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, March 11, 2012

Michael's Picks

by Michael De Dora

* The higher a person’s income, the greater the chance that he or she will act unethically, according to a new study on the relationship between socioeconomics and ethics.

* What makes killing wrong? That’s the subject of a controversial new paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a philosopher at Duke University, and Franklin Miller, a bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health. 

* Many people are worrying about a fresh development in the drone warfare: new drones that apparently can operate without the control of computer-chair pilots. 

* Meanwhile, the editorial board of The Daily News in Jacksonville, North Carolina, takes the American public to task over its silence on the Barack Obama administration’s use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere. 

* The Boston Globe has just posted an interesting interview with Liane Young, an associate professor of psychology at Boston College who studies moral decision making. 

* If one of our main goals as a society is to maximize collective prosperity, and we were given the opportunity to pick between a range of moral beliefs and values, what kind should we choose? That’s the central question of a new book, The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior, by David Rose, chair and professor of economics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

* The New York Times recently exposed the horrid conditions faced by the workers who build Apple devices in China, and the company’s apparent disregard for its workers’ troubles. According to Thane Rosenbaum, the Times article should make Apple users think twice about buying Apple products. (Here is Apple’s take.)


  1. I'm not in a position to judge the methodological merits of the study linking socioeconomic inequality and unethical behavior, but I'll say this much: The reported findings dovetail nicely with other findings (like those cited in the book, The Spirit Level), which demonstrate a negative correlation between a society's income inequality and its well-being (as measured by various indices of health and social development).

    It also dovetails nicely with David Rose's thesis.

    1. In some of my own studies, price sensitivity correlated positively with income. My interpretation was always that causality ran the same way (i.e. richer because more price sensitive). Could it be the same way with the cited study?

    2. chbieck: I'm not sure that I follow. Do you mean to suggest: richer because more unethical? If so, then that seems like a distinct (if not negative-stereotypical) possibility, although I admit that I prefer the article's interpretation re: "the nature of wealth in a highly stratified society" (i.e. that it "insulates people from the consequences of their actions, reduces their need for social connections and fuels feelings of entitlement, all of which become self-reinforcing cultural norms"). If so, then even otherwise morally praiseworthy individuals, who achieve financial success while playing by the rules, may fall victim to these influences, after they achieve entry into the upper income strata.

    3. mufi, yes, I do - at least in the case of the other studies I mentioned it makes more sense to say "they are rich because they are more price sensitive" than vice versa.

      With the Berkeley study, the causality isn't quite as clear. On average, I do think that somebody who is circumventing the rules or using them in unintended ways for his/her own advantage is more likely to become wealthy. This won't always be unethical, but the point remains, and for some of the experiments the explanation in that direction seems more logical to me (e.g. the game of chance one).

      I know we tend to say that "money corrupts", but I find it a bit hard to believe that even the thought of money corrupts as in the candy experiment. I would really like to have a look at the data on that one.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks for your interesting “picks.” I’ll comment on #1 – as affluence and status rise, morality declines.

    It is also obvious that as we abandon the dictates of conscience, we also abandon the dictates of church. As we insulate ourselves against conscience, it stands to reason that we would also shield ourselves against the demands of religion.

    If this is the case, then perhaps we have an alternative narrative to the more-education-less religion. Perhaps the real nemesis to religion is affluence and status.

  3. Thanks for bringing attention to the use of drones for extra-judicial killings.

    Henry Kissinger once remarked that he wished he'd thought out the implications of MIRV technology -- but only after the Soviets imitated US technology and used it to greater advantage.

    What will happen when other countries obtain drone technology and use it in the manner of the U.S.? Imagine the Chinese sending a drone to kill someone they arbitrarily consider to be a threat (without trial, without review) -- someone who lives in Washington, D.C., for example. Suppose that the drone also kills some innocent by-standers who are U.S. citizens. Of course, that is unimaginable, because
    the U.S. would never stand for such an outrage (when perpetrated on U.S. soil).

    In 1776, we called King George a tyrant for demanding much less than the power to kill anyone arbitrarily.

  4. Reading "What makes killing wrong?" began as a cognitively dissonant experience for me in the extreme. The authors appear to have intended their proposition to be taken as meta-ethically based - certainly the language of the title suggests as much - but in that context it looks like a case of extreme shoehorning. Whatever the degree that morality and rationality overlap, the former is certainly not a subset of the latter. I found myself thinking that I don't know how much good ever comes from such attempts to expropriate morality from its socio-biological underpinnings in order to comport it with a wholly rational model, but a more insightful recognition of the relationship between the tools and objects of inquiry might result in a more meaningful model.

    Once I set aside my expectation that the article respect the uses and limits of rationalism, the thread of the thought fantasy at least achieved a degree of coherence, though it became correspondingly less extensive in its possible implications. Moreover, as I proceeded I began to suspect that the authors' non-prescriptive, meta-ethical language may in fact have simply been the proving grounds they used to build their argument prior to advancing it into the citadel of normative ethics.

    Whatever their intentions, however, the argument itself is not very convincing. The most severe error appears in the fifth sentence after the abstract, in which the answer provided to the question, "It is clearly immoral for Abe to shoot Betty. Why?" is the assertion that "The most general explanation is that Abe harmed Betty." This is patently false. The most general explanation from a meta-ethical viewpoint must account for the fact that intuition tells us so before rationality's feet even hit the ground - that is, unless we suppose that our intuitions result from some rational process of which we are not directly cognizant. Even from a rational viewpoint, though, whether asserted from a normative ethical perspective or arrived at by some other means, a more general explanation for the wrongness of Abe shooting Betty would be that Abe caused net harm, period.

    In presupposing that all the relevant harm done is to Betty, the authors subsequently all but dismiss the importance of any harm done to other individuals. Indeed, they do not even acknowledge the possibility that Abe may even have harmed himself psychologically in the process. Nor is damage done to any social groupings of which Abe and Betty are members recognized as distinct from harm done to individuals, even though we know empirically that trauma done to one member of a group has the potential to reverberate through that group in ways that manifest in the future as harm-inducing behaviors, both self- and other-directed. Clearly, the most general explanation for the wrongness of Abe shooting Betty must at least address all of these factors.

    The moral significance of the scenario, whether it be derived from wholly biological origins, wholly cultural, some admixture of both, or an amalgam that includes additional factors as well, most certainly plays out in more complex fashion than conceived by the authors of this article. Their argument appears to result from an insufficiently moderated reductionist impulse.

    1. > In presupposing that all the relevant harm done is to Betty, the authors subsequently all but dismiss the importance of any harm done to other individuals. <

      Actually, they do mention it to the degree that is relevant. Their point is that the harm (to Betty and to others) is not in the termination of life itself, but in the termination of all abilities. Makes sense, which is why so many people want the plug pulled in case of an accident that leads to total disability. (Myself included.)

    2. > Actually, they do mention it to the degree that is relevant. Their point is that the harm (to Betty and to others) is not in the termination of life itself, but in the termination of all abilities.

      I understand the distinction they were making between death and total disability, and I have no quarrel with that part of the argument provided it is not extended beyond its very limited context. However, the soundness of the argument that all harm to others is derived from the harm done to Betty is insufficiently plumbed. The very acknowledgment that individuals not directly involved in an event may nevertheless be harmed by it requires that we query the extent and character of that potential harm, not simply dismiss it as auxiliary to the physical harm done.

      And similarly as regards the wrongness of the intention to harm her: "[T]he reason why Abe's intention makes his act wrong is that it was an intention to cause harm to Betty, so the wrongness of the intention is still grounded in the badness of the effect that was intended." The conclusion that the element of harm to Betty completely explains the wrongness of Abe's intention is unwarranted. Is it not possible, for example, that the willful transgression of social mores in itself induces an element of wrongness?

      More broadly, the position the authors proffer depends heavily upon one particularly treacherous unstated assumption, namely that all harm is done to individuals, which in turn implies that the irreducible unit to which morality applies is the individual. This conflicts with what we know of the relationship between cultural identity and individual identity, and is suspiciously evocative of "just so" argumentation. If the argument is intended to elucidate an aspect of morality's nature, one must question whether the appropriate reference class has been chosen for the discussion. Simply stated, while a moral philosophy may be constructed that treats individuals as its base currency, the nature of morality itself recognizes no such constraint. If, on the other hand, the purpose of the argument is simply to establish a rule of thumb, then it is in some sense arbitrarily conceived, in which case the entire discussion of the "wrongness" of an act is self-referential and circular in nature.

      In essence, the authors attempted to import meta-ethical sensibilities into a discussion of normative ethics. This is one of the ways in which the reductionist impulse may go awry. For comparison, another familiar example is when an individual asserts that all action is intrinsically selfish in nature. By narrowing one's focus in such a fashion, one commits oneself to a view that actively subjugates any additional factors to that view and becomes unable to discern them as relevant in their own right.

  5. Thanks for the link to the ethics of killing article!

  6. these are really interesting picks !


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