Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Friday, September 18, 2020

Cognitive Barriers to Reducing Income Inequality

Jackson, J. C., & Payne, K. (2020).
Social Psychological and Personality Science. 


As economic inequality grows, more people stand to benefit from wealth redistribution. Yet in many countries, increasing inequality has not produced growing support for redistribution, and people often appear to vote against their economic interest. Here we suggest that two cognitive tendencies contribute to these paradoxical voting patterns. First, people gauge their income through social comparison, and those comparisons are usually made to similar others. Second, people are insensitive to large numbers, which leads them to underestimate the gap between themselves and the very wealthy. These two tendencies can help explain why subjective income is normally distributed (therefore most people think they are middle class) and partly explain why many people who would benefit from redistribution oppose it. We support our model’s assumptions using survey data, a controlled experiment, and agent-based modeling. Our model sheds light on the cognitive barriers to reducing inequality.

General Discussion

These findings emphasize a new perspective on inequality. In addition to institutional drivers of inequality, our studies outline several cognitive constraints on people’s calculation of their support for wealth redistribution. By relying partly on subjective income to determine whether redistribution is in their interest, people leave themselves open to the effects of selective social comparison and insensitivity to large numbers. These cognitive tendencies help explain why most people believe they are middle class, occupying the middle of a bell-shaped distribution of SES, despite the extreme skew present in actual income distributions.

Both of these problems can potentially be mitigated. Accessible resources that help people learn whether they will benefit from wealth redistribution could help people select economic policies that are in their best interest. On a larger scale, reducing residential segregation or otherwise increasing inter-group contact across social class lines could facilitate more representative social comparisons, and more accurate judgments of economic self-interest. 

Attitudes about redistribution are not the only influences on people’s voting decisions and contribute to rising inequality. Institutional factors like gerrymandering may distort voting outcomes, and social factors such as moral and intergroup values may lead people to vote against their economic interests in favor of symbolic or group interests.

A pdf can be found here.

Italics added.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Sensitivity to Ingroup and Outgroup Norms in the Association Between Commonality and Morality

M. R.Goldring & L. Heiphetz
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 91, November 2020, 104025


Emerging research suggests that people infer that common behaviors are moral and vice versa.
The studies presented here investigated the role of group membership in inferences regarding
commonality and morality. In Study 1, participants expected a target character to infer that
behaviors that were common among their ingroup were particularly moral. However, the extent
to which behaviors were common among the target character’s outgroup did not influence
expectations regarding perceptions of morality. Study 2 reversed this test, finding that
participants expected a target character to infer that behaviors considered moral among their
ingroup were particularly common, regardless of how moral their outgroup perceived those
behaviors to be. While Studies 1-2 relied on fictitious behaviors performed by novel groups,
Studies 3-4 generalized these results to health behaviors performed by members of different
racial groups. When answering from another person’s perspective (Study 3) and from their own
perspective (Study 4), participants reported that the more common behaviors were among their
ingroup, the more moral those behaviors were. This effect was significantly weaker for
perceptions regarding outgroup norms, although outgroup norms did exert some effect in this
real-world context. Taken together, these results highlight the complex integration of ingroup
and outgroup norms in socio-moral cognition.

A pdf of the article can be found here.

In sum: Actions that are common among the ingroup are seen as particularly moral.  But actions that are common among the outgroup have little bearing on our judgments of morality.

In this election, ‘costly signal deployment’

Christina Pazzanese
Harvard Gazette
Originally posted 15 Sept 20

Here is an excerpt:


Trump isn’t merely saying things that his base likes to hear. All politicians do that, and to the extent that they can do so honestly, that’s exactly what they are supposed to do. But Trump does more than this in his use of “costly signals.” A tattoo is a costly signal. You can tell your romantic partner that you love them, but there’s nothing stopping you from changing your mind the next day. But if you get a tattoo of your partner’s name, you’ve sent a much stronger signal about how committed you are. Likewise, a gang tattoo binds you to the gang, especially if it’s in a highly visible place such as the neck or the face. It makes you scary and unappealing to most people, limiting your social options, and thus, binding you to the gang. Trump’s blatant bigotry, misogyny, and incitements to violence make him completely unacceptable to liberals and moderates. And, thus, his comments function like gang tattoos. He’s not merely saying things that his supporters want to hear. By making himself permanently and unequivocally unacceptable to the opposition, he’s “proving” his loyalty to their side. This is why, I think, the Republican base trusts Trump like no other.

There is costly signaling on the left, but it’s not coming from Biden, who is trying to appeal to as many voters as possible. Bernie Sanders is a better example. Why does Bernie Sanders call himself a socialist? What he advocates does not meet the traditional dictionary definition of socialism. And politicians in Europe who hold similar views typically refer to themselves as “social democrats” rather than “democratic socialists.” “Socialism” has traditionally been a scare word in American politics. Conservatives use it as an epithet to describe policies such as the Affordable Care Act, which, ironically, is very much a market-oriented approach to achieving universal health insurance. It’s puzzling, then, that a politician would choose to describe himself with a scare word when he could accurately describe his views with less-scary words. But it makes sense if one thinks of this as a costly signal. By calling himself a socialist, Sanders makes it very clear where his loyalty lies, as vanishingly few Republicans would support someone who calls himself a socialist.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

There are no good choices

Ezra Klein
Originally published 14 Sept 20

Here is an excerpt:

In America, our ideological conflicts are often understood as the tension between individual freedoms and collective actions. The failure of our pandemic response policy exposes the falseness of that frame. In the absence of effective state action, we, as individuals, find ourselves in prisons of risk, our every movement stalked by disease. We are anything but free; our only liberty is to choose among a menu of awful options. And faced with terrible choices, we are turning on each other, polarizing against one another. YouTube conspiracies and social media shaming are becoming our salves, the way we wrest a modicum of individual control over a crisis that has overwhelmed us as a collective.

“The burden of decision-making and risk in this pandemic has been fully transitioned from the top down to the individual,” says Dr. Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist. “It started with [responsibility] being transitioned to the states, which then transitioned it to the local school districts — If we’re talking about schools for the moment — and then down to the individual. You can see it in the way that people talk about personal responsibility, and the way that we see so much shaming about individual-level behavior.”

But in shifting so much responsibility to individuals, our government has revealed the limits of individualism.

The risk calculation that rules, and ruins, lives

Think of coronavirus risk like an equation. Here’s a rough version of it: The danger of an act = (the transmission risk of the activity) x (the local prevalence of Covid-19) / (by your area’s ability to control a new outbreak).

Individuals can control only a small portion of that equation. People can choose safer activities over riskier ones — though the language of choice too often obscures the reality that many have no economic choice save to work jobs that put them, and their families, in danger. But the local prevalence of Covid-19 and the capacity of authorities to track and squelch outbreaks are collective functions.

The info is here.

The Panopticon Is Already Here

Ross Anderson
The Atlantic
Originally published September 2020

Here is an excerpt:

China is an ideal setting for an experiment in total surveillance. Its population is extremely online. The country is home to more than 1 billion mobile phones, all chock-full of sophisticated sensors. Each one logs search-engine queries, websites visited, and mobile payments, which are ubiquitous. When I used a chip-based credit card to buy coffee in Beijing’s hip Sanlitun neighborhood, people glared as if I’d written a check.

All of these data points can be time-stamped and geo-tagged. And because a new regulation requires telecom firms to scan the face of anyone who signs up for cellphone services, phones’ data can now be attached to a specific person’s face. SenseTime, which helped build Xinjiang’s surveillance state, recently bragged that its software can identify people wearing masks. Another company, Hanwang, claims that its facial-recognition technology can recognize mask wearers 95 percent of the time. China’s personal-data harvest even reaps from citizens who lack phones. Out in the countryside, villagers line up to have their faces scanned, from multiple angles, by private firms in exchange for cookware.

Until recently, it was difficult to imagine how China could integrate all of these data into a single surveillance system, but no longer. In 2018, a cybersecurity activist hacked into a facial-recognition system that appeared to be connected to the government and was synthesizing a surprising combination of data streams. The system was capable of detecting Uighurs by their ethnic features, and it could tell whether people’s eyes or mouth were open, whether they were smiling, whether they had a beard, and whether they were wearing sunglasses. It logged the date, time, and serial numbers—all traceable to individual users—of Wi-Fi-enabled phones that passed within its reach. It was hosted by Alibaba and made reference to City Brain, an AI-powered software platform that China’s government has tasked the company with building.

City Brain is, as the name suggests, a kind of automated nerve center, capable of synthesizing data streams from a multitude of sensors distributed throughout an urban environment. Many of its proposed uses are benign technocratic functions. Its algorithms could, for instance, count people and cars, to help with red-light timing and subway-line planning. Data from sensor-laden trash cans could make waste pickup more timely and efficient.

The info is here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Morality has been stripped from public life. Here’s a four-step plan to revive it

Boris Johnson and Donald TrumpRoger Paxton
Originally posted 13 Sept 20

Here is an excerpt:

From the top down, public morality is corroded. If morality, not to mention competence, were valued by the electorate, the approval ratings of Boris Johnson (and Donald Trump) would surely have plummeted, but they haven’t. As others have noted, for many people truth has become unimportant. Selfishness is assumed and encouraged, and opponents, dissenters and people seen as “other” are denigrated and worse. The most important thing is one’s own short-term interest.

What can be done about the crisis? Of course a new government is needed, but even if a Labour government is elected, the divisions and the damage done to public morality will need to be repaired. Just as there is a need to promote physical and mental wellbeing, so morality could be promoted by means of the concept of moral wellbeing.

For physical wellbeing, we have the dietary advice of five-a-day; for mental wellbeing the New Economics Foundation’s five ways to wellbeing, as used by the NHS. For moral wellbeing there is a similar framework that could be useful: the psychological model developed by James Rest, outlining the four components of moral reasoning.

This is a framework for improving thoughtfulness and clarity about moral matters. The first stage is moral sensitivity – recognising when an issue is one of morality, rather than a personal preference or practicality. The second component is moral reasoning. Having identified that a question is one of right and wrong, you then decide what the right thing to do would be. Third comes moral motivation – acknowledging other interests and motives that influence your thinking about the issue, and then weighing up the conflicting motives. The fourth and final stage is moral implementation, which means bringing moral reasoning and moral motivation together to make and act on a decision.

The information is here.

Is Morality All About Cooperation?

John Danaher
Originally posted 27 July 20

Here are two excerpts:

Morality as Cooperation (MAC): The Basic Theory

MAC takes as its starting point the view that human morality is about cooperation. In itself, this is not a particularly ground-breaking insight. Most moral philosophers have thought that morality has something to do with how we interact with other people — with “what we owe each other” in one popular formulation. Scott Curry, in his original paper on the MAC, does a good job reviewing some of the major works in moral philosophy and moral psychology, showing how each of them tends to link morality to cooperation.

Some people might query this and say that certain aspects of human morality don’t seem to be immediately or obviously about cooperation, but one of the claims of MAC is that these seemingly distinctive areas of morality can ultimately be linked back to cooperation. For what it is worth, I am willing to buy the idea that morality is about cooperation as a starting hypothesis. I have some concerns, which I will air below, but even if these concerns are correct I think it is fair to say that morality is, in large part, about cooperation.


In summary, the idea behind the MAC is that human moral systems derive from attempts to resolve cooperative problems. There are seven basic cooperative problems and hence seven basic forms of human morality. These are often blended and combined in actual human societies (more on this in a moment), nevertheless you can still see the pure forms of these moral systems in many different societies. The diagram below summarises the model and gives some examples of the ethical norms that derive from the different cooperative problems.

The blog post is here.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Trump lied about science

H. Holden Thorp
Originally published 11 Sept 20

When President Donald Trump began talking to the public about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in February and March, scientists were stunned at his seeming lack of understanding of the threat. We assumed that he either refused to listen to the White House briefings that must have been occurring or that he was being deliberately sheltered from information to create plausible deniability for federal inaction. Now, because famed Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward recorded him, we can hear Trump’s own voice saying that he understood precisely that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was deadly and spread through the air. As he was playing down the virus to the public, Trump was not confused or inadequately briefed: He flat-out lied, repeatedly, about science to the American people. These lies demoralized the scientific community and cost countless lives in the United States.

Over the years, this page has commented on the scientific foibles of U.S. presidents. Inadequate action on climate change and environmental degradation during both Republican and Democratic administrations have been criticized frequently. Editorials have bemoaned endorsements by presidents on teaching intelligent design, creationism, and other antiscience in public schools. These matters are still important. But now, a U.S. president has deliberately lied about science in a way that was imminently dangerous to human health and directly led to widespread deaths of Americans.

This may be the most shameful moment in the history of U.S. science policy.

In an interview with Woodward on 7 February 2020, Trump said he knew that COVID-19 was more lethal than the flu and that it spread through the air. “This is deadly stuff,” he said. But on 9 March, he tweeted that the “common flu” was worse than COVID-19, while economic advisor Larry Kudlow and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway assured the public that the virus was contained. On 19 March, Trump told Woodward that he did not want to level with the American people about the danger of the virus. “I wanted to always play it down,” he said, “I still like playing it down.” Playing it down meant lying about the fact that he knew the country was in grave danger.

The info is here.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Correlation not Causation: The Relationship between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies

B. Verhulst, L. J. Evans, & P. K. Hatemi
Am J Pol Sci. 2012 ; 56(1): 34–51.


The assumption in the personality and politics literature is that a person's personality motivates them to develop certain political attitudes later in life. This assumption is founded on the simple correlation between the two constructs and the observation that personality traits are genetically influenced and develop in infancy, whereas political preferences develop later in life. Work in psychology, behavioral genetics, and recently political science, however, has demonstrated that political preferences also develop in childhood and are equally influenced by genetic factors. These findings cast doubt on the assumed causal relationship between personality and politics. Here we test the causal relationship between personality traits and political attitudes using a direction of causation structural model on a genetically informative sample. The results suggest that personality traits do not cause people to develop political attitudes; rather, the correlation between the two is a function of an innate common underlying genetic factor.

From the Discussion section

Based on the current results, the claim that personality traits lead to political orientations should no longer be assumed, but explicitly tested for each personality and political trait prior to making any claims about their relationship. We recognize that no single analysis can provide a definitive answer to such a complex question, and our analysis did not include the Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness Five-Factor Model measures. Future studies which use different personality measures, or other methodological designs, including panel studies that examine the developmental trajectories of personality and attitudes from childhood to adulthood, would be invaluable for investigating more nuanced relationships between personality traits and political attitudes. These would also include models which capture the nonrandom selection into environments that foster the development of more liberal or conservative political attitudes (active gene-environment covariation) as well as the possibility for differential expression of personality traits and political attitudes at different stages of the developmental process that may illuminate “critical periods” for the interface of personality and attitudes.

A link to the pdf can be found on this page.