie you up with the knots of your informal reciprocal obligations for their hospitality, to the extent that you feel extremely rude to leave when the hard sell begins for the product you really don’t want. Not only do such people exploit our ‘good side’. They also exploit our prejudices, prurience, greed, and so on, for example in marketing celebrity magazines: stories about celebrity women getting fat or losing their perfect men sell. They also exploit our moral hypocrisy by letting us have our cake and eat it. For example, a not unusual British broadsheet newspaper frontpage, especially in the summer: Headline: Paedophiles Stalk Facebook! Large picture in centre of page without justifying story, 14 year old female tennis player in a short skirt.

Criminal con-artists simply take these tactics to an extreme. They take a deep hard look at our moral anthropology, its values, assumptions, and hypocrisies. Then they size up the moral operating system of particular individuals and tailor particular strategies to hack them. Of course they have a tremendous advantage on the moral battlefield – they have complete freedom about which rules to obey. 

The simple con involves convincing lies that prey upon our false expectations about the morality of our interlocutors. All they have to do is know how we work, and pretend to be what we expect. E.g. the well-dressed man who walks into a clothes shop, picks up an expensive jacket, pulls off the tag, and then walks to the customer service desk to “return” it as an unwanted gift. 

Other cons take advantage of greed. For example the Neapolitan Maffia managed, through various front companies, to gain waste disposal contracts for various municipalities in Northern Europe through competitive bidding. They fulfilled one part of the contract – they took the garbage away – but managed to make a great deal of money by not fulfilling their promise to dispose of the garbage safely and legally. (Instead they dumped it on the outskirts of Naples.) 

More sophisticated cons make an ally of our hypocrisy to seduce their targets into their web. These are scams that take advantage of people’s own greed and willingness to break the rules, combined with naivete that one’s partner is honest. For example, variations on the illegal tax avoidance scheme (as popularized by Nigerian emailers) or the insider information scam, in which fortunes are apparently to be made for a little upfront money. 

Extortion is still more interesting. The model is the voluntary transaction - the legal form of extortion is simple exploitation of asymmetrical power and information in a transaction (like the antiques dealer who snaps up your grandmother's clock for a dollar). For example, illegal moneylenders around the world prey upon the most vulnerable members of their society. Loans have terms and conditions – like interest rates and penalties - subject to change at a moment’s notice without the target’s consent and can frequently be claimed to total many multiples of the original loan. No court would uphold them, but nonetheless moneylenders claim a right to threaten physical violence to the target, and their family, to induce payment. They may sell the marker to other agents; they may transfer it to her relatives; sometimes they may even demand payment in labour that amounts to chattel slavery (the case of India’s bonded workers or some illegal immigrants).

It is also possible to combine elements of the con with extortion. For example many (generally poorer) countries post warnings to tourists about scams involving amiable locals, often attractive women, who befriend lonely travellers in bars. They suggest going to another bar, where prices aren’t listed, and after an hour or so when trying to leave, an enormous bill is presented and the target realizes that a trap has been sprung. He is surrounded by suddenly unfriendly and large men demanding the contents of his wallet and a trip to an ATM. 

Now the question for extortionists is, why go to all this trouble to provide these criminal acts with a veneer of morality? Why not simply mug the tourist at knifepoint in a dark alley, kidnap the peasant and transport him directly to the factory, etc? Why go through the rigmarole of pretending to supply a service to a small businessman - security - when everyone knows that the only threat to the business is you?

Well criminals aren't stupid even if they are wrong. The introduction of transaction frame, and the claim of a moral obligation by the victim, however specious, presumably makes criminality more profitable. The best mechanism I can think of again depends on moral anthropology. Doing things this way may reduce people’s resistance at the key moment by introducing an element of confusion about what is happening to them. Perhaps most importantly, by offering a different frame of reference – of moral obligation – it allows the victim to choose subordination to injustice rather than direct resistance (which might well end in bloodshed unprofitable to all and additional and unnecessary interest from the police). Hacking  people's moral operating systems can thus be cheaper and more profitable than challenging them. Perhaps it even reduces the psychological costs to the extortionist, who can pretend to themselves that they are businessmen just doing what businesspeople do: offering a market transaction that favours them and trying to hook a sucker who will take it.


2 comments:

  1. I like the idea of a moral operating system. Do you believe that such a thing exists or is merely a useful metaphor?

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  2. Nice point. I intended it as a metaphor - understanding some attributes of morality in terms of software - but I think it's one you can run with. Some evolutionary psychologists seem to think this is how the mind really works. And there are 'libertarian-paternalists', like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, putting together programmes to 'nudge' people into behaving more rationally (overcoming the flaws in their programming - that supermarkets and credit card companies have long been taking advantage of).

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