Equilibria shifts and moral takovers

Societies, social groups and institutions often seem to rapidly jump from one moral equilibrium to another. Why does this happen?

(Relevant reading: https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/story-of-us.html)

One model goes like this. Most people are cowardly and self-interested. They care about career success, being liked and so on. They do have some moral preferences but will only express and act on them if there are no significant social costs to doing so.

Imagine you start with a space which is 30/30/30 split between purples, yellows and greens. All three groups have slightly different moral views and express them.

Imagine that purples do two things:

  • gain positions of power in the space
  • begin to punish those who openly disagree with purple views

What happens? A few things.

  • Non-purples are less likely to express their views/disagreement and when they do so, will do it smaller groups or 121. (To use the wait but why model, they speak less often and when they do they have a smaller amplification factor.)
  • It now appears that purple views dominate => further self-censorship
  • The less people publicly disagree with purple, the easier it becomes to single out an punish those who do dissent
  • The less public disagreement there is, the more pro-purple arguments dominate the idea space people are exposed to and the more people become genuinely purple

The model here is a simple one where intolerance and even mild social costs are a good way to suppress dissent. The other factors main factors are preference falsification and speaking out being a collective action problem.

Why do rapid jumps from one equilibria to another take place? Usually because the initial equilibria is unstable. Once an event triggers an initial wave of speaking out, suddenly people realize that 1) there are no longer large personal costs to dissent 2) many others actually agree with them.

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