You’ve probably seen the picture of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Anna Ruch at a 2019 wedding. She approached him to thank him for a toast he had offered. He put his hand on her exposed back, and then, as you can see in the picture, put his hands on both her cheeks and asked if he could kiss her. The picture creeps us out.
And one could easily conclude that Cuomo is a creep if you believe his accusers, who include two former employees. Twenty-five-year-old Charlotte Bennett alleges that the 63-year-old Cuomo asked her about her sex life and whether she ever had sex with older men. She took this as a sexual overture. Another young state employee, Lindsey Boylan, was warned by her boss that Cuomo had a “crush” on her. She claims that Cuomo frequently touched her back, arms, and legs, suggested they should play strip poker, and gave her an unsolicited kiss on the mouth. Creepy indeed. And that’s not even to mention his telling a doctor during a live press briefing on Covid-19: “You make that gown look good.”
The unsettling picture reminded us of a recent article by Professors Jeremy Fischer and Rachel Fredericks entitled “The Creeps as a Moral Emotion.”
We have a nice video on moral emotions on this website. A couple in fact. We believe that moral emotions are one of the most important reasons that humans do the right thing most of the time. Self-conscious emotions such as guilt are unpleasant and to avoid them we tend not to do the things that make us feel guilty. Other-condemning emotions such as contempt, anger, and disgust that others will feel toward us if they find out that we have acted wrongly make us feel other self-conscious emotions–shame and embarrassment–and to avoid them we, again, tend to do the right thing most of the time. Unless we are psychopaths. And, perhaps, unless we are creeps.
We are not buying everything that Professors Fischer and Fredericks (F&F) are selling, but generally, we think that their article is an extremely interesting and very creditable initial exploration of the creeps as a moral emotion.
According to F&F, feeling the creeps is a fitting reaction to practices like stalking, flashing, public masturbation, and other examples of moral insensitivity. They believe that if people act insensitively to basic moral norms, reasons or values, we are apt to, and indeed should, react by feeling the creeps and labeling the wrongdoers as creeps. They believe that “being a creep is a moral phenomenon; experiencing the creeps toward creepy people involves interpreting them using moral standards.”
F&F argue that creeps’ “moral searchlights are significantly off the mark … [f]or while creeps do engage in mental activity with respect to moral reasons, they do so appallingly.” We are justified, they say, in being creeped out by their moral insensitivity.
F&F place creeps into four categories:
- creep simpliciter (a psychopath, perhaps) who is largely and indiscriminately insensitive to moral considerations;
- domain-specific creeps who may follow moral rules in one part of their lives, but ignore them in another;
- sectarian creeps who are insensitive to basic moral considerations except regarding fellow members of their social group [see our video on In-group/Out-group Bias]; and
- single value creeps, who are insensitive to one moral value across domains.
It seems to us that Cuomo could be categorized as either a domain-specific creep who is moral in most areas of his life but morally insensitive in the areas of potential romantic or sexual conquest, or as a single value creep who is generally moral but does not respect womens’ autonomy rights.
F&F suggest that “feeling the creeps is a morally significant achievement, since it requires sensitivity to insensitivity.” We may need to engage in some consciousness-raising, they suggest, so that we both recognize and feel the creepiness of people who engage in, for example, sexual harassment. Are you listening Governor Cuomo?
In these blog posts and in our videos, we often directly address the central question of behavioral ethics: Why do good people do bad things? F&F suggest that the “quintessential question” about the creeps is: How can generally sensible, even kind people be so morally insensitive? How could Governor Cuomo, who became a bit of a folk hero in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, simultaneously be such a creepy exploiter of young women?
Ultimately, we are not ready to reshoot our videos on moral emotions to include “the creeps.” We think people can be reasonably creeped out by many things other than moral insensitivity by creeps (McAndew & Koehnke). However, we agree with Professors Fischer and Fredericks that when someone’s actions make us feel creepy, feeling that emotion may be the manifestation of a moral judgment we are intuitively and automatically making about the acts. We should not ignore that feeling any more than we should ignore the uncomfortable feeling that forms in the pit of our stomachs when we contemplate doing something that we know violates established moral rules.
We end by reminding readers that Governor Cuomo has denied some of the allegations against him and apologized for other actions that he admits.
Luis Ferre-Sadurni & Mihir Zaveri, Sexual Harassment Claims Against Cuomo: What We Know So Far, New York Times, March 2, 2021.
Jeremy Fischer & Rachel Fredericks, The Creeps as a Moral Emotion, Ergo, 7(6): 191-217 (2020).
Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes (2013).
Arya Hodjat, Cuomo Brushes Off Creepy Pic: ‘It’s How I Make People Comfortable,’ The Daily Beast, March 3, 2021, at https://www.msn.com/en-us/tv/celebrity/cuomo-brushes-off-creepy-pic-e2-80-98it-e2-80-99s-how-i-make-people-feel-comfortable-e2-80-99/ar-BB1ecQQz.
Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (2012).
Paul LeBlanc & Gregory Krieg, Cuomo Made Unwanted Advances Toward Woman During 2019 Wedding, Witness Says, New York Times, March 2, 2021.
Francis T. McAndrew & Sara S. Koehnke, On the Nature of Creepiness, New Ideas in Psychology, 43: 10-15 (Dec. 2016).
Jesse McKinley & Luis Ferre-Sadurni, Cuomo, Contrite Over Sex Harassment Accusations, Refuses to Resign, New York Times, March 3, 2021.
Sam Raskin & Aaron Feis, Gov. Cuomo’s Creepy COVID Test Comments Resurface: ‘You Make that Gown Look Good,” New York Post, March 2, 2021.
M.C. Watt et al., A Case of the “Heeby Jeebies”: An Examination of Intuitive Judgements of “Creepiness,” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 49(1): 58-69 (2017).
Behavioral ethics: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/behavioral-ethics.