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I was recently with a longtime friend who revealed that he does not believe in morality. He thinks the only ultimate good is his own happiness. Now, he tries to act in a way that others see as moral because he believes that that is conducive to his own happiness, and he acknowledges having emotions about what other people do (learning about mass murder would make him unhappy for instance), but he refuses to connect these emotions to any propositional knowledge. For him, words like “wrong,” “right,” “ought,” and “should” have no meaning apart from an instrumental one (“If you want to be happy, you shouldn’t go around murdering people – unless you really really enjoy murdering people”).

I agreed with him that there is no way to prove that morality exists, but I maintained that it’s a properly basic assumption. Morality is like causality. The mere fact that A has followed B 1000000 times doesn’t mean it will do so the next time unless we assume causality (see Hume). We can’t prove causality from anything else; it is a fundamental category of our understanding — just the way our brains organize our sensations of the world (see Kant). In the same way, for most of us, moral judgments are inescapable. When we see someone torture an innocent person to death, we judge that act as wrong, indeed evil. My friend does not apparently judge that act as evil; he says knowing about the act would simply cause him negative emotions.

I didn’t ask him what those negative emotions would be, but my guess is that anger would play the predominant role. If the perpetrator “got away with it,” that anger would mixed with indignation or resentment. But why would you experience indignation or resentment at a criminal’s getting away with murder? Why not fear, which is presumably what asocial animals would experience if they witnessed something like this? Why not melancholy?

We are angry because we believe that the act is wrong and unjust, and should be stopped or punished with force or even violence, if necessary. If the act goes unpunished, we are indignant or resentful; the criminal “owes” something that has not been paid. Our moral judgments cause our emotions; they don’t spring from nowhere, purposeless.

Recently, psychologists have been learning more about how emotion and moral intuition are connected, something Adam Smith knew 250 years ago. Sensitivity to moral concerns is not associated with study of moral philosophy or reasoning capabilities, but with strong empathetic abilities (see Haidt, who is wrong on moral philosophy but right on moral psychology, and Margolis).

With no intended disrespect to my friend, I suspect he scores very low on the empathy spectrum. He fails to see that other human beings have legitimate interests of their own and deserve to be able to pursue happiness just as much as he is. He needs treatment in becoming empathetic — in fact, we all need that treatment from time to time.

Here’s where literature comes in. Literary fiction’s central social function is to train our empathetic organ. When we read fiction, especially with complex, nuanced characters, we put ourselves in the place of some of the characters. We see the world through their eyes and come to understand and value them. We can witness an infinite variety of events, characters, and actions that have never actually existed, so allowing us to fine-tune and to extend our empathy to situations that challenge our intuitions, typically by bringing them into conflict, or that make us think of possibilities we have never previously considered. Literature has other, more personal functions as art and entertainment, but its central social function is training us to empathize. That’s the reason why children should read literary fiction, and why it should be taught in schools, not just considered a private hobby. (more…)

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In his book The Righteous Mind (review coming soon) and in a coauthored paper with Ravi Iyer and others, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt claims that libertarians are essentially amoral(*): they care less about care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity than conservatives and liberals and care most of all about liberty. (I blogged the latter study here.)

But it turns out that one of the chief surveys on which most of this research rests looks geared toward generating biased outcomes for libertarians specifically. The “Moral Scenarios” survey asks respondents to judge the morality of certain actions, all of which involve the exchange of money. Here is one example:

A professional sports player has played for his hometown team for the past 10 years and has never played anywhere else. Recently, he was offered a lot of money to play for his hometown team’s rival in a different city. Losing their best player to a rival team would upset many people in his hometown. However, he decides to take the offer and play for the rival team.
How morally offensive is this?
Not at all offensive Extremely offensive
How upsetting is this?
Not at all upsetting Extremely upsetting
How angry does this make you feel?
Not at all angry Extremely angry

You can give your reaction on a 1-7 scale.

Now, two things are peculiar about this survey. First, all the questions are about the exchange of money. Other questions are about the morality of a manufacturer’s making a less safe car to save money, auctioning off a place in the liver transplant queue, and so on. Thus, the questions seem almost calculated to elicit defensive responses from libertarians, who more than conservatives and liberals tend to be committed to the justice of market exchange. It’s therefore no surprise that libertarians are less likely to answer that these actions are “morally offensive” than are liberals and conservatives. If the survey consisted of moral dilemmas in which the pursuit of equality (sanctity) had perverse consequences, then liberals (conservatives) would likely be the defensive ones with lower average scores on “moral offensiveness.”

Second, the questions are overwhelmingly tilted toward eliciting an emotional, intuitive response rather than a reflective one. I don’t think of morality as a sliding scale of “offensiveness,” but Haidt does, and he forces his respondents into that philosophical straitjacket. My own response to almost all of these scenarios was “it depends.” There was no option for that, of course. So I chose an answer right in the middle of the scale. It turns out that middling answers on these scenarios puts you well below the typical liberal and conservative responses. Again, since libertarians often tend to elevate reason (possibly excessively) and denigrate emotion as a guide to moral judgment, they are less likely to take extreme positions on these questions. That tendency alone further biases the results toward libertarians’ appearing comparatively amoral.

(*) “Essentially amoral” is my gloss on his findings. He criticizes libertarians as being extreme exemplars of so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) morality, caring only about rights and not about other moral dimensions.

This post has been updated to add the footnote above.

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A recently published paper by Ravi Iyer and coauthors on the “libertarian personality” has been getting a great deal of attention. To recap the findings,

Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness. As predicted by intuitionist theories concerning the origins of moral reasoning, libertarian values showed convergent relationships with libertarian emotional dispositions and social preferences.

Like conservatives, libertarians apparently tend to have little truck with moral values like compassion, while like liberals, they tend to despise values like loyalty. The only thing that matters to them, allegedly, is freedom. Furthermore, libertarians are cold utilitarians: in the “trolley problem,” they show themselves more willing than liberals and conservatives to kill an innocent person to save a larger number of people. In addition, the authors find that “libertarians were the only group to report valuing pragmatic, non-moral traits more than moral traits. Libertarians may hesitate to view traits that engender obligations to others (e.g. loyal, generous, sympathetic) as important parts of who they are because such traits imply being altruistic.”

Put it all together, and libertarians sound like a distasteful bunch. Indeed, “distasteful” is putting it rather too weakly. Libertarians look to be amoral.

Now, Ilya Somin has some trenchant criticisms of the study, which we should bear in mind. Still, if the study is unbiased — and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the findings did hold in the population of self-identified libertarians, it points to some serious problems in how libertarianism, at least popular libertarianism, conceives of itself.

As we never tire of noting here at Pileus, (more…)

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Atheists may be smarter than the religious, but the religious are more likely to do the right thing when they aren’t being watched (see also Ron Bailey’s post here). On the other hand, the differences between the religious and nonreligious in these studies are unlikely to justify quite the levels of mistrust toward atheists found in U.S. polling data.

(An aside on methodology: The commenters on the last link seem to discount these studies automatically on the assumption that data can always be manipulated. [I know I’m giving a few anonymous blog commenters more than their due, but all the same…] If that were true, then we should just shut down all empirical research in the natural and social sciences. That data can be manipulated does not mean that we are justified in assuming that it is. From a Bayesian perspective on social science theories, we should at the very least take these data into account in updating our beliefs, even if we do not regard the findings as conclusive. Nonspecialists too often take social science research as all-or-nothing: either a study is worthless, or it Proves Everything.)

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One of the books I read this summer was Bryan Caplan’s Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. Having already read works like Judith Rich Harris’s excellent books The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do and No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, I was not unfamiliar with much of the evidence Caplan adduces to support his thesis. And Caplan’s thesis is easy to state: A growing body of evidence suggests that the effect parents and their parenting style have on the kinds of people their children grow up to become is far less than they might have thought. Genes and peers seem to account for nearly ninety percent of children’s personalities as adults, which leaves a paltry ten percent for everything else, including accident, other environmental factors—and parents.

The moral Caplan draws is that parents should lighten up. If you are worried sick about your kids, about doing everything you can to make sure they lead good, happy lives, relax: Whether they lead such lives is largely not up to you, and little you do—beyond providing them the most basic nutrition—is going to make much difference.

Caplan also argues that if you took the long view of having children, focusing not only on the first two years of life, which are admittedly difficult, but on your whole life with your children, which includes the likely prospect of grandchildren, then you would see that the balance is decisively tipped in favor of having more children. A few years of difficulty is greatly outweighed by decades of pride, companionship, and love, and of course grandchildren are an almost unalloyed good. By contrast, the absence of children and grandchildren as one reaches one’s golden years can be a source of deep pain, regret, and loneliness. The lesson, then: There are good, rational, and selfish reasons to have more kids.

I highly recommend reading Caplan’s book: It is entertaining, lively, and provocative. But there are three things I believe Caplan missed.

First, Caplan argues that once a parent understands that he bears considerably less responsibility than he thought for what his children ultimately become, this can be a liberating realization enabling the parent to relax and have more fun with his kids. Perhaps that is true. But I think Caplan underestimates the extent to which this realization can also be dispiriting and dejecting. “Your efforts are unnecessary and largely pointless” does not strike me as an inspiring liberation. Imagine telling a priest, “Great news! We have now definitively proved that God does not exist. So now you don’t have to be as worried about saving people’s souls as you were before!” Okay, but the other side of that coin is that the proposition to which you have dedicated a substantial proportion of your life turns out to be false, and thus your efforts were pointless. Relaxing? Maybe, but perhaps just as likely depressing.

A second point relates to those “helicopter parents” whom Caplan particularly has in mind when he tells parents to relax. We all know the type: they schedule every minute of their children’s lives, drag them all over hell and gone for lessons and camps and enrichments, and worry, even obsess, about every little detail of their lives. The result, for both the parents and the children, is anxiety and frustration—and likely also disappointment when children inevitably fail to live up to their parents’ dreams and children perceive and even internalize their parents’ disappointment. Yes, such parents should surely take a deep breath.

On the other hand, it seems Caplan fails to realize that being helicopter parents is precisely what gives those parents’ lives meaning. That is their job. It is what gives them purpose, it is what gives them a sense of being needed, and its daily busy routine is precisely what gets them out of bed in the morning and keeps them going day after day. We may think they are making some kind of miscalculation, or engaging in ultimately irrational behavior, but that is only if we assume that the point of their behavior is only to gain some end to which their efforts are not likely to conduce. But their daily fretting and racing largely is the point; what it leads to is a secondary concern. So telling them to knock it off misunderstands what they are all about.

Third and finally. A thought I had recurringly throughout Caplan’s book was, “I’ll bet he doesn’t have teenagers yet.” And indeed he doesn’t. He has three kids, none yet a teenager. I am afraid to say that that explains a lot of his “just relax” attitude. Caplan substantially underestimates the difficulties and pain that the teenage years can cause, and the lasting effects that bad decisions of teenagers can, and lamentably often do, have. There is a sweet spot in parenting, when one’s kids are roughly four years old until they are about ten, when parents can think they’ve figured everything out. “Timeouts” work, children listen to their parents, a relative peace can reign. That often ends when children become teens.

Several times in Caplan’s book, he counsels parents of difficult pre-teens to “try a little discipline.” Timeouts work remarkably well, he tells them with only a hint of smugness. Yes, discipline, including timeouts, often does work—with pre-teens. Once a kid is ten, eleven, twelve, however, they don’t work. And what then? By the logic of Caplan’s own argument, the behaviors the kid will engage in are largely outside of the ability of the parents to control. Then that sweet spot is gone; all your theories about how great your parenting is, how cool and relaxed you are, all the relative peace and happiness that reigns in your family, can come crashing to a halt. What then?

Telling parents to “just relax” at that point is not only pointless, it can be inappropriate and even cruel. What if they also have pre-teen children and the teenager is effectively taking the whole family emotionally and psychologically hostage? This is the stuff sit-coms (not to mention reality TV shows) are made out of, so common and pervasive and intractable can the problems be.

I am not suggesting that all teenagers are terrible, or that the prospect of having children is no longer a good idea because children inevitably become teenagers. On the contrary, my own belief is that the tumultuous teenage years are part of the natural course of a family’s development, and in any case I reject the whole notion of doing cost/benefit analyses to determine whether one should have children. My point is instead that if one believes one should engage in that kind of cost/benefit reasoning—as Caplan’s argument presumes and recommends—then one has to take a full reckoning, which will include those potentially terrible teenage years. Will that tip the balance? I am not sure. But it would certainly make it far less obvious than Caplan seems to believe that selfish reasons to have more kids clearly outweighs reasons not to.

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In these days of youthful experimentation with witchcraft (thank you Ms. O’Donnell),  “homosexual brainwashing” (thank you Mr. Paladino), and flirtations with  the pagan god named “Aqua Buddha” (thank you Mr. Paul), it is refreshing to know that, once again, Jimmy Carter was ahead of the curve.  As Patrick Gavin notes in a piece entitled “Carter’s Weird Science,” former President Carter’s new book reveals that he was “enthralled by and impressed with the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of parapsychology in intelligence gathering.”

Carter’s 1979 diary entry:

“CIA briefing on unhappiness of King Hussein of Jordan [about agreements between Israel and Egypt], Idi Amin’s government about to fall, and that a plane had crashed in Zambia. An American parapsychologist had been able to pinpoint the site of the crash. We’ve had several reports of this parapsychology working; one discovered the map coordinates of a site and accurately described a camouflaged missile test site. Both we and the Soviets use these parapsychologists on occasion to help us with sensitive intelligence matters, and the results are unbelievable.”

His current day reflections:

“The proven results of these exchanges between our intelligence services and parapsychologists raise some of the most intriguing and unanswerable questions of my presidency,” Carter notes in “Diary.” “They defy logic, but the facts are undeniable.”

This is quite a claim given the large number of “intriguing and unanswerable questions” of the Carter presidency.

One can only imagine the phalanx of parapsychologists Carter assigned to trying to discover the coordinates of a successful economic policy mix or tracking the movements of those pesky killer rabbits.

Carter: the gift that keeps on giving

 

 

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Many electrons have been spilled over that Pew survey showing that atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons know more about world religions, including Christianity, than Protestants and Catholics (I got 32/32!). Even after controlling for education, these four religious groups know more about world religions in general (however, white evangelicals know more about Christianity than Jews, agnostics, and atheists, but not Mormons):

[E]ven after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic traits (race, age, gender and region), significant differences in religious knowledge persist among adherents of various faith traditions. Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and Catholics. Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity. Holding demographic factors constant, evangelical Protestants outperform most groups (with the exceptions of Mormons and atheists/agnostics) on questions about the Bible and Christianity, but evangelicals fare less well compared with other groups on questions about world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Mormons are the highest-scoring group on questions about the Bible. (emphasis original)

Why do atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons outperform Christians?  (more…)

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