Friday, April 29, 2011

Against Kant on Rationalization

Kant concludes the first section of his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals with a plea for the value of philosophical ethics as a bulwark against the self-serving rationalization of one's immoral inclinations:

Innocence is indeed a glorious thing; but, on the other hand, it is very sad that it cannot well maintain itself, and is easily seduced. On this account even wisdom -- which otherwise consists more in conduct than in knowledge -- still has need to science [i.e., scholarship], not in order to learn from it, but to secure for its precepts admission and permanence. Against all the commands of duty which reason represents to the human being as so deserving of respect, he feels in himself a powerful counterweight in his needs and inclinations.... Hence there arises a natural dialectic, that is, a disposition to argue against these strict laws of duty... and if possible, to make them more compatible with our wishes and inclinations.... Thus is the common human reason compelled to go out of its sphere and to take a step into the field of practical philosophy... in order to attain in it information and clear instruction respecting the source of its principle, and the correct determination of it in opposition to the maxims which are based on wants and inclinations, so that it may escape from the perplexity of opposite claims, and not run the risk of losing all genuine moral principles through the equivocation into which it easily falls (Abbott & Denis, trans., 1785/2005, p. 65-66 [404-405]).
The idea appears to be that without philosophical training, our moral judgments are easily led astray by our "wants and inclinations". We will concoct superficially plausible rationalizations to justify actions or principles that support our (often self-serving) desires. If I want to be able to steal a library book, I will concoct a superficial rationalization to justify that. If I am keen on Donald Trump, I will whip up a breezy story according to which his behavior is admirable. Philosophy, because it taps into the true moral law and has the power to see through bad arguments, can help protect us against those tendencies.

I feel the pull of that thought. Yet I worry that, empirically, things might tend in fact to run the opposite direction on average. Philosophical training might increase the tendency toward self-serving rationalization. It might do so in three ways: (1.) by providing more powerful tools for rationalization (more argument styles and competing principles that can be drawn upon), (2.) by giving rationalization a broader field of play (by tossing more of morality into doubt), and (3.) by providing more psychological occasion for rationalization (by nurturing the tendency to reflect on principles rather than simply take things for granted). Education in moral philosophy might be less a bulwark against rationalization than a training grounds for it.

This sort of claim is hard to test empirically, but I have two small pieces of evidence that seem to support this pessimistic view over the optimistic view of Kant:

First, in work forthcoming in Mind & Language, Fiery Cushman and I found that philosophers, more than other professors and more than non-academics, tended to endorse moral principles in labile ways to match up with psychologically manipulated intuitions about particular cases. (Ethics PhDs showed the largest effect size overall.) Participants in our experiment were presented moral puzzle cases in one of two orders: an order that favored rating the two cases equivalently and an order that favored treating the two cases as different. Later, participants were asked if they endorsed or rejected moral principles that favored treating the cases as different. Philosophers and especially ethicists showed the greatest order effects on their judgments about moral principles, suggesting a greater-than-average predilection for post-hoc rationalization of their order-manipulated judgments about the individual scenarios.

Second, in work under submission, Joshua Rust and I found that professional ethicists, more than professors in other fields, seemed to exhibit self-congratulatory rationalization in their normative attitudes about replying to emails from students. In our study, all groups of professors (ethicists, non-ethicist philosophers, and non-philosophers) were similar in several dimensions: In a survey, they all claimed very high rates of responsiveness to student emails (the majority claimed 100% responsiveness); and the large majority of all groups (84% overall) rated "not consistently responding to student emails" on the bad side of a moral scale; and all groups replied at the same mediocre rate (about 60%) when we actually sent them emails designed to look as though they were from undergraduates. Also, all groups showed the same very weak to non-existent correlation between self-reported behavior and actually measured email responsiveness and between expressed normative attitude and actually measured email responsiveness. Despite all these similarities, however, there was one very large difference between the groups: Ethicists showed by far the largest relationship between normative attitude and self-reported email responsiveness. One natural interpretation of these results, we think, is that professors tend to have very poor self-knowledge of their actual rates of responsiveness to student emails, but that ethicists will, more than other professors, rationalizingly adjust their norms to match their illusions about their behavior. (It's also possible, though, that ethicists were more likely to adjust their self-reports to match their previously expressed normative attitudes, thus exhibiting either more outward deception or more self-deception.)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Interested as Participating as a Subject in Experimental Philosophy?

Then click here. The project hosts 17 different experimental philosophy studies designed by 29 philosophers, and it part of the "experiment month initiative" run by Yale Cognitive Science with a grant from the American Philosophical Association.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Leaving UC Riverside for Australian National University in July

I have accepted ANU's offer of a Professor position in Philosophy. I will be leaving UC Riverside in July. I have spent 14 years at UCR and all my life since age 7 in California. I have fond feelings for the department and the region, but my family and I are excited to be moving forward to a new adventure!

The Splintered Mind will chug along as usual, though there may be a few slow patches during the period of transition.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Does the World Look Upside-Down Through Inverting Lenses, Once You're Used to Them?

For eight days in 1897, psychologist George Stratton saw the world through a pair of glasses that rotated everything 180 degrees so that up was down and left was right. At first, everything looked upside down and backwards and he stumbled about, crashing into things. By the eighth day, he had largely adapted to the inverting lenses and was able to skillfully maneuver through his environment. Although Stratton's experiment is often cited by psychologists and philosophers of perception, few have effectively addressed the question that interests me most: After adaptation, did the world still look upside-down to Stratton, or at some point did it flip rightside up?

Since after adaptation the upside-down look might no longer seem wrong, in posing this question perhaps I should avoid the word "upside-down", with its implication of error or illusion. So maybe the stays-upside-down view is better expressed as follows. Before donning the inverting lenses, let's suppose, the visual field is toovy when Stratton looks at his room (where "toovy" picks out the phenomenal quality ordinarily associated with its looking like the light is hanging down from above, etc.) and after donning the lenses for the first time, the visual field turns teavy instead (where "teavy" picks out the phenomenal quality ordinarily associated with its looking like the light is jutting up from below). Here are two possibilities for what happens during adaptation: (1.) At some point (perhaps unsteadily and fragmentedly) Stratton's visual experience flips from teavy back to toovy. (2.) Stratton's visual experience stays teavy, but he learns to associate that teavy quality with the light's actually being above him.

These seem like very different phenomenal possibilities. But which is correct? Susan Hurley and Alva Noe (2003) say that things go back to looking toovy -- that post-adaptation, Stratton's visual pheomenology is just the same as it was before donning the glasses (minus the feeling of wearing glasses and other incidentals like the narrowing of the field). They say this partly based upon, and in defense of, a controversial general theory of the relationship between skillful action and conscious experience, and partly based upon James Taylor's 1962 reports in his replication of Stratton. But Taylor's reports, too, are situated within a theoretical framework to which he appears deeply committed, and Stratton's original reports are most naturally interpreted as suggesting the opposite. For example, Stratton writes:

The harmonization of the new experience and the suppression or subordination of insistent remnants of the old were always apparent during active operations in the visual surroundings, as has been described for several of the preceding days. While I sat passively the old localization of unseen parts of my body often came back, or perhaps was the usual form in which they appeared. But the instant I began to rock my chair the new position of these parts came prominently forward, and, except in the case of my shoulders and back, readily felt more real than the old. And in walking, when hands and feet rhythmically made their appearance in the visual field, the old representation, except perhaps for some faint inharmonious sensations in the back, was fully expelled without employing any device of will or of attention whatever (1897c, p. 469).
Stratton does not say that the new experience is the same as the old, after adaptation: Rather the new experience is the reverse of the old, and adaptation is the victory of the new in the fight between them.

I don't know which way it goes, but the two possibilities seem to differ, and different observers appear to be giving different reports. The question has implications for the general question of whether skillful action shapes our phenomenology to match the world or whether, instead, phenomenology tends to stay (approximately) the same across the development of skill, only gathering new associations and behavioral contingencies.

I discuss this issue with more everyday examples of mirror reflection in earlier blog posts on the apparent location of mirror images and on the U.S. Department of Transportation's advice that "objects in mirror are closer than they appear".

Similar questions arise, of course, for inverted spectrum cases.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

To the Viagra Spammer

Until now, I have kept the comments section on this blog wide open, but you may force me to change that. I know you are not a machine, because you react to the content of the posts you spam. Please stop. You are making my small corner of the world a worse place.

In other news, I am back from Australia and St. Louis. Once my head stops swimming, I'll work up a blog post or two.