The Joys of Nudging
November 10, 2010

Cover of "Nudge: Improving Decisions Abou...
Cover via Amazon

Recently I had the opportunity to read about half of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s famous book Nudge. It was more or less what I expected: a broad overview of different observations about human behavior from the young field of behavior economics, followed by a series of arguments for various policies that utilize those behaviors in a constructive way. The biggest surprise of the book — given Cass Sunstein’s reputation as a “non-ideological pragmatist” and his current employer’s reputation as same — was how willing Thaler and Sunstein were to engage with the philosophical arguments for and against their doctrine of libertarian paternalism. Burke was cited, as was Rawls.

As for libertarian paternalism, and nudging itself, I’m basically onboard. I’ve argued before that public policy can’t help but influence social norms, and so policy makers need to think about how to influence them in a productive manner; this book provides a handy conceptual framework in which to do that. It goes without saying that the concept has limited utility (Sunstein’s proposals for how we can nudge conspiracy theorists are kind of disturbing), but it also adds some much-needed texture to notions about what constitutes good policy.

A question that has been on my mind (as I am sure as is for many others throughout history) is how far can we be sure about anything? How much do we have to be sure of something before we can call it knowledge and how would define knowledge? (At least, your own interpretation of such.)
October 12, 2010

Epistemology’s not really my field. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions!

It seems to me that the only thing we can truly, 100%, capital-K Know is our own phenomenological experience. So even if I doubted whether or not I was truly sitting in a chair right now—say if I suspected that Leonardo DiCaprio had constructed a dream in which I merely thought I was sleeping in a chair—it would be incoherent for me to doubt that I was having the experience I associate with sitting in a chair.

Beyond that phenomenological experience, sure, there’s always room to introduce some measure of doubt. But most of the time I think it’s prudent to roll with your phenomenological experiences unless some evidence to the contrary presents itself. I feel that I am sitting in a chair right now; my perception has been pretty consistent about this since I initially sat in the chair, and I have noticed no evidence to the contrary. If I invited my roommate in here and asked, he would probably give me an odd look and confirm my suspicion that I am in a chair. What possible reason could I have to behave as if I’m not in a chair?

As for claims about virtual reality, five-minute-old worlds with false memories, dreams, evil demons, and so on: those are positive claims, and the fact that they don’t know for sure they’re not happening isn’t any reason to suspect that they are. At least until we see some positive evidence.

Not Just Any Fat Man, Not Just Any Trolley
September 16, 2010

23/365: Trolley wheels
Image by Sarah and Mike …probably via Flickr

Via Twitter, here’s a fascinating article on how variations on the classic “fat man on the trolley tracks” thought experiment produce lead people with different political leanings to different conclusions. Namely: conservatives seem more willing to sacrifice one black man to save a train full of white people, while liberals are more willing to sacrifice a white man to save a train full of black people.

My guess is that both the liberals and the conservatives involved in this experiment would tell you that the race of those involved is morally irrelevant, and been appalled if you suggested that they’re unconsciously weighting the life of a member of one race over the life of someone of a different race, controlling for all other factors. But of course, that’s why thought experiments generally operate at a high level abstraction in the first place; why the fat man is usuallly known only as “the fat man,” not Tyron Payton or Chip Ellsworth III. The idea is to bypass corrupting personal prejudices and get to deeper moral intuitions.

If the liberals and conservatives had focused on the abstract question at the heart of the thought experiment instead of morally irrelevant details, they would not necessarily have making a more moral decision as we judge it, but they would have made one either consistent with their professed moral intuitions, or which caused them to reconsider those intuitions. They also would have learned something useful about their own innate biases.

So while this study didn’t have much in the way of surprises, it did confirm one of my own biases: it demonstrated yet again why I think everyone could benefit from making a serious study of ethical philosophy.

You've mentioned experimental philosophy in a few of your posts, and I was wondering if you had a take on it. A few friends and I got into a FB discussion on it when someone posted this The upshot of our discussion was that we couldn't really determine how experimental philosophy was different than perhaps just a closer relationship between psychology and philosophy (not to say that would be a bad thing.) What do you think?
September 9, 2010

My good friend Peter—whose blog everyone should read—has already commented on this a little, but I guess I’ll throw my two cents in.

I don’t know much about experimental philosophy, but from what I have read it seems to me like a lot of scholarship in the field is based on the study of how we form certain beliefs. I was initially skeptical that these studies could be called philosophy, because it seemed more like straightforward psychology.

But psychology has always had some obvious utility for philosophers—and, in fact, Merleau-Ponty used a psychological case study to refute the orthodox Cartesian dualism of his French existentialist colleagues—so the more I think about it, the more it seems worthwhile for individuals trained in both fields to collaborate closely.

Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part One
September 4, 2010

Cover to the first edition of the first part.
Image via Wikipedia

I’m almost done with Part One of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first cohesive long form work in The Portable Nietzsche. That’s not to say it’s as cohesive as I was expecting—there doesn’t seem to be much of a narrative arc, and if there’s a thematic arc, then it hasn’t fully revealed itself yet. Once the pariah-prophet Zarathustra descends from his mountain to deliver his message to the people, the book turns into a series of his speeches.

Pretty much any of them can be taken individually, but taken as a whole I think they’re starting to offer a pretty good summary of the overarching themes in Nietzsche’s philosophy. They might also offer some insight into the psychology of the man who would develop this philosophy, though psychoanalyzing philosophers is a dangerous—and often unnecessary—game.

I’m going to try and keep my distance from that angle unless it becomes unavoidable. After all, this isn’t The Republic—whereas you can argue (as Kaufmann indeed does in the introduction to The Portable Nietzsche) that we can never know for sure what Plato actually thought of the arguments he presented, Zarathustra seems a pretty obvious surrogate for his creator here. True, this means you could use the book as a way of investigating how Nietzsche viewed himself, but I find that a whole lot less interesting than just critically assessing the philosophy Zarathustra preaches.

So far it seems to be based on two central pillars, which I’m increasingly considering central to Nietzsche’s philosophy:

1.) Society needs threat and conflict.

Nietzsche and Zarathustra are both bomb-throwers, and they both spend a considerable amount of time glorifying other bomb-throwers. In the long run, the people who are “evil” according to the traditions of their place and time are the ones who will advance—or “inoculate“—human civilization.

2.) The fully realized self is that which rejects society’s values and imposes its will upon the world.

The first of Zarathustra’s speeches is on what he calls “the three metamorphoses of the spirit, those being:

1.) The camel, which accepts tremendous burdens (those burdens being moral obligations, both to others and to capital-T Truth) and carries them into the desert.

2.) “A lion who would conquer his freedom and be master in his own desert.” Nietzsche describes the lion as engaged in mortal combat with a dragon named “Thou shalt.” The dragon is, in other words, the traditions, values and social mores of the age.

3.) A child: “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning […] the spirit now wills his own will.”

As far as I can tell, the creation of this child is essentially the birth of the übermensch—“overman” in this translation, but “superman” elsewhere—that is first introduced as a key concept in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and championed as humanity’s ultimate goal.

Because there’s an implicit rejection of all moral law encoded into this philosophy, it’s tempting to call it “nihilism,” but I’m not convinced that’s accurate. The overman is still very much a normative imperative, one which can only be reached by exercising a number of different virtues. The thing I’m still not clear on—and which Nietzsche himself might not be clear on, at least at this point—is what sort of values come after the overman.

Why is Susan Blackmore Writing for The Stone?
August 22, 2010

Description unavailable
Image by disownedlight via Flickr

I guess we can blame Simon Critchley’s discerning taste again. But this is just silly. Where once we had philosophers writing about things that had nothing to do with philosophy, we have now devolved to work by non-philosophers about non-philosophy.

To be fair, I do think there is some food for thought in Blackmore’s work about the relation between memetic development and human evolution. And certainly the idea of memes being living, replicating, evolving organism carries a certain amount of metaphorical appeal. But to take this stuff seriously and worry about memes as some sort of predatory, parasitic threat is waaaay off the deep end. Certainly, it has no place on a blog ostensibly dedicated to philosophy.

For those who detect the faint but unmistakable reek of pseudoscience in Blackmore’s essay, it should come as no surprise that before she started in with all of this vaguely mystical sounding stuff about memes, the bulk of her scholarship was on the overtly mystical: i.e., psychic powers, near death experiences, so on. She’s since seen the, um, light on ESP and NDEs, but all this talk about “temes” is only one or two degrees removed.

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The Personal Cost of Oversharing
July 15, 2010

neurotics not-so-anonymous
Image by Malingering via Flickr

My last post on oversharing was a little muddled, because I didn’t clearly distinguish between the two separate arguments I was making. My broader concern in writing that post was oversharing as a societal issue: basically, my feeling is that every soapbox comes attached to certain ethical propositions, and there is something ethically dubious about using a soapbox solely to emote and promote the self, with no thought to the interests of the readers or others.

But I ended up talking more about overshare as a personal concern, and so I think I need to clarify why it would seem to be equally problematic for the individual. For that, I think we need to clarify what, exactly, oversharing is.

First off, it’s significantly different from straight-up memoir, or autobiography. Work in that genre, at least when done well, is written with the benefit of perspective, and with the interests of others in mind. Oversharing is done in the moment, and is done either to draw attention, solicit sympathy, or simply to vent.

Of course, even the most private individuals have interactions where they seek those ends. It’s just that, in most cases, we seek attention and sympathy from our friends, families, and loved ones. When, in exchange for our self-expression, we need further guidance, we’ll seek out someone like a therapist, or a clergy member.

This venting and emoting can betray deep, potentially malignant growths in our consciousness, and it’s important to reveal those growths to someone you trust to help you deal with them in a healthy way.

I’m going to illustrate my point with a personal anecdote. Go ahead: Savor the irony.

Less than a year ago, I went into therapy in order to address self-loathing and social anxiety issues that were rendering me almost wholly dysfunctional in certain situations. The first few weeks of those sessions, I was pretty much the only one to do the talking, and all I did was obsess about the trivia that was making me so unhappy. But eventually my therapist started challenging the premises on which those obsessions were founded. At first, it irritated me that she was challenging my assumptions, but that was only because I knew deep down how ridiculous and indefensible they were. Once I was forced to acknowledge that to myself, I became a much healthier, happier person.

More importantly, therapy helped me develop the tools to deal with other concerns in the same way: with rigorous skepticism and self-scrutiny. That wasn’t an easy thing to come to, and it’s something I maintain imperfectly at best. Doing so requires focus and solitude.

But I still feel the need to vent, as does everyone. And when I do, the best person to vent to is someone who is wise enough, and knows enough about me, to not reaffirm those assumptions and justify my odd neurotic tics and obsessions. In other words, I need someone who isn’t an enabler.

My concern is that when it comes to oversharing, the Internet can often serve as one giant enabler. If we garner an audience because of our willingness to share our neurotic self-obsession (and as a neurotic myself, I reluctantly concede that in our fits of anxiety we are, practically by definition, self-obsessed), this validates it. Which is probably the worst thing you can do for a neurotic.

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July 14, 2010

I’ve had a couple of conversations regarding the concept of shame over the past week, and it’s gotten me thinking.

Shame enforces social and cultural norms. In one sense it’s a tool used to discourage people from deviating from those norms, and in another sense it’s a self-imposed reason to adhere to them. There is a major sense in which this is deeply messed up, because many of the cultural norms shame enforces are either arbitrary or downright harmful. For example: shame over sexual orientation, gender identity, popular beauty standards, race, popular gender norms, etc.

So yes, shame is dangerous. It is, among other things, a tool for oppression. It can also be emotionally crippling and developmentally stunting. But I’m hesitant to condemn shame as either an inherently illegitimate emotion, or an inherently illegitimate societal function. When someone feels shame, or is publicly shamed, for having done something that is legitimately immoral, that’s a good thing. It’s an incentive to not do it again, as well as an indication of recognition that it was wrong in the first place.

Besides, I’m inclined to side with Heidegger when he says that guilt—which is distinguishable from shame, but very closely linked—is simply one of the underlying structures of self-conscious existence. It is not, in of itself, good or bad, but simply there. And the choices we make that are most true to ourselves are those which acknowledge and confront it.

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