Tag Archives: Sharon Begley

Human, Really?

Kuhn used the duck-rabbit optical illusion to ...
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Sharon Begley recently wrote an interesting article, “What’s Really Human?” In this piece, she presents her concern that American psychologists have been making hasty generalizations over the years. To be more specific, she is concerned that such researchers have been extending the results gleaned from studies of undergraduates at American universities to the entire human race. For example, findings about what college students think about self image are extended to all of humanity.

She notes that some researchers have begun to question this approach and have contended that American undergraduates are not adequate representatives of the entire human race in terms of psychology.

In one example, she considers the optical illusion involving two line segments. Although the segments have the same length, one has arrows  on the ends pointing outward and the other has the arrows pointing inward. To most American undergraduates, the one with the inward pointing arrows looks longer.  But when the San of the Kalahari, African hunter-gatherers, look at the lines, they judge them to be the same length. This is taken to reflect the differing conditions.

This result is, of course, hardly surprising. After all, people who live in different conditions will tend to have different perceptual skill sets.

Begley’s second example involves the “ultimatum game” that is typical of the tests that are intended to reveal truths about human nature via games played with money. The gist of the game is that there are two players, A and B. In this game, the experimenter gives player A $10. A then must decide how much to offer B. If B accepts the deal, they both get the money. If B rejects the deal, both leave empty handed.

When undergraduates in the States play, player A will typically offer $4-5 while those playing B will most often refuse anything below $3. This is taken as evidence that humans have evolved a sense of justice that leads us to make fair offers and also to punish unfair ones-even when doing so means a loss. According to the theorists, humans do this because we evolved in small tribal societies and social cohesion and preventing freeloaders (or free riders as they are sometimes called) from getting away with their freeloading.

As Begley points out, when “people from small, nonindustrial societies, such as the Hadza foragers of Tanzania, offer about $2.50 to the other player—who accepts it. A “universal” sense of fairness and willingness to punish injustice may instead be a vestige of living in WEIRD, market economies.”

While this does provide some evidence for Begley’s view, it does seem rather weak. The difference between the Americans and the Hadza does not seem to be one of kind (that is, Americans are motived by fairness and the Hadza are not). Rather, it seems plausible to see this is terms of quantity. After all, Americans refuse anything below $3 while the Hazda’s refusal level seems to be only 50 cents less. This difference could be explained in terms not of culture but of relative affluence. After all, to a typical American undergrad, it is no big deal to forgo $3. However, someone who has far less (as is probably the case with the Hazda) would probably be willing to settle for less.

To use an analogy, imagine playing a comparable game using food instead of money. If I had recently eaten and knew I had a meal waiting at home, I would be more inclined to punish a small offer than accept it. After all, I have nothing to lose by doing so and would gain the satisfaction of denying my “opponent” her prize. However, if we were both very hungry and I knew that my cupboards were bare, then I would be much more inclined to accept a smaller offer on the principle that some food is better than none.

Naturally, cultural factors could also play a role in determining what is fair or not. After all, if A is given the money, B might regard this as A’s property and that A is being generous in sharing anything. This would show that culture is a factor, but this is hardly a shock. The idea of a universal human nature is quite consistent with it being modified by specific conditions. After all, individual behavior is modified by such conditions. To use an obvious example, my level of generosity depends on the specifics of the situation such as the who, why, when and so on.

There is also the broader question of whether such money games actually reveal truths about justice and fairness. This topic goes beyond the scope of this brief essay, however.

Begley finishes her article by noting that “the list of universals-that-aren’t kept growing.” That is, allegedly universal ways of thinking and behaving have been found to not be so universal after all.

This shows that contemporary psychology is discovering what Herodotus noted thousands of years ago, namely that “custom is king” and what the Sophists argued for, namely relativism. Later thinkers, such as Locke and other empiricists, were also critical of the idea of universal (specifically innate) ideas. In contrast, thinkers such as Descartes and Leibniz argued for the idea of universal (specifically innate) ideas.

I am not claiming that these thinkers are right (or wrong), but it certainly interesting to see that these alleged “new discoveries” in psychology are actually very, very old news. What seems to be happening in this cutting edge psychology is a return to the rationalist and empiricist battles over the innate content of the mind (or lack thereof).

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Emotion and Ethics

Paging through last week’s Newsweek, I came across Sharon Begley’s article “Adventures in Good and Evil.” I found the article rather interesting and, shockingly enough, have some things to say about it.

Begley accepts a current popular view of ethics: it is rooted in evolution and grounded in emotions.  She briefly runs through the stock argument for the claim that morality is an evolved behavior. Roughly put, the argument is that our primate relatives show what we would consider altruistic behavior (like helping each other or enduring hardship to avoid harming others of their kind). Naturally, the primates are more altruistic with their relatives. It is assumed that our primate ancestors had this same sort of behavior and it helped them survive, thus leading to us and our ethical behavior.

Perhaps this “just so” story is true.  Let us allow that it is.

Begley then turns to the second assumption, that ethics is more a matter of “gut emotion”  than “rational, analytic thought.” Using a stock Philosophy 101 example, she writes:

“If people are asked whether they would be willing to throw a switch to redirect deadly fumes from a room with five children to a room with one, most say yes, and neuroimaging shows that their brain‘s rational, analytical regions had swung into action to make the requisite calculation. But few people say they would kill a healthy man in order to distribute his organs to five patients who will otherwise die, even though the logic—kill one, save five—is identical: a region in our emotional brain rebels at the act of directly and actively taking a man’s life, something that feels immeasurably worse than the impersonal act of throwing a switch in an air duct. We have gut feelings of what is right and what is wrong.”

Begley’s reasoning is, of course, that since the logic is identical, it follows that the different judgments in the cases must be based in emotion rather than reason. While her view is reasonable, I disagree with her on two points:  I believe that the logic is not actually identical and that her explanation of the distinction between the two cases is mistaken. Obviously enough, I need to make a case for this.

While the logic of the two cases is similar, the logic only becomes identical if the cases  are considered in a rather abstract manner.  To be specific, the logic is identical if we only consider that the agent is choosing between five deaths or one. If this fact were the only morally relevant fact about the situations, then the logic would indeed be identical (because the situations would be identical). However, there certainly seem to be morally relevant distinctions between the two cases.

One obvious distinction is the oft discussed letting die versus killing. In the first case, the agent has a role to play in who dies. However, the agent is not killing the children. Rather, s/he is deciding who the gas will kill. In the second case, if the agent does nothing, then s/he lets one person die. If she acts, then she kills a person. Since this distinction has been discussed in great length by other philosophers I will not go beyond saying that it is reasonable to take this to be a morally relevant distinction. Hence, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that the cases are not identical-and hence that the logic is not identical. If this is the case, then the distinction in the positions need not be explained in terms of a gut reaction-it could be the result of a rational assessment of the moral distinction between killing and letting die.

Another matter worth considering in regards to the logic is that of moral theories. When I teach my ethics class, I use the same sort of examples that Begley employs: I contrast a case in which the agent must chose who dies with a case in which the agent must chose between killing or letting die. Naturally enough, I use a case like Begley’s first case to illustrate how our moral intuitions match utilitarianism: if we cannot save everyone, then we are inclined to chose more over less. However, I do not use the second case to illustrate that ethics is a matter of a gut reaction. Rather, I use it to show that we also have moral intuitions that in some cases it is not the consequences that matter. Rather, we have intuitions that certain actions “just aren’t right.” Naturally, I use this sort of example in the context of discussing deontology in general and Kant‘s moral theory in particular. In the case at hand, it need not be a gut reaction that causes the agent to balk at killing an innocent person so as to scrap him for parts. On Kant’s view, reason would inform the agent that he must treat rational beings as ends and not simply as means. To murder a man for his organs, even to save five people, would be to treat him as a means and not an end. Hence, it would be an immoral action. There is, obviously enough, no appeal to the gut here and the logic of the cases would be different.

Other moral approaches would also ground the distinction without an appeal to the gut. For example, my religious students often point out that murdering someone would be an evil act because it violates God’s law. In this case. the appeal is not to the gut but to God’s law. As another example, a rule-utilitarian approach would also ground the distinction. After all, the practice of murdering people to use as parts would create more unhappiness than happiness-people would worry that they would be the next person being cut to pieces.  In both of these examples the logic of the two cases is not identical and there is no appeal to the gut.

Naturally, it is reasonable to consider the role of emotions in moral decision making. Obviously, most people feel bad about murder and this no doubt plays a role in their view of the second case. However, to simply assume that the distinction is exhausted by the emotional explanation is clearly a mistake. After all, a person can clearly regard murdering one person to save five as immoral without relying on a gut reaction. It could, in fact, be a rational assessment of the situation.