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July 2011 posts

Reasoning for Persuasion, Not Truth

Jonathan B. Wight

A recent article in Behavioral and Brain Sciences explores the question "Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory".

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that people do not reason as a means of acquiring knowledge or making better decisions. Rather, reasoning evolved for a rhetorical reason—to persuade. The authors note:

Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes not because humans are bad at it but because they systematically look for arguments to justify their beliefs or their actions…. Human reasoning is not a profoundly flawed general mechanism; it is a remarkably efficient specialized device adapted to a certain type of social and cognitive interaction at which it excels. (p. 72)

If this evolutionary theory is borne out by further experiments, how would this affect Kantian ethics, which places special emphasis on reasoning as a way of acquiring knowledge?

Musical Metaphors in Adam Smith

Jonathan B. Wight

The Independent Review has an interesting article by Dan Klein and Michael Clark on "The Music of Social Intercourse: Synchrony in Adam Smith."

I was not convinced by Klein's previous work that theorized that Smith deliberately placed the "invisible hand" phrase smack dab in the physical center of his books, so as to give it special meaning and weight. Believers in this thesis would like The DaVinci Code, which also ascribes secret meaning to the mundane. This IH hypothesis misses the greater importance of the invisible hand concept that is spread throughout Smith's writings. See here for discussion and a different interpretation.

But Klein's and Clark's current paper on the metaphors of music and harmony in Smith's writing is delightful and well done. Clearly Smith's fondness for music (and the arts, in general) appears in his writings. The authors tie this in with modern psychological research showing that shared music enhances cooperation because of feelings of solidarity (e.g., the success of military marching bands).

Bottom line: if you want your students to cooperate with you, have them first sing a song together.

(Which brings us to Fulghum's Law: everything you really need to know, you learned in kindergarden….)

Abomination in Norway

Jonathan B. Wight

What motivated Anders Breivik to go on his self-confessed rampage?

We can read his 1,500 page political economy manifesto, which provides a key reason:

Over the last fifty years, Western Europe has been conquered by the same force that earlier took over Russia, China, Germany and Italy. That force is [the] ideology [of Political Correctness]. Here, as elsewhere, ideology has inflicted enormous damage on the traditional culture it came to dominate, fracturing it everywhere and sweeping much of it away. In its place came fear, and ruin.

"Fear" of others seems to be a recurrent part of his justification. But mass murder also requires a deeper psychological dimension. We know that sympathy for others is central to Adam Smith's moral theory of self-control. We also know that from birth some people do not have the proper receptors for oxytocin, and hence are incapable of sharing fellow feeling. Not being able to feel the pain of others leads to socio-pathological behaviors.

But sometimes sympathy is also snuffed out by environmental factors--which is the danger of persistent racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and other us-versus-them ideologies that seek to denigrate the humanity of others using the fuel of hatred and fear. My critique is not an attack on those who oppose European or American immigration policies; it is a comment about those who deride the inherent dignity due to each person. If granting respect to others is the "Political Correctness" that Breivik condemns, than all of Kantian ethics, not to mention Utilitarianism and virtue ethics, will need to be thrown out.

One expert in the denigration-hatred style of attack, Glenn Beck, equated the victims of the shooting to "Hitler youth"-- who presumably should be eradicated. In other words, let's dehumanize the victims so that their pain and suffering becomes meaningless to us.

Brian Keenan, kidnapped by the Islamic Jihad in Lebanon in 1986, experienced first-hand the personality of his tormentors. He notes that:

Cruelty and fear are man-made, and men who perpetrate them are ruled by them. Such men are only half-made things. They live out their unresolved lives by attempting to destroy anything that challenges the void in themselves. A child holds a blanket over its face and fear. A fear-filled man transposes his inadequacy onto another. He blames them, hates them, and hopes to rid itself of his unloved self by hurting, or worse, destroying them.

(Cited in Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the 20th Century (New Haven: Yale University press, 1999), p. 35)

All of this is pure speculation with regard to Anders Breivik. It may be possible—although only with his fully-informed permission—to use fMRI brain scans and other tests to determine whether Breivik is congenitally incapable of social sympathy, or has simply repressed it in furtherance of his political aims.

Want social engineering of your diet with that meal? The New York Times' Mark Bittman does

In today's New York Times, food writer Mark Bittman continues his call for regulation of food choices through a comprehensive scheme of taxes and subsidies. While he takes pains to point out the savings in health care costs this would bring forth, he does not hide his desire to engage in social engineering, reorienting the eating habits of an entire nation toward his preferred vision, whether we like it or not.

Though experts increasingly recommend a diet high in plants and low in animal products and processed foods, ours is quite the opposite, and there’s little disagreement that changing it could improve our health and save tens of millions of lives.

And — not inconsequential during the current struggle over deficits and spending — a sane diet could save tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in health care costs.

Yet the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

And why are the products that the food industry sells profitable? Because people like them and judge them to be a good value for the price. Are a lot of these products crap? Of course they are. Should free persons be able to put crap in their bodies if they choose? Of course they should--and they should bear the consequences, i.e., the resulting costs to their health.

I'll set aside the enormous political philosophy issues raised by his statement that the role of government is to be "an agent of the public good" (although I am slightly encouraged that he did not say "the agent"), and focus instead on the low-hanging fruit. Simply put, eating crap is not a public health problem; it only becomes one if and when the goverment assumes responsibility for health care costs. But this policy choices should not be used as political cover for essentially paternalistic regulations.

And it should come as no surprise what Bittman's policy recommendations are:

Rather than subsidizing the production of unhealthful foods, we should turn the tables and tax things like soda, French fries, doughnuts and hyperprocessed snacks. The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

He even says that "we have experts who can figure out how 'bad' a food should be to qualify, and what the rate should be." Sure, that should be easy; after all, it worked for centrally planned economies for years. Oh, wait...

That said, I have no doubt there are plenty of eager regulators salivating about this right now--Bittman even says that "it’s fun — inspiring, even — to think about implementing a program like this" (emphasis mine). Let's imagine what they're saying: "Hey, I know--we could come up with a formula based on the fat, carbohydrates, protein and salt content on foods to arrive at exactly the right taxes or subsidies to manipulate diets perfectly! That should be easy--and people will thank us for it--it's for their own good, after all."

And even better, these taxes and subsidies would be applied to producers rather than consumers--the effect on prices will be the same, but consumer won't notice them ("mwa-ha-ha"):

“Excise taxes have the benefit of being incorporated into the shelf price, and that’s where consumers make their purchasing decisions,” says Lisa Powell, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “And, as per-unit taxes, they avoid volume discounts and are ultimately more effective in raising prices, so they have greater impact.”

Nudge nudge, wink wink... we get it, believe me, we get it.

To be fair, I do agree with Mr. Bittman that corporate welfare to the food industry should stop, but on philosophical grounds more than practical or nutritional ones:

Currently, instead of taxing sodas and other unhealthful food, we subsidize them (with, I might note, tax dollars!). Direct subsidies to farmers for crops like corn (used, for example, to make now-ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup) and soybeans (vegetable oil) keep the prices of many unhealthful foods and beverages artificially low. There are indirect subsidies as well, because prices of junk foods don’t reflect the costs of repairing our health and the environment.

He goes too far with the last point, though: the absence of an externality-reducing tax is not (qualitatively speaking) the same as a subsidy; and again, there is no such thing as "our health," bur rather each person's health, especially since "social contagion" theories of obesity have been widely discredited of late.

Trust me, I would like it if people would make better food choices--but it doesn't matter what I like, except insofar as it regards my own food choices. It's not up to me what people eat, it's not up to Mr. Bittman, and (ideally) it's not up to the government. If you want to stuff another deep-fried Ding Dong down your gullet, more power to you--but you should have to pay the bill when it comes too.

Buridan’s Ass and the Debt Limit

Jonathan B. Wight

A hundred years ago, more or less, Europe was plagued with intransigent leaders who huffed and bluffed in a Prisoner's Dilemma game that imploded into World War I. Everyone saw it coming, and no one could stop it. Each leader's actions led inexorably to war… and societies were pulled like gravity into it, although every rational mind would have wished otherwise.

Similarly, we are pulled into a vortex of a debt crisis by a similar Prisoner Dilemma: each side hopes to push the other side into compromise, while being hard core itself. But if both sides are hard core, the outcome is a default, which is much worse for each party (and the country) than if they moved to compromise in the center.

Political intransigence—stubborn, inflexible, obdurate, intractableis not principled when "my way or the highway" leads to another financial meltdown.

A donkey was placed between two equidistant piles of hay. The ass could not distinguish between them and hence could not act: he died of hunger.

"Do not let the best be the enemy of the good," Voltaire allegedly wrote. Yet our society is like Buridan's ass, unable to accept a good solution, even if not the best. What is to become of us?

“How to Live Before You Die”

Jonathan B. Wight

This is a bit dated, but Steve Jobs' 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford is well worth watching.

He explores the intuitive and passion-driven life of the entrepreneur. He celebrates the fact that we can't predict the future and connect the dots only looking backward.

Hence, trust and love are essential parts of being a successful entrepreneur. He implores that "the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

Web Link for Young Entrepreneurs

Jonathan B. Wight

Do you know a young person who wants to start a business?

Here's a web link of "Teen Merchant and Entrepreneur Resources" that has lesson plans for both students and teachers (thanks to Mrs. Elizabeth Owens of the Pine Mountain Central School District).

One of the games highlighted is a PBS website "Build a Socially Conscious Business" which celebrates "the New Heroes." These heroes are not politicians and "Their 'arsenals' are not of weaponry, but of creative ideas, dogged determination and a deep belief in their power to change the world"—in other words, entrepreneurs.

A few thoughts: a business does not have to be "socially conscious" to do lots of good in the world. Running a business with the motive of making money is entirely ethical, provided one adheres to Milton Friedman's famous dictum to obey all laws, both legal and those embedded in moral norms. [For a friendly critique of Friedman's view that only making money for shareholders ought to be the goal of business, see my article "The Ethical Lacunae in Friedman's Concept of the Manager, Journal of Markets & Morality 11(2) (2008):221-238, with Martin Calkins].

I think the 21st century is the epoch of socially-conscious business for two reasons. First, because genuine caring for others (as opposed to 'enlightened self interest' caring) is a stronger motivator, and leaders that genuinely care will attract better employees, suppliers, and customers. And second, because young people are avidly searching for meaning in their lives. Earning a profit in a competitive world means you are serving others well. Creating a business that not only makes money but also provides a sense of purpose is a double-whammy.

On ambivalence and hope (in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research)

Mark D. White

There are two very interesting papers in the new issue of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (83/1, July 2011), listed below. I find the description of the ambivalent and conflicted self in the first one very familiar (or do I?), and the second addresses something I've wondered about for a while: the nature of hope.

"Ambivalence, Valuational Inconsistency, and the Divided Self" by Patricia Marino

Consider a person whose evaluative stance toward life is riddled with a particular kind of affective conflict: he is attracted to seemingly incompatible goods; he values various things that he knows cannot co-exist; he is drawn to ways of life that are not compatible or reconcilable. I have in mind here not the hypocrite, who says one thing and does another, nor the waffler, who feels differently at different times and in different circumstances. Nor am I concerned here with mere conflicts of desire. Instead the person I am describing is one who has an honest, stable, but inconsistent evaluative stance toward the world—not divided merely about what he wants, but about what he feels is worth wanting. This person may not be logically inconsistent—he does not believe any contradictions—rather, his endorsed attitudes and desires fail to add up to an internally coherent, unified, evaluative outlook on life. He cares about things that essentially conflict, about things that cannot fit together. He is, in a sense I define more precisely below, valuationally inconsistent.

Of course, this person will find it hard to be satisfied with the world. But some philosophers think there is something else wrong with such inconsistency, and something worse: that such inconsistency is somehow intrinsically bad for an agent, rendering him irrational, self-undermining, or non-autonomous. Here I argue against this view: there is nothing much wrong, I claim, with valuational inconsistency, at least from the point of view of the self. In particular, such "inconsistency" raises the same difficulties for an agent as ordinary conflictedness, of the kind most of us, with our multiple life roles and overlapping concerns, experience every day. Of course, claims of rationality are always difficult to assess, given the plasticity of the term. I will argue here for four specific conclusions about valuational inconsistency: it does not render a person unable to act; it does not render a person’s actions ineffective because of vacillation; it does not undermine a person’s autonomy; and it need not make an agent dissatisfied with himself. My defense, then, concerns the claim that valuational inconsistency is bad for an agent. I leave aside, here, the question of whether such inconsistency is bad from a broader moral, pragmatic, or social point of view. 

"Hopes and Dreams" by Adrienne M. Martin

It is a commonplace in both the popular imagination and the philosophical literature that hope has a special kind of motivational force. This commonplace underwrites the conviction that hope alone is capable of bolstering us in despair-inducing circumstances, as well as the strategy of appealing to hope in the political realm. In section 1 of this paper, I argue against this commonplace that hope’s motivational essence is not special or unique—it is simply that of an endorsed desire. The commonplace is not entirely mistaken, however, because standard ways of expressing hope do have motivational influence that is different in kind from that of desire. In sections 2 through 4, I examine one of these ways of expressing hope, fantasizing, and argue that fantasies can present us with reasons to modify our goals and projects in multiple ways.

Hypocrisy and the Debt Ceiling

Jonathan B. Wight

Suppose Harry and Susan debate whether to add a sun porch onto their home.

"Can we afford it?" Harry asks.

"Yes," Susan responds, "if we draw on the equity line at the bank that we set up last year."

"But still," Harry counters, "we will have to pay that back someday."

"Sure we will, but we'll both have better jobs in the future, and paying it back will be easier then."

Conversation concluded, the couple hires a contractor and the sun porch addition is carried out. At the end of the month the bill comes due. Harry reaches into his bankbook for the equity line checks.

"What are you doing?" Susan exclaims. "You don't expect us to actually pay for that!"

This is the sad state of American politics: Congress creates the budget by setting the spending and revenue constraints. Now that the bill is due, many Congresspeople are unilaterally refusing to honor the debts they piled up. The fallout from this fiasco extends beyond federal borrowing to individual states like Virginia.

This is shameful, dishonest, and hypocritical. May there be no mercy at the next polls.

The Thief of Time reviewed at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

Mark D. White

This week, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews published a review by Nomy Arpaly (Brown University) of The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination:

This book addresses the dearth of philosophical treatments of procrastination. It consists of fifteen articles, some by philosophers and some by psychologists, economists, and others. There are three parts to the book: one concerned with analyzing procrastination and finding out its sources, one that explores the connection between procrastination and imprudence and vice, and one which deals with ways in which procrastination can be overcome. Since the book's subtitle is "Philosophical Essays on Procrastination," a warning might be in order: strictly speaking, some of the essays are not philosophical, and some appear to sit on the borderline between moral psychology and just plain psychology or economics. Some articles even dabble in (scientifically savvy) self-help.

After going through the book part by part and chapter by chapter (and spending a long paragraph offering valuable praise and criticism of my chapter), she concludes:

All in all, this collection is good reading for anyone who would like to do philosophy on the subject of procrastination or who seeks to procrastinate her work by reading interesting things.

All in all, a thorough, fair, and overall positive review!