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

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Robots, Ethics, and Intimacy: The Need for Scientific Research

Borenstein J., Arkin R. 
(2019) Philosophical Studies Series, 
vol 134. Springer, Cham. 


Intimate relationships between robots and human beings may begin to form in the near future. Market forces, customer demand, and other factors may drive the creation of various forms of robots to which humans may form strong emotional attachments. Yet prior to the technology becoming fully actualized, numerous ethical, legal, and social issues must be addressed. This could be accomplished in part by establishing a rigorous scientific research agenda in the realm of intimate robotics, the aim of which would be to explore what effects the technology may have on users and on society more generally. Our goal is not to resolve whether the development of intimate robots is ethically appropriate. Rather, we contend that if such robots are going to be designed, then an obligation emerges to prevent harm that the technology could cause.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Free to blame? Belief in free will is related to victim blaming

Genschow, O., & Vehlow, B.
Consciousness and Cognition
Volume 88, February 2021, 103074


The more people believe in free will, the harsher their punishment of criminal offenders. A reason for this finding is that belief in free will leads individuals to perceive others as responsible for their behavior. While research supporting this notion has mainly focused on criminal offenders, the perspective of the victims has been neglected so far. We filled this gap and hypothesized that individuals’ belief in free will is positively correlated with victim blaming—the tendency to make victims responsible for their bad luck. In three studies, we found that the more individuals believe in free will, the more they blame victims. Study 3 revealed that belief in free will is correlated with victim blaming even when controlling for just world beliefs, religious worldviews, and political ideology. The results contribute to a more differentiated view of the role of free will beliefs and attributed intentions.


• Past research indicated that belief in free will increases the perception of criminal offenders.

• However, this research ignored the perception of the victims.

• We filled this gap by conducting three studies.

• All studies find that belief in free will correlates with the tendency to blame victims.

From the Discussion

In the last couple of decades, claims that free will is nothing more than an illusion have become prevalent in the popular press (e.g., Chivers 2010; Griffin, 2016; Wolfe, 1997).  Based on such claims, scholars across disciplines started debating potential societal consequences for the case that people would start disbelieving in free will. For example, some philosophers argued that disbelief in free will would have catastrophic consequences, because people would no longer try to control their behavior and start acting immorally (e.g., Smilansky, 2000, 2002). Likewise, psychological research has mainly focused on the
downsides of disbelief in free will. For example, weakening free will belief led participants to behave less morally and responsibly (Baumeister et al., 2009; Protzko et al., 2016; Vohs & Schooler, 2008). In contrast to these results, our findings illustrate a more positive side of disbelief in free will, as higher levels of disbelief in free will would reduce victim blaming. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

‘Pastorally dangerous’: U.S. bishops risk causing confusion about vaccines, ethicists say

Michael J. O’Loughlin
America Magazine
Originally published March 02, 2021

Here is an excerpt:

Anthony Egan, S.J., a Jesuit priest and lecturer in theology in South Africa, said church leaders publishing messages about hypothetical situations during a crisis is “unhelpful” as Catholics navigate life in a pandemic.

“I think it’s pastorally dangerous because people are dealing with all kinds of crises—people are faced with unemployment, people are faced with disease, people are faced with death—and to make this kind of statement just adds to the general feeling of unease, a general feeling of crisis,” Father Egan said, noting that in South Africa, which has been hard hit by a more aggressive variant, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only available option. “I don’t think that’s pastorally helpful.”

The choice about taking a vaccine like Johnson & Johnson’s must come down to individual conscience, he said. “I think it’s irresponsible to make a claim that you must absolutely not or absolutely must take the drug,” he said.

Ms. Fullam agreed, saying modern life is filled with difficult dilemmas stemming from previous injustices and “one of the great things about the Catholic moral tradition is that we recognize the world is a messy place, but we don’t insist Catholics stay away from that messiness.” Catholics, she said, are called “to think about how to make the situation better” rather than retreat in the face of complexity and given the ongoing pandemic, receiving a vaccine with a remote connection to abortion could be the right decision—especially in communities where access to vaccines might be difficult.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Evolutionary biology meets consciousness: essay review

Browning, H., Veit, W. 
Biol Philos 36, 5 (2021). 


In this essay, we discuss Simona Ginsburg and Eva Jablonka’s The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul from an interdisciplinary perspective. Constituting perhaps the longest treatise on the evolution of consciousness, Ginsburg and Jablonka unite their expertise in neuroscience and biology to develop a beautifully Darwinian account of the dawning of subjective experience. Though it would be impossible to cover all its content in a short book review, here we provide a critical evaluation of their two key ideas—the role of Unlimited Associative Learning in the evolution of, and detection of, consciousness and a metaphysical claim about consciousness as a mode of being—in a manner that will hopefully overcome some of the initial resistance of potential readers to tackle a book of this length.

Here is one portion:

Modes of being

The second novel idea within their book is to conceive of consciousness as a new mode of being, rather than a mere trait. This part of their argument may appear unusual to many operating in the debate, not the least because this formulation—not unlike their choice to include Aristotle’s sensitive soul in the title—evokes a sense of outdated and strange metaphysics. We share some of this opposition to this vocabulary, but think it best conceived as a metaphor.

They begin their book by introducing the idea of teleological (goal-directed) systems and the three ‘modes of being’, taken from the works of Aristotle, each of which is considered to have a unique telos (goal). These are: life (survival/reproduction), sentience (value ascription to stimuli), and rationality (value ascription to concepts). The focus of this book is the second of these—the “sensitive soul”. Rather than a trait, such as vision, G&J see consciousness as a mode of being, in the same way as the emergence of life and rational thought also constitute new modes of being.

In several places throughout their book, G&J motivate their account through this analogy, i.e. by drawing a parallel from consciousness to life and/or rationality. Neither, they think, can be captured in a simple definition or trait, thus explaining the lack of progress on trying to come up with definitions for these phenomena. Compare their discussion of the distinction between life and non-life. Life, they argue, is not a functional trait that organisms possess, but rather a new way of being that opens up new possibilities; so too with consciousness. It is a new form of biological organization at a level above the organism that gives rise to a “new type of goal-directed system”, one which faces a unique set of challenges and opportunities. They identify three such transitions—the transition from non-life to life (the “nutritive soul”), the transition from non-conscious to conscious (the “sensitive soul”) and the transition from non-rational to rational (the “rational soul”). All three transitions mark a change to a new form of being, one in which the types of goals change. But while this is certainly correct in the sense of constituting a radical transformation in the kinds of goal-directed systems there are, we have qualms with the idea that this formal equivalence or abstract similarity can be used to ground more concrete properties. Yet G&J use this analogy to motivate their UAL account in parallel to unlimited heredity as a transition marker of life.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Surprise: 56% of US Catholics Favor Legalized Abortion

Dalia Fahmy
Pew Research Center
Originally posted 20 Oct 20

Here are two excerpts:

1. More than half of U.S. Catholics (56%) said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while roughly four-in-ten (42%) said it should be illegal in all or most cases, according to the 2019 Pew Research Center survey. Although most Catholics generally approve of legalized abortion, the vast majority favor at least some restrictions. For example, while roughly one-third of Catholics (35%) said abortion should be legal in most cases, only around one-fifth (21%) said it should be legal in all cases. By the same token, 28% of Catholics said abortion should be illegal in most cases, while half as many (14%) said it should be illegal in all cases.

Compared with other Christian groups analyzed in the data, Catholics were about as likely as White Protestants who are not evangelical (60%) and Black Protestants (64%) to support legal abortion, and much more likely than White evangelical Protestants (20%) to do so. Among Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – those who say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – the vast majority (83%) said abortion should be legal in all or most cases.


6. Even though most Catholics said abortion should generally be legal, a majority also said abortion is morally wrong. In fact, the share who said that abortion is morally wrong (57%), according to data from a 2017 survey, and the share who said it should be legal (56%) are almost identical. Among adults in other religious groups, there was a wide range of opinions on this question: Almost two-thirds of Protestants (64%) said abortion is morally wrong, including 77% of those who identify with evangelical Protestant denominations. Among the religiously unaffiliated, the vast majority said abortion is morally acceptable (34%) or not a moral issue (42%).

Monday, March 1, 2021

Morality justifies motivated reasoning in the folk ethics of belief

Corey Cusimano & Tania Lombrozo
19 January 2021


When faced with a dilemma between believing what is supported by an impartial assessment of the evidence (e.g., that one's friend is guilty of a crime) and believing what would better fulfill a moral obligation (e.g., that the friend is innocent), people often believe in line with the latter. But is this how people think beliefs ought to be formed? We addressed this question across three studies and found that, across a diverse set of everyday situations, people treat moral considerations as legitimate grounds for believing propositions that are unsupported by objective, evidence-based reasoning. We further document two ways in which moral considerations affect how people evaluate others' beliefs. First, the moral value of a belief affects the evidential threshold required to believe, such that morally beneficial beliefs demand less evidence than morally risky beliefs. Second, people sometimes treat the moral value of a belief as an independent justification for belief, and on that basis, sometimes prescribe evidentially poor beliefs to others. Together these results show that, in the folk ethics of belief, morality can justify and demand motivated reasoning.

From the General Discussion

5.2. Implications for motivated reasoning

Psychologists have long speculated that commonplace deviations from rational judgments and decisions could reflect commitments to different normative standards for decision making rather than merely cognitive limitations or unintentional errors (Cohen, 1981; Koehler, 1996; Tribe, 1971). This speculation has been largely confirmed in the domain of decision making, where work has documented that people will refuse to make certain decisions because of a normative commitment to not rely on certain kinds of evidence (Nesson, 1985; Wells, 1992), or because of a normative commitment to prioritize deontological concerns over utility-maximizing concerns (Baron & Spranca, 1997; Tetlock et al., 2000). And yet, there has been comparatively little investigation in the domain of belief formation. While some work has suggested that people evaluate beliefs in ways that favor non-objective, or non-evidential criteria (e.g., Armor et al., 2008; Cao et al., 2019; Metz, Weisberg, & Weisberg, 2018; Tenney et al., 2015), this work has failed to demonstrate that people prescribe beliefs that violate what objective, evidence-based reasoning would warrant. To our knowledge, our results are the first to demonstrate that people will knowingly endorse non-evidential norms for belief, and specifically, prescribe motivated reasoning to others.


Our findings suggest more proximate explanations for these biases: That lay people see these beliefs as morally beneficial and treat these moral benefits as legitimate grounds for motivated reasoning. Thus, overconfidence or over-optimism may persist in communities because people hold others to lower standards of evidence for adopting morally-beneficial optimistic beliefs than they do for pessimistic beliefs, or otherwise treat these benefits as legitimate reasons to ignore the evidence that one has.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

How peer influence shapes value computation in moral decision-making

Yu, H., Siegel, J., Clithero, J., & Crockett, M. 
(2021, January 16).


Moral behavior is susceptible to peer influence. How does information from peers influence moral preferences? We used drift-diffusion modeling to show that peer influence changes the value of moral behavior by prioritizing the choice attributes that align with peers’ goals. Study 1 (N = 100; preregistered) showed that participants accurately inferred the goals of prosocial and antisocial peers when observing their moral decisions. In Study 2 (N = 68), participants made moral decisions before and after observing the decisions of a prosocial or antisocial peer. Peer observation caused participants’ own preferences to resemble those of their peers. This peer influence effect on value computation manifested as an increased weight on choice attributes promoting the peers’ goals that occurred independently from peer influence on initial choice bias. Participants’ self-reported awareness of influence tracked more closely with computational measures of prosocial than antisocial influence. Our findings have implications for bolstering and blocking the effects of prosocial and antisocial influence on moral behavior.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Following your group or your morals? The in-group promotes immoral behavior while the out-group buffers against it

Vives, M., Cikara, M., & FeldmanHall, O. 
(2021, February 5). 


People learn by observing others, albeit not uniformly. Witnessing an immoral behavior causes observers to commit immoral actions, especially when the perpetrator is part of the in-group. Does conformist behavior hold when observing the out-group? We conducted three experiments (N=1,358) exploring how observing an (im)moral in-/out-group member changed decisions relating to justice: Punitive, selfish, or dishonest choices. Only immoral in-groups increased immoral actions, while the same immoral behavior from out-groups had no effect. In contrast, a compassionate or generous individual did not make people more moral, regardless of group membership. When there was a loophole to deny cheating, neither an immoral in-/out-group member changed dishonest behavior. Compared to observing an honest in-group member, people become more honest themselves after observing an honest out-group member, revealing that out-groups can enhance morality. Depending on the severity of the moral action, the in-group licenses immoral behavior while the out-group buffers against it.

General discussion

Choosing compassion over punishment, generosity over selfishness, and honesty over dishonesty is the byproduct of many factors, including virtue-signaling, norm compliance, and self-interest. There are times, however, when moral choices are shaped by the mere observation of what others do in the same situation (Gino & Galinsky, 2012; Nook et al., 2016). Here, we investigated how moral decisions are shaped by one’s in-or out-group—a factor known to shift willingness to conform (Gino et al., 2009). Conceptually replicating past research (Gino et al., 2009), results reveal that immoral behaviors were only transmitted by the in-group: while participants became more punitive or selfish after observing a punitive or selfish in-group, they did not increase their immoral behavior after observing an immoral out-group (Experiments 1 & 2). However, when the same manipulation was deployed in a context where the immoral acts could not be traced, neither the dishonest in- nor out-group member produced any behavioral shifts in our subjects (Experiment 3). These results suggest that immoral behaviors are not transmitted equally by all individuals. Rather, they are more likely to be transmitted within groups than between groups. In contrast, pro-social behaviors were rarely transmitted by either group. Participants did not become more compassionate or generous after observing a compassionate or generous in-or out-group member (Experiments 1 & 2). We only find modifications for prosocial behavior when participants observe another participant behaving in a costly honest manner, and this was modulated by group membership. Witnessing an honest out-group member attenuated the degree to which participants themselves cheated compared to participants who witnessed an honest in-group member (see Table 1 for a summary of results). Together, these findings suggest that the transmission of moral corruption is both determined by group membership and is sensitive to the degree of moral transgression. Namely, given the findings from Experiment 3, in-groups appear to license moral corruption, while virtuous out-groups can buffer against it.

(Italics added.)

Friday, February 26, 2021

Supported Decision Making With People at the Margins of Autonomy

A. Peterson, J. Karlawish & E. Largent (2020) 
The American Journal of Bioethics
DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2020.1863507


This article argues that supported decision making is ideal for people with dynamic cognitive and functional impairments that place them at the margins of autonomy. First, we argue that guardianship and similar surrogate decision-making frameworks may be inappropriate for people with dynamic impairments. Second, we provide a conceptual foundation for supported decision making for individuals with dynamic impairments, which integrates the social model of disability with relational accounts of autonomy. Third, we propose a three-step model that specifies the necessary conditions of supported decision making: identifying domains for support; identifying kinds of supports; and reaching a mutually acceptable and formal agreement. Finally, we identify a series of challenges for supported decision making, provide preliminary responses, and highlight avenues for future bioethics research.

Here is an excerpt:

Are Beneficiaries Authorized to Enter into a Supported Decision-Making Agreement?

The need for supported decision making implies that a beneficiary has diminished decision-making capacity. But there is a presumption that she is still capable to enter into a supported decision-making agreement. What justifies this presumption?

One way to address this challenge is to distinguish the capacity to enter into a supported decision-making agreement from the capacity to make the kinds of decisions enumerated in the agreement. For example, it is recognized in U.S. law that people who lack capacity to make medical decisions at the end of life may still have capacity to assign a surrogate decision maker (Kim and Appelbaum 2006). This practice is justified because the threshold of capacity required to appoint a surrogate is lower than that to consent to more complex decisions. Similarly, the kinds of decisions enumerated in supported decision-making agreements will often be complex and could result in unfortunate consequences if poor decisions are made. But the decision to enter into a supported decision-making agreement is relatively less complex. Moreover, these agreements are often formalizations of ongoing, trusting relationships with friends and family intended to enhance a beneficiary’s wellbeing. Thus, the threshold of capacity to enter into a supported decision-making agreement is justifiably low. People with marginal capacity would reasonably satisfy this threshold.

This response, however, raises questions about the minimum level of decision-making capacity required to enter into a supported decision-making agreement. The project of supported decision making would benefit from future scholarship that describes the specific decisional abilities that show a person with dynamic impairments can (or cannot) enter into a valid supported decision-making agreement.