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, January 22, 2022

Social threat indirectly increases moral condemnation via thwarting fundamental social needs

Henderson, R.K., Schnall, S. 
Sci Rep 11, 21709 (2021).

Abstract

Individuals who experience threats to their social needs may attempt to avert further harm by condemning wrongdoers more severely. Three pre-registered studies tested whether threatened social esteem is associated with increased moral condemnation. In Study 1 (N = 381) participants played a game in which they were socially included or excluded and then evaluated the actions of moral wrongdoers. We observed an indirect effect: Exclusion increased social needs-threat, which in turn increased moral condemnation. Study 2 (N = 428) was a direct replication, and also showed this indirect effect. Both studies demonstrated the effect across five moral foundations, and was most pronounced for harm violations. Study 3 (N = 102) examined dispositional concerns about social needs threat, namely social anxiety, and showed a positive correlation between this trait and moral judgments. Overall, results suggest threatened social standing is linked to moral condemnation, presumably because moral wrongdoers pose a further threat when one’s ability to cope is already compromised.

From the General Discussion

These findings indicating that social threat is associated with harsher moral judgments suggest that various threats to survival can influence assessments of moral wrongdoing. Indeed, it has been proposed that the reason social exclusion reliably results in negative emotions is because social disconnectedness has been detrimental throughout human societies. As we found in Studies 1 and 2 and consistent with prior research even brief exclusion via a simulated computer game can thwart fundamental social needs. Taken together, these experimental and correlational findings suggest that an elevated sense of danger appears to fortify moral judgment, because when safety is compromised, wrongdoers represent yet another source of potential danger. As a consequence, vulnerable individuals may be motivated to condemn moral violations more harshly. Interestingly, the null finding for loneliness suggests that amplified moral condemnation is not associated with having no social connections in the first place, but rather, with the existence or prospect of social threat. Relatedly, prior research has shown that greater cortisol release is associated with social anxiety but not with loneliness indicating that the body’s stress response does not react to loneliness in the same way as it does to social threat.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Is a new kind of religion forming on the internet?

Rebecca Jennings
Vox.com
Originally posted 14 DEC 21

Here is an excerpt:

2020 was the first year on record that the majority of Americans said they did not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque; from the 1930s to the turn of the 21st century, around 70 percent of Americans did belong to one. Americans, particularly younger ones, increasingly report that they have no religious preference, or as some have put it, it’s “the rise of the nones.” But perhaps “none” doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

The religion of the internet posits questions like, “what’s the harm in believing?” and “why shouldn’t I be prepared for the worst?” The deeper you go, the harder those questions are to answer.

Perhaps it’s all because of the Puritans. They were the ones, after all, who consecrated the American legacy of individualism, piety, and hard work at the expense of all else. Or maybe it came out of the recurrent phenomena of Protestant-led Great Awakenings that have peppered US history since before it was a country, social movements that preached the importance of one’s personal relationship with God outside of organized rituals and ceremonies.

“It was the idea that you could perfect yourself, your health, and your circumstances,” explains Mary Wrenn, an economics professor at the University of the West of England Bristol who studies neoliberalism and religion. This eventually culminated in the prosperity gospel, known best for its charismatic leaders preaching financial wealth and the widespread practice of manifesting, or the idea that in order to make positive things happen in your life, all you have to do is pretend as though they already are. “It’s during periods of economic crisis that we really see it start to flourish,” says Wrenn. Because many of the churches where it’s preached can be attended virtually, the message travels much further. “It’s a lot easier to have believers when you don’t have to physically be in a church. The portability of the message is what makes people believers in the prosperity gospel even when they’re not necessarily regular churchgoers.”

The same could be said for the internet, where spiritual trends proliferate much like cultural and political ones. In fact, the latest iteration of New Thought’s founding principles is inseparable from the internet: Russo, the anthropology professor, notes that as social media has become the dominant cultural force in our society, ideologies are spreading between people who may have vastly different beliefs and backgrounds, but who show up on each other’s feeds and relate in new ways.

“It’s a mishmash of different Christian and non-Western beliefs and aesthetics, but this stuff — good and evil, prosperity — are present in all religious systems worldwide, and always have been,” he says. “Even our most fervent atheists or agnostics are still interested in morality. It’s the same idea, different packaging.”

These binaries espoused by internet spirituality — good and evil, demonic and angelic, abundance and poverty — are reinforced everywhere in culture, and not only in the context of religion. “‘The demonic’ is one of those very superficial distinctions that really has a lot to do with, ‘who’s your customer? Who are you trying to frighten?’ It can stand in the kind of generalized force of evil in a very effective way, regardless of what the specifics are,” explains Russo. “It works on people not necessarily because they’ve read the Bible, but because they watch Harry Potter or read Tolkien or play Dungeons and Dragons.”

Thursday, January 20, 2022

An existential threat to humanity: Democracy’s decline

Kaushik Basu
Japan Times
Originally posted 24 DEC 21

Here are two excerpts:

Most people do not appreciate the extent to which civilizations depend on pillars of norms and conventions. Some of these have evolved organically over time, while others required deliberation and collective action. If one of the pillars buckles, a civilization could well collapse.

(cut)

When a vast majority of a country’s population is ready to rebel, as seemed to be the case in Belarus in the summer of 2020, and the leader has limited capacity to suppress the uprising, how can he or she prevail?

To address this question, I developed an allegory I call the “Incarceration Game.” Some 1 million citizens of a particular country want to join a rebellion to overthrow the tyrannical leader who can catch and jail at most 100 rebels. With such a low probability of being caught, each person is ready to take to the streets. The leader’s situation looks hopeless.

Suppose he nonetheless announces that he will incarcerate the 100 oldest people who join the uprising. At first sight, it appears that this will not stop the rebellion, because the vast number of young people will have no reason to abandon it. But, if people’s ages are common knowledge, the outcome will be different. After the leader’s announcement, the 100 oldest people will not join the revolt, because the pain of certain incarceration is too great even for a good cause. Knowing this, the next 100 oldest people also will not take part in the revolution, and nor will the 100 oldest people after them. By induction, no one will. The streets will be empty.

Authoritarian rulers’ intentional or unwitting use of such an approach may help to explain why earlier revolts crumbled when on the verge of success. To demonstrate this empirically in history or in recent cases, like that of Belarus or Myanmar, will require data that we do not have yet. The incarceration game is a purely logical conjecture. What it does, importantly, is to remind us that toppling a dictator requires a strategy to foil such a tactic. Good intentions alone are not sufficient; the upholding of democracy needs a strategy based on sound analysis.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

On the Harm of Imposing Risk of Harm.

Maheshwari, K. (2021)
Ethic Theory Moral Prac 24, 965–980

Abstract

What is wrong with imposing pure risks, that is, risks that don’t materialize into harm? According to a popular response, imposing pure risks is pro tanto wrong, when and because risk itself is harmful. Call this the Harm View. Defenders of this view make one of the following two claims. On the Constitutive Claim, pure risk imposition is pro tanto wrong when and because risk constitutes diminishing one’s well-being viz. preference-frustration or setting-back their legitimate interest in autonomy. On the Contingent Claim, pure risk imposition is pro tanto wrong when and because risk has harmful consequences for the risk-bearers, such as psychological distress. This paper argues that the Harm View is plausible only on the Contingent Claim, but fails on the Constitutive Claim. In discussing the latter, I argue that both the preference and autonomy account fail to show that risk itself is constitutively harmful and thereby wrong. In discussing the former, I argue that risk itself is contingently harmful and thereby wrong but only in a narrow range of cases. I conclude that while the Harm View can sometimes explain the wrong of imposing risk when (and because) risk itself is contingently harmful, it is unsuccessful as a general, exhaustive account of what makes pure imposition wrong.

Conclusions

In this paper, I have engaged in a detailed discussion of a prominent view in the ethics of risk imposition, namely the Harm View. I’ve argued that the Harm View is plausible only on the Contingent Claim, but fails on the Constitutive Claim. In discussing the Constitutive Claim, I’ve argued that the preference and autonomy accounts as construed by Finkelstein (2003) and Oberdiek (2017), respectively fail to show that risk itself is constitutively harmful, and thereby wrong. In vindicating the idea that risk itself is constitutively harmful, both accounts are found guilty of either trivializing or undermining the moral significance of risk, or admit to having counter-intuitive implications in cases where risks materialize. In discussing the Contingent Claim, I’ve argued that risk itself is contingently harmful and thereby wrong only in a narrow range of cases. This makes the Harm View explanatorily limited in scope, thereby undermining its plausibility as a general, exhaustive account of what makes pure imposition wrong.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

MIT Researchers Just Discovered an AI Mimicking the Brain on Its Own

Eric James Beyer
Interesting Engineering
Originally posted 18 DEC 21

Here is an excerpt:

In the wake of these successes, Martin began to wonder whether or not the same principle could be applied to higher-level cognitive functions like language processing. 

“I said, let’s just look at neural networks that are successful and see if they’re anything like the brain. My bet was that it would work, at least to some extent.”

To find out, Martin and colleagues compared data from 43 artificial neural network language models against fMRI and ECoG neural recordings taken while subjects listened to or read words as part of a text. The AI models the group surveyed covered all the major classes of available neural network approaches for language-based tasks. Some of them were more basic embedding models like GloVe, which clusters semantically similar words together in groups. Others, like the models known as GPT and BERT, were far more complex. These models are trained to predict the next word in a sequence or predict a missing word within a certain context, respectively. 

“The setup itself becomes quite simple,” Martin explains. “You just show the same stimuli to the models that you show to the subjects [...]. At the end of the day, you’re left with two matrices, and you test if those matrices are similar.”

And the results? 

“I think there are three-and-a-half major findings here,” Schrimpf says with a laugh. “I say ‘and a half’ because the last one we still don’t fully understand.”

Machine learning that mirrors the brain

The finding that sticks out to Martin most immediately is that some of the models predict neural data extremely well. In other words, regardless of how good a model was at performing a task, some of them appear to resemble the brain’s cognitive mechanics for language processing. Intriguingly, the team at MIT identified the GPT model variants as the most brain-like out of the group they looked at.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Social threat indirectly increases moral condemnation via thwarting fundamental social needs

Henderson, R.K., Schnall, S.
Sci Rep 11, 21709 (2021).

Abstract

Individuals who experience threats to their social needs may attempt to avert further harm by condemning wrongdoers more severely. Three pre-registered studies tested whether threatened social esteem is associated with increased moral condemnation. In Study 1 (N = 381) participants played a game in which they were socially included or excluded and then evaluated the actions of moral wrongdoers. We observed an indirect effect: Exclusion increased social needs-threat, which in turn increased moral condemnation. Study 2 (N = 428) was a direct replication, and also showed this indirect effect. Both studies demonstrated the effect across five moral foundations, and was most pronounced for harm violations. Study 3 (N = 102) examined dispositional concerns about social needs threat, namely social anxiety, and showed a positive correlation between this trait and moral judgments. Overall, results suggest threatened social standing is linked to moral condemnation, presumably because moral wrongdoers pose a further threat when one’s ability to cope is already compromised.

From the General Discussion

These findings indicating that social threat is associated with harsher moral judgments suggest that various threats to survival can influence assessments of moral wrongdoing. Indeed, it has been proposed that the reason social exclusion reliably results in negative emotions is because social disconnectedness has been detrimental throughout human societies. As we found in Studies 1 and 2 and consistent with prior research, even brief exclusion via a simulated computer game can thwart fundamental social needs. Taken together, these experimental and correlational findings suggest that an elevated sense of danger appears to fortify moral judgment, because when safety is compromised, wrongdoers represent yet another source of potential danger. As a consequence, vulnerable individuals may be motivated to condemn moral violations more harshly. Interestingly, the null finding for loneliness suggests that amplified moral condemnation is not associated with having no social connections in the first place, but rather, with the existence or prospect of social threat. Relatedly, prior research has shown that greater cortisol release is associated with social anxiety but not with loneliness indicating that the body’s stress response does not react to loneliness in the same way as it does to social threat.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The effect of gender and parenting daughters on judgments of morally controversial companies

Niszczota P, BiaƂek M (2021)
PLoS ONE 16(12): e0260503.

Abstract

Earlier findings suggest that men with daughters make judgments and decisions somewhat in line with those made by women. In this paper, we attempt to extend those findings, by testing how gender and parenting daughters affect judgments of the appropriateness of investing in and working for morally controversial companies (“sin stocks”). To do so, in Study 1 (N = 634) we investigate whether women judge the prospect of investing in sin stocks more harshly than men do, and test the hypothesis that men with daughters judge such investments less favorably than other men. In Study 2 (N = 782), we investigate the willingness to work in morally controversial companies at a significant wage premium. Results show that—for men—parenting daughters yields harsher evaluations of sin stocks, but no evidence that it lowers the propensity to work in such companies. This contrasts to the effect of gender: women reliably judge both investment and employment in morally controversial companies more harshly than men do. We suggest that an aversion towards morally controversial companies might be a partial determinant of the gender gap in wages.

From the Discussion section

There are several insights from our work. Firstly, we investigate laypeople instead of people of high social status, such as CEOs, members of congress, or judges. This would be consequential if parental investment in sons and daughters might depend on the social status of the parent. Studying laypeople makes our findings more relevant to the general population, and to more common decisions (e.g., concerning what mutual funds to invest in). Secondly, our models are aimed at directly testing whether the effect of parenting daughters is different across men and women. This would be expected from the female socialization hypothesis: parenting daughters might make the preferences of men more similar to those exhibited by women, as it would help them adopt alternative perspectives on issues in which the opinions of men and women might differ. Yet, they would not cause a shift in the preferences of women, as they have the same gender as their daughters. Our findings show that parenting daughters leads to harsher evaluations of morally controversial investments, but only in men. In fact, women parenting a daughter judge morally controversial investments more favorably than women without daughters, a somewhat unexpected finding.

Our results showed a boundary condition of the daughter effect. In our case, a full conceptual replication of the findings of Cronqvist and Yu would translate into a more negative view of morally controversial companies as investment propositions, and a lower willingness to be employed in such companies (at a significant premium). We observed the daughter effect in the former, but not in the latter decision. This is noteworthy, considering that the gender effect was of similar strength in Study 1 (that concerned investment) and Study 2 (that concerned employment). In short, gender differences are robust to the factors that affect the daughter effect, but these are yet to be discovered. We need to point out that we are not the first to show no clear support for the daughter effect; however, see for a methodological comment on that particular finding). Moreover, in one study, Dahl and colleagues showed that the birth of a child (even daughters, if the first-born child was not female) makes male CEOs less generous to employees.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

What Dilemma? Moral Evaluation Shapes Factual Belief

B. Lui, & P. Ditto
Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2013;4(3):316-323. doi:10.1177/1948550612456045

Abstract

Moral dilemmas—like the “trolley problem” or real-world examples like capital punishment—result from a conflict between consequentialist and deontological intuitions (i.e., whether ends justify means). The authors contend that people often resolve such moral conflict by aligning factual beliefs about consequences of acts with evaluations of the act’s inherent morality (i.e., morality independent of its consequences). In both artificial (Study 1) and real-world (Study 2) dilemmas, the more an act was deemed inherently immoral, the more it was seen as unlikely to produce beneficial consequences and likely to involve harmful costs. Coherence between moral evaluations and factual beliefs increased with greater moral conviction, self-proclaimed topical knowledge, and political conservatism (Study 2). Reading essays about the inherent morality or immorality of capital punishment (Study 3) changed beliefs about its costs and benefits, even though no information about consequences was supplied. Implications for moral reasoning and political conflict are discussed.

From the General Discussion

While individuals can and do appeal to principle in some cases to support their moral positions, we argue that this is a difficult stance psychologically because it conflicts with well-rehearsed economic intuitions urging that the most rational course of action is the one that produces the most favorable cost–benefit ratio. Our research suggests that people resolve such dilemmas by bringing cost–benefit beliefs into line with moral evaluations, such that the right course of action morally becomes the right course of action practically as well.Study 3 provides experimental confirmation of a pattern implied by both our own and others’ correlational research(e.g., Kahan, 2010): People shape their descriptive understand-ing of the world to fit their prescriptive understanding of it.

Friday, January 14, 2022

A Little Good Goes an Unexpectedly Long Way: Underestimating the Positive Impact of Kindness on Recipients

Kumar, A., & Epley, N. 
(2021, November 15). 
https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/3yast

Abstract

Performing random acts of kindness increases happiness in both givers and receivers, but we find that givers systematically undervalue their positive impact on recipients. In both field and laboratory settings (Experiments 1a-2b), those performing a random act of kindness predicted how positive recipients would feel and recipients reported how they actually felt. From giving away a cup of hot chocolate in a park to giving away a gift in the lab, those performing a random act of kindness consistently underestimated how positive their recipients would feel, thinking their act was of less value than recipients perceived it to be. Givers’ miscalibrated expectations are driven partly by an egocentric bias in evaluations of the act itself (Experiment 3). Whereas recipients’ positive reactions are enhanced by the warmth conveyed in a kind act, givers’ expectations are relatively insensitive to the warmth conveyed in their action. Underestimating the positive impact of a random act of kindness also leads givers to underestimate the behavioral consequences their prosociality will produce in recipients through indirect reciprocity (Experiment 4). We suggest that givers’ miscalibrated expectations matter because they can create a barrier to engaging in prosocial actions more often in everyday life (Experiments 5a-5b), to the detriment of people’s own wellbeing, to others’ wellbeing, and to civil society.

General Discussion

Prosocial actions, such as performing random acts of kindness, tend to improve wellbeing for both those who perform prosocial acts as well as for those who receive them.  Indeed, those who performed a random act of kindness in our experiments reported feeling significantly more positive than they normally do, and two of the experiments confirmed that performers felt better than participants who were not given the opportunity to perform a random act of kindness. Another found that performers of acts of kindness felt more positive after being kind than they reported feeling at the beginning of the experiment.Being more prosocial did not come at a cost to people’s own wellbeing; it enhanced it.  Daily life, however, affords many opportunities for engaging in these sorts of prosocial activities that people do not seem to take.  We believe our research suggests one possible reason why: that those performing random acts of kindness undervalue the positive impact they are having on recipients.  People’s choices are often guided by either an implicit or explicit calculation of expected value (Becker, 1993).  Underestimating how positive a recipient would feel after even a small act of kindness could lead people to engage in prosocial actions less often than might be optimal for both their own and others’ wellbeing.

Across many different actions, with many different participants, and in many different contexts, performers systematically perceived their random act of kindness to be a more minor action than recipients perceived it to be, and also systematically underestimated how positive recipients would feel afterwards.Performers were not confused, of course, that recipients would feel good about their experience.  In all cases performers expected recipients to feel more positive than they normally do.  Nevertheless, performers were still systematically miscalibrated as recipients felt even better than expected.