Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.
- Peter Singer

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Why Facts Don’t Unify Us

By Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein
The New York Times
Originally published September 2, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

These findings help explain polarization on many issues. With respect to the Affordable Care Act, for example, people encounter good news, to the effect that it has helped millions of people obtain health insurance, and also bad news, to the effect that health care costs and insurance premiums continue to increase. For the act’s supporters, the good news will have far more impact than the bad; for the opponents, the opposite is true. As the sheer volume of information increases, polarization will be heightened as well.

Essentially the same tale can be told with respect to immigration, terrorism, increases in the minimum wage — and candidates for the highest office in the land. Voters are now receiving a steady stream of both positive and negative information about Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. Which kind of news will have a large impact will depend partly on people’s motivations and initial convictions.

But there’s an important qualification. In our experiment, a strong majority showed movement; few people were impervious to new information. Most people were willing to change their views, at least to some extent.

The article is here.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Moral minds

By Kirsten Weir
The Monitor on Psychology
September 2016, Vol 47, No. 8
Print version: page 42

Here is an excerpt:

"As young as you can test them, babies like good guys and don't like bad guys," Bloom says. "This suggests some sort of nascent moral understanding very early on."

Bloom likens that understanding to the building blocks of human language. "There's some evidence we start with rudimentary language capacity, but languages across the world differ in all sorts of ways," he says. "Obviously, culture matters."

Other psychologists, meanwhile, have tried to understand why morality varies from culture to culture, while retaining some common themes. Haidt's moral foundations theory proposes that there are at least six (and likely more) systems that provide a foundation of morality: care/harm; fairness/cheating; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; sanctity/degradation; and liberty/oppression.

The article is here.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Emotional Judges and Unlucky Juveniles

Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan
NBER Working Paper No. 22611
September 2016


Employing the universe of juvenile court decisions in a U.S. state between 1996 and 2012, we
analyze the effects of emotional shocks associated with unexpected outcomes of football games
played by a prominent college team in the state. We investigate the behavior of judges, the
conduct of whom should, by law, be free of personal biases and emotions. We find that
unexpected losses increase disposition (sentence) lengths assigned by judges during the week
following the game. Unexpected wins, or losses that were expected to be close contests ex-ante,
have no impact. The effects of these emotional shocks are asymmetrically borne by black
defendants. We present evidence that the results are not influenced by defendant or attorney
behavior or by defendants’ economic background. Importantly, the results are driven by judges
who have received their bachelor’s degrees from the university with which the football team is
affiliated. Different falsification tests and a number of auxiliary analyses demonstrate the
robustness of the findings. These results provide evidence for the impact of emotions in one
domain on a behavior in a completely unrelated domain among a uniformly highly-educated
group of individuals (judges), with decisions involving high stakes (sentence lengths). They also
point to the existence of a subtle and previously-unnoticed capricious application of sentencing.

Stop ignoring misconduct

Donald S. Kornfeld & Sandra L. Titus
Originally posted 31 August 2016

The history of science shows that irreproducibility is not a product of our times. Some 350 years ago, the chemist Robert Boyle penned essays on “the unsuccessfulness of experiments”. He warned readers to be sceptical of reported work. “You will meet with several Observations and Experiments, which ... may upon further tryal disappoint your expectation.” He attributed the problem to a 'lack of skill in the scientist and the lack of purity of the ingredients', and what would today be referred to as inadequate statistical power.

By 1830, polymath Charles Babbage was writing in more cynical terms. In Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, he complains of “several species of impositions that have been practised in science”, namely “hoaxing, forging, trimming and cooking”.

In other words, irreproducibility is the product of two factors: faulty research practices and fraud.

The article is here.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Meta-Analytic Review of Moral Licensing

Irene Blanken, Niels van de Ven, and Marcel Zeelenberg
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41(4) · February 2015

Moral licensing refers to the effect that when people initially behave in a moral way, they are later more likely to display behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic. We provide a state-of-the-art overview of moral licensing by conducting a meta-analysis of 91 studies (7,397 participants) that compare a licensing condition with a control condition. Based on this analysis, the magnitude of the moral licensing effect is estimated to be a Cohen's d of 0.31. We tested potential moderators and found that published studies tend to have larger moral licensing effects than unpublished studies. We found no empirical evidence for other moderators that were theorized to be of importance. The effect size estimate implies that studies require many more participants to draw solid conclusions about moral licensing and its possible moderators.

The article is here.

Does Situationism Threaten Free Will and Moral Responsibility?

Michael McKenna and Brandon Warmke
Journal of Moral Psychology


The situationist movement in social psychology has caused a considerable stir in philosophy over the last fifteen years. Much of this was prompted by the work of the philosophers Gilbert Harman (1999) and John Doris (2002). Both contended that familiar philosophical assumptions about the role of character in the explanation of human action were not supported by the situationists experimental results. Most of the ensuing philosophical controversy has focused upon issues related to moral psychology and ethical theory, especially virtue ethics. More recently, the influence of situationism has also given rise to further questions regarding free will and moral responsibility (e.g., Brink 2013; Ciurria 2013; Doris 2002; Mele and Shepherd 2013; Miller 2016; Nelkin 2005; Talbert 2009; and Vargas 2013b). In this paper, we focus just upon these latter issues. Moreover, we focus primarily on reasons-responsive theories. There is cause for concern that a range of situationist findings are in tension with the sort of reasons-responsiveness putatively required for free will and moral responsibility. Here, we develop and defend a response to the alleged situationist threat to free will and moral responsibility that we call pessimistic realism. We conclude on an optimistic note, however, exploring the possibility of strengthening our agency in the face of situational influences.

The article is here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Woman uses Indiana religious objections law in defense against child abuse charges

The Chicago Tribune
Originally published August 31. 2016

The attorney for a woman charged with child abuse for allegedly beating her son with a coat hanger says Indiana's religious objections law gives her the right to discipline her children according to her evangelical Christian beliefs.

Kihn Par Thaing, 30, of Indianapolis was arrested in February on felony abuse and neglect charges after a teacher discovered her 7-year-old son's injuries. Thaing is accused of beating her son with a coat hanger, leaving him with 36 bruises and red welts.

Her attorney, Greg Bowes, argues in court documents filed July 29 that the state shouldn't interfere with Thaing's right to raise her children as she deems appropriate. He cited Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act as part of her defense, saying it gives her the right to discipline her children according to her beliefs.

Court documents cite biblical Scripture and state that a parent who "spares the rod, spoils the child."

The article is here.

Forget ideology, liberal democracy’s newest threats come from technology and bioscience

John Naughton
The Guardian
Originally posted August 28, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

Here Harari ventures into the kind of dystopian territory that Aldous Huxley would recognise. He sees three broad directions.

1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, and the economic system will stop attaching much value to them.

2. The system will still find value in humans collectively but not in unique individuals.

3. The system will, however, find value in some unique individuals, “but these will be a new race of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population”. By “system”, he means the new kind of society that will evolve as bioscience and information technology progress at their current breakneck pace. As before, this society will be based on a deal between religion and science but this time humanism will be displaced by what Harari calls “dataism” – a belief that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any entity or phenomenon is determined by its contribution to data processing.

The article is here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

State mental hospitals were closed to give people with mental illness greater freedom

but it increased the risk they’d get no care at all.

By The Spotlight Team
The Boston Globe
Originally posted August 28, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

The result is a system that’s defined more by its gaps and gross inadequacies than by its successes — severely underfunded, largely uncoordinated, often unreliable, and, at times, startlingly unsafe. It is a system that prizes independence for people with mental illness but often ignores the accompanying risks to public safety. A system that puts blind belief in the power of antipsychotic drugs and immense trust in even the very sickest to take them willingly. A system that too often leaves people in mental health crisis with nowhere to turn.

It was never supposed to be this way. President Kennedy and his allies recognized the grim state of America’s mental institutions — which at their peak housed nearly 560,000 people — and promised a robust, humane system of community-based treatment in their place.

The article is here.