Friday, April 27, 2012

Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt, Stanley Milgram, and King Xuan of Qi

Perhaps my favorite Mencius passage is 1A7.  At its core is a story of a king's mercy on an ox.

While the king was sitting up in his hall, an ox was led past below. The king saw it and said, "Where is the ox going?" Hu He replied, "We are about to ritually anoint a bell with its blood." The king said, "Spare it. I cannot bear its frightened appearance, like an innocent going to the execution ground." Hu He replied, "So should we dispense with the anointing of the bell?" The king said, "How can that be dispensed with? Exchange it for a sheep." (Van Norden, trans.)
Mencius asks the king (King Xuan of Qi):
If Your Majesty was pained at its being innocent and going to the execution ground, then was is there to choose between an ox and a sheep?... You saw the ox but had not seen the sheep.  Gentlemen cannot bear to see animals die if they have seen them living. If they hear the cries of their suffering, they cannot bear to eat their flesh. Hence, gentlemen keep their distance from the kitchen.
(Note that Mencius does not conclude that gentlemen should become vegetarians.  Interesting possibilities for reflection arise regarding butchers, executioners, soldiers, etc., but let's not dally.)  To understand the next part of the passage, you need to know what kind of person this king was.  Skip forward to passage 1B11 where Mencius says to King Xuan:
Yan was ferocious to its people. Your Majesty went out and attacked it. The people thought that You were going to deliver them as from flood and fire. They welcomed Your Majesty with baskets and food and pots of soup. But if You kill their fathers and older brothers, put burdens on [enslave? capture? take hostage?] their sons and younger brothers, destroy their shrines and temples, plundering their valuable goods -- how could that be acceptable?
The invasion of Yan probably occurred after his sparing of the ox, but it reveals King Xuan's character: He has mercy on an ox because the ox looks like an innocent person, but at the same time he is perfectly willing to kill innocent people.  Now back to 1A7.  Mencius says to the king:
Suppose there were someone who reported to Your Majesty, 'My strength is sufficient to life five hundred pounds, but not sufficient to lift one feather. My eyesight is sufficient to examine the tip of an autumn hair, but I cannot see a wagon of firewood.... In the present case your kindness is sufficient to reach animals, but the effects do not reach the commoners.... Measure it, and then you will distinguish the long and the short. Things are all like this, the heart most of all. Let Your Majesty measure it.
I can't read Hannah Arendt's famous portrayal of Adolf Eichmann without thinking of this passage from Mencius.  Eichmann (at least in Arendt's portrayal) respects and values his Jewish acquaintances, friends, and relatives -- even at one point has a Jewish lover.  When he goes east to see the killing operations, he finds it morally horrible and can't bear to look.  Yet he masterfully shipped hundreds of thousands of Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust.  Near the end, Eichmann even defied Himmler's order to stop having Jews killed, since he knew Himmler's order would be contrary to Hitler's wish.  Like King Xuan of Qi, Eichmann is merciful and soft (perhaps too soft) to those he sees, while indifferent to those outside his field of view, failing to note the similarity between the cases -- failing to "measure his heart".

You have probably heard of the Milgram experiment.  What most people remember about it is that it was amazingly easy for Stanley Milgram to convince research subjects to deliver high-voltage, maybe even fatal, shocks to another research subject.  (All shocks were actually faked.)  What some people forget, but what Milgram himself emphasizes, is that people's obedience to instructions to deliver high-voltage shocks was very much contingent on the relative distances of the victim and of the authority issuing the instructions.  If the victim was near at hand and the authority far away, almost no one complied.  If the authority was nearby and the victim neither visible nor audible, almost everyone complied.

King Xuan and Eichmann would presumably be the perfect Milgram subjects.

Think and you will get it, Mencius says.  Take the heart that is over here and apply it over there.  Note how you react in the nearby, vivid cases; then note, intellectually, the lack of relevant difference between those cases and more distant, less vivid cases. For Mencius, this attention to the natural impulses of the heart, and the rational extension of those impulses, is the key to moral development.

Worth noting in conclusion: It's not all about extending impulses of sympathy or pity, as in 1A7 (and in some recent accounts of moral development).  Mencius holds that one can also notice and intellectually extend respect, ritual propriety, and uprightness (3A5, 6A10, 7A15, 7B31).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Bleg: Statements of Purpose / Personal Statements

I'm planning to update my series on applying to PhD programs in philosophy.  One thing I'd like to do is display some actual statements of purpose (also known as personal statements) from successful applicants, so that future applicants can see what these things really look like at full length.  Thus, I'm hoping that some readers will be willing to send me their past statements of purpose for this use.

If you're willing to help out, please email me (eschwitz at domain: the following:
(1.) your statement of purpose;
(2.) the academic year in which you used it;
(3.) what schools you were admitted to (not just where you accepted but your full range of admittances);
(4.) whether you want me to list your name and link to your homepage (anonymous is fine if you prefer, but I also want to give credit where it's due).

I'll select a few statements to post on the Underblog and link to from the main blog when I update the PhD application series.  I'll aim to display a few different flavors, to give readers a sense of the range of statement types.  Selection criteria will include: recency (past 5 years preferable), success of application (elite schools nice but not necessary), and my sense of the statement's quality, representativeness, and difference from other selected statements.

Thank you for your awesomeness!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How Much Should You Care about How You Feel in Your Dreams?

Psychological hedonists say that people are motivated mainly or exclusively by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of displeasure or pain. Normative hedonists say that what we should be mainly or exclusively concerned about in our actions is maximizing our own and others' pleasure and minimizing our own and others' displeasure. Both types of hedonism have fallen on hard times since the days of Jeremy Bentham. Still, it might seem that hedonism isn't grossly wrong: Pleasure and displeasure are crucial motivators, and increasing pleasure and reducing displeasure should be a major part of living wisely and of structuring a good society.

Now consider dreams. Often a dream is the most pleasant or unpleasant thing that occurs all day. Discovering that you can fly, whee! How much do you do in waking life that's as fun as that? Conversely, how many things in waking life are as unpleasant as a nightmare? Here's a great opportunity, then, to advance the hedonistic project! Whatever you can do to improve the ratio of pleasant to unpleasant dreams should have a big impact on the balance of pleasure vs. displeasure in your life.

This fact, naturally, explains the huge emphasis utilitarian ethicists have placed on improving one's dream life. It also explains why companies offering dream-improvement regimens make so much more money than those promising merely weight loss.

Not. Of course not! When I ask people how concerned they are about the overall hedonic balance of their dreams, their response is almost always "Meh". But if the overall sum of felt pleasure and displeasure is important -- even if it's not the whole of what makes life valuable -- shouldn't we take at least somewhat seriously the quality our dream lives?

Dreams are usually forgotten, but I'm not sure how much that matters. Most people forget most of their childhood, too, and within a week they forget almost everything that happened on any given day. That doesn't seem to make the hedonic quality of those events irrelevant. Your three-year-old may entirely forget her birthday party a year later, but you still want her to enjoy it, right? And anyway: We can easily work to remember our dreams if we want. Simply jotting down one's dreams in a diary hugely increases dream recall. So if recall were important, one could pursue a two-step regimen: First, work toward improving the hedonic quality of your dreams (maybe by learning lucid dreaming), and second, improve your dream memory. The total impact on the amount of remembered pleasure in your life would be enormous!

Robert Nozick famously argued against hedonism by saying that few people would choose the guaranteed pleasure one could get by plugging into an experience machine over the uncertain pleasures of real-life accomplishment. Nozickian experience machines don't really exist, of course, but dreams do, and, contra hedonism, our indifference about dreams suggests that Nozick is right: Few people value even the great pleasures and displeasures of dream life over the most meager of real-world accomplishments.

(I remember chatting with someone at the Pacific APA about this a couple weeks ago -- Stephen White, maybe? In the fog of memory, I can't recall exactly who it was or to what extent these thoughts originated from me as opposed to my interlocutor.  Apologies, then, if they're due!)

[Related post: On Not Seeking Pleasure Much.]

Friday, April 13, 2012

Steven Pinker: "Wow, How Awesome We Liberal Intellectuals Are!"

Okay, maybe that's not a direct quote.

There aren't many 700-page books I enjoy from beginning to end. Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature was one. Pinker's sweep is impressive, his ability to angle in on the same issue in many ways, his knack for extracting central points from a morass of scholarship, his engagingly accessible but rigorous prose. He is a gifted scholar; his mind scintillates.

But the book also has a comfortable, self-congratulatory tone that leaves me uneasy. By "self-congratulatory" I don't mean that Pinker congratulates himself personally, but rather that he congratulates us -- us Western, highly educated, cosmopolitan liberals, with our broad, sober, rational sense of the world, with our far-reaching sympathies, with our ability to take the long view and to keep human vice in check.

One manifestation of this self-congratulation is how impressed Pinker seems to be that it has been almost seventy years since Europeans and North Americans have killed each other in war by the tens of millions. He calls this "the Long Peace", and he concludes Chapter 5 with the thought that "perhaps, at last, we're learning" to avoid war (p. 294). Credit for the Long Peace, in Pinker's view, goes to liberalism, democracy, "gentle commerce", rising levels of education, and the increasingly open exchange of ideas. The same forces for good also get credit for the "Rights Revolutions": minority rights, women's rights, gay rights, children's rights, and animal rights. The printing press, books, iPhones, university education, hooray! I love all those things too. But it makes me nervous to find myself praising my era above all other eras, my political system above all other political systems, and my types of contribution to society (books, education, technology, communication) as the foundation of all this excellent progress. I wish I could detect any hint of self-suspicious nervousness in Pinker.

Pinker concludes his chapter on the "Better Angels" -- on the sources of all our new peace and rights -- in praise of reason as the best and most dependable source of our progress. He argues that in the past hundred years our ability to think abstractly has risen enormously due to formal schooling, as revealed by massive improvements in people's performance on IQ tests (the Flynn Effect). And this increase in abstract reasoning capacity has, in turn, resulted in immense moral improvement. Men can now imagine much better what it's like to be a woman; white people can imagine what it's like to be black; adults can imagine what it's like to be children. Also, we can reason much better from abstract principles such as "all people are created equal" without being blinded by parochial bunk about the special destiny of our nation, etc. Pinker writes:

The other half of the sanity check is to ask whether our recent ancestors can really be considered to be morally retarded. The answer, I am prepared to argue, is yes. Though they were surely decent people with perfectly functioning brains, the collective moral sophistication of the culture in which they lived was as primitive by modern standards as their mineral spas and patent medicines are by the medical standards of today. Many of their beliefs can be considered not just monstrous but, in a very real sense, stupid. They would not stand up to intellectual scrutiny as being consistent with other values they claimed to hold, and they persisted only because the narrower intellectual spotlight of the day was not routinely shone on them (p. 658).
Parody: Come to Harvard, study with us, and become a moral genius!

Pinker describes empirical evidence for seven connections between abstract reasoning and moral virtue:

(1.) People with higher IQs commit fewer crimes.
(2.) People with higher IQs are more likely to cooperate in "Prisoner's Dilemma" experiments.
(3.) People with higher IQs are more likely to be liberals.
(4.) People with higher IQs are more likely to support economic policies, like free trade, that (Pinker argues) tend to lead to peace between nations.
(5.) Countries whose populace had higher IQs in the 1960s were found in one study to be more likely to have prosperity and democracy in the 1990s.
(6.) Another study found countries with better educated populations to be less likely to enter civil war.
(7.) Another study found that politicians who speak in more nuanced, complex manner are less likely to lead their countries into war.

All these connections are interesting, but I don't see a compelling case here for the power of formal schooling and intellectual thought about moral issues to transform moral morons into better angels. Although Pinker sometimes notes that the studies in question control for confounding factors like income, it is hard to control for all potential confounds, and there are certainly some confounds that leap to mind. Higher IQ, for example, in our society, seems to relate to greater opportunity to advance one's interests other than by criminal means. People with more schooling might also react differently to the situation of being brought into a laboratory and given a Prisoner's Dilemma game; for example, they might be inclined to game the situation at a higher level by cooperating mainly as a means of communicating their cooperative nature to the experimenter. (As a Prisoner's Dilemma subject in a Stanford experiment in the 1980s, I seem to remember choosing to cooperate for exactly this reason.) Etc.

My own research on the moral behavior of ethics professors might be interpreted as evidence against Pinker's thesis. If we're really interested in the effect of intellectual moral reflection on real-world moral behavior, the comparison of ethics professors versus non-ethicist philosophers and other professors is potentially revealing because ethicists and other groups of professors will be similar, overall, in amount of formal schooling and in overall ability at abstract thought. But plausibly, ethics professors will have, on average, devoted considerably more abstract reasoning to moral issues like charitable donation, vegetarianism, and the nature of interpersonal virtue, than non-ethicists will have. And I have consistently found that ethicists behave on average no morally better in such matters than do comparison groups of other professors.

Pinker seems to recognize the potential threat to his thesis from the not-especially-admirable behavior of intellectuals. Unfortunately, he offers no detailed response, saying only:
It's also important to note that [Pinker's hypothesis] is about the influence of rationality -- the level of abstract reasoning in society -- and not about the influence of intellectuals. Intellectuals, in the words of the writer Eric Hoffer, "cannot operate at room temperature." They are excited by daring opinions, clever theories, sweeping ideologies, and utopian visions of the kind that caused so much trouble during the 20th century. The kind of reason that expands moral sensibilities comes not from grand intellectual "systems" but from the exercise of logic, clarity, objectivity, and proportionality. These habits of mind are distributed unevenly across the population at any time, but the Flynn Effect lifts all boats, and so we might expect to see a tide of mini- and micro-enlightenments across elites and ordinary citizens alike.
I find it hard to see the merit in this response. It seems to be simultaneously a kind of self-flattery -- it's the kind of abstract moral and political reasoning that we intellectuals are so good at that generates moral enlightenment -- and a self-flattering moral excuse -- but don't expect us intellectuals to achieve much personal moral progress from our reasoning! We're too hot; we can't operate at room temperature! Take our intellectualist morals, please, our U.S. higher education, our professorial sense of right and wrong; treasure the moral improvements that flow from the formal schooling we provide; but don't expect us to exemplify the moral standards we impart to you.

No, no, it's not that bad. But I do wish that Pinker had worried more that it might be that bad.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

On Whether the Job of an Ethicist Is Only to Theorize about Morality, Not to Be Moral

Over several studies, I've found that professional ethicists tend to behave no better than non-ethicists. Ethicists sometimes react to my work by saying "My job is to theorize about ethics, not to live the moral life." What should we make of this response?

First: I agree about the formal job description.

Second: If the idea is that an ethicist's professionally espoused moral views both are and should be entirely isolated from her personal life, that seems an odd position to endorse. Taken to its natural conclusion, it seems to imply that ethicists advocating vegetarianism should be expected to consume cheeseburgers at the same rate as does everyone else. We should resist that conclusion. Both normatively and descriptively, we should expect Peter Singer to live at least approximately the vegetarianism he so passionately advocates. Analogously, if not quite as starkly, it seems reasonable to expect those Kantians who think that lying is particularly heinous to lie a bit less, on average, than do other people, and to expect Confucians who see filial duty as important to be a bit more attentive to their parents, and to expect consequentialists who emphasize the huge importance of donating to famine relief to donate a bit more to famine relief than do other people. Sainthood would be too much expect. But some movement to harmonize one's life and one's moral theories seems both normatively appropriate and descriptively likely, at least on the face of it.

Third: Ethicists seem, on average, to espouse somewhat more stringent moral views than do non-ethicists. For example, ethicists seem to be more likely than non-ethicists to say it's morally bad to eat meat, and on average they seem to think that people should donate more to charity than non-ethicists seem to think people should donate. (See here.) Unless there is some countervailing force, then, movements to harmonize normative attitude and real-world behavior ought to lead ethicists, on average, to regulate their moral behavior a bit more stringently than do non-ethicists. The problem is that this doesn't seem empirically to be the case. For example, although Josh Rust and I found 60% of ethicists to describe "regularly eating the meat of mammals such as beef and pork" as morally bad, compared to 45% of other philosophers and only 19% of professors in other departments, when asked if they had eaten meat at their previous evening meal, we found no statistically significant difference among the three groups.

Fourth: So we might consider some countervailing forces. One possibility is that there's some kind of "moral licensing" effect. Suppose, for example, that a consequentialist donates a wad to charity. Maybe then she feels free to behave worse in other ways than she otherwise would have. Suppose a Kantian remains rigorously honest at some substantial cost to his welfare. Maybe then he feels freer to be a jerk to his students. One depressing thought is that all this cancels out: Our efforts to live by our ethical principles exert sufficient psychic costs that we compensate by acting worse in other ways, only moving around the lump under the rug.

A very different possibility: Maybe those of us attracted to moral theorizing tend to be people with deficient moral emotional reactions, which we compensate for intellectually. Our moral reflection as ethicists does morally improve us, after all, relative to where we would be without that reflection -- but that improvement only brings us up to average.

Still another possibility: Ethicists are especially talented at coming up with superficially appealing rationalizations of immoral behavior, setting them free to engage in immoralities that others would resist. On average, the boost from harmonizing to stricter norms and the loss from toxic rationalization approximately cancel out.

There are other possibilities, too, interesting and empirically risky. We should explore such possibilities! But I don't think that such exploration is what ethicists have in mind when they say their job is only to theorize about morality, not to live it.

Fifth: I acknowledge that there is something a bit unfair, still, about holding ethicists to especially high standards because of their career choice. I don't really want to do that. In fact, I find something admirable in embracing and advocating stringent moral standards, even if one doesn't succeed in living up to those standards. Ultimately, most of the weight in evaluating people's moral character should rest on how they behave, not on how far they fall short of their own standards, which might be self-scathingly high or self-flatteringly low.

My aim is not to scold ethicists for failing to live up to their often high standards but rather to confront the issue of why there seems to be such a tenuous connection between philosophical moral reflection and real-world moral behavior. The dismissive "that's not my job" seems to me to be exactly the wrong spirit to bring to the issue.