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.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Michael's Picks

by Michael De Dora

* Researchers say they have found that “the people most likely to choose utilitarian solutions to [moral] dilemmas were also the most likely to be callous, manipulative, and apathetic about the value of life.”

* Neuroscientists are attempting to redefine evil as a scientific concept. Is this trend reasonable? That’s the question Ron Rosenbaum discusses on Slate.

* The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has released another insignificant report on how Catholics should think about important political issues in light of church teachings.

* Is there anything wrong with being over 50 years old and pregnant? Lisa Miller explores the debate in a feature article in New York Magazine.

* Ralph Nader condemns drone strikes, arguing that they are only causing more chaos in unstable regions of the world.

* Susan Jacoby writes about Richard Dawkins’ new book The Magic of Reality, which she calls “the first book by a prominent member of the ‘new atheist’ generation to address the urgent task of how to help children distinguish between myth and reality.”

* The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in what could be a landmark case on religion and civil rights.


  1. Regarding the finding about utilitarian behavior: modern economic theory (even orthodox neoclassical economics) does NOT rest on the assumption that people behave according to utilitarian calculus. Examples:
    1. Gary Becker (1962) proved that irrational agents behaving at random, or keeping their behavior constant in spite of changing prices, generate the same demand and supply curves generated by the assumption of self-regarding rational maximizing behavior.
    2. Samuelson (in various works since 1937) discarded completely any reference to maximization of subjective utility and rational deliberation on the part of agents, to rely instead on "revealed preferences", i.e. actual behavior by consumers and firms.
    3. Many authors starting with Herbert Simon (1956) replaced pure economic rationality with "bounded rationality" whereby actors just try to achieve a "satisfizing" solution even if it is not the maximally optimum one. See esp. Gigerenzer and Selten (2000).
    4. John Nash (1950) proved that a set of competitive agents engaged in a "non cooperative game" may settle on a second-best solution in the face of uncertainty about the behavior of others; thus, "rational" behavior in uncertain waters may not coincide with "maximizing utility" behavior.
    5. Evolutionary economics (Geoffrey Hodgson among others)analyze the process of change in economic behavior facing the selective pressure of a changing market and regulatory environment, finding that economic behavior not necessarily settles on a neoclassical maximally rational outcome.
    And so on. The use of "utility maximizing" models is chiefly meant to be a useful "as if" metaphor, not a picture of actual economic behavior or actual economic motivations.

  2. I've always understood utilitarianism as being the most selfish, individualistic, even solipsistic in some way, of moral philosophies. The findings don't surprise me a whit.

  3. As to defining or redefining evil-
    Evil is not a force of nature, it's a behavioral consequence, where said behavior may or may not have be intentional or consequentially intended, or deemed evil in another culture or set of circumstances. Whether or not, or the degree to which, we have free will is beside the point as long as we recognize we have some responsibility for behavioral consequences.

  4. For the people reading the article on utilitarianism instead of the paper it cited:

    Importantly, these results also give rise to a methodological concern in the study of moral judgment—namely, that
    we should be wary of favoring a method that equates the
    quality of moral judgment with responses that are endorsed
    primarily by individuals who are likely perceived as less
    moral (because they possess traits like callousness and
    manipulativeness). In other words, adopting such a method
    can lead to the counterintuitive inference that ‘‘correct’’
    moral judgments are most likely to be made by the individuals least likely to possess the character traits generally perceived as moral.
    We should note that our results do not speak to
    whether utilitarianism (or deontology) is the correct normative ethical theory, as the characteristics of a theory’s
    proponents cannot determine its normative status. In addition, favoring a utilitarian or deontological solution to a
    sacrificial moral dilemma does not necessarily indicate
    that a participant endorses (or understands) utilitarianism
    or deontology as a full-blown ethical theory—just because
    an individual responds like a utilitarian would is not suffi-
    cient evidence that she is a utilitarian. Consider, for instance, a man who finds the thought of pushing a fat
    man off of a footbridge to his death to be intrinsically
    appealing—whether or not the action saved more lives.
    Concluding on the basis of his response to a sacrificial dilemma that he must be convinced that utilitarianism is
    the best ethical theory makes little sense.
    Nor do our results show that endorsing utilitarianism is
    pathological, as it is unlikely that the personality styles
    measured here would characterize all (or most) proponents of utilitarianism as an ethical theory (nor is the measure of psychopathic personality traits we used sufficient
    to conclude that any respondents reach clinical levels of
    psychopathy). It is also possible that possessing these
    sub-clinical psychopathic traits may be of moral value
    insomuch as individuals who are capable of such emotional detachment, while appearing to possess a questionable moral character in some situations, may be better able
    to act for the greater good in ways that would prove diffi-
    cult for many (such as the very situations described in our
    target dilemmas). Nonetheless the relative infrequency of
    such events would seem, at the very least, to undermine
    the validity of using these measures as a metric for optimal
    moral judgment in everyday life.
    Finally, our empirical demonstration points to the problematic nature of studying moral judgment by identifying
    ‘‘errors’’ in how subjects respond to moral dilemmas. As
    Pizarro and Uhlmann (2005) argued, it may be sufficient
    to simply document how, when, and why individuals make
    the moral judgments that they do without relying on the
    adoption of a normative standard.
    We believe psychologists can make progress by developing accurate descriptive
    theories that explain why individuals favor deontological
    judgments in some situations and utilitarian judgments in
    others (or whether moral judgment is even adequately captured by these philosophical frameworks; cf. Bauman & Skitka, 2009) without having to rely on the claim that
    individuals are making an ‘‘error’’ in some cases.

  5. @Gadfly: Your statement confused me. Utilitarianism has its flaws, but selfishness, individualism and solipsism seem to me to NOT be them, at all. Standard versions of U are totally impartial, meaning there is no privileging of me over my neighbour or over somebody I don't know. All minds capable of happiness are equal under the utilitarian calculus... and indeed this is often seen as a *flaw* of the theory - that it is too impartial, selfless and universal.


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