On Wednesday, June 12, 2019, the Secours Populaire charity of a French department announced that due to the fraud relating to phoney minced beef delivered to charities (La Croix Rouge, Les Restos du Cœur, Secours Populaire Français, Fédération française des banques alimentaires), meals given to disadvantaged people will be devoid of meat (1). The case was disclosed by RTL on 7 June 2019 (2). It is understandable that it has been described as a “scandal,” a term that denotes strong moral disapproval. RTL’s article thus observed that “the French company in question had [the phoney minced beef] manufactured in Poland in order, according to the investigation, to lower its production costs and increase its margins,” – and it added: “In other words, to make money on the backs of the most disadvantaged.” This last observation suggests that the moral judgment of reprobation comprises two levels: the first includes fraud itself, the second the status of the victims concerned. Did the fact that the victims of the fraud were charities and poor people function as an aggravating moral circumstance? We discuss this issue in this post.   Let us first consider the comments of the Secretary of State to the Minister of the Economy and Finance on this case: the situation is “extremely shocking;” “it is out of the question that this type of attitude should prevail again;” “it is a message sent to companies: it is criminal, you risk up to two years in prison and more than one million euros in fines” (3). In the context of our reflection on aggravating moral circumstances, the key expression of these statements is “type of attitude.” Attitude is a “disposition of mind, determined by experience towards a person, a social group or an abstract thing (problem, idea, doctrine, etc.) and which leads to action in a particular way” (4). Since the idea of “disposition” refers to the character of a person, it can be deduced that “type of attitude” is synonymous with “kind of person.” It is from this connection that the aggravating moral circumstances of the case, as perceived by the public, could result. According to this hypothesis, the reasoning behind the moral judgment of disapproval would be as follows: (a) fraud is a morally reprehensible fact, (b) but when it seems to reveal a type of attitude or a kind of person, i.e. a willingness to act in a certain way – and not, for example, a compelling situation in which a person believes that, to guarantee his survival, he must commit fraud, even if he would rather act otherwise – it generates an increase in moral disapproval. The adjective “odious” reflects this addition. It means: “arousing or deserving hatred or repugnance” and comes from odium, which means “hatred.” (5). In a similar sense, the French newspaper L’Humanité headlined: “The scandal of repugnant “phoney minced beef,” dissociating, in the same sentence, the two levels considered: that of the scandal linked to deception and that of the increase in moral disapproval (6).   There is a second way to explain the presence of aggravating moral circumstances in the case in question. It involves referring to the Moral Foundations Theory (MFT). Here is Ruwen Ogien’s description of these modules in a text dealing with, among other things, the unity of moral intuitions in human cultures:

“Our mind would naturally be equipped with five “modules”, i.e. autonomous psychological devices with a specific purpose, which act almost automatically, like reflexes, and whose activity is triggered by well-defined social stimuli.” (7)

These modules cover care for (or harm to) others (Harm), fairness in cooperation (Fairness), loyalty to one’s home group (Ingroup), respect for authority (Authority) and Purity. Each module is related to virtues, such as kindness or compassion for the Harm module, obedience and loyalty for the Authority module, justice and trustworthiness for the Fairness module (8). MFT has been used to experimentally predict political sensitivities or attitudes to moral issues such as those raised by stem-cell research. For example, Michelle Low & Ma. Glenda Lopez Wui showed that the Harm module, which, in their words, “refers to one’s sensitivity towards cruelty and harm,” plays the most important role in predicting people’s attitudes towards the poor, with other modules playing a minor role:

“[…] Attitudes towards the poor are driven most strongly by compassion (Harm), followed by equal rights for the poor (Fairness), complying with roles based on their social status (Authority), contributing to society (Ingroup), and self-control (Purity).” (9)

Low and Wui also noted the effects of the association between Harm and Fairness. These two modules add up to produce positive attitudes towards the poor:

“[…] Individuals who endorse Harm and Fairness more than the other three foundations are more concerned with equitable distribution of power and resource. They are more likely to acknowledge the problematic structural underpinnings of poverty and are less likely to blame the poor for their situation. Hence, they tend to regard the poor more favorably.” (10)

These observations suggest a second interpretation of the aggravating moral circumstances of the case of phoney minced beef– or the additional moral disapproval associated with them. Let’s assume (plausibly) that the Harm module, through which we are sensitive to fraud or deception, was activated in the first place. The fact that charities and poor people were the victims of the fraud could, in a second step, activate one or more of the other four modules – the second level mentioned above. It could be the Fairness module (let’s remind ourselves of the above sentence: “to make money on the backs of the most disadvantaged”), since people are deprived of the resources to which they were entitled. It could also be Purity, because of the disgust caused by the case. It’s not just moral disgust. It is a physiological disgust caused by the list of meat substitutes – rather repulsive products –, by a violation of food hygiene (11). There are probably other possible interpretations. But if preference were to be given, it is the first interpretation – one that does not involve modules producing automatic responses (although partly socially constructed), but the idea of kind of person – that, we believe, should be given priority. Alain Anquetil (1) “Scandale des ‘faux’ steaks hachés : 13000 bénéficiaires du Secours populaire dans la Manche privés de viande,” France 3 Régions, 12 June 2019. (2) “Fraude : 780 tonnes de “faux steaks hachés” distribuées aux plus démunis,” RTL, 7 June 2019. RTL notes that “this beef mince did not contain meat but fat, not muscle but skin. All mixed with soya and starch, unauthorised products in minced beef, with a re-use of processed meat as well.” See also, in English: “Luxembourgish business at the heart of scandal surrounding mince distributed to France’s poor,” RTL, 12 June 2019. (3) See footnote 2. (4) Source (in French): CNRTL. (5) Source: Merriam-Webster. (6) In French: “Le scandale à vomir des ‘faux steaks’,” LHumanité, 11 June 2019. (7) R. Ogien, “Un naturalisme moral improuvable et irréfutable,” A. Masala & J. Ravat (ed), La Morale humaine et les sciences, Paris, Editions Matériologiques, 2011. (8) See J. Haidt & C. Joseph, “Intuitive ethics: How innately prepared intuitions generate culturally variable virtues,” Daedalus, 133(4), 2004, pp. 55-66. (9) M. Low & M. G. L. Wui, “Moral foundations and attitudes towards the poor,” Current Psychology, 35 (4), 2016, pp. 650-656. (10) On the other hand, people who place more importance on group cohesion, authority and purity tend to “view the poor as threat to societal norms because their lack of self-control and contribution is hindering them from being productive members of society. Hence, these individuals tend to regard the poor more negatively.” (Slow and Wui, 2015) (11) Haidt and Joseph observe that “the proper domain of the purity module is the set of things that were associated with these dangers in our evolutionary history, things like rotting corpses, excrement, and scavenger animals. Such things, and people who come into contact with them, trigger a fast, automatic feeling of disgust.” See footnote 8. [cite]

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