Mar 28, 2011

Dumbfounded by "Moral Dumbfounding"

Jonathan Haidt discusses "moral dumbfounding," the "stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a [moral] judgment without supporting reasons"[1]. His study purporting to show the existence of moral dumbfounding seems to suffer from a fairly obvious, though infrequently remarked, experimental error. Since the study is influential and often cited by psychologists and philosophers, it bears pointing out.

Haidt gives subjects vignettes of two cases of "harmless" taboo behavior, such as consensual adult incest and cannibalism. I want focus here on the incest case. The vignette contains no "harmful consequences" because the subjects are told that the participants in the incest have protected sex (so there is stipulated to be no risk of STI transmission or pregnancy) and suffer no harm at all [2]. The subjects in the experiments are asked whether the case of incest is wrong or not. They tend to say yes, and when they say that it's wrong because the participants are hurt or harmed, they are reminded that it's part of the vignette that there is no harm. The subjects then tend to get flustered, saying things like "I know it's wrong, but I don't know why!" Haidt calls this "moral dumbfounding."

The error in the experimental design is that what is probably the most important moral objection to consensual adult incest-- that it's deeply harmful to appropriate family relationships, irrespective of how participants in such behavior judge that it affects their relationships-- is being ruled out by experimental fiat. Being told by the experimenter that there is no harm does not make it true, but it does make it much less likely (given obvious social dynamics among experimenters and subjects) that the subjects will cite this sort of harm as a relevant moral objection. Moreover, this is a very important error, as it means that the study is of no value for discriminating between subjects who have reasons for their judgments but are not articulating them due to the dynamic just mentioned, and those who do not have reasons for their judgments at all. By failing to discriminate between these two groups, the study fails to provide evidence for moral dumbfounding. A similar objection could be made to the cannibalism vignette.

A better design would be to give subjects a simple prompt, like "Do you think that any kind of incest- among consenting adults, for example- is ever morally acceptable?" Then, experimenters would probe subjects' responses, not by rejecting their given reasons as inappropriate, but simply by asking for further justification for each reason given. Subjects will thus eventually reach a fundamental level of moral explanation at which moral dumbfounding will become apparent, if it exists. This design avoids the confound in Haidt's study and would provide clear evidence of moral dumbfounding, an interesting phenomenon that merits a place in the psychology of moral judgment.


[1] All Haidt quotes are from "Moral Dumbfounding: Where Intuition Finds No Reason," coauthored with Bjorklund and Murphy. Haidt makes use of this study in arguing for a social intuitionist account of moral judgment in "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment," Psychological Review, 108 (814-834).

[2] The vignette does not explicitly say there is no harm, but when subjects refer to possible harm they are told that there is none.

Mar 16, 2011

The early history of double effect and intention

When philosophers discuss the principle of double effect, they typically trace its history back to Aquinas's discussion of homicide in self-defense. There, Aquinas claims that the killing of one's assailant is outside one's intention (praeter intentionem).

While Aquinas's discussions are no doubt extremely influential in the development of subsequent ethical thought on double effect, seeds of the principle can be found much earlier in the history of philosophy. I'll mention a few examples.

First, consider Augustine's free will theodicy. The existence of evil is compatible with God's goodness, according to Augustine, because God's tolerance of evil is necessary for the free agency of human beings. God tolerates evil but does not will it. Essentially, Augustine is using double effect reasoning to account for the permissibility of God's creation.

Second, consider Proclus's account of evil. "Evils are not the outcome of goal-directed processes, but happen per accidens, as incidental by-products which fall outside the intention of the agents." [1] Again, we find a distinction between what someone has as a goal, purpose, or intention, and what is brought about by the agent but is in a certain sense beyond the agent's intention. This distinction in Proclus is part of an account of agency, rather than part of an ethical principle (as it is implicitly in Augustine, and explicitly in Aquinas). 

It's useful to trace Proclus's view even earlier back, to Aristotle's remarks on "mixed actions" (Nicomachean Ethics III.1). A captain would never voluntarily throw cargo overboard "without qualification," though he may voluntarily do so to save the passengers on his ship.[2] Throwing the cargo overboard in itself is not choiceworthy-- would not be part of the content of the agent's intentions-- but throwing it overboard to save the passengers might be intended. 

I don't think it's anachronistic to see Aristotle's remarks on mixed actions as a kind of prototype for later thought, in Augustine, Proclus, Aquinas, and Anscombe, on intentional action. Indeed, it would seem that the germ of Anscombe's insight that actions are intentional under descriptions can be found already in the Nicomachean Ethics. (Anscombe is constantly referring to Aristotle in Intention, especially when discussing the practical syllogism, and she also mentions his discussion of 'choice' rather than her preferred 'intention' in a footnote in sect. 40.)

These are just a few of presumably a great number of interesting episodes in the history of action and ethics.

[1]  (De mal. § 50.3–9, 29–31, transl. by Opsomer-Steel 2003, as quoted in the SEP "Proclus" entry by C. Helmig and C. Steel)
[2] Quotes here are from the second edition of Irwin's translation.

Mar 13, 2011

Outcomes, Knowledge, and Morality

Two important puzzles in epistemology and ethics share a fairly simple metaphysical solution.

Consider these two questions:

(1) How can it be that knowledge is more valuable than true belief? After all, both have the same outcome: the agent who has knowledge of p or truly believes p is equally successful in his dealing with the world.

(2) How can it be that properly motivated action (and action with the right kinds of intentions) is more valuable than action that is not well motivated, or that is only accidentally the right action? After all, these all have the same outcome: the agent brings about an outcome (like giving money to someone in need) that is morally appropriate.

These can look like deep questions that require a lot of epistemology and ethics, respectively, to answer. But that appearance is mistaken. These apparent problems share a common solution, one that does not require complex epistemological or ethical analysis, but rather a fairly simple appeal to metaphysics. The error one is making in taking them to be deep problems lies in a mistaken metaphysics of outcomes. It is, properly speaking, false to suppose that the outcome of true belief and knowledge is the same, and likewise false to suppose that the outcome of properly motivated and non-properly motivated action is the same. We can be led to these mistaken suppositions only if we suppose that an outcome can be characterized without reference to its history. If, on the other hand, outcomes are individuated in a historical fashion, we get a quite different result. Acting successfully because one has a mere true belief, and doing so because one has knowledge, are not identical states of affairs. Bringing about the morally appropriate end result because one has the appropriate motivations, and doing so because of a fluke, are not identical either.

Once we see that these outcomes are different, assigning different values to each is no longer puzzling. It still stands in need of justification, however. In the moral case, the justification is quite simple: it is better to have good motivations than not, so a result that is brought about by good motivations is more valuable than one that is not brought about by good motivations. Once the motivations are seen as part of the outcome, rather than merely part of the outcome's cause, and provided that we admit that having the right motivations is intrinsically valuable, we have a quite plausible justification for valuing properly motivated action more than non-properly motivated action. We also take some of the mystery away from thinking that intentions can make a moral difference, as (for example) in the principle of double effect. (See this post for a more detailed discussion of double effect and consequences.)

A parallel answer can be given in the epistemic case. Knowledge has greater intrinsic value than true belief, so it is more valuable to act according to one's knowledge than according to one's (merely) true beliefs.

The moral: a little bit of metaphysics can go a long way in helping with some puzzles in epistemology and ethics.

Mar 2, 2011

Traumatic Harm and the Freedom of Speech

What are the limits to the freedom of speech? A classic answer is Mill's harm principle: one has the freedom of speech to the extent that one is not harming another. Depending on how we think about harm in this context, the principle may be too restrictive. If merely offending someone suffices to harm them, than merely offensive speech will not be permitted, regardless of whether the offense is reasonable. This seems obviously too broad.

There's a way of understanding the harm principle that would take the paradigmatic case of harm to be specifically traumatic harm. Speech that merely offends, even if the offense is reasonable and indeed severe, would be protected, whereas speech that characteristically tends to result in traumatic harm would not be protected. Traumatic harm is a sufficient condition for rendering speech outside the protection of political liberties.

This version of Mill's idea-- call it the traumatic harm principle-- can be put to good use in jurisprudence. Consider Snyder v. Phelps, a U.S. Supreme Court case decided this week in an 8-1 ruling that picketing by the Westboro Baptist Church near the funeral service of a U.S. marine was protected by the First Amendment. (Read the New York Times article if you want to know what the signs said, I won't repeat the content here.)

I find it telling that both the opinion of the majority, and Justice Alito's dissenting opinion, reference the severe psychological toll the protests would have taken on the father of the deceased: "it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims," writes Alito, while the majority emphasizes that the protests must have deepened the father's "incalculable grief." Though the justices do not appeal to the notion of trauma specifically, these remarks show an awareness of the traumatic effects of the picketer's actions. If we follow the traumatic harm principle I've proposed, we would have sufficient reason to deny this 'speech' constitutional protection.

Beyond this case in particular, there are other fruitful applications of our revised harm principle. Consider speech that we would classify as harassment, sexual or otherwise. This is a clear example of speech that is characteristically traumatic to its target. It is also typically offensive, but that doesn't suffice to explain why it should not be protected. The traumatic harm principle would license an exclusion of sexual harassment and other forms of traumatic speech as beyond the reach of political liberties.

While it would admittedly mark some degree of departure from contemporary First Amendment interpretation to rule that the picketers' speech is not protected in virtue of being traumatically harmful, it would be a move in the direction of a morally sound free speech jurisprudence. There are, of course, difficulties with my suggestion. What exactly constitutes traumatic speech? Must the speech be actually traumatic, or only the kind of speech that tends to be traumatic? These are important questions, though they are very much the same questions that present any account of the limits of free speech.