Friday, February 24, 2023

Moral Mediocrity, Apologizing for Vegetarianism, and Do-Gooder Derogation

Though I'm not a vegetarian, one of my research interests is the moral psychology of vegetarianism. Last weekend, when I was in Princeton giving a talk on robot rights, a vegetarian apologized to me for being vegetarian.

As a meat-eater, I find it's not unusual for vegetarians to apologize to me. Maybe this wouldn't be so notable if their vegetarianism inconvenienced me in any way, but often it does not. In Princeton, we were both in line for a catering spread that had both meat and vegetarian options. I was in no obvious way wronged, harmed, or inconvenienced. So what is going on?

Here's my theory.

Generally speaking, I believe that people aim to be morally mediocre. That is, rather than aiming to be morally good (or not morally bad) by absolute standards, most people aim to be about as morally good as their peers -- not especially better, not especially worse. People might not conceptualize themselves as aiming for mediocrity. Often, they concoct post-hoc rationalizations to justify their choices. But their choices implicitly reveal their moral target. Systematically, people avoid being among the worst of their peers while refusing the pay the costs of being among the best. For example, they don't want to be the one jerk who messes up a clean environment; but they also don't want to be the one sucker who puts in the effort to keep things clean if others aren't also doing so. (See my notes on the game of jerk and sucker.)

Now if people do in fact aim to be about as morally good as their peers, we can expect that under certain conditions they don't want their peers to improve their moral behavior. Under what conditions? Under the conditions that your peers' self-improvement benefits you less than the raising of the moral bar costs you.

Let's say that your friends all become nicer to each other. This isn't so bad. You benefit from being in a circle of nice people. Needing to become a bit nicer yourself might be a reasonable cost to pay for that benefit. 

But if your friends start becoming vegetarians, you accrue the moral costs without the benefits. The moral bar is raised for you, implicitly, at least a little bit; but the benefits go to non-human animals, if they go anywhere. You now either have to think a bit worse of yourself relative to your peers or you have to start changing your behavior. How annoying! No wonder vegetarians are moved to apologize. (To be clear, I'm not saying we should be annoyed by this, just that my theory predicts that we will be annoyed.)

Note that this explanation works especially well for those of us who think it is morally better to avoid eating meat than for those of us who see no moral difference between eating meat and eating vegetarian. If you really see no moral difference (deep down, and not just because of superficial, post-hoc rationalization), then you'll see the morally motivated vegetarian just as morally confused. If they apologize, it would be like someone apologizing to you for acting according to some other mistaken moral principle, such as apologizing for abstinence before marriage. No one needs to apologize to you for that, unless they are harming or inconveniencing you in some way -- for example, because they are dating you and think you'll be disappointed. (Alternatively, they might apologize for the more abstract wrong of seeing you as morally deficient because you follow different principles; but that type of apology looks and feels a little different, I think.)

If this moral mediocrity explanation of vegetarian apology works, it ought to generalize to other cases where friends follow higher moral standards that don't benefit you. Some possible examples: In a circle of high school students who habitually cheat on tests, a friend might apologize for being unwilling to cheat. In a group of people who feel somewhat guilty about taking a short cut through manicured grass, one might decide they want to take the long way, apologizing to the group for the extra time, feeling more guilt than would accompany an ethically neutral reason for delay. On this model, the felt need for the apology would vary with a few predictable parameters: greater need the closer one is to being a peer whose behavior might be compared, greater need the more vivid and compelling the comparison (for example if you are side by side), lesser need the more the moral principle can be seen as idiosyncratic and inapplicable to the other (and thus some apologies of this sort suggest that the principle is idiosyncratic).

Do-gooder derogation is the tendency for people to think badly of people who follow more demanding moral standards. The moral mediocrity hypothesis is one possible explanation for this tendency, predicting among other things that derogation will be greater when the do-gooder is a peer and, perhaps unintuitively, that the derogation will be greater when the moral standard is compelling enough to the derogator that they already feel a little bit bad about not adhering to it.



The Collusion Toward Moral Mediocrity (Sep 1, 2022)

Aiming for Moral Mediocrity (Res Philosophica, 2019)

Image: Dall-E 2 "oil painting of a woman apologizing to an eggplant"

Thursday, February 16, 2023

U.S. Philosophy PhDs Are Still Overwhelmingly Non-Hispanic White (Though a Bit Less So Than 10 Years Ago)

Nine years ago, I compared the racial and ethnic composition of U.S. academic philosophy, as measured by PhDs awarded, with that of the other humanities. I found -- no surprise -- that a large majority of Philosophy PhD recipients were non-Hispanic White. I also found, somewhat more to my surprise, that this did not make it unusual among the humanities. Digging into the details suggested an explanation: Many of the subfields of the humanities, e.g., German literature and European history, specialize in the European tradition. Such subfields were typically as predominantly White as philosophy or even more so. Subfields of the humanities specializing in non-European traditions, e.g., Asian history, tended to be not nearly as White, with substantial proportions of PhD recipients identifying with the racial or ethnic category associated with the region.

At the time, I suggested the following hypothesis: Philosophy might be overwhelmingly White because students tend to perceive it as something like an area studies or cultural studies discipline focusing on the European (and White North American) tradition. (See Bryan Van Norden and Jay Garfield for an articulation and critique of this way of seeing academic philosophy as practiced in the U.S.).

Nine years later, I find myself wondering to what extent the pattern still holds. Time for an update!


Before presenting the results, two nerdy methodological notes (feel free to skip).

Methodological note on ethnic and racial categories and non-response rates: These analyses rely on the National Science Foundation's Survey of Earned Doctorates. The SED aims to collect data on all PhDs awarded in accredited U.S. universities, and typically reports response rates over 90%. The most recent available year is 2021 (response rate 92%). Data are based on self-report of ethnicity and race. The top-level category split is temporary visa holders vs. U.S. citizens and permanent residents. U.S. citizens and permanent residents are divided into Hispanic or Latino, not Hispanic or Latino, or ethnicity not reported. Respondents who identify as not Hispanic or Latino are then divided into the racial categories American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, White, More than one race, or Other race or race not reported. The analyses below exclude temporary visa holders and respondents who did not report their ethnicity or race or reported "other".  In Philosophy, 76% of respondents indicated that they were U.S. citizens or permanent residents (18% indicated that they were temporary visa holders, and 6% presumably did not answer the question), and among the U.S. citizens and permanent residents, 5% either reported "other" or did not report their ethnicity or race.

Methodological note on disciplinary classification as "Philosophy": Before 2021, the SED had a two philosophy-relevant subfields, "philosophy" and "ethics", which were generally merged in public data presentation. (In a custom analysis I requested several years ago, I found that "ethics" was only a small number of doctorates.) Starting in 2021, there are three philosophy-relevant subfields: "History/philosophy of science, technology and society" (68 PhDs awarded), "Philosophy" (399 PhDs awarded), and "Philosophy and religious studies not elsewhere classified" (degrees classified as broadly within the field of philosophy and religious studies but not designated specifically as philosophy or specifically as religious studies; 67 PhDs awarded). "Ethics" no longer appears to be a category. My analysis will focus only on the "Philosophy" group. For comparison, in 2020, 460 PhDs were awarded in "Philosophy" or "Ethics", and in 2019, 474 PhDs were awarded in "Philosophy" or "Ethics". It is likely that most of the degrees that would have been classified in 2020 as "Philosophy" or "Ethics" are classified in 2021 as "Philosophy". However, since it's unlikely that the number of philosophy degrees awarded declined by 13% between the two years (from 460 to 399), it is likely that a small but non-trivial percentage of degrees that would have been classified as "Philosophy" or "Ethics" in 2020 are now classified as "History/philosophy of science, technology and society" or as "Philosophy and religious studies not elsewhere classified". In short, the 2021 "Philosophy" degree category is probably largely comparable but not exactly comparable with the earlier "Philosophy" and "Ethics" degree categories.


Philosophy, 2021 PhDs (290 included respondents):

  • Hispanic or Latino (any race): 9.0%
  • Not Hispanic or Latino:
    • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.0%
    • Asian: 4.1%
    • Black or African American: 2.8%
    • White: 81.0%
    • More than one race: 3.1%
For comparison, among all PhD recipients (30,830 included respondents):

  • Hispanic or Latino (any race): 9.3%
  • Not Hispanic or Latino:
    • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.3%
    • Asian: 9.8%
    • Black or African American: 7.9%
    • White: 69.1%
    • More than one race: 3.5%

Philosophy PhD recipients approximately match PhD recipients overall in percentage Hispanic or Latino.  Among respondents who are not Hispanic or Latino, Philosophy PhD recipients approximately match PhD recipients overall in percentage who report being more than one race, but compared with PhD recipients overall, Philosophy PhD recipients are substantially less Asian, Black, and (perhaps, though for numbers this small, chance fluctuations can't be ruled out) American Indian or Alaska Native.  Finally -- as these other numbers imply -- philosophy is disproportionately White.

Rewinding 10 years to look at the "Philosophy" and "Ethics" combined category from 2011 (367 included respondents):

  • Hispanic or Latino (any race): 4.9%
  • Not Hispanic or Latino:
    • American Indian or Alaska Native: 0.0%
    • Asian: 3.8%
    • Black or African American: 2.7%
    • White: 87.2%
    • More than one race: 1.3%
Here we can see the tendency, as I've noted before, toward increasing percentages of Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and multi-racial philosophy PhD recipients, while the numbers of American Indian/Alaska Native and Black/African American philosophy PhD recipients remains disproportionately low, with little to no increase.

How about field by field? Among the 300 "detailed" fields of study -- NSF's finest-grain division -- Philosophy is the 40th Whitest (by percentage non-Hispanic White). NSF no longer includes categories for French & Italian or German literature, which used to be very White area studies categories, but several European / North American area studies categories remain in the new classification. All are at least as non-Hispanic White as Philosophy. Specifically:
  • European history (89.7% non-Hispanic White) [in 2011: 92.7%]
  • Classical and ancient studies (88.4%) [in 2011: 92.6%]
  • American history (U.S.) (86.3%) [in 2011: 81.5%]
  • American literature (U.S.) (85.3%) [in 2011: 82.6%]
  • English literature (Britain and commonwealth) (81.6%) [87.9%]
Note than in the humanities "classical" and "ancient" typically refer to ancient Greek and Roman culture and not, for example, ancient China, India, Africa, or the Americas.

Note also: Of course, European history and literature and U.S. history and literature are not exclusively White! However, as with Philosophy, the contributions of people we would now racialize as White tend to be centered.

Other PhD subfields with comparable or higher percentages of non-Hispanic White PhD recipients include music theory and education, meteorology/ecology/geology, animal sciences, and astronomy/astrophysics. Possibly, music theory and music education as typically taught in U.S. PhD programs tend to emphasize the White European and White North American traditions.

If we look at the humanities and social sciences more generally, they tend to be more ethnically and racially diverse than philosophy and the European area studies programs. For example, the social sciences overall are 66.7% non-Hispanic White; foreign languages, literatures, and linguistics overall is 61.3% non-Hispanic White; and general history (without a regional focus) is 71.2% White. The humanities overall is 76.3% non-Hispanic White, but of course that includes substantial numbers focusing in area studies or philosophy.


I draw two conclusions:

First, the pipeline of PhDs into philosophy in the U.S. remains over 80% non-Hispanic White, despite recent gains in the percentage of Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and multi-racial philosophy PhD recipients.

Second, the moderate increase in ethnic/racial diversity in PhDs -- from 87.2% non-Hispanic White in 2011 to 81.0% in 2021 -- is not part of a general trend toward increasing diversity in European and North America focused "area studies" PhDs, which generally remain about 80-90% non-Hispanic White.

These two observations are consistent with the view that academic philosophy is to some extent, but perhaps to a decreasing extent, still experienced by students as an area studies program focused on a certain aspect of European and North American culture or literature. I wouldn't lean too hard into that possible explanation, though. Probably at least a half-dozen other plausible hypotheses could be constructed to fit the data, and there are some non-area-studies fields, like meteorology/ecology/geology, that are even more proportionately White that Philosophy, for reasons I cannot guess.

Friday, February 10, 2023

How Not to Calculate Utilities in an Infinite Universe

Everything you do causes almost everything -- or so I have argued (blog post version here, more detailed and careful version collaborative with Jacob Barandes in my forthcoming book).  On some plausible cosmological assumptions, each of your actions ripples unendingly through the cosmos (including post-heat-death), causing infinitely many good and bad effects.

Assume that our actions do have infinitely many good and bad effects.  My thought today is that this would appear to ruin some standard approaches to action evaluation.  According to some vanilla versions of consequentialist ethics and ordinary decision theory, the goodness or badness of your actions depends on their total long-term consequences.  But since almost all of your actions have infinitely many good consequences and infinitely many bad consequences, the sum total value of almost all of your actions will be ∞ + -∞, a sum which is normally considered to be mathematically undefined.

Suppose you are considering two possible actions with short-term expected values m and n.  Suppose, further, that m is intuitively much larger than n.  Maybe Action 1, with short-term expected value m, is donating a large some of money to a worthwhile charity, while Action 2, with short-term expected value n, is setting fire to that money to burn down the house of a neighbor with an annoying dog.  Infinitude breaks the mathematical apparatus for comparing the long-term total value of those actions: The total expected value of Action 1 will be m + ∞ + -∞, while the total expected value of Action 2 will be n + ∞ + -∞.  Both values are undefined.

Can we wiggle out of this?  An Optimist might try to escape thus: Suppose that overall in the universe, at large enough spatiotemporal scales, the good outweighs the bad.  We can now consider the relative values of Action 1 and Action 2 by dividing them into three components: the short-term effects (m and n, respectively), the medium-term effects k -- the effects through, say, the heat death of our region of the universe -- and the infinitary effects (∞, by stipulation).  Stipulate that k is unknown but expected to be finite and similar for Actions 1 and 2.  The expected value of Action 1 is thus m + k + ∞.  The expected value of Action 2 is n + ∞.  These values are not undefined; so that particular problem is avoided.  The values are, however, equal: simple positive infinitude in both cases.  As the saying goes, infinity plus one just equals infinity.  A parallel Pessimistic solution -- assuming that at large enough time scales the bad outweighs the good -- runs into the same problem, only with negative infinitude.

Perhaps a solution is available for someone who holds that at large enough time scales the good will exactly balance the bad, so that we can compare m + k + 0 to n + k + 0?  We might call this the Knife's Edge solution.  The problem with the Knife's Edge solution is delivering that zero.  Even if we assume that the expected value of any spatiotemporal region is exactly zero, the Law of Large Numbers only establishes that as the size of the region under consideration goes to infinity, the average value is very likely to be near zero.  The sum, however, will presumably be divergent – that is, will not converge upon a single value.  If good and bad effects are randomly distributed and do not systematically decrease in absolute value over time, then the relevant series would be a + b + c + d + ... where each variable can take a different positive or negative value and where this is no finite limit to the value of positive or negative runs within the series -- seemingly the very archetype of a poorly behaved divergent series whose sum cannot be calculated (even by clever tools like Cesaro summation).  Thus, mathematically definable sums still elude us.  (Dominance reasoning also probably fails, since Actions 1 and 2 will have different rather than identical infinite effects.)

This generates a dilemma for believers in infinite causation, if they hope to evaluate actions by their total expected value.  Either accept the conclusion that there is no difference in total expected value between donating to charity and burning down your neighbor's house (the Optimist's or Pessimist's solution), or accept that there is no mathematically definable total expected value for any action, rendering proper evaluation impossible.

The solution, I suggest, is to reject certain standard approaches to action evaluation.  We should not to evaluate actions based on their total expected value over the lifetime of the cosmos!  We must have some sort of discounting with spatiotemporal distance, or some limitation of the range of consequences we are willing to consider, or some other policy to expunge the infinitudes from our equations.  Unfortunately, as Bostrom (2011) persuasively argues, no such solution is likely to be entirely elegant and intuitive from a formal point of view.  (So much the worse, perhaps, for elegance and intuition?)

The infinite expectation problem is robust in two ways.

First, it affects not only simple consequentialists.  After all, you needn't be a simple consequentialist to think that long-term expected outcomes matter.  Virtually everyone think that long-term expected outcomes matter somewhat.  As long as they matter enough that an infinitely positive long-term outcome, over the course of the entire history of the universe, would be relevant to your evaluation of an action, you risk being caught by this problem.

Second, the problem affects even people who think that infinite causation is unlikely.  Even if you are 99.99% certain that infinite causation doesn't occur, your remaining 0.01% credence in infinite causation will destroy your expected value calculations if you don't do something to sequester the infinitudes.  Suppose you're 99.99% sure that your action will have the value k, while allowing 1 0.01% chance that it's value will be ∞ + -∞.  If you now apply the expected value formula in the standard way, you will crash straightaway into the problem.  After all, .9999 * k + .0001 * (∞ + -∞) is just as undefined as ∞ + -∞ itself.  Similarly, .9999 * k + ∞ is simply ∞.  As soon as you let those infinitudes influence your decision, you fall back into the dilemma.

Thursday, February 02, 2023

Larva Pupa Imago

Yesterday, my favorite SF magazine, Clarkesworld, published another story of mine: "Larva Pupa Imago".

"Larva Pupa Imago" follows the life-cycle of a butterfly with human-like intelligence, from larva through mating journey.  This species of butterfly blurs the boundaries between self and other by swapping "cognitive fluids".  And of course I couldn't resist a reference to Zhuangzi.