About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Magically Thinking

by Lena Groeger

Magic. In the realm of the rational (or at least at a blog called Rationally Speaking), magic is usually something to be debunked, explained, or exposed as the normal quite of-this-earth phenomenon that it really is. Magic, and those who claim to perform it, present more obstacles than insights to the people who want to understand things as they really are.

Except — magic might teach us more than we think.

In a recent book called Sleights of Mind, neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde take a closer look at magic — from the perspective of the brain. “Pop[ping] the hood on your brain as you are suckered in by sleights of hand,” is how they describe their magical adventure into visual illusions, attention misdirection, change blindness, multisensory perceptions and all sorts of other cognitive tricks that magicians perform daily, but scientists are only just beginning to understand.

Coining the term “neuromagic,” to describe their new field, the authors explain how “magic tricks work because humans have a hardwired process of attention and awareness that is hackable.” Understanding how magicians manipulate our brains into thinking the impossible can tell us how our brains might be “hacked” in other situations (and why they evolved to be hackable in the first place). Magic, the authors claim, reveals just how much deception is “part and parcel of being human.”

What follows are just a few of the many stops on these fascinating parallel tours through magic and the brain. I’ve chosen to focus on one of the obvious cognitive hacks integral to any magic trick: attention.

Magicians take full advantage of attention — guiding it, focusing it, and yes, misdirecting it. Macknik and Martinez describe multiple ways in which magicians are able to exploit the when and where of what others have dubbed the “spotlight of attention.” In an overt manner, a magician may ask you to read a passage of a book or focus very hard on a particular image — while he steals your watch. Alternatively, bright lights, smoke and mirrors, the fluttering wings of a white dove are all used to overload your sensory system with stimuli, and thus distract you from the real trickery going on in front of your eyes.

But not all attention misdirection is so blatant. In fact, in many cases you can be looking right at the object in question — the coin that disappears, the handkerchief that materializes out of thin air — and still not notice anything. You remain entirely oblivious to the method of the trick because you are directing all your attention elsewhere. As the neuroscientists put it, “you look, but you do not see.”

In scientific speak, this phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness.” For a famously entertaining illustration of how it’s possible to be staring right at something you cannot see, check out this video. Once you’ve watched it, read on.

Why is it so hard to spot the gorilla? For a long time scientists thought it was because people were simply not looking directly at the ape; their eyes were just following the basketball players. However, subsequent eye-tracking studies revealed that in fact, the people who failed to see the gorilla had been staring right at it — and for just as long as the people who did notice. Instead of the direction of their gaze, it was the intense focus on counting passes that stole their attention away, and rendered the gorilla invisible. Macknik and Martinez describe how “visual perception is more than photons entering your eyes and activating your brain. To truly see, you must pay attention.”

A similar phenomenon is called “change blindness,” and refers to how well (or badly) your mind can remember what it has just seen. Ever had to spot ten differences between two photographs? Even after going back and forth multiple times between the two images, it’s hard to catch all ten. So it’s no wonder that we often completely miss dramatic changes in our environment — our brain is superbly good at filling in the gaps. As this video makes clear, when we are even slightly distracted we can miss some pretty obvious changes. (Like, say, the race and gender of a person asking for directions. Seriously.)

Magicians have some other tricks to manipulate attention, like emotion. While the relationship between humor and attention hasn’t been studied in detail, neuroscientists think that laughter generally suppresses attention. You’re less likely to notice a flaw or mistake when you’re rolling in your seat, or even politely chuckling to a somewhat lame joke.

Your attention may also depend on something as simple as the difference between a straight line and a circle. In their collaboration with magicians, Macknik and Martinez learned that when a pickpocket wants to distract someone from what he is doing with one hand, he will move his other hand in an arc. If he wants to direct someone’s attention to the end point of a gesture, he will move his hand in a straight line. It may be the case that our eye movements (and our attention) differ during those two scenarios. An arc is unpredictable, so we focus our attention on following his hand — and don’t notice our wallet being removed. A straight line has an end point, so we jump to the final destination and don’t worry about what happens on the way.
Scientists already know that our eyes move differently when we are sweeping our gaze across the room or tracking a moving object. In the first case, our eyes make tiny jumpy movements, called saccades. In the second case, our eyes move smoothly along the path of the object we are following. Could the differences in saccadic or smooth eye movements also affect our attention? Macknik and Martinez are interested in studying this possibility — just one of the many ways a magician’s insight can spur new directions in neuroscience research.

There are many other examples throughout the book (or lurking on YouTube) that demonstrate the cognitive quirks we live with every day — and that make “magic” possible. Who knew the inner workings of magic tricks would teach us so much about the inner workings of the mind.

Friday, August 26, 2011

On ethics, part V: Contractarianism

by Massimo Pigliucci

[This post is part of an ongoing series on ethics in which Massimo is exploring and trying to clarify his own ideas about what is right and wrong, and why he thinks so. Part I was on meta-ethics; part II on consequentialism; part III on deontology; part IV on virtue ethics.]
After my meta-ethical introduction to this series, we have examined the obvious contenders in moral philosophy: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. An important distinction to remember among them is that the first two address the question of what is right/wrong, while the latter deals with the question of what sort of life we should live, or what kind of person we should aspire to be.
In the next two installments (before the grand finale!) we shift questions again, taking a look at contractarianism and egalitarianism, which are really political philosophical approaches, more than strictly speaking ethical: they deal with the question of how to build a just society. Of course, as Plato argued in the Republic, there is a tight relationship between morality at the individual level and justice at the level of society.
Speaking of Plato, he was actually the first to take up the idea of a social contract, in both the above mentioned Republic and in the Crito, one of the dialogues that deals with Socrates’ death penalty. Plato actually takes different positions in the two cases, though commentators have argued that they are not mutually contradictory, but should instead be seen in a hierarchical fashion. In the Crito Socrates explains why he has to accept Athens’ death sentence, even though he does have a chance to escape. He says that he owes his life and all he has been able to do to the fact that Athens is governed by the Laws, and that it would therefore be unfair for him to disobey the Laws when it is no longer convenient to follow them, even though the citizens of Athens are thereby about to commit an injustice. Essentially, Socrates is saying that he is party to a social contract, and that he is bound by it even when things don’t go well for him.
In the Republic, however, Socrates is somewhat more cautious about the idea of a social contract. In that dialogue, his friend Glaucon makes the argument that laws are put in place so that people are restrained from committing injustices, which they would naturally be inclined to do if there were no consequences to their behavior (this is the famous problem of Gyges’ ring). Socrates replies that justice is worth having for its own sake, and that just men are happy men (in perfect agreement with virtue ethic’s eudaimonism, which we saw in this series' previous post). I think it’s obvious why Socrates does not contradict himself between the two dialogues, as there is no logical inconsistency in saying that one is bound by the laws, and yet that justice is a good in its own right (though it does raise the question of what one is to do when confronted with unjust laws).
Still, social contract theory in philosophy doesn’t really get off the ground until the big three: Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. This is obviously not the place for an even superficial examination of their respective philosophies (but follow the links if you want to get started in that direction), but a minimalist treatment is necessary.
Hobbes is, of course, famous for his view that life in the “state of nature” for humanity was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Consequently, Hobbes thought that people rationally decided to enter a social contract in order to be able to pursuit their life in safety (this, like most social contract theories, is a thought experiment, not an account of actual historical events). Hobbes also concluded that people need a strong power to keep them in order, the Sovereign. He thus managed to simultaneously undermine the theory of divine rights of kings while rejecting calls for power sharing between the monarchy and parliament in 17th century England. (He had witnessed the English civil war of 1642-1648, which pitted Charles I against Oliver Cromwell.)
For Locke, the state of nature was a very different affair from the one envisaged by Hobbes. According to Locke, pre-contract human beings were able to live in complete freedom without others interfering in the conduct of their affairs (you could think of this as a type of libertarian paradise). The problem, according to Locke, is that the state of nature can easily devolve into a state of war, as soon as disputes arise about private property. If that happens, might would make right, since there is no civil authority capable of resolving disputes. Hence the necessity of government. The kind of government envisaged by Locke however, was again very different from what Hobbes had in mind. Locke dramatically influenced the American founding fathers, particularly Jefferson, so it is no surprise to find out that he thought that a civil society had to be based on the kind of division of powers (legislative, judicial and executive) that was soon to be implemented in the American Constitution. Importantly, Locke also maintained that should the government devolve into tyranny, the people would have reason — and arguably even a moral duty — to revolt against it. Which, as we know, led to the original tea party (the one in Boston).
Rousseau had not just one, but two theories of social contracts, one actually meant to be an historical account, the other an argument for how things should be instead. The state of nature for Rousseau was characterized by peaceful, largely solitary and uncomplicated lives, with nature providing what people needed. Problems started to occur with population growth, because needs became more pressing, people started living in groups, and they introduced division of labor. The latter in turn made leisure time possible (horror!), which caused people to compare themselves to others and develop feelings of envy (as always, it’s hard to keep up with the Joneses). The coup de grace for the human species was the invention of private property (take that, libertarians), which further encouraged greed and inequality. A natural social contract emerged from this situation which, while claiming fairness, is actually an instrument of the powerful to maintain their privileged position (he’s got a point there).
So much for Rousseau’s ideas about the actual course of human history. What about his prescription? Rousseau famously argued that the way to achieve a fair social contract is by direct democracy, which can be practiced only in small groups. That is because people in small groups know each other and it is easier to hold individuals to their promises, as well as to make them accountable for their behavior. This means that the modern state is for Rousseau precisely the way human beings ought not to live.
After the big three contractarians, we arrive at the 20th century, with the towering figure of John Rawls. I have devoted other posts on Rationally Speaking to Rawls’ political philosophy, and I set aside for him an entire chapter of my forthcoming book (The Intelligent Person’s Guide to the Meaning of Life, BasicBooks, New York). So again only a sketch will be provided here.
Rawls’ conception of human nature is that we are rational and compassionate people. His emphasis on rationality (and on the concepts of duties and rights) have contributed to label his political philosophy as “Kantian,” though I really don’t think that too much of a big deal should be made of this (he is certainly no utilitarian, however). Rawls’ thought experiment in social contractarianism is exceedingly original: he invites us to imagine that we are about to enter a discussion on how to structure society while being positioned behind a “veil of ignorance.” That is, we don’t know anything about what sort of people we are going to be once the veil is lifted and society gets moving. We may be male, female, or transgender; black, white or some other ethnicity; smart or not so smart; physically powerful or weak; have access to a large inheritance or not; have a lucky genetic constitution or one prone to disease; and so forth. The question, then, becomes what sort of society would a rational human being agree to if s/he had no access to that sort of personal information.
Rawls concludes that we would want to build a society based on two fundamental principles: a) each individual should have as much liberty as possible, provided that everyone is granted the same liberties; and b) social-economic inequality is justified only if all have equal access to increased resources and if such inequality is advantageous for all, particularly for the least fortunate members of society. It is crucial to understand that the two principles are not on the same footing: the first one takes precedence because civil liberties are more important than economic advantages (China need not apply, for the moment). This theory is often referred to as the idea that justice is fairness. Incidentally, what Rawls describes is an awful lot like what international surveys indicate many people do indeed prefer.
The following table summarizes the crucial characteristics of the social contract theories discussed above:

initial state
theory of human nature
type of contract
war of all against all
people are rational egoists
strong central power
complete liberty to pursue life
people seek freedom, but may act with force
division of legislative, judicial and executive powers
idyllic, simple life, few needs
people are accountable when they know each other
direct democracy in small groups
veil of ignorance
people are rational and compassionate
society based on the two principles of justice

The first thing to note about contractarianism is that it usually begins with a particular theory of human nature. I consider this an advantage, as I do not think that ethics makes any sense outside of the specifics of biology and society (i.e., there is no “view from nowhere” in ethics). All ethical theories assume some theory of human nature, but contractarians (as well as virtue ethicists) are more explicit about it.
Second, the range of solutions proposed by contractarians to the question of what structures do we want to build into our society range widely, from Hobbes’ absolutism to Rawls’ egalitarianism, from Rousseau’s advocacy of direct democracy to Locke’s views about division of powers in representative democracies.
Third, in terms of actual implementation, Hobbes’ is still practiced in a large number of countries in the world, though the trend for the past couple of centuries has been away from autocratic governments (and we should note that authoritarian countries tend to have the lowest index of human development); Locke’s is at the basis of the American and most European systems; Rousseau’s was practiced in ancient Athens (and led, among other things, to the death of Socrates and the disastrous Sicilian expedition that determined the fall of Athens and the victory of Sparta); and Rawls’ is approximated by northern European countries.
There are, naturally, plenty of critiques of contractarianism as an approach (as opposed to critiques of individual contractarian proposals). Broadly speaking, they fall into two categories: those originating within feminist philosophy, and those arising from race-conscious approaches. Indeed, the two are actually related, as for instance in the race conscious work of Charles Mills (The Racial Contract, 1997), which was heavily influenced by the feminist Carole Pateman (The Sexual Contract, 1988).
I don’t have time to get into any of this, and frankly I have little interest in doing so. While both feminist and race conscious writers have exceedingly valid points when they argue that as a matter of fact many contractarians were writing from within a white-male dominated culture and largely speaking to white males, there is no reason in principle why the systems proposed by Locke, Rousseau or Rawls couldn’t accommodate both genders and all ethnicities (indeed, Rawls does that very explicitly). As for Hobbes, well, he thought everyone ought to submit to the Sovereign anyway, regardless of gender and race.
Next: egalitarianism.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Massimo's Picks

by Massimo Pigliucci
* Scientists arguing about billion years old fossils. Wait, wasn't the earth 6,000 years young?
* What happens when a philosopher gets confused about ethics. And besides, Hume said it first.
* Philosophy Talk: health care, right or privilege?
* If you don't intend to read Marta Nussbaum's latest book (but you should) here is a good summary.
* Dating, Ayn Rand style. It's all about me. No joking.
* From the same agency that spends taxpayers' money on research on paranormal weapons...
* The sad case of David Mabus and the power of Twitter.
* Update on higher order theories of consciousness.
* My latest Skeptical Inquirer column: Hume's on miracles as Bayesian inference.
* And of course, the latest episode of the Rationally Speaking podcast: Robert Zaretsky on Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Michael’s Picks

by Michael De Dora
* Gary Gutting discusses the question “should religion play a role in politics?” in the New York Times.
* A team of scientists in Amsterdam has sequenced the marijuana genome. How cool, man. 
* A five-minute video clip from the recent Republican presidential debate, in which the range of GOP candidates state their nonsensical views on the issue of marriage.
* Here’s audio of an hour-long radio interview I did on the secular movement and secular ethics. 
* Salon.com’s Jack Shafer argues that old-fashioned newspapers still trump online news outlets.  
* Pope Benedict XVI recently blamed Europe's current economic crisis on a profit-at-all-cost mentality, and said that in the future morality must play a greater role in formulating economic policy. Hmm, sound familiar
* A federal appeals court has ruled that a public high school teacher in California may not be sued for making hostile remarks about religion in his classroom.
* As Jon Stewart brilliantly points out, the conservative position on taxes is both illogical and immoral.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

On ethics, part IV: Virtue ethics

by Massimo Pigliucci
[This post is part of an ongoing series on ethics in which Massimo is exploring and trying to clarify his own ideas about what is right and wrong, and why he thinks so. Part I was on meta-ethics; part II on consequentialism; part III on deontology.]
After my meta-ethical introduction to this series we have examined the two leading contender ethical theories of consequentialism and deontology. The third one is, of course, virtue ethics, which originated with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and was recently reintroduced to philosophy beginning with a classic paper by Elisabeth Anscombe in 1958.
The first, and perhaps more fundamental, thing to understand about virtue ethics is that it is concerned with a radically different sort of question from consequentialism and deontology, so much so that perhaps it is misleading to compare the three directly. While much modern moral philosophy regards the question of what is right as defining the field, virtue ethicists are interested in the question of how is one to live. Indeed, the suggestion has been made that Aristotle and most of the ancient Greeks would simply be puzzled by our way of thinking about ethics. Of course what is the best way to live, in the Greek-virtue ethicist sense, is not entirely decoupled from doing what is right and wrong, as the latter stems from the former.
Anscombe and other modern virtue ethicists (principally Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre), point out that one of the major consequences of shifting the question in ethics is that one is no longer forced to seek rigid, universal answers to “what’s the right thing to do?” but can instead appreciate the variety of ethical dilemmas and approach them from a more flexible perspective. Another way to put the difference is that while standard modern ethics is about laws (duties, rights), virtue ethics is about an individual’s character. If the individual has managed to develop a good character she will also tend to do the right thing.
Interestingly, Williams even draws a distinction between morality and ethics (which I have and will continue to use as synonymous, in agreement with most of the literature). For him, morality is about concepts such as duty (for instance in the case of deontology), while ethics is broader and accommodates a role for emotions, such as the special bonds one has with family members or friends. (We have seen that consequentialism in particular has a hard time with this aspect of ethics, and deontology fares only slight better.)
Virtue ethics, of course, derives its name from the prominent role played in it by the idea of virtue. Aristotle actually listed what he thought were the fundamental virtues of an ethical human being, and others have come up with different lists (there is some cross-cultural variation, of course, though less than one might think). The point isn’t really to quibble about which entries should or should not make the list, but to discuss what we might mean by the very concept of a virtuous human being. (Remember, of course, that this has absolutely nothing to do with the very different Christian concept of virtue, which is based on the very un-Greek ideas of humility and meekness.)
A virtue, then, is a moral character trait that we admire in those people who have it. Consider, for instance, courage: according to Aristotle to be courageous is to strike a balance between being rash or foolish and being a coward. Similarly, proper ambition is somewhere in between vanity and meekness (see? Not a Christian concept at all). Or take friendliness: it too manifests itself as being somewhere between obsequiousness and cantankerousness. And so on. The idea, of course, isn’t that there is a calculus of virtue according to which one can arrive at the precise golden mean, but rather that having a virtuous character means to be able to balance common human passions and attitudes in a way that is praiseworthy. If you are not comfortable with fuzzy concepts you will definitely not like virtue ethics.
Character for virtue ethicists is the reflection of an inner state of being, and that state develops and changes throughout one’s lifetime (which is why the Greeks thought that one cannot evaluate the goodness of a person’s life until the very end). Virtue ethics, as mentioned above, makes room for both philosophy and psychology, so there is a recognition that people start out with certain innate tendencies, and that these tendencies may be further shaped in a more or less virtuous direction during early development and then into adulthood. Moreover, there is also recognition for what Thomas Nagel famously called “moral luck”: while we have some control over what we do and the choices we make (especially as adults), much depends on having being born with certain combinations of genes rather than others, on having had particular parents rather than others, one type of education (or any education at all) over others, and so on. Again, if all of this sounds too mushy for you, welcome to what happens when you embrace the real human condition, as opposed to a cartoon version of it.
There are three major streaks of modern virtue ethics: eudaimonism, agent-based accounts, and ethics of care accounts. I focus mostly on the first one (which I find most congenial, and which is more in line with the original Aristotelian insight), but will comment briefly on the other two.
Eudaimonism refers to the Greek term eudaimonia, which loosely translates as happiness, or well being, or flourishing (I prefer the latter). It literally means to possess a good demon. Aristotle began by pointing out that most of what we do is a means to a particular end: we go to college because (among other things) we want a well paying job; we want the latter so that we can make a decent salary; and we want the latter so that we can buy a house, afford a vacation, pay for healthcare and so on. But why do we want all these things to begin with? Because we are pursuing the only thing that is an end in itself, and that thing is eudaimonia, a happy life.
Aristotle, perhaps predictably, thought that the highest form of eudaimonia is achieved through a contemplative life (i.e., ahem, the life of a philosopher...). He arrived at that conclusion not entirely arbitrarily: he asked himself what is the thing that distinguishes human beings from every other species on earth, and he answered: the use of reason. From there the leap to the idea that reasoning — and therefore the contemplative life — is the ultimate state of happiness wasn’t that big after all. (It should be added that plenty of other cultural traditions arrived at similar conclusions starting from very different premises: think of the contemplative life of Buddhist monks, or of Christian hermits. Of course the types of contemplation, its sources and its objectives are different from Aristotle’s.)
Modern virtue ethicists tend to have a more expansive and more pluralist view of eudaimonia, recognizing that there are many paths (though not arbitrarily so) to human flourishing. The crucial point is that none of these goes through bad character: for a virtue ethicist, someone who achieves material gains by acting in an non-virtuous way is literally sick, morally speaking, and cannot possibly achieve eudaimonia, regardless of how many riches he accumulates, or how “happy” he tells you (or himself) he is. (As an analogy, think of a drug addict, his insistence that he is happy when experiencing a high, and your reasonable dismissal of his concept of happiness. He is sick, and part of his sickness is found in his delusion that he is happy.)
Another crucial thing to understand about virtue ethics is that there is no contradiction between seeking virtue for one’s own sake (because it’s the path to eudaimonia) and acting right towards other people: the virtues are other-directed, and the concept embeds the intriguing idea that — contra much philosophical and psychological literature — there is no opposition between seeking one’s own and other people’s good. One way to think of this is that for a utilitarian, for instance, a virtue may be good in that it brings about certain consequences rather than others; for a eudaimonicist virtue is good because it is a constituent of eudaimonia, which is good in itself. (Mull that one over for a minute.)
The second incarnation of modern virtue ethics is known as an agent-based account of virtue (as opposed to the agent-focused account of Aristotle and co.). Michael Slote has developed the most prominent of these accounts, whereby the evaluation of actions depends on the inner life of the agents performing those actions. Think of this as virtue ethics by example: instead of trying to identify virtues and then figure out if someone is a virtuous person, agent-based accounts begin with people whose actions are admirable and try to figure out which virtues make them so.
Lastly, we have the ethics of care approach to virtue ethics, which is rooted in feminist concepts. The basic idea is that concepts like justice and autonomy (the standard concerns of most moral philosophy) are “masculine,” and that it is better to focus on “feminine” concerns such as nurturing, self-sacrifice, etc.
As I said, I’m not particularly sympathetic to either of these last two views. In the first case because I find it rather circular to identify virtues by way of seeking admirable people, and because I find the idea of looking into people’s inner lives somewhat suspicious, even potentially quasi-mystical. In the second case, I simply don’t think that there are inherently masculine or feminine concepts or attitudes, and that both, say, justice and nurturing ought to be part of any discussion of ethics.
There is, naturally, a standard set of objections to virtue ethics, accompanied by a stock of basic replies. Let’s examine them briefly.
To begin with, there is the issue of virtue ethics’ self-centeredness (because it concerns the individual’s eudaimonia), which seems at odds with the very idea of ethics. We have already seen what the virtue ethicist’s response is: the virtues are other-regarding, so that there is no contradiction between the pursuit of self-interest and the requirements of ethics. Indeed, the two are one and the same.
Second, there is the fact that virtue ethics does not provide us with specific guidance for action. While deontologists can invoke, say, Kant’s categorical imperative, and utilitarians appeal to the utility principle, it seems like virtue ethics can accommodate many different ways of acting and being virtuous. Again, however, that is supposed to be one of the major advantages that virtue ethics has according to modern authors like Anscombe. This is sometimes known as the “uncodifiability of ethics” thesis, according to which ethics isn’t the sort of thing where one can apply a simple set of rules and be done with it. Also, virtue ethicists point out that their approach does provide action for guidance: you want to emulate virtuous persons and model your own actions and character after them.
Lastly, we come to the above mentioned problem posed by moral luck. If so many things that lie outside of an agent’s control (genetic lottery, parents, education, socio-economic circumstances, etc.) affect that agent’s character, and hence her chances of pursuing eudaimonia, in what sense can we say the agent is praiseworthy (or not)? The response is that, once again, this is the way things are, and it makes sense for an ethical theory to take into account the actual human condition, not an idealized version of it.
One more note: clearly a potentially problematic aspect of virtue ethics is the very concept of virtue. But this concept shows up in other ethical systems as well, although it plays a different role in different systems. For instance, Kant wrote quite a bit about virtue in works like the Metaphysics of Morals or Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. The major difference is that for Kant virtue is a struggle against the emotions, while for virtue ethicists the two are in harmony in the virtuous person. Consequentialists also appeal to virtue, of course not as something valuable in itself, but rather as a means toward achieving good consequences.
Next: contractarianism.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Why we should use odds, all the time

by Ian Pollock

It is extremely important to quantify epistemic states — specifically, levels of certainty — if you wish to think clearly. The reason why was summed up rather nicely by one of my special historical heroes, James Clerk Maxwell:
The actual science of logic is conversant at present only with things either certain, impossible, or entirely doubtful, none of which (fortunately) we have to reason on. Therefore the true logic for this world is the calculus of Probabilities, which takes account of the magnitude of the probability which is, or ought to be, in a reasonable man’s mind.

In other words, even if everybody reasoned using classical logic without committing logical fallacies (fat chance), practical reasoning would still be impossible, because questions in real life just never deal in certainties.*
One of the more beautiful things to discover in this world is that there are objective rules for the manipulation of subjective certainties and uncertainties. Bayesian statisticians call these levels of uncertainty “probabilities.” (Frequentists... get confused at this point, on which I hope to write much more in the future).**
One of the most unexpected beneficial side-effects of thinking probabilistically as a habit, is that it makes you realize just how much you actually know. (This is probably the one skeptical conclusion that doesn’t deflate one’s ego.)
For example, suppose that I ask you a weird question like “What did Peter Singer (the philosopher) eat for breakfast on October 12, 2007?”
The standard answer to such questions, which in my experience is elevated almost to the level of a Kantian imperative among some traditional skeptics, is “I don’t know.” Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
The problem with this is that you usually do know quite a lot. To illustrate, let’s consider my “Breakfast of Utilitarians” example.
To begin with, you know with near-certainty that Peter Singer didn’t eat anything that doesn’t actually exist — unicorn cheese, for example. Okay, but that’s trivial.
You also know with decent confidence that he didn’t eat anything actively poisonous — for example, fly agaricus mushrooms. But that’s pretty obvious too.
Fine, now we’ve narrowed it down to non-poisonous foods that actually exist. You also may know that he is a champion of animal welfare, and a utilitarian vegan, so all or most animal products are out of the running. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Further, the man is Australian, and of European ancestry, which ceteris paribus makes various other world cuisines (e.g., Mexican, Finnish) somewhat less likely than not.
On the other hand, you might want to revise this last consideration if you’ve read “A Vegetarian Philosophy,” at the end of which he gives a recipe for Dal, an Indian dish. This suggests, if weakly, that he might have more international tastes.
Lastly (or is it?), the meal in question is breakfast, and people typically confine certain foods to specific meals. For this reason, tofu sausages are a fairly good bet relative to others, while onion soup is a fairly bad one. We could go on, if we wished...
The point is that if you cared enough, you could probably narrow Singer’s breakfast that day down to a sizeable, but not endless, list of possibilities, each weighted by its own likelihood. A probability density distribution over Platonic breakfast-space, if you will. You may not be able to pick one specific food and say “He ate this!”, but you are far from wholly ignorant — you’ll know the best candidates. And this generalizes to almost all sensible propositions. Try it — it’s actually a rather fun exercise!
Of course, it’s still reasonable to say “I don’t know” as a quick gloss of the actual truth: “I have no special information on this question that you do not.” However, the problem with thinking “I don’t know” in the sense of full ignorance, is that it allows you — intentionally or not — to sweep all your background knowledge under the rug and pretend to yourself that some question is perfectly uncertain. Background knowledge should always be the first thing to come to your mind when considering a truth question. This helps avoid mistakes like the base rate fallacy (and more generally, fallacies wherein you ignore your own priors), and allows for good decision-making under uncertainty.
However, if humans wish to think like this as a habit, it is often much more useful to forget about probabilities per se, and use the mathematically equivalent concept of odds.
Let’s have a quick refresher on what “odds” are. We all know what a probability is (or at least, we’re familiar with the term!). Odds can be seen as ratios of probabilities. Just as we use P(A) for the “probability of A,” we may talk about O(A), the “odds of A” (where A is some apparently sensible proposition).
In terms of probabilities, O(A) = P(A)/P(~A). So for example, if there is a 66% probability of rain tomorrow, then O(rain) = 0.66/(1-0.66), or more easily 66:33, which finally reduces to 2:1 (usually read “two to one in favour”). The “:” is basically just a division sign, so O(rain) can be stated as “2 to 1” or as simply “2.” Although odds can be expressed as ratios of probabilities, they are best understood on their own terms altogether. In this case, “odds of 2 to 1 in favour of rain tomorrow” means something like “days like this are followed by twice as many rainy days as non-rainy days, to the best of my knowledge.”
Odds are even more familiar from the racetrack, where a bookie might give “10 to 1 on Longshot, to win.” What this means is that if the bookie is selling stakes for $5 each, then a single $5 stake will get you (10+1)*$5 = $55 if you win (i.e., a gain of $50 plus your $5 stake back), while a loss will simply lose you your $5 stake. (Of course, in order to make money, the bookie must think that the real odds on Longshot are even longer than 10 to 1.)
I advocate using odds rather than probabilities to quantify your epistemic states on all sensible propositions, for two main reasons:
(1) Odds have the appropriate mental associations.
Odds are associated in our minds with betting, which is an earthy activity in which irrationality might actually lose you your shirt; whereas probabilities are abstract and academic, probably associated with mathematics and statistics courses, and with Spock from Star Trek. The latter being the case, either you don’t get statistics at all (and the word “probability” just brings up memories of Spock being cold and emotionless), or you learned about probability in the context of wildly overspecified textbook problems, in which you had way more information handed to you than humans typically have in real-world situations.
By contrast, thinking in terms of odds and the racetrack forces you to let belief constrain anticipation — if you say you are 98% sure that Obama will win in 2012, that sounds to me suspiciously like “I really really hope he’ll win,” whereas “5 to 1 in favour” leads to the obvious question: “Care to make it interesting?” Suddenly your wishful thinking needs to take a back seat to whether you can afford to lose this bet. (I think the advantages of this mode of thinking at least partly carry over, even if you don’t actually bet any money.)
Moreover, probabilities sound too precise, as though they have to be calculated rigorously or not at all. Stating a 95% probability makes me ask myself (and others ask me) “Why not 96% or 94%?” By contrast, “5 to 1” seems more acceptable as a tentative verbalization of a level of certainty, the arguments for which might not be readily quantifiable.
(2) Odds map epistemic states to numbers in a way that makes sense.
Alice the juror believes that Casey Anthony is guilty, with probability 90%. Bob the juror also believes she is guilty, with probability 99%. They seem to pretty much agree with each other, and yet...
If we switch over to odds, we find that Alice gives odds of 9:1 in favour of guilt, while Bob gives 99:1. This is more than an order-of-magnitude difference! Actually, Alice is substantially less convinced than Bob; they should still be arguing! Alice still entertains reasonable doubt — at this point, she should probably vote to acquit.
And tellingly, when Eve mentions that she is 100% certain of the defendant’s guilt, a quick conversion shows that she gives odds of 100:0, aka “infinity.” This means, if taken literally (which we should not actually do), that Eve should be willing to take a bet in which being proven right earns her a penny, while being proven wrong earns her unending torture. The fact that odds explode as mathematical objects when they try to map absolute certainty is a nice feature probabilities don’t have.***
In summary:
- Quantifying uncertainty about all sensible questions is a crucial cognitive tool, both for eliminating all-or-nothing thinking and for reminding us to always use our substantial background knowledge.
- Odds are more useful than probabilities for this purpose, because they have: more appropriate mental associations for most humans; good mathematical properties showing the folly of extreme cases (perfect certainty); and an intuitive relation to frequency that humans readily understand. Also, talking in odds will make you sound badass.
* “But what about questions like 1+1=2?” you ask? Remember, probability has to reference the fact that it is calculated in a fallible human mind. Maybe “1+1=2” is 100% correct as mathematics (I think it is), but there is still a chance that I can mistakenly think 1+1=2 (epistemology) — for example, because aliens are messing with my brain. So I have to assign a probability slightly less than 100% to it.
** Also, it is often a point of contention as to what sorts of propositions “probability” can be meaningfully applied. For example, does it make sense to speak of probabilities where straightforward empirical evidence is lacking (e.g., “the probability that immaterial souls exist”)? Without wishing to get into this issue too deeply, I hold that this use of the word does make sense (provided any discourse about the existence or nonexistence of souls makes sense), since if we can discuss how likely souls are at all, we should be able to quantify our uncertainty in the same manner as for other questions.
*** If you use logarithms, you can get even nicer mathematical properties, but you lose all the intuitiveness.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On ethics, part III: Deontology

by Massimo Pigliucci
[This post is part of an ongoing series on ethics in which Massimo is exploring and trying to clarify his own ideas about what is right and wrong, and why he thinks so. Part I was on meta-ethics; part II on consequentialism.]
Most people are familiar with two types of deontological ethical doctrines: Judeo-Christian style commandments (of which, as we all should know, there are many more than the canonical ten, 613 to be precise) and Kant’s famous categorical imperative. For the purposes of this discussion I will set aside any theologically based system of ethics, for two reasons: a) I think the idea of deities is incoherent or at least irrational; b) Plato showed convincingly in his Euthyphro dialogue that even if gods existed they would not help at all settling the question of morality.
As far as Kant is concerned, I’ll touch on his ideas, of course, but I am interested here in the broader idea of deontological (i.e., duty based) ethics, just as in my previous post I talked about consequentialism as an approach to moral philosophy, not about its most popular incarnation, utilitarianism.
Broadly speaking, deontological approaches fall into the same category as consequentialism — they are concerned with what we ought to do, as opposed to what sort of persons we ought to be (the latter is, most famously, the concern of virtue ethics). That said, deontology is the chief rival of consequentialism, and the two have distinct advantages and disadvantages that seem so irreducible that some people (Thomas Nagel, for example) have suggested that we really ought to find a way to combine them (easier said than done, considering how radically different the underlying principles are).
Here is one way to understand the difference between consequentialism and deontology: for the former the consequences of an action are moral if they increase the Good (which, as we have seen, can be specified in different ways, including increasing happiness and/or decreasing pain). For the latter, the fundamental criterion is conformity to moral duties. You could say that for the deontologist the Right (sometimes) trumps the Good. Of course, as a result consequentialists have to go through the trouble of defining and justifying the Good, while deontologists have to tackle the task of defining and justifying the Right.
Before we get into more details, we also need to appreciate the difference between two major “modes” of deontology: agent-centered and victim-centered. Agent-centered deontology is concerned with permissions and obligations to act toward other agents, the typical example being parents’ duty to protect and nurture their children. Notice the immediate departure from consequentialism, here, since the latter is an agent-neutral type of ethics (we have seen that it has trouble justifying the idea of special treatment of relatives or friends). Where do such agent-relative obligations come from? From the fact that we make explicit or implicit promises to some agents but not others. By bringing my child into the world, for instance, I make a special promise to that particular individual, a promise that I do not make to anyone else’s children. While this certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t have duties toward other children (like inflicting no intentional harm), it does mean that I have additional duties toward my own children as a result of the simple fact that they are mine.
Agent-centered deontology gets into trouble because of its close philosophical association to some doctrines that originated within Catholic theology, like the idea of double effect. (I should immediately clarify that the trouble is not due to the fact that these doctrines are rooted in a religious framework, it’s their intrinsic moral logic that is at issue here.) For instance, for agent-centered deontologists we are morally forbidden from killing innocent others (reasonably enough), but this prohibition extends even to cases when so doing would actually save even more innocents.
Those familiar with trolleology will recognize one of the classic forms of the trolley dilemma here: is it right to throw an innocent person in front of the out of control trolley in order to save five others? For consequentialists the answer is a no-brainer: of course yes, you are saving a net of four lives! But for the deontologist you are now using another person (the innocent you are throwing to stop the trolley) as a means to an end, thus violating one of the forms of Kant’s imperative:
“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.”
(The other form, in case you are wondering, is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”)
It is because of these troubling examples that some deontologists turn to a victim-centered version of their approach. Victim-centered deontologies are right- rather than duty-based, which of course does raise the question of why we think of them as deontological to begin with. But there is no more appropriate term I was able to find in the philosophical literature, so let’s not quibble about semantics too much.
The fundamental idea about victim-centered deontology is the right that people have not to be used by others without their consent. This is were we find Robert Nozick-style libertarianism, which I have already criticized on this blog. One of the major implications of this version of deontology is that there is no strong moral duty to help others.
Incidentally, both agent-centered and victim-centered deontologists can claim Kant as one of their own: in the first case by invoking Kant’s insistence that it is intentions, not consequences, that are morally relevant; in the second case by pointing to one of the forms of Kant’s categorical imperative, the one about not using other people as ends to one’s means.
While agent-centered and victim-centered deontological theories get the lion’s share of the discussion, I have to note that there are also contractarian deontological theories. These deal with social contracts of the type, for instance, discussed by John Rawls in his theory of justice. However, I will devote a separate post to contractarianism, in part because it is so important in ethics, and in part because one can argue that contractarianism is really a meta-ethical theory, and therefore does not strictly fall under deontology per se.
Overall, then, deontological theories have the advantage over consequentialism in that they account for special concerns for one’s relatives and friends, as we have seen above. Consequentialism, by comparison, comes across as alienating and unreasonably demanding. Another advantage of deontology over consequentialism is that it accounts for the intuition that even if an act is not morally demanded it may still be praiseworthy. For a consequentialist, on the contrary, if something is not morally demanded it is then morally forbidden. (Another way to put this is that consequentialism is a more minimalist approach to ethics than deontology.) Moreover, deontology also deals much better than consequentialism with the idea of rights.
However, as we have seen, deontological theories run into the problem that they seem to give us permission, and sometimes even require, to make things actually morally worse in the world. Indeed, a strict deontologist could actually cause human catastrophes by adhering to Kant’s imperative and still think he acted morally (Kant at one point remarked that it is “better the whole people should perish” than that injustice be done — one wonders injustice to whom, since nobody would be left standing). Deontologists also have trouble dealing with the seemingly contradictory ideas that our duties are categorical (i.e., they do not admit of exceptions), and yet that some duties are more important than others. (Again, Kant famously stated that “a conflict of duties is inconceivable” while forgetting to provide any argument in defense of such a bold statement.)
Finally, I mentioned earlier that some philosophers — aware of the differential advantages and disadvantages of consequentialism and deontology — have sought to combine the two. One famous attempt at this reconciliation was proposed by Thomas Nagel (he of “what is it like to be a bat?” fame). Nagel suggested that perhaps we should be consequentialists when it comes to agent-neutral reasoning, and deontologists when we engage in agent-relative reasoning. He neglected to specify, however, any non-mysterious way to decide what to do in those situations in which the same moral dilemma can be seen from both perspectives.
Next: virtue ethics.