Monday, February 22, 2010

Who's Sitting in the Armchair?

Do intuitions from the armchair depend on who's sitting in it? In a new paper called "Gender and Epistemic Intuition," Wesley Buckwalter presents some interesting findings on exactly this question. Philosphy has traditionally taken for granted the notion that intuitions are unanimous. Turns out, women may beg to differ. 

To explore this novel idea, we'll start with a two-part thought experiment (this one was first constructed by Joshua Knobe, but Buckwalter uses a version of it in his study). 
1. A chairman of a board is asked to approve a certain policy. He is told that it will harm the environment. He replies: " I don't care at all about the environment. I just want to make a profit." He approves the policy, it goes forward, and sure enough, the enviroment is harmed. Does the chairman intentionally harm the environment?

2. Same scenario, only the chairman is told that the policy will help the environment. He responds the same way -- he doesn't care, he only wants the profit. Policy is approved, and environment is helped. Does the chairman intentionally help the environment?
In the original experiment, Knobe wanted to find out what people thought about the chairman’s intentions. Surprisingly, although the two scenarios are identical except for harm/help outcome, participants overwhelmingly (82%) agreed that the chairman intentionally harmed the environment, but only 33% said that he had intentionally helped the environment. This odd asymmetry has since been dubbed the “side-effect effect.” It seems that when the side-effect of an action is bad (in this case, the effect on the environment), people are more likely to say that it was performed intentionally.

In his study, Buckwalter predicted that a similar effect would appear for questions about the chairman's knowledge. He asked people whether the chairman knew that his actions would harm/help the environment. As he expected, more people attributed knowledge to the chairman in the harm case – the asymmetry appeared again. How come? One possibility is that people make a (moral) judgment about the chairman based on the outcome (good or bad), and then attribute knowledge afterwards. In the case of a bad outcome, people will try harder to make the chairman "responsible," by saying that he really did know the outcome. In the case of a good outcome, the chairman’s lack of care about the environment means that he should not get “credit” for really knowing the outcome.

But here’s the twist: women showed this asymmetry to a much greater extent than men. Women were more likely than men to say the chairman knew he would harm but didn’t know he would help. Why? Buckwalter puts forth a theory – what he calls the Normative Evaluation Hypothesis – to explain the gender difference. Essentially, it says that women are more likely to consult their moral judgments (or “normative evaluations”) about a situation before making their decision regarding knowledge. The moral significance of an action, therefore, plays a greater role in shaping women's decisions about knowledge than men's.

Buckwalter then predicts that his theory will also explain women's intuitions about the Gettier cases (see last post for a summary). There doesn’t seem to be an immediate moral dimension to this case (no good or bad outcome), but consider the evaluation of Smith himself. Since he was totally justified in his belief, he seems to have done everything "right,” and is therefore a praiseworthy person. To say he doesn’t really know is to deny him knowledge that seems rightfully his! If women are more likely to consult this moral evaluation of Smith, then they should also be more likely to attribute knowledge. And sure enough, women are much more likely than men to say that in the Gettier case, Smith really knows.

These findings raise several interesting questions. First, does this mean that, in general, women are more influenced by their moral judgments than men are? Second, if confronted with rival intuitions, how should we decide which one to follow? Finally, has much of traditional philosophy to this day been biased toward male intuitions? Clearly, the implications of a gender difference in intuitions are significant. Buckwalter suggests that it may also partly explain the scarcity of women in philosophy departments. After all, if a women's intuitions don't seem to match those of her male counterpart (and tend to go against the traditional "correct" intuition), they may simply be dismissed. And how long would you tolerate being repeatedly told your deeply felt intuitions were “wrong”? It is possible, Buckwalter says, that many women have been discouraged from entering the field of philosophy simply because they do not share the relevant intuitions of the (male) majority.

Buckwalter leaves us with a striking quote from Stephen Stich:  “For 2500 years, philosophers have been relying on appeals to intuition. But the plausibility of this entire tradition rests on an unsubstantiated, and until recently unacknowledged, empirical hypothesis – the hypothesis that the philosophical intuitions of people in different…groups do not disagree.” More and more evidence shows that in fact, they do disagree. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean we should throw out all traditional intuitions for being discriminatory or skewed in some way (for one, what would we replace them with?). It does mean, however, that these intuitions may have profound effects on how we go about (and who goes into) philosophy, and these effects should be taken seriously. As the research comes in, my guess is that it will probably challenge more of the philosophical tradition. Let’s just say I’ve got an intuition about it.*

*sorry, couldn't resist ;)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Swapping Armchairs for Clipboards

Attention! The philosopher has left the armchair and is now… conducting tests? Welcome to the world of experimental philosophy (or x-phi), a growing movement to combine pure-thought traditional philosophy with the empirical sciences. Putting the experiment back in “thought experiment,” members of the x-phi community are taking out their clipboards, asking people questions, and collecting information on a whole range of topics. How do people think about moral dilemmas? Do their intuitions about traditional thought experiments match up to those of the philosophers? What do they count as real knowledge? Answers to these questions may shed some light on traditional philosophical questions and claims – at least, the experimentalists hope so.

How could experimental philosophy tell us anything useful? Consider one tool out of the philosopher’s toolbox: the Thought Experiment. This is an imaginary scenario often used to test our intuitions about certain cases, and then demonstrate how those intuitions support a particular philosophical claim. One series of famous thought experiments called Gettier cases involve intuitions about knowledge. In 1963 Edmund Gettier published an article challenging the notion of knowledge as "justified true belief,” which until that point had been the standard definition. He proposed the following scenario: Smith is a job candidate who believes justifiably that "Jones will get the job." Smith also believes justifiably that "Jones has a dime in his pocket." Smith concludes that "The man who will get the job has a dime in his pocket." But Jones ends up not getting the job -- Smith does instead. Smith also, as it turns out, had a dime in his pocket. So Smith was correct when he concluded that "The man who will get the job has a dime in his pocket." But Gettier argued that it does not seem correct to say that Smith had real knowledge, rather, it seems like a lucky coincidence. Gettier’s intuition (that Smith did not really know) was taken as evidence to show that knowledge is not simply justified true belief.

What really constitutes knowledge is an enormous question that I won't even begin to get into here. The point is that whenever we are trying to answer such philosophical questions, appeals to intuition about thought experiments play a rather important role in the conclusions we draw. But whose intuitions should count? Does everyone have the same intuitions? Could age, gender, religion, culture, class, ethnicity, or any other unforeseen variable, have an effect? Sounds like a problem for experimental philosophy. Next post I’ll elaborate on some surprising results about intuitions from the armchair. Turns out, they may be misrepresenting a rather large portion of the population (hint: roughly half).

Friday, February 12, 2010

What the World Needs Now

This was too good not to share...

Here's the street sign the world needs now. Half a stop and half a yield, the sign gives each driver a clear indication of how to behave. Below the red "Take Turns" shield is a small sign reading, "If Cars Are Waiting, Please Stop and Alternate." And if there are no cars waiting, just blow on through. (No more stopping at red lights at 4am, on a country road, when there's no one around for miles.) 

Imagine a world where every street sign contains the word "Please."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Persons of the Sea... continued

I wasn’t able to get to all the different angles I wanted to in my last blog post, so I’m going to try to do that here. Quick summary: Thomas White wants dolphins to have the status of “nonhuman persons”. Humans are not unique in their complex intellectual and emotional abilities – science is showing that dolphins (and perhaps other animals like chimps and elephants) have these abilities too. "Personhood" is used as a shorthand way of referring to this combination of abilities, and generally the status of "personhood" gives an individual a place in the moral community. Therefore, White argues, dolphins should be considered persons, complete with moral standing as individuals.

The significance of all this becomes apparent when you start looking into current practices involving dolphins. Dolphins are injured and killed by the thousands every year in connection with the fishing industry, and are often kept in small concrete tanks in captive facilities for entertainment or scientific research. Inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on dolphins is objectionable on its own, but capturing, selling, buying and breeding persons is seriously disturbing. This is not to say that an animal must be a “person” to merit appropriate treatment – pain and suffering are very real to all sentient beings. White acknowledges that fighting for “personhood” status is just one strategy out of many. But it's a strategy that is clear cut and easy to understand – under no circumstances do we treat persons this way. Period.

In his arguments for dolphin personhood, White spends a lot of time outlining dolphin “intelligence.” He admits from the beginning that any time we talk about something as vague and multifaceted as intelligence in animals, we run the risk of anthropocentrism – that is, measuring other beings with a human yardstick. With chimps, this approach seems reasonable enough; after all they’re our animal cousins and we share with them much of our evolutionary history and DNA. But dolphins pose an interesting problem. Humans and dolphins have been on two very distinct evolutionary paths for the past 100 million years (that was the last time we had a common ancestor). The complex intelligences that we (and they) possess may be fundamentally different, in ways we can’t even comprehend. For example, dolphins interpret the outside world primarily through echolocation (biosonar), which can be thought of as either an entirely different sense or a highly sophisticated hearing ability. But the intelligence “tests” we give dolphins are mainly based on the primary human sense, that of sight. So when we put a dolphin in front of a mirror and call it “self-aware” because it seems to recognize its reflection, is this an even more remarkable feat? Dolphins are operating in a foreign cognitive environment, and they still pass with flying colors! What should we do in this sort of situation? Is it even feasible to measure intelligence without using some human standards? Professor of psychology Diana Reiss has suggested that we understand dolphins as a form of “alien intelligence”, emphasizing the real difficulty in drawing comparisons with our own intelligence. But the question remains – how do we deal with something so different it's alien?

Another question that comes up in this discussion of moral status and persons is the whole notion of drawing boundaries to moral obligations, of setting criteria in the first place. A brief look at history makes it clear how problematic this attempt has been. I came across this quote by philosopher Thomas Birch that seems to capture the precarious business of setting moral criteria: “we see that whenever we have closed off the question with the institution of some practical criterion, we have later found ourselves in error, and have had to open the question up again to reform our practices in a further attempt to make them ethical.” So what can we do? I don’t think the process of negotiating boundaries and criteria is useless; in fact a great deal of good can come out of just such deliberation. But as Birch makes clear, the problem arises when we settle upon a set of criteria and move on, acting as if the case is closed. White wants to re-draw the moral lines to include animals, and I think his efforts will get a lot of people thinking. I suppose we should just be open to these lines changing again.