Thursday, October 22, 2009

Victor Davis Hanson on Democracies and War

A couple of years old, but very interesting. UCTV does a great job with this series. Starts with a discussion of his then (2006) new book A War Like No Other, but moves on to some themes and personalities of his earlier works. In particular the discussion of Sherman, Patton, and democratic "armies of a season" is classic VDH.

Experimental Ethics, Character, and Plato's Charioteer

David Brooks at the NYT is reading something I also am reading now. It is an interesting book Experimental Ethics that considers the implications certain psychological experiments have for various traditional philosophical views as regards human morality.

One such matter is the virtue ethicist view, (one, we might add, that has roots in common sense beliefs) that character is a somewhat stable disposition that we have, and can also shape. Character is seen as a disposition to behave in certain consistent ways, regardless of variations in circumstance.

Experimental evidence suggests not only that there is not such cross-situational stability, but that efforts toward character formation do not seem to mitigate the effects of trivial environmental and emotional factors' effects on our moral behavior, this even being the case in folks who are arguably engaged in the project of consciously forming their character traits along the lines of the Aristotelian project, and doing so in ways that are basically in his own terms, as outlined in the Nichomachean Ethics.

In fact, the research suggests an interpretation, according to which we are always unwitting victims of these trivial environmental and emotional influences when it comes to moral behavior, buffeted about and led by things that should have no such controlling effect on creatures as allegedly rational as ourselves. According to this interpretation, we are so radically 'situational' and influenced by the affective as to make the claim that there are such things as stable character traits if not false, highly untenable.

In addition, as you can see by the description here, some believe the tribe of the philosophers should be concerned, because they (OK, most of them) subscribe to the normative claim that reason should be (even if it isn't) a primary, if not THE primary decision making factor behind our moral behavior. But if Dame Reason is stubbornly impotent in the face of these alien and irrational factors, she cannot play that primary role for which she has dressed. Lady Reason will sit on the bench, or at the very least play a minor role.

If it is true that we are not obligated to do things that it is not psychologically possible for us to do, then it would seem to be the case that we cannot expect reason to play a major role in ethical behavior. What then should we say about moral decision making? How should we go about it (if indeed there can be a 'how' without a reasoned decision making rubric?) Should we be guided by emotions? Intuitions? Ouija? Tarot? Should reason be a servant to the passions, as Hume maintained? Or, does Reason need to conduct a palace coup?

Some quick sketches of some of the empirical data presented in the book:

Kids can be scrupulously honest in one sphere of activity (school, let's say) and more prone to engage in deceit in another (perhaps in games, or at home). One should add here that adults obviously show similar compartmentalization skills.

In a series of experiments on seminarians who were discussing and studying the story of the good Samaritan, we see that they are significantly less likely to be good Samaritans if they believe that they would be late for an appointment.

Ceterus paribus, olfactory and auditory sensations have a marked effect on generosity or helpfulness. If you are in a setting where you smell tasty food, and someone asks for help, you are substantially more likely to comply, as contrasted to your behavior in a situation identical, save for the savory. If the ambient noise level is around 80 decibels as opposed to 60, you are much less likely to aid, everything else being equal.

If you have a very small windfall of good fortune, finding a dime in a payphone, you once again, are much more likely to help someone who requests help.

When presented with two options that are identical in content, but differently 'framed' (i.e., communicated via different words, emphasising potential gains as against potential risks, or vice - versa) individuals will reliably choose one option when things are couched positively, the other when they are couched negatively. This, even though the propositional content, the actual consequences, if you will, of the options are exactly the same. When you do the number crunching the outcomes are identical.

Additionally, after studies, when subjects are interviewed and asked for reasons for their choices, the responses evidence a lack of access to the explanations. They look to be grasping, and ineffectually doing some ad hoc rationalization. There is no pattern in the responses, or when pressed on the inadequacy of responses, or apparent inconsistencies, people admit they don't know what the heck they are talking about and really have no idea why they choose as they do.

Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of subsequent philosophy has been but a footnote to Plato. This would seem to be a case in point, as Appiah points out early in the book.

The hypothetical explanations for the data range from..

something called "modular theory" according to which there are more or less separate unconscious processes going on when we encounter morally salient circumstances, or think about them. These things kick in more or less simultaneously - each spitting out results, (do this, do that, don't do this, or don't do that) - these results not necessarily being in agreement. We then engage in after the fact attempts at formulating principles we think we had been following, when in fact no such thing occurred..

A multiple personality style theory that postulates there are separate persons jostling about for position in each of us, and that there is no unitary self.

Both of these, but especially the latter, sound a bit like Plato's charioteer analogy for the human soul. According to this metaphor there are three separate, but joined entities within. An appetitive, a spirited and a rational being. The rational being is likened to a charioteer, who is having a heck of a time controlling the two others, represented by horses. The appetitive element pursues necessities of life, or pleasures, it's after things like food and sex, while the spirited element is prone to feel resentments, and a need to lash out at perceived injustices or slights. It's job is protection.

Now, unfortunately for Dame Reason, she cannot get from point A to point B without these two horses. She cannot simply get rid of the horses, chariot and take a walk. Not an option.

But, like horses, these two entities are amenable to suasion, and can get her where she needs to go. She does therefore have to do her best to control them, make them stay as close as possible on the right path. She will have to tolerate their departures from the road, but will do her best to minimize the meandering.

It doesn't take too much imagination to see that Plato probably was latching on to something very profound about human psychology, something we know is accounted for by the features of the human brain. It does have different parts that are the source of biologically necessary urges and physiological phenomena related to these, yet other parts that are the seat of emotional reactions and geared toward protection, and yet others, more recently evolved, involved with means end reasoning, and finally, others dealing with more abstract reasoning. They are all housed in the same organ, the same neural mass, but do operate significantly independently of each other.

Freud also, with his notion of Id, Ego and Superego, seems to have latched on to the phenomena that are the conscious and unconscious results of doings of this society of 'entities.'

According to Plato, this society should be hierarchically organized, with Reason steering the chariot. Freud seems to agree. Yet, he says that the Id will never be completely amenable to reason.

We should not poo-poo the work of the lower entities in this society. Being the result of natural selection, or the result of purposeful design, they function, and function well in their spheres of responsibility, even if not faultlessly. In fact, in a great many morally relevant situations, they point us in the right direction.

On the other hand, we should not poo-poo Dame Reason. She does correct error, and does a good job guiding us, when given the time.

What is the right direction morally speaking? Where should we be going? Where should Dame Reason be aiming that chariot? Appiah suggests that we can begin to answer that question if we consider the penumbra of concepts that surround the Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia, i.e.; living well, flourishing, or happiness in the "fulfilled life" meaning of that term.

If we can form a clear idea of what that direction is, and why a certain way of life, a given action or institution does a good job of moving us in that direction, we will have made the process of moral decision making more conscious, and improved our ability to interpret the urgings of all three entities in light of that direction. We will have discovered something about complicated moral reality, just as we would be discovering something about the complicated physical skill of bike riding by filming bike riders, hooking them up to gizmos to record salient features of the skill and then attempting to consciously and deliberately set out how it is done in some sort of algorithm. The exercise is not pointless. That, it seems to me, is what experimental ethics, experimental philosophy can do for us. There is no threat here to traditional philosophy. Traditional philosophy has always been doing something like this, and has always relied on observation and thought experiment. Why not add scientific experiment?