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Moral Stupefaction

Daniel Jacobson of the University of Michigan has an excellent paper responding to issues raised within moral psychology in Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, which I found on his university site. It’s called “Moral Dumbfounding and Moral Stupefaction”. His basic claim, which I agree with, is that both Joshua Greene (who I bitched about here) and Jonathan Haidt (who I bitched about here) are rather foolish in the conclusions they draw from their thought experiments. This is a theme I develop into a chapter of Chaos Ethics, using Allen Wood’s critique of the Trolley Problem to reveal the lack of caution surrounding moral thought experiments in both philosophy and psychology.

Here’s the best quote from Jacobson’s paper:

…the subjects are not dumbfounded by these cases so much as certain (extremely intelligent) psychologists and philosophers are, rather, stupefied by their moral theories. To be morally stupefied in this fashion is to be rendered unable to see obviously good reasons, because you are in the grip of a theory too narrow-minded to accommodate them.

Much of his criticism focuses on the way that Haidt makes wild assumptions (mostly along positivist lines), embeds these assumptions as stipulations in his thought experiments, and then draws implausible conclusions from undergraduates’ inability to reason their way out of a paper bag. As Jacobson develops within his argument, Haidt uses an extremely narrow conception of harm, and in particular ignores a great deal of salient facts about how people relate to the world symbolically, which is very different from what Haidt accuses as ‘magical thinking’.

I am disappointed with Haidt, since there was much to admire in his early work, but I have to say that the wealth of pushback his theory has produced has almost made it worthwhile. I should like to see Haidt questioned on whether (as I suspect) he had a bad experience with a professor while he was a philosophy undergraduate at Yale, and this has lead to him having a chip on his shoulder about moral philosophy. It is not a requirement that moral psychologists engage with moral philosophy (although the reverse is less defensible), but if they do choose to engage they ought to know what they are talking about. Otherwise, it is no surprise that you will end up being accused of being morally stupefied by your pet theories.

Mental Inertia

Highland Steam Train It troubles me how often I am derailed by my mental inertia. As long as my mind is building up steam on a single track, I can develop an endless capacity to apply myself to charging down that route. But ask me to change track, and suddenly all my head of steam is squandered and my figurative engine soon grinds to a halt. To put this same idea in less metaphorical terms: give me one task, no matter how vast or impossible, and I will sink myself joyfully into its resolution. But as soon as I am given many tasks, my momentum begins to sag. It is not that I cannot multi-task so much as it is that my mental constitution seems to lend itself to the obsessive rather than the manifold.

I can picture how this might come about in the depths of my biology, for what it is worth. The neurobiology of reward involves a capacity to be swayed by imagined future state, as when the gambler persists with the slot machine because they feel it is about to pay out. I wonder if this coupling of imagination and reward is the substrate of my obsessiveness – I can hold one image and pursue it to the hilt, but trying to imagine many things at once is unbridled anarchy. Perhaps those more suited to a massive parallelism in tasks imagine the situation differently – abstracting away from the incompatibility of the individual tasks to some other way of perceiving the situation. Perhaps it is simply a case of different habits  manifesting in different situations.

This principle of mental inertia seems to apply to all manner of aspects of my life, both in work and in play. I would far rather be playing one game than many, at least in the case of videogames as I seem to be more flexible with board games. It is particularly true of my work – the problems it causes me when in the midst of a book manuscript I have to apply myself to other things! So it is this week when, after three weeks of concentrating on Chaos Ethics I have to return to teaching and marking. What a savage change of focus! Once I have mastered the transition, everything will get done, but for a while I will be caught between the two and it will seem correspondingly harder to get anything done. Thus it is that I delay the bulk of the marking by applying myself to other tasks that seem less daunting. Only once my mental train is on the track of marking will I steam through it to the end. It is just the transitioning that I find hard.

I used to meditate to help silence the voices that would draw me into obsessiveness, now I simply don’t have the time to do anything but push through the endless successions of situations that hurl themselves at me like waves crashing upon the cliffs. I miss the stillness of mind that meditation would afford me, but it is far from clear how I could recover it into my bustling routine. Yet having meditated in the past, I feel calmer and more able to handle the carnage of the present. If I lost the habit of taking time to meditate, it seems I did not entirely lose the benefits of having meditated. To bring all things to a halt, to let the mental inertia hold me still instead of propel me forward – these are rare treasures indeed. Sometimes it is important to let the locomotive stand and softly hiss as all its power of steam dissipates quietly into the air, and vanishes.

Back and Forwards

Back: Had a truly wonderful time at Philosophy at Play, which was an exceptionally wonderful event. My keynote was warmly received, and I had the nicest complements from so many people about it or me. The quality of the submissions from other people was so phenomenal it made me feel guilty that I got an hour and they only got half that!

Forwards: just 6 of the 42 sections of Chaos Ethics remain to be completed now. The majority of the chapters are complete, and all but one only need one section to tie them up. Although I still have a few wrinkles to iron out there is a palpable feeling that I may finally be on the home straight!

Off to Philosophy at Play

I’m away this week giving my first ever philosophy keynote (level up!) for Philosophy at Play at the University of Gloucestershire, so I won’t have time for anything more substantial on the blogs this week.

I am making my way through the manuscript for Chaos Ethics, and hope to resume blogging more seriously by May (fingers crossed). At the same time, I have certain fears that social networks have taken away too many regular players and that discussions of the kind we used to have in the heyday of Only a Game are now impossible. Your thoughts on this, surviving players, would be most welcome!

More soon!

Winner, and Last Chance to Win

By the throw of a D6 the second winner in the Spring Review Drive is Oscar Strik. Congratulations to Oscar, who admittedly stacked the deck in his favour with a whopping four review submissions. A signed copy of Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy will be on its way to the Netherlands shortly.

One final copy is up for grabs, and at the moment your odds of winning would be 50% if you submitted two reviews. For more information see Win a Book in the Spring Review Drive!