Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dongguan Orphanage, Guangdong Province, China

It's not philosophy or psychology, but I thought I'd post a few reflections on the orphanage (technically, "Social Welfare Institute") from which we just adopted our 14-month-old daughter, Kate -- partly for general interest and partly because accurate information about Chinese orphanages is hard to come by.

Let me start with a few pictures. From the outside:

Pretty nice looking -- especially compared to the (by American standards) rundown environment of Dongguan and Guangzhou:

Adoptive parents were led to an elegant reception room:

Note the beveled glass tables, elegant walls, leather couches, gleaming hardwood floor. (Those are not things I can afford in my house or office.) I've blocked out the face of our guide for his privacy; the woman standing in the center is the orphanage director.

The orphanage kindly allowed us to see the infants' area, but forbade us to take pictures, so a verbal description will have to do: Two rooms of dingy old rolling steel cribs, each with a baby lying on her back, completely silent. A washroom for dishes, laundry, and babies -- as far as I could tell, all in the same sink. A "playroom" empty but for some blue pads on the floor and single plastic chair.

How eerie it was to step into an utterly silent room containing 25 babies! I can only think that they learned that crying was useless. All the babies were malnourished. Kate is below the 3rd percentile in weight (even on Chinese charts) and head circumference, with calcium deficiency that shows itself (as is evidently typical in Chinese orphans) in splayed ribs at the bottom of the ribcage -- splayed, I'm guessing, because the top part, where the ribs join in the sterum, is stunted and narrow? For malnourished infants, it may be especially adaptive not to waste energy in useless crying.

I kept wondering how much a little more calcium would cost compared to the statue out front (visible in the first picture) and the elegant grounds and couches. Though we liked the nannies who worked there, especially the one who seemed to have had primary responsibility for Kate -- Kate smiled when she saw her -- I couldn't resist the thought that appearance to the outside world was a higher priority to those running the orphanage than the health of the babies. My wife says I'm being uncharitable: Maybe the elegant grounds and waiting rooms are necessary to attract funding from those who can give it. Universities spend big to wine and dine potential donors. Likely, famine relief organizations get more money if they spend some of their proceeds on indulgences for their contributors (not that donors explicitly want that -- presumably if you asked them they'd advocate sending as much as possible directly to the beneficiaries). If so, there's a morally and psychologically interesting paradox of charity.

Well, it seems I can't avoid thinking about philosophy and psychology after all, even when I try!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Problem of De in the Analects: Hard and Easy (pt. 2) (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian)

A noble knight is about to leave on a mission to an inhospitable, barbarian place. Some are skeptical that his mission will be successful. After all, he must deal with petty, uncouth individuals. The knight, however, is not troubled; he has a nifty trick. When he is among petty people or barbarians, their behavior instantly changes. They are literally transformed in his presence, bending to him as sure as grass bends to wind.

The above passage can either be about: a) a Confucian nobleman or b) a jedi knight. That, to me is the hard problem of de in the Analects. Consider the following passages which describe the nobleman's de--a kind of power or force that accrues to morally advanced individuals and has telltale effects on others:

9.14 – The master expressed a desire to go and live among the Nine Yi Barbarian tribes. Someone asked him, “How could you bear with their uncouthness?” The Master replied, “If a nobleman were among them, what uncouthness would there be?”

12.19 –The nobleman's de is wind; petty de is grass. When the wind blows, grass bends.

In the Star Wars movies, a jedi knight can--much like the nobleman above--get other, weak-minded sentient beings to bend or yield to him. This feat, dubbed either "force persuasion" or the "jedi mind trick", is accomplished through ritual gesture and verbal incantation--again, similar to the magical effects associated with the performance of rituals (such as wedding rites or ceremonial forms of greeting) in classical Confucianism.

Now, these effects might seem less impressive than those associated with political de (discussed in a previous post)--where the ruler just sits in a ceremonial position and the whole empire is ordered. Then again, the nobleman lacks many of the perks associated with rulership: a) he's not recognized as the Son of Heaven, b) he lacks all the the ceremonial regalia that comes with being the Son of Heaven, c) is considerably lower on the socio-political ladder, and d) has a pedantic day job preserving traditional rites and ceremonies. Given all this, the passages above seem incredible indeed.

How can we understand this 'force' of the nobleman? What kind of person are the 'little people' and 'barbarians' yielding to? Well, de is frequently linked to practices of self-cultivation (xiu 修 – e.g. 7.3, 12.10, 12.21, 16.1). Perhaps the key to understanding the power of de lies in these practices and the kind of nobleman they were meant to produce. Here is what we find:

The ideal nobleman says the right things at the right times. He's concerned about being a good person and works hard at it. He dresses well (clean and sharp, not flashy). He seems genuine, and has a natural ease about him. He's a good son to his father and a good father to his son, takes care of those close to him and helps others when appropriate. He's got a knack for diffusing disagreements (cleverly alluding to classical poetry and folk songs to convey subtle, delicate points). And if you need advice on wedding gifts or funeral attire, he's a godsend.

There are people I've met who've had many of these qualities, and some of them have a knack for getting along with people. So maybe I can understand how a cultivated nobleman, already enjoying a certain standing in the social hierarchy, can have an attractive, disarming charisma about him and command respect in the community. This much might explain, for example, the bending of the petty people in 12.19.

But the transformation of the foreign barbarians? That's really hard to buy. How is it that they magically behave themselves in the presence of a Confucian knight, but are otherwise 'uncouth'? I don't see how this works.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Welcome, Kate!

We're back from China with a new family member, Katherine Jieying ("Kate")! When we've settled in a little better, I'll post a few reflections about her orphanage. In the meantime, a few pictures.

The day we picked her up:

And in a Buddhist temple:

She's a sweet-tempered girl who likes congee (Chinese rice soup with chicken), playing in the bathtub (with or without water), and cruising around the house and yard holding onto fingers or furniture. The photos don't sufficiently capture her heart-melting smile when she's at full beam.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Objectivism, Relativism, and Squatter's Rights in Metaethics (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian)

Moral objectivism is the view that moral truth (or justification) is independent of tradition, custom, or social acceptance. Put another way, it's the view that there is an objective fact of the matter whether any given action is morally right or wrong, permissible or impermissible. Moral objectivism is often contrasted with moral relativism, the view that moral truths (or justification) is relative to cultures or other such groups.

To me, moral relativism is just obviously true (as I have argued previously in comments on this blog). But many philosophers have argued that moral relativism does not jibe with ordinary moral discourse. Ordinary moral discourse, they claim, assumes moral objectivism. Philospohers making this claim range from moral realists on the one hand, to moral fictionalists (or 'error theorists') on the other.

Consider J.L. Mackie, who argued that ordinary moral claims purport to describe facts about mind-independent, objective moral values. Mackie denies that such values exist. "Although most people in making moral judgments implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively prescriptive, these claims are all false". Mackie thinks this 'error theory' "goes against assumptions ingrained in our thought and built into some of the ways in which language is used"; and "since it conflicts with what is sometimes called common sense, it needs very solid support. It is not something we can accept lightly or casually and then lightly pass on" (35).

Does common sense morality assume objectivity? According to a recent study by Goodwin and Darley, most folk actually don't believe that their moral judgments are objectively true, except for cases involving stock examples such as gunfire, robbery, and cheating. On many other moral issues, most believe their judgments to be opinion and not fact. Goodwin and Darley sum up one of their experiments as follows:

"Participants generally agreed (on a six-point scale) with the goodness of anonymous donations (5.42), the badness of opening gunfire on a crowd (5.79), or of robbing a bank (5.77), and the wrongness of conscious racial discrimination (5.86) or of cheating on a lifeguard exam (5.72). But they varied considerably in how likely they were to regard these statements as true: 36%, 68%, 61%, 54%, and 58%, respectively. Perhaps more strikingly, although participants generally agreed (albeit not as strongly) with the permissibility of abortion (4.12), assisted death (4.36), and stem cell research (4.58) in the way we described them, they were highly reluctant to assign truth to statements expressing this agreement: 2%, 8%, and 2%, respectively."

If these findings are replicated, they suggest that, contrary to what many moral realists and fictionalists claim, people believe that their moral claims are objectively true only in a narrow range of cases that enjoy widespread agreement, the rest of them being no more 'objectively true' than matters such as one's taste in music (4%), film (9%) or art (4%).

This brings me to "squatter's rights". In a recent paper, Eddy Nahmias and colleagues argue that a philosophical theory x has 'squatter's rights' compared to a competing theory y if, all else being equal, theory x accords with our common sense intuitions while theory y doesn't. If objectivism does not turn out to be the common sense view, I find it hard to see how relativism doesn't have squatter's rights in metaethics. It's consistent with common sense morality, does as good a job as any other theory in explaining moral agreement and disagreement, and seems best able to account for the variety of moral traditions existing in the world.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Problem of De in the Analects: Hard and Easy (pt. 1) (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian

There is a concept in the Analects of Confucius that is of patent importance to his teachings but remains obscure. This is the concept of de 德, which refers to the ability of a person to command awe and attention, to have others comply with his wishes without resorting to coercion.

Some passages describing de are frankly startling, and coming to some plausible explanation of them has proven problematic. But I think it may be helpful to distinguish between 'the hard problem of de' and 'the easy problem of de' (obviously following from
Chalmers's example concerning consciousness). The easy problem of de is ruler or political de. The hard problem is the nobleman's de. Today, I want to deal with the former, leaving the latter for a subsequent post.

Consider, for example, the following passages describing ruler de:

2.1--The master said, "One who rules by de is comparable to the Pole Star, which remains in its place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars."

2.3--The master said, "Guide them with governance, regulate them with punishments, and the people will evade these with no sense of shame. Guide them with de, regulate them through ceremonial propriety, and the people will have a sense of shame and be orderly."

8.18--The master said, "Majestic! Shun and Yu possessed the entire world without managing it."

15.5--The master said, "Someone who ruled without acting (wu-wei 無為)--was this not Shun? What did he do? He made himself reverent and took his proper position facing south, that is all."

These and related passages (e.g. 13.6) describe the de of a ruler (or sage king). On the one hand, they seem pretty impressive, maybe even quixotic or fantastical. (Could Shun really rule by simply sitting on his throne and facing south?) Indeed, some have thought these passages rife with belief in magical powers. Donald Munro called this the 'mana thesis'. On this view, the king must possess some inner / spiritual / psychic power or energy that emanates outward and magically transforms, orders and harmonizes the kingdom. Such an interpretation is understandable because it does seem hard to explain what's going on in these passages. But in the end, I think the problem of 'ruler de' is actually the easy problem.

The reason is simple. Very early on, there were commentators who explicated the ability to rule 'effortlessly' through de as resulting from much prior effort, such as the ruler's a) effectively discharging his roles of setting policy and appointing capable officials, and b) benefitting his subjects (thereby gaining their loyalty, love, and reciprocity).

One of the ruler's most important functions (emphasized by Confucians, Mohists and Legalists alike) was to attract capable individuals to fill administrative and bureaucratic positions to properly manage the kingdom's affairs. The ruler's personal virtue would be a key factor in attracting such individuals and commanding their loyalty. The operations of this larger bureaucracy explain how the ruler could rule 'effortlessly'--by just sitting on the throne (as it were). (Even the incorruptible, wholly sagacious Shun needed the help of ministers to rule--8.20.) Moreover, with the help of capable bureaucrats and officials, the ruler would be able to meet the needs of his subjects, thereby gaining their loyalty as well.

So there's no real mystery here. An efficient bureaucracy, a loyal and loving population, and a broader political philosophy emphasizing deference and loyalty to those above in the hierarchical chain, all seems to explain ruler de rather easily. Indeed, any account of ruler de seems incomplete without these considerations. Am I missing something?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Situationism and the Self-Centeredness of Virtue Ethics (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian)

As noted in previous posts on this blog, many philosophers of late have been concerned with the implications of situationist social psychology for moral philosophy. Situationism is... well, I'll just use Eric's description from a previous post:

"Recent social psychology has shown that the factors governing human behavior are largely situational rather than characterological. If Robin behaves generously and Sanjay behaves greedily in some particular case, that's more likely to be due to differences in their situation than to differences in their personality."

Think of the Milgram Experiments, the Asch conformity studies, the Princeton Seminary study, etc.

Most philosophers have been concerned whether situationism discredits virtue ethics, a recently popular ethical theory which underscores the importance of character traits to structure guide one's conduct and lead to a flourishing moral life. Situationism, by contrast, claims that character traits are rather inefficacious when compared to the influence of external, situational variables.

I don't really have a horse in this race--i.e. whether Aristotelian virtue ethics rests on an untenable psychology, or whether character traits of a robust sort really *exist* or not. To me, the situationist literature is of concern beyond its implications for such philosophical theories. It seems genuinely troubling that one's own behavior could be shaped so decisively by situational factors, that whether one is virtuous or vicious can hinge on minor perturbations in one's environment.

So, what to do in the face of situationism? Here, we have some practical advice. Many philosophers have endorsed what I call a seek/avoid strategy. These philosophers recognize that situational influence is pervasive and weighty. However, they argue that it remains possible, when one is not caught up in novel or unusual situations, to selectively choose the general types of situations one wants to encounter and structure one's life accordingly. Individuals should seek situations that strengthen or support virtuous behavior, and avoid situations that tend toward vice or moral failure. In choosing situations, one chooses to embrace the behavioral tendencies they elicit.

That seems like sage advice to me. But I find it extremely one-sided. Here's what I mean. The seek/avoid strategy is animated by the thought that our behavior is tightly keyed to our situations--oftentimes, to the behavior of others in our situations. It therefore emphasizes one path of influence: from situations to persons. But if other people in our situations can subtly affect our own behavior, then it seems as though we must return the favor. In other words, from our own (actor's) perspective, situational influence can be responsible for our own behavior, but from another (observer's) perspective, our own behavior constitutes part of the situational influence. So, just as we should mind how others are partly responsible for our own behavior (as those motivating the seek/avoid strategy claim), shouldn't we, too, be mindful of how we are partly responsible for the behavior of others?

To me, the real lesson of situationism lies in how it shows, in striking fashion, that no person is an island--that all our behavior is heavily interconnected, and that what I do really affects what you do, and vice-versa.

You know, I've heard it said that virtue ethics--insofar as it aims for flourishing, eudemonia, or individual happiness--is a selfish or self-centered ethical theory, concerned primarily with one's own person and one's own life prospects. I can't help but think that such a self-centered attitude is pervasive in the existing responses to situationism.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

In China

We'll be meeting our new adoptive daughter in about seven hours. But of course I wanted to check my blog first! I can't seem to defeat the Chinese blocks, but since Blogger is open, I can still add posts (as you see). Free speech, censored hearing.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Is It Just Very Different in Iran?

When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, an undergraduate born in Iran told me that the reason he wanted to someday earn a Ph.D. in philosophy was this: Professors are the most respected people in society, and philosophy professors are the most respected of all professors. (A Google search of his name now doesn't seem to return any philosophers.)

Just some food for thought as I prepare to board a big bird to China....

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Judging Others: When It's Bad, It's Worse Than You Think (by Guest Blogger Hagop Sarkissian)

When we meet others we form impressions of them, and they tend to stick. This automatic tendency motivates numerous social practices, such as grooming before a date or rehearsing before a presentation. It can be unfair, of course, to evaluate persons based on their behavior on any one particular occasion, as the behavior may not be representative. Nonetheless, first impressions are easy to form and difficult to overcome.

What's more, there is a well documented asymmetry between the impact of bad first impressions versus good ones. Consider the following: We are quicker to both form and recall bad impressions, and are also more likely to do so. We also tend to be more confident about bad impressions, take less time to arrive at them, and require less information to be convinced of them -- that is, relative to good impressions. Finally, once a bad impression is formed, we seal it away from revision or interference.

'So what?' you might think. Even granting such broad tendencies, it remains an open question whether or not any particular impression is accurate. Moreover, you might think yourself a 'good judge of character', that your initial impressions are routinely confirmed by subsequent data: the initially cold and distant colleague turns out to be just as cold and distant in the end, and those we warm up to tend not to disappoint.

Well, there's room for doubt here. At least two psychological phenomena that might play a role in producing false evidence for our impressions. The first, commonly known as the confirmation bias, is our general tendency to seek or interpret evidence in ways that confirm our previously held hypotheses. Bad first impressions render us more susceptible to noticing future behavior that is bad; behavior that is good is, by contrast, overlooked or discounted. The second is often called behavioral confirmation or self-fulfilling prophecies, and occurs when we treat others in ways reflective of our preexisting beliefs about them, thereby causing them to act in ways that conform to our preexisting beliefs. For example, we might think someone rude, and then treat her accordingly. She picks up on this, feels resentful, and reciprocates in kind, thus confirming our initial hypothesis. What's more, we are often ignorant of our own causal role in this process. In other words, owing to these biases, our initial impressions might be inapt in spite of the fact that they turn out be true!

All this brings me to the virtue of civility. In most philosophical discussions of civility, it is described as the practice of concealing one's negative appraisals so as not to hurt others' feelings, to show outward respect in spite of the fact that others are disagreeable. Here's a nice quote from Cheshire Calhoun:

In social life, there are unending opportunities to find other people boring, disagreeable, repulsive, stupid, sleazy, inept, bigoted, lousy at selecting gifts, bad cooks, infuriatingly slow drivers, disappointing dates, bad philosophers, and so on. The civil person typically conceals these unflattering appraisals, since conveying them may easily suggest that one does not take others' feelings or the fact that they may have different standards to be worth taking into consideration or tolerating. (260)
I agree that there are unending opportunities to make such judgments. I just wonder whether being civil about them goes far enough, and whether we shouldn't instead foster a habit of calling such judgments into question. It seems as though we have good reason to, given the biases above, but then again there may be bad consequences for not being vigilant in our judgments of others.