Thursday, March 23, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 6a

 “It is all too evident that our moral thinking simply has not been able to keep pace with such rapid progress in our acquisition of knowledge and power.” - The Dalai Lama 

Free will is the capacity for agents to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded. Experiments seem to suggest that humans don’t have free will. For eg. suppose a scientist asks a subject to choose a random moment to move a finger and measures the build-up of an electrical signal called the readiness potential. The readiness potential reliably preceded the physical action. It is found that the unconscious brain activity of the readiness potential leading up to subjects' movements began approximately half a second before the subject was aware of a conscious intention to move.

This suggests to some that unconsciously the brain has made the decision before the conscious mental act to do so. Some believe the implication is that free will was not involved in the decision and is an illusion. One of the most heated debates in biology is that of "nature versus nurture", concerning the relative importance of genetics and biology as compared to culture and environment in human behavior. The view of many researchers is that many human behaviours can be explained in terms of human brains, genes, and evolutionary histories. This point of view raises the fear that such attribution makes it impossible to hold others responsible for their actions. 

The chorus of neuroscientists saying, point blank, that free will is an illusion is echoed by psychologists and physicists. Could so many brilliant scientists be wrong?  The philosopher Dan Dennett says in Intuition Pumps and other tools for Thinking that the scientists have typically been making a rookie mistake: confusing the actual scientific image with what we might call the folk ideology of the scientific image. For example, when scientists say that a solid is mostly empty space, they are factually correct but that doesn’t mean that the folk image of a solid, which reflects lived experience, is wrong.

Dennett says that he agrees with the scientists' view that the sort of free will that they are talking about is an illusion, but that doesn’t mean that free will is an illusion in any morally important sense. But, 'some of the scientists who now declare that science has shown that free will is an illusion go on to say that this “discovery” matters, in a morally important sense. They think it has major implications for morality and the law: nobody is ever really responsible, for instance, so nobody ever deserves to be either punished or praised. They are making the mistake people make when they say that nothing is ever solid, not really.'

He devices a thought experiment to make his point. It has been shown that deep brain stimulation by implanted electrodes is showing striking effects in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Imagine that a brilliant neurosurgeon said to a patient on whom she had just performed an implantation that the device controls his every decision, thanks to a master control system, which maintains radio contact with his microchip twenty-four hours a day i.e. 'I’ve disabled your conscious will; your sense of free will henceforth will be an illusion.'

'In fact she had done no such thing; this was simply a lie she decided to tell her patient to see what would happen. It worked; the poor fellow went out into the world convinced that he was not a responsible agent, but rather a mere puppet, and his behaviour began to show it: he became irresponsible, aggressive, and negligent, indulging his worst whims until he got caught and put on trial. Testifying in his own defence, he passionately protested his non-responsibility because of the implant in his brain. The neuroscientist, when called to testify, admitted what she had said, and added, “But I was just messing with his head — a practical joke, that’s all. I never thought he’d believe me!”'

What happened in the trial is irrelevant. The fact is that her ill-considered assertion robbed  him of his integrity and crippled his power to make decisions. In fact, her false “debriefing” of her patient actually accomplished non-surgically much of what she claimed to accomplish surgically: she disabled him. Dennett writes:

. . . the neuroscientists currently filling the media with talk about how their science shows that free will is an illusion are risking mass-production of the same harm to all the people who take them at their word. Neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers need to take seriously their moral obligation to think through the presuppositions and implications of their public pronouncements on these issues with the same care that is demanded of people who hold forth on global warming or impending asteroid strikes. . . What would it be . . . [to] have scientists “discovered” that nobody is, or could be, wired right for moral responsibility?

The influence of what some call neurolaw is growing. In those cases, neuroscientific evidence has been admitted to show everything from head trauma to the tendency of violent video games to make children behave aggressively. Lawyers routinely order scans of convicted defendants' brains and argue that a neurological impairment prevented them from controlling themselves. Stephen J. Morse, professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania calls this “brain overclaim syndrome” and says, ‘The only thing different about neuroscience is that we have prettier pictures and it appears more scientific.’

He says that if adolescent brains caused all adolescent behaviour, “we would expect the rates of homicide to be the same for 16- and 17-year-olds everywhere in the world — their brains are alike — but in fact, the homicide rates of Danish and Finnish youths are very different than American youths.” Morse agrees that our brains bring about our behaviour and says “So what if there’s biological causation? Causation can’t be an excuse for someone who believes that responsibility is possible. Since all behaviour is caused, this would mean all behaviour has to be excused.” . . . “Some people are angry because they had bad mommies and daddies and others because their amygdalas are mucked up. The question is: When should anger be an excusing condition?”

To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn’t functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. And since all behaviour is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behaviour could potentially be excused? Popular writers prefer to simplify things by describing lives either in Hobbesian terms or by stressing their friendly side, but in fact it’s never one or the other. Which nature dominates depends on the socialisation process in the society. Trust no one who says “it is human nature to do [any single thing].”

Friday, March 10, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 5e

The incentive structure in banks is often unethical, rewarding employees for steering customers to financial products that aren’t in their best interest. Many times, behaviour might seem over the top, but we often take comfort when our actions fall in line with the social norms of those around us. In The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, Dan Ariely quotes a letter that he received from a young consultant:

I graduated a few years ago with a BA degree in Economics from a prestigious college and have been working at an economic consulting firm, which provides services to law firms. The reason I decided to contact you is that I have been observing and participating in a very well documented phenomenon of overstating billable hours by economic consultants. To avoid sugar coating it, let’s call it cheating. 

From the most senior people all the way to the lowest analyst, the incentive structure for consultants encourages cheating: no one checks to see how much we bill for a given task; there are no clear guidelines as to what is acceptable; and if we have the lowest billability among fellow analysts, we are the most likely to get axed. These factors create the perfect environment for rampant cheating.

The lawyers themselves get a hefty cut of every hour we bill, so they don’t mind if we take longer to finish a project. While lawyers do have some incentive to keep costs down to avoid enraging clients, many of the analyses we perform are very difficult to evaluate. 

Lawyers know this and seem to use it to their advantage. In effect, we are cheating on their behalf; we get to keep our jobs and they get to keep an additional profit.  Here are some specific examples of how cheating is carried out in my company:

  • A deadline was fast approaching and we were working extremely long hours. Budget didn’t seem to be an issue and when I asked how much of my day I should bill, my boss (a midlevel project manager) told me to take the total amount of time I was in the office and subtract two hours, one for lunch and one for dinner. I said that I had taken a number of other breaks while the server was running my programs and she said I could count that as a mental health break that would promote higher productivity later.
  • A good friend of mine in the office adamantly refused to overbill and consequently had an overall billing rate that was about 20 percent lower than the average. I admire his honesty, but when it was time to lay people off, he was the first to go. What kind of message does that send to the rest of us?
  • One person bills every hour he is monitoring his email for a project, whether or not he receives any work to do. He is “on-call,” he says.
  • Another guy often works from home and seems to bill a lot, but when he is in the office he never seems to have any work to do.

These kinds of examples go on and on. There is no doubt that I am complicit in this behavior, but seeing it more clearly makes me want to fix the problems. Do you have any advice? What would you do in my situation?

Sincerely yours,


Unfortunately, the problems noted in the letter are commonplace. One tends not to notice them because they are an accepted part of 'business as usual'. The people think of themselves as highly moral people because their actions are relatively small and, most important, several steps removed from my pocket.  Biased incentives can—and do—lead even the most upstanding professionals astray. When the rules are somewhat open to interpretation, when there are grey areas, people are tempted to cheat and most people cheat by small amounts. 

A common example of an area where people easily tempted into indulging in unethical behaviour is accounting. It has a vaguely titled body of suggestions — known as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) — that accountants are supposed to follow. These guidelines are so general that there’s considerable variation in how accountants can interpret financial statements. (And often there are financial incentives to “bend” the guidelines to some degree.) 

For instance, one of the rules, “the principle of sincerity,” states that the accountant’s report should reflect the company’s financial status “in good faith.” What does it mean? Toward whom is this good faith directed? The people who run the company? Those who would like the books to look impressive and profitable (which would increase their bonuses and compensation)? Or should it be directed toward the people who have invested in the company? Or is it about those who want a clear idea of the company’s financial condition?

The behaviours mentioned in the letter are the the result of the negative view of human nature that is widely held. When a communal ethos has been replaced by a view of humanity as competing individuals, the result is indeed the survival of the fittest. This view regards people as basically thieves and shirkers who need to be constantly monitored in order to keep them in line. This results in proliferation of contracts, rules, and regulations. A paradox of the individualist ideology is that it invariably results in an excess of interference.   

The moral degeneration in modern life is illustrated by the statement by the economist John Maynard Keynes that “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not.” (It is fantastic to assume that after a century of internalizing this norm, society will magically revert to one populated by do-gooders.) The Western political tradition relies upon external rather than internal restraints and on institutional rather than self-imposed ethical limits to control those who are in power. 

This has given rise to different types of ethics in different fields: bioethics, media ethics, medical ethics, contract ethics, care ethics, etc. As a result of this proliferation, a Kafkaesque bureaucracy has sprung up from which no one can escape, and codes and regulations are running rampant. The frustrations we experience from a host of petty regulations cause us to focus more on observing the rules and lose sight of the true significance of ethics.