Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Eastern Intuitions about Framing the Innocent (by guest blogger Brad Cokelet)

Consider this stock problem case for Utilitarians: if a judge frames an innocent person and has him killed in order to placate a violent mob, he will produce better overall results than if he refuses to do so.

Assuming the Utilitarian thinks we should choose to do whatever maximizes utility, he has to bite the bullet and condone the framing, which is a blatant injustice and therefore wrong.

To avoid condoning framing the innocent, many Utilitarians adopt forms of indirect Utilitarianism, according to which utility will not be maximized if people consciously aim to maximize it; they claim that utility will be maximized when people, including judges, don’t (directly) aim to bring about that result. We might defend this shift by appeal to a general methodological principle: when an ethical theory conflicts with an intuition that all reasonable people share, the theory needs to yield to the intuition. On this view, then, all reasonable people share the intuition that framing the innocent is an injustice and therefore wrong. But is that true?

In a forthcoming paper (available here), John Doris and Alexandra Plakias raise doubts about that very claim by citing empirical evidence that the anti-framing intuition is a parochial artifact of Western culture. More specifically, they appeal to a study (which is forthcoming) that contrasts the intuitions of, “Americans of predominantly European descent and Chinese living in the People’s Republic of China,” and suggests that people in China are more likely to have pro-framing intuitions. Doris and Plakias suggest that the variability of intuitions (if it exists) is evidence for a surprising conclusion: the intuition that framing an innocent is unjust and wrong is something about which reasonable people can disagree.

Now even assuming that the empirical claim about cultural variability is true, one might resist the suggestion about reasonable disagreement on the grounds that the relevant Easterners --­ Chinese living in the PRC --­ have distorted intuitions. The most promising argument to this effect is that some background theory or value conception has distorted the intuitions. One possibility that Doris and Plakias mention is the collectivist conception of self that some attribute to Easterners. Other possibilities include Marxist theories and more traditional value conceptions (e.g. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism).

One thing to do, I suppose, would be to by running the study in other Eastern countries that do not have the history of Marxist rule or the same traditional value conceptions. But it is also important to ask whether any of these background theories or value conceptions would actually (purport to) support, or have been thought to support, the pro-framing intuition. One question here is about whether a conception claims to support the intuition that framing and killing an innocent is not wrong; the other is about whether people who endorse the conception have in fact avowed the intuition. For example some Japanese Zen Buddhists endorsed Japanese militarism, but that does not show that a Zen Buddhist conception would support militarism or war.

So I am wondering:

(1) Are there Chinese philosophers who explicitly discuss cases or issues like this and come down one way or the other?

(2) Would the Communist ideology promulgated in China support framing an innocent to placate a mob? Has it been taken that way in China or elsewhere?

(3) What is a collectivist conception of self and would it support pro-framing intuitions?


Justin Tiwald said...

I've been enjoying your posts, Brad. I've asked a number of people in the PRC about their views on framing or telishment, and found a great deal of nuance in the answers. A great number of people endorse the general saying that is sometimes necessary to kill a rooster in order to catch a monkey--that is, it is sometimes necessary to deal harshly with a trouble-maker who is easy to catch (the rooster) in order to reign in a trouble-maker who is more elusive (the monkey). I found, in my own very unscientific polling, that most people endorsed the idea that pressing collective interests can readily justify *disproportionality* in punishment, but many were reluctant to endorse the idea that they could justify punishing the innocent. So, for example, it might justify executing a non-violent separatist for a recent separatist bombing, just to discourage further bombing and to reassure the public that law and order have prevailed. But it would not justify plucking an innocent person off the street and punishing him for the separatist bombing. For most the people I spoke with, being a separatist was a bad thing and rightly punished, although most would have readily conceded that under normal circumstances a non-violent separatist should not be executed. That said, I wouldn't be surprised if people in the PRC felt less strongly about punishing the innocent than many Americans (or other Westerners) do.

Alas, I admit that it is rather difficult to find strong claims of individual dessert in classical Chinese philosophy, where a "strong claim" is understood as being fixed entirely by something other than collective needs or interests. In Analects 17.21, Confucius suggests that children should mourn the death of their parents for three years because they themselves spent three years utterly dependent upon their parents. But here as in most cases, it would be controversial to read this as a strong claim in the above sense. Surely Confucius also thinks parents deserve such respect because the traits of character and habits of thought that make someone a filial child are closely linked with the traits of character and habits of thought that make someone a good member of society in general.

On the other hand, historical novels about everyday life in China are replete with such claims. You only need to read a few chapters of the _Dream of the Red Chamber_ to find household matriarchs justifying kind treatment of elderly servants on the basis of the fact those servants have already paid their life's dues, that they've worked hard and rightly earned the right to a relatively leisured retirement, etc. The fact that these ways of justifying individual treatment were so commonplace in everyday life and yet scarce in classical Chinese thought makes me think that the classical Chinese philosophers saw themselves as doing a different kind of moral theory (perhaps talking about a different kind of ethical value) than ordinary people did when they talked about what was due to individuals.

Brad C said...

Hi Justin,

Thanks very much! This is all very interesting and encourages another thought I have had: that polling people on "their intuitions" may not be a very effective way, on its own, of getting a grip on cultural differences.

Your distinction between disproportionate punishment cases and punishment of innocent cases is very interesting. It seems that the former would go hand in hand with the collectivist conception of responsibility that some psychologists have claimed to find in the East, in a way that the later might not. I will have to look at the empirical study when it is out and see if their polls were senstitive to the different types of cases you distinguish.

I have never had a chance to read any historical novels like the one you mention - once the job market is over that can be some of my reward reading - thanks!

I agree that, from what I know, the lack of discussion may come from a different approach to moral theory and am intrigued by your suggestion that Classical Chinese Philosophers may be out to elucidate a different kind of ethical value. What do you have in mind?

In a related vein, am wondering whether Confucianism make a strong Sage/non-Sage distinction like the Stoics do (i.e. one according to which almost all people are non-sages but the theory focuses on Sages).