Archive for the ‘experimental philosophy’ Category

While empirical philosophy is usually undertaken using thought experiments which test our intuitions, every now and then a study pops up which gos a little further to test moral actions. Here’s one that examines
The research, Governing the Subjects and Spaces of Ethical Consumption, is one of the projects undertaken by the Cultures of Consumption, and it has generated several papers. Among the results:

Ethical consumption campaigning is most effective in transforming policies and infrastructures of collective provision, rather than changing individual behaviour through the provision of information.

The authors have a new study which examines how this means that ethical consumption is more about political commitments than it is about economic decision-making. As a result,

They also found that people generally don’t lack information which would assist ethical choices. They know about sweatshops, Fair Trade coffee, and organic food. Instead, the problem is one of enabling ethical choices: people either can’t afford ethical products, or don’t have access to shops that sell such things.

Their recommendation:

If ethical consumption campaigns are to succeed they need to transform the infrastructures of every day consumption rather than focusing on changing individual consumer behaviour. (press release)

To sum this up – consumer demand for ethical products is difficult to create because people don’t want to bear the cost of ethical choices, but groups of citizens will do the right thing if political action makes it easier for people to act on their knowledge.

This type of empirical philosophy is particularly nice because it is prescriptive, insofar as it tells us what we can do to assist ethical practices. Getting to the political tipping point where it becomes possible to motivate collective action, however, is another problem entirely.

With this study in mind, pop over and read a timely post by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann that bears a great deal on this research program: “Situation” Trumps “Disposition”.

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I’d like to direct you to a post by Benoit Hardy-Vallée, a U of Toronto philosopher of science interested in neuroethics and neuroeconomics. It is a nice discussion of the Knobe Effect, supported by a good list of references.

Take a look at some of the other posts as well, and subscribe to his RSS feed. Any blog that has a quote by Imre Lakatos as its motto has to be good, and this blog is of very high caliber indeed…

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It is a fact of human nature that we tend to focus on conflict. Journalists and writers know this is their stock in trade, because without conflict there is no story, and nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions of right and wrong. Morality is the conflict-generator, and our sense of injustice is more than willing to weigh in on the legal implications following from these conflicts.

But what, exactly, is our sense of justice, and how is it to be explained?

According to Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, our moral intuitions arise from the interplay between 5 core psychological responses. One of these relates to justice. Unfortunately, it is not quite clear what Haidt and Graham mean by justice, except that they associate it with fairness and rights.

Contrast this with a pair of papers by Paul Robinson, Robert Kurzban, and Owen Jones, who have a narrow examination of justice that pertains to punishment. They argue we have shared intuitions about the justice of punishment, and these arise from evolutionary biology.

It seems to me that these authors are talking about two very different conceptions of justice. Intuitions regarding justice-about-punishment are not the same as the intuitions regarding justice-about-rights.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to reconcile these views, because it isn’t clear where intuitions about punishment (criminal or otherwise) should fit in Haidt and Graham’s schema. This is a strange problem – all the more so because intuitive demands for punishment are studied in Haidt’s early examinations of moral disgust – and it means we are left to wonder whether intuitions about punishment and moral responsibility belong in one of the existing 5 categories or in a supplementary 6th category.

For further reading:


Today BoingBoing points us to a post at The Mouse Trap which references Carlsmith et al. (noted above) and a post at Do You Mind.

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One of the benefits of having an interdisciplinary education is that I sometimes see odd connections between research programs taking place in faculties that, for the most part, are unaware of one another.

Take, for example, the trends towards evidence-based meta-analyses in philosophy and legal studies. Both of these analyze normative decision making, and exhibit interdisciplinary flirtations with social psychology, cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics. So far, though, they haven’t so much as glanced at one other across a crowded faculty lounge, although their friends neuroethics and neurolaw seem to be cozying up to one another at the policy table.

Some enterprising researcher should play cupid, because their’s is a natural fit. Both commonly navigate complex questions of ethics, evidence and causation, and involve balancing the competing tensions argued by nuanced opposing views.

My suggestion is that empirically-minded philosophers should make use of the sources of data presently being mined by legal scholars. It’s all there in the recorded thoughts of judges whose decision-making over the course of centuries covers an astonishing range of important philosophical topics.

One example of how the law can tell philosophers something about normative decision-making can be found in the growing body of research that shows judges’ decisions are influenced by their own gender and that of the counsel before them.

In an interesting pair of statistical analyses, researchers looked at the American and Canadian Supreme Courts, and find <ahem> that old men really don’t care for women’s arguments. I’d say ‘Astonishing!’, but don’t know if I can marshal the requisite sarcasm – my naïveté knows no bounds, which is one reason why I find this research to be so important.

Unfortunately, only one of the papers is available at this time. Take a look, as my paraphrasing was a tad inflammatory.

From the abstract of the SCOTUS paper:

We find that [US] Supreme Court justices are less likely to support litigants represented by women. Our findings suggest that litigation teams that have a higher proportion of female attorneys are less likely to win before the Court. In addition, this bias appears to be highly conditional on judicial ideology. Conservative jurists are more likely than liberal jurists to vote against litigation teams with a higher proportion of women.

Whether or not this is implicit association in action, it’s the sort of thing that can lead to an uncomfortable question for firms expecting a case to go all the way to the top court: when counsel’s gender can harm a client’s case, do you toss ethics to the side and assign it to men instead of women? Asking that is almost as offensive as suggesting the study is evidence for a harm done to the law by women appearing before the court.

That’s a question that won’t be asked in Canada, where 4 of the 9 Supreme Court judges are women. Here, parties are more likely to win when they are represented by women.

Hat tips to the Empirical Legal Studies and Feminist Law Profs blogs. Other investigations related to this topic can be found here:

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