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, October 22, 2021

A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Antecedents, Theoretical Correlates, and Consequences of Moral Disengagement at Work

Ogunfowora, B. T., et al. (2021)
The Journal of Applied Psychology
Advance online publication. 


Moral disengagement refers to a set of cognitive tactics people employ to sidestep moral self-regulatory processes that normally prevent wrongdoing. In this study, we present a comprehensive meta-analytic review of the nomological network of moral disengagement at work. First, we test its dispositional and contextual antecedents, theoretical correlates, and consequences, including ethics (workplace misconduct and organizational citizenship behaviors [OCBs]) and non-ethics outcomes (turnover intentions and task performance). Second, we examine Bandura's postulation that moral disengagement fosters misconduct by diminishing moral cognitions (moral awareness and moral judgment) and anticipatory moral self-condemning emotions (guilt). We also test a contrarian view that moral disengagement is limited in its capacity to effectively curtail moral emotions after wrongdoing. The results show that Honesty-Humility, guilt proneness, moral identity, trait empathy, conscientiousness, idealism, and relativism are key individual antecedents. Further, abusive supervision and perceived organizational politics are strong contextual enablers of moral disengagement, while ethical leadership and organizational justice are relatively weak deterrents. We also found that narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and psychological entitlement are key theoretical correlates, although moral disengagement shows incremental validity over these "dark" traits. Next, moral disengagement was positively associated with workplace misconduct and turnover intentions, and negatively related to OCBs and task performance. Its positive impact on misconduct was mediated by lower moral awareness, moral judgment, and anticipated guilt. Interestingly, however, moral disengagement was positively related to guilt and shame post-misconduct. In sum, we find strong cumulative evidence for the pertinence of moral disengagement in the workplace.

From the Discussion

Our moderator analyses reveal several noteworthy findings. First, the relationship between moral disengagement and misconduct did not significantly differ depending on whether it is operationalized as a trait or state. This suggests that the impact of moral disengagement – at least with respect to workplace misconduct – is equally devastating when it is triggered in specific situations or when it is captured as a stable propensity. This provides initial support for conceptualizing moral disengagement along a continuum – from “one off” instances in specific contexts (i.e., state moral disengagement) to a “dynamic disposition” (Bandura, 1999b) that is relatively stable, but which may also shift in response to different situations (Moore et al., 2019).  

Second, there may be utility in exploring specific disengagement tactics. For instance, euphemistic labeling exerted stronger effects on misconduct compared to moral justification and diffusion of responsibility. Relative weight analyses further showed that some tactics contribute more to understanding misconduct and OCBs. Scholars have proposed that exploring moral disengagement tactics that match the specific context may offer new insights (Kish-Gephart et al., 2014; Moore et al., 2019). It is possible that moral justification might be critical in situations where participants must conjure up rationales to justify their misdeeds (Duffy et al., 2005), while diffusion of responsibility might matter more in team settings where morally disengaging employees can easily assign blame to the collective (Alnuaimi et al., 2010). These possibilities suggest that specific disengagement tactics may offer novel theoretical insights that may be overlooked when scholars focus on overall moral disengagement. However, we acknowledge that this conclusion is preliminary given the small number of studies available for these analyses. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

How Disgust Affects Social Judgments

Inbar, Y., & Pizarro, D.
(2021, September 7). 


The emotion of disgust has been claimed to affect a diverse array of social judgments, including moral condemnation, inter-group prejudice, political ideology, and much more. We attempt to make sense of this large and varied literature by reviewing the theory and research on how and why disgust influences these judgments. We first describe two very different perspectives adopted by researchers on why disgust should affect social judgment. The first is the pathogen-avoidance account, which sees the relationship between disgust and judgment as resulting from disgust’s evolved function as a pathogen-avoidance mechanism. The second is the extended disgust account, which posits that disgust functions much more broadly to address a range of other threats and challenges. We then review the empirical evidence to assess how well it supports each of these perspectives, arguing that there is more support for the pathogen-avoidance account than the extended account. We conclude with some testable empirical predictions that can better distinguish between these two perspectives.


We have described two very different perspectives on disgust that posit very different explanations for its role in social judgments. In our view, the evidence currently supports the pathogen-avoidance account over the extended-disgust alternative, but the question is best settled by future research explicitly designed to differentiate the two perspectives.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Fight to Define When AI Is ‘High Risk’

Khari Johnson
Originally posted 1 Sept 21

Here is an excerpt:

At the heart of much of that commentary is a debate over which kinds of AI should be considered high risk. The bill defines high risk as AI that can harm a person’s health or safety or infringe on fundamental rights guaranteed to EU citizens, like the right to life, the right to live free from discrimination, and the right to a fair trial. News headlines in the past few years demonstrate how these technologies, which have been largely unregulated, can cause harm. AI systems can lead to false arrests, negative health care outcomes, and mass surveillance, particularly for marginalized groups like Black people, women, religious minority groups, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and those from lower economic classes. Without a legal mandate for businesses or governments to disclose when AI is used, individuals may not even realize the impact the technology is having on their lives.

The EU has often been at the forefront of regulating technology companies, such as on issues of competition and digital privacy. Like the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, the AI Act has the potential to shape policy beyond Europe’s borders. Democratic governments are beginning to create legal frameworks to govern how AI is used based on risk and rights. The question of what regulators define as high risk is sure to spark lobbying efforts from Brussels to London to Washington for years to come.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why Empathy Is Not a Reliable Source of Information in Moral Decision Making

Decety, J. (2021).
Current Directions in Psychological Science. 


Although empathy drives prosocial behaviors, it is not always a reliable source of information in moral decision making. In this essay, I integrate evolutionary theory, behavioral economics, psychology, and social neuroscience to demonstrate why and how empathy is unconsciously and rapidly modulated by various social signals and situational factors. This theoretical framework explains why decision making that relies solely on empathy is not ideal and can, at times, erode ethical values. This perspective has social and societal implications and can be used to reduce cognitive biases and guide moral decisions.

From the Conclusion

Empathy can encourage overvaluing some people and ignoring others, and privileging one over many. Reasoning is therefore essential to filter and evaluate emotional responses that guide moral decisions. Understanding the ultimate causes and proximate mechanisms of empathy allows characterization of the kinds of signals that are prioritized and identification of situational factors that exacerbate empathic failure. Together, this knowledge is useful at a theoretical level, and additionally provides practical information about how to reframe situations to activate alternative evolved systems in ways that promote normative moral conduct compatible with current societal aspirations. This conceptual framework advances current understanding of the role of empathy in moral decision making and may inform efforts to correct personal biases. Becoming aware of one’s biases is not the most effective way to manage and mitigate them, but empathy is not something that can be ignored. It has an adaptive biological function, after all.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Artificial Pain May Induce Empathy, Morality, and Ethics in the Conscious Mind of Robots

M. Asada
Philosophies 2019, 4(3), 38


In this paper, a working hypothesis is proposed that a nervous system for pain sensation is a key component for shaping the conscious minds of robots (artificial systems). In this article, this hypothesis is argued from several viewpoints towards its verification. A developmental process of empathy, morality, and ethics based on the mirror neuron system (MNS) that promotes the emergence of the concept of self (and others) scaffolds the emergence of artificial minds. Firstly, an outline of the ideological background on issues of the mind in a broad sense is shown, followed by the limitation of the current progress of artificial intelligence (AI), focusing on deep learning. Next, artificial pain is introduced, along with its architectures in the early stage of self-inflicted experiences of pain, and later, in the sharing stage of the pain between self and others. Then, cognitive developmental robotics (CDR) is revisited for two important concepts—physical embodiment and social interaction, both of which help to shape conscious minds. Following the working hypothesis, existing studies of CDR are briefly introduced and missing issues are indicated. Finally, the issue of how robots (artificial systems) could be moral agents is addressed.


To tackle the issue of consciousness, this study attempted to represent it as a phenomenon of the developmental process of artificial empathy for pain and moral behavior generation. The conceptual model for the former is given by, while the latter is now a story of fantasy. If a robot is regarded as a moral being that is capable of exhibiting moral behavior with others, is it deserving of receiving moral behavior from them? If so, can we agree that such robots have conscious minds? This is an issue of ethics towards robots, and is also related to the legal system. Can we ask such robots to accept a sort of responsibility for any accident they commit? If so, how? These issues arise when we introduce robots who are qualified as a moral being with conscious minds into our society.

Before these issues can be considered, there are so many technical issues to address. Among them, the following should be addressed intensively.
  1. Associate the sensory discrimination of pain with the affective and motivational responses to pain (the construction of the pain matrix and memory dynamics).
  2. Recall the experience when a painful situation of others is observed.
  3. Generate appropriate behavior to reduce the pain.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Cognitive Science of Technology

D. Stout
Trends in Cognitive Sciences
Available online 4 August 2021


Technology is central to human life but hard to define and study. This review synthesizes advances in fields from anthropology to evolutionary biology and neuroscience to propose an interdisciplinary cognitive science of technology. The foundation of this effort is an evolutionarily motivated definition of technology that highlights three key features: material production, social collaboration, and cultural reproduction. This broad scope respects the complexity of the subject but poses a challenge for theoretical unification. Addressing this challenge requires a comparative approach to reduce the diversity of real-world technological cognition to a smaller number of recurring processes and relationships. To this end, a synthetic perceptual-motor hypothesis (PMH) for the evolutionary–developmental–cultural construction of technological cognition is advanced as an initial target for investigation.

  • Evolutionary theory and paleoanthropological/archaeological evidence motivate a theoretical definition of technology as socially reproduced and elaborated behavior involving the manipulation and modification of objects to enact changes in the physical environment.
  • This definition helps to resolve or obviate ongoing controversies in the anthropological, neuroscientific, and psychological literature relevant to technology.
  • A review of evidence from across these disciplines reveals that real-world technologies are diverse in detail but unified by the underlying demands and dynamics of material production. This creates opportunities for meaningful synthesis using a comparative method.
  • A ‘perceptual‐motor hypothesis’ proposes that technological cognition is constructed on biocultural evolutionary and developmental time scales from ancient primate systems for sensorimotor prediction and control.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Social identity shapes antecedents and functional outcomes of moral emotion expression in online networks

Brady, W. J., & Van Bavel, J. J. 
(2021, April 2). 


As social interactions increasingly occur through social media platforms, intergroup affective phenomena such as “outrage firestorms” and “cancel culture” have emerged with notable consequences for society. In this research, we examine how social identity shapes the antecedents and functional outcomes of moral emotion expression online. Across four pre-registered experiments (N = 1,712), we find robust evidence that the inclusion of moral-emotional expressions in political messages has a causal influence on intentions to share the messages on social media. We find that individual differences in the strength of partisan identification is a consistent predictor of sharing messages with moral-emotional expressions, but little evidence that brief manipulations of identity salience increased sharing. Negative moral emotion expression in social media messages also causes the message author to be perceived as more strongly identified among their partisan ingroup, but less open-minded and less worthy of conversation to outgroup members. These experiments highlight the role of social identity in affective phenomena in the digital age, and showcase how moral emotion expressions in online networks can serve ingroup reputation functions while at the same time hinder discourse between political groups.


In the context of contentious political conversations online, moral-emotional language causes political partisans to share the message more often, and that this effect was strongest in strong group identifiers. Expressing negative moral-emotional language in social media messages makes the message author appear more strongly identified with their group, but also makes outgroup members think the author is less open-minded and less worth of conversation. This work sheds light on antecedents and functional outcomes of moral-emotion expression in the digital age, which is becoming increasingly important to study as intergroup affective phenomena such as viral outrage and affective polarization are reaching historic levels.

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Ethics of Sex Robots

Sterri, A. B., & Earp, B. D. (in press).
In C. Véliz (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of 
Digital Ethics. Oxford:  Oxford University Press.


What, if anything, is wrong with having sex with a robot? For the sake of this chapter, the authors  will  assume  that  sexbots  are  ‘mere’  machines  that are  reliably  identifiable  as such, despite  their  human-like  appearance  and  behaviour.  Under  these  stipulations,  sexbots themselves can no more be harmed, morally speaking, than your dishwasher. However, there may still be something wrong about the production, distribution,  and use of such sexbots. In this  chapter,  the  authors  examine  whether  sex  with robots  is  intrinsically  or  instrumentally wrong  and  critically  assess  different  regulatory  responses.  They  defend  a  harm  reduction approach to  sexbot  regulation,  analogous  to  the  approach that has  been  considered  in  other areas, concerning, for example, drugs and sex work.


Even  if  sexbots  never  become  sentient,  we  have  good  reasons  to  be  concerned with  their production, distribution, and use. Our seemingly  private activities have social meanings that we do not necessarily intend, but  which can be harmful to others. Sex  can both be  beautiful and  valuable—and  ugly  or  profoundly  harmful.  We  therefore  need  strong  ethical  norms  to guide human sexual behaviour, regardless of the existence of sexbots. Interaction with new technologies  could  plausibly  improve  our  sexual  relationships,  or  make things  worse  (see Nyholm et al. forthcoming, for a theoretical overview). In this chapter, we have explored some ways in which a harm reduction framework may have the potential to bring about the alleged benefits of sexbots with a minimum of associated harms. But whatever approach is taken, the goal should be to ensure that our relationships with robots conduce to, rather than detract from, the equitable flourishing of our fellow human beings.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

A Minimal Turing Test

McCoy, J. P., and Ullman, T.D.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 79, November 2018, Pages 1-8


We introduce the Minimal Turing Test, an experimental paradigm for studying perceptions and meta-perceptions of different social groups or kinds of agents, in which participants must use a single word to convince a judge of their identity. We illustrate the paradigm by having participants act as contestants or judges in a Minimal Turing Test in which contestants must convince a judge they are a human, rather than an artificial intelligence. We embed the production data from such a large-scale Minimal Turing Test in a semantic vector space, and construct an ordering over pairwise evaluations from judges. This allows us to identify the semantic structure in the words that people give, and to obtain quantitative measures of the importance that people place on different attributes. Ratings from independent coders of the production data provide additional evidence for the agency and experience dimensions discovered in previous work on mind perception. We use the theory of Rational Speech Acts as a framework for interpreting the behavior of contestants and judges in the Minimal Turing Test.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Supernatural Explanations Across the Globe Are More Common for Natural Than Social Phenomena

Jackson, J. C., et al.
(2021, September 2).


Supernatural beliefs are common in every human society, and people frequently invoke the supernatural to explain natural (e.g., storms, disease outbreaks) and social (e.g., murder, warfare) events. However, evolutionary and psychological theories of religion raise competing hypotheses about whether supernatural explanations should more commonly focus on natural or social phenomena. Here we test these hypotheses with a global analysis of supernatural explanations in 109 geographically and culturally diverse societies. We find that supernatural explanations are more prevalent for natural phenomena than for social phenomena, an effect that generalizes across regions and subsistence styles and cannot be reduced to the frequency of natural vs. social phenomena or common cultural ancestry. We also find that supernatural explanations of social phenomena only occur in societies that also have supernatural explanations of natural phenomena. This evidence is consistent with theories that ground the origin of supernatural belief in a human tendency to perceive intent and agency in nature.


Religious beliefs are prevalent in virtually every human society, and may even predate anatomically modern humans. The widespread prevalence of supernatural explanations suggests that explanation is a core property of religious beliefs, and humans may have long used religious beliefs to explain aspects of their natural and social worlds. However, there has never been a worldwide survey of supernatural explanations, which has been a barrier to understanding the most frequent ways that people use religious belief as a tool for explanation. 

We use a global analysis of societies in the ethnographic record to show that humans are more likely to use supernatural explanations to explain natural phenomena versus social phenomena. Across all world regions and subsistence styles, societies were more likely to attribute natural events like famine and disease to supernatural causes compared to social events such as warfare and murder. This prevalence gap could not be explained by the frequency of phenomena in our analysis (i.e., that disease outbreaks occurred more frequently than warfare).

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Demand five precepts to aid social-media watchdogs

Ethan Zucker
Nature 597, 9 (2021)
Originally punished 31 Aug 21

Here is an excerpt:

I propose the following. First, give researchers access to the same targeting tools that platforms offer to advertisers and commercial partners. Second, for publicly viewable content, allow researchers to combine and share data sets by supplying keys to application programming interfaces. Third, explicitly allow users to donate data about their online behaviour for research, and make code used for such studies publicly reviewable for security flaws. Fourth, create safe-haven protections that recognize the public interest. Fifth, mandate regular audits of algorithms that moderate content and serve ads.

In the United States, the FTC could demand this access on behalf of consumers: it has broad powers to compel the release of data. In Europe, making such demands should be even more straightforward. The European Data Governance Act, proposed in November 2020, advances the concept of “data altruism” that allows users to donate their data, and the broader Digital Services Act includes a potential framework to implement protections for research in the public interest.

Technology companies argue that they must restrict data access because of the potential for harm, which also conveniently insulates them from criticism and scrutiny. They cite misuse of data, such as in the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which came to light in 2018 and prompted the FTC orders), in which an academic researcher took data from tens of millions of Facebook users collected through online ‘personality tests’ and gave it to a UK political consultancy that worked on behalf of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign. Another example of abuse of data is the case of Clearview AI, which used scraping to produce a huge photographic database to allow federal and state law-enforcement agencies to identify individuals.

These incidents have led tech companies to design systems to prevent misuse — but such systems also prevent research necessary for oversight and scrutiny. To ensure that platforms act fairly and benefit society, there must be ways to protect user data and allow independent oversight.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Good deeds and hard knocks: The effect of past suffering on praise for moral behavior

P. Robbins, F. Alvera, & P. Litton
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 97, November 2021


Are judgments of praise for moral behavior modulated by knowledge of an agent's past suffering at the hands of others, and if so, in what direction? Drawing on multiple lines of research in experimental social psychology, we identify three hypotheses about the psychology of praise — typecasting, handicapping, and non-historicism — each of which supports a different answer to the question above. Typecasting predicts that information about past suffering will augment perceived patiency and thereby diminish perceived agency, making altruistic actions seem less praiseworthy; handicapping predicts that this information will make altruistic actions seem more effortful, and hence more praiseworthy; and non-historicism predicts that judgments of praise will be insensitive to information about an agent's experiential history. We report the results of two studies suggesting that altruistic behavior tends to attract more praise when the experiential history of the agent involves coping with adversity in childhood rather than enjoying prosperity (Study 1, N = 348, p = .03, d = 0.45; Study 2, N = 400, p = .02, d = 0.39), as well as the results of a third study suggesting that altruistic behavior tends to be evaluated more favorably when the experiential history of the agent includes coping with adversity than in the absence of information about the agent's past experience (N = 226, p = .002). This pattern of results, we argue, is more consistent with handicapping than typecasting or non-historicism.

From the Discussion

One possibility is that a history of suffering is perceived as depleting the psychological resources required for acting morally, making it difficult for someone to shift attention from their own needs to the needs of others. This is suggested by the stereotype of people who have suffered hardships in early life, especially at the hands of caregivers, which includes a tendency to be socially anxious, insecure, and withdrawn — a stereotype which may have some basis in fact (Elliott, Cunningham, Linder, Colangelo, & Gross, 2005). A history of suffering, that is, might seem like an obstacle to developing the kind of social mindedness exemplified by acts of altruism and other forms of prosocial behavior, which are typically motivated by feelings of compassion or empathic concern. This is an open empirical question, worthy of investigation not just in connection with handicapping and typecasting (and historicist accounts of praise more generally) but in its own right.

This research may have implications for psychotherapy.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Oppressive Double Binds

S. Hirji
Ethics, Vol 131, 4.
July 2021


I give an account of the structure of “oppressive double binds,” the double binds that exist in virtue of oppression. I explain how these double binds both are a product of and serve to reinforce oppressive structures. The central feature of double binds, I argue, is that an agent’s own prudential good is bound up with their ability to resist oppression; double binds are choice situations where no matter what an agent does, they become a mechanism in their own oppression. A consequence is that double binds constrain an individual’s agency while leaving various dimensions of their autonomy fully intact.

In the concluding remarks

To sum up: I have had three overarching goals of this article. The first has been to vindicate Frye’s point that once we properly understand the structure of double binds, we see how they differ from ordinary restrictions on an individual’s options and how they serve to immobilize and reduce members of certain groups. As Frye insists, understanding this difference between mechanisms of oppression and ordinary restrictions on our options is a crucial part of identifying and challenging oppressive structures. The second goal has been to develop and refine the concept of a double bind so that it can be useful in theorizing about oppression. I have argued that double binds are choice situations in which a member of an oppressed group is forced to choose between cooperating with and resisting some oppressive norm, and because of the way their own prudential good is bound up with their ability to resist oppression, they end up to some degree reinforcing their own oppression no matter what they do. The third goal has been to better understand what I call “imperfect choices”—choices where, no matter what an agent does, they undermine the very interest at stake in their choice. I have argued that “imperfect choices” constrain an individual’s agency while leaving various dimensions of their autonomy fully intact.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Nudgeability: Mapping Conditions of Susceptibility to Nudge Influence

de Ridder, D., Kroese, F., & van Gestel, L. (2021). 
Perspectives on psychological science 
Advance online publication. 


Nudges are behavioral interventions to subtly steer citizens' choices toward "desirable" options. An important topic of debate concerns the legitimacy of nudging as a policy instrument, and there is a focus on issues relating to nudge transparency, the role of preexisting preferences people may have, and the premise that nudges primarily affect people when they are in "irrational" modes of thinking. Empirical insights into how these factors affect the extent to which people are susceptible to nudge influence (i.e., "nudgeable") are lacking in the debate. This article introduces the new concept of nudgeability and makes a first attempt to synthesize the evidence on when people are responsive to nudges. We find that nudge effects do not hinge on transparency or modes of thinking but that personal preferences moderate effects such that people cannot be nudged into something they do not want. We conclude that, in view of these findings, concerns about nudging legitimacy should be softened and that future research should attend to these and other conditions of nudgeability.

From the General Discussion

Finally, returning to the debates on nudging legitimacy that we addressed at the beginning of this article, it seems that concerns should be softened insofar as nudges do impose choice without respecting basic ethical requirements for good public policy. More than a decade ago, philosopher Luc Bovens (2009) formulated the following four principles for nudging to be legitimate: A nudge should allow people to act in line with their overall preferences; a nudge should not induce a change in preferences that would not hold under nonnudge conditions; a nudge should not lead to “infantilization,” such that people are no longer capable of making autonomous decisions; and a nudge should be transparent so that people have control over being in a nudge situation. With the findings from our review in mind, it seems that these legitimacy requirements are fulfilled. Nudges do allow people to act in line with their overall preferences, nudges allow for making autonomous decisions insofar as nudge effects do not depend on being in a System 1 mode of thinking, and making the nudge transparent does not compromise nudge effects.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Can induced reflection affect moral decision-making

Daniel Spears, et al. (2021) 
Philosophical Psychology, 34:1, 28-46, 
DOI: 10.1080/09515089.2020.1861234


Evidence about whether reflective thinking may be induced and whether it affects utilitarian choices is inconclusive. Research suggests that answering items correctly in the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) before responding to dilemmas may lead to more utilitarian decisions. However, it is unclear to what extent this effect is driven by the inhibition of intuitive wrong responses (reflection) versus the requirement to engage in deliberative processing. To clarify this issue, participants completed either the CRT or the Berlin Numeracy Test (BNT) – which does not require reflection – before responding to moral dilemmas. To distinguish between the potential effect of participants’ previous reflective traits and that of performing a task that can increase reflectivity, we manipulated whether participants received feedback for incorrect items. Findings revealed that both CRT and BNT scores predicted utilitarian decisions when feedback was not provided. Additionally, feedback enhanced performance for both tasks, although it only increased utilitarian decisions when it was linked to the BNT. Taken together, these results suggest that performance in a numeric task that requires deliberative thinking may predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas. The finding that feedback increased utilitarian decisions only in the case of BNT casts doubt upon the reflective-utilitarian link.

From the General Discussion

Our data, however, did not fully support these predictions. Although feedback resulted in more utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas, this effect was mostly attributable to feedback on the BNT.  The effect was  not  attributable to differences in baseline task-performance. Additionally, both CRT and BNT scores predicted utilitarian responses when feedback was not provided. That  performance in the CRT predicts  utilitarian decisions is in agreement with a previous study linking cognitive reflection to utilitarian choice (Paxton et al., 2012; but see Sirota, Kostovicova, Juanchich, & Dewberry, pre-print, for the absence of effect when using a verbal CRT without numeric component).

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Axiological futurism: The systematic study of the future of values

J. Danaher
Volume 132, September 2021


Human values seem to vary across time and space. What implications does this have for the future of human value? Will our human and (perhaps) post-human offspring have very different values from our own? Can we study the future of human values in an insightful and systematic way? This article makes three contributions to the debate about the future of human values. First, it argues that the systematic study of future values is both necessary in and of itself and an important complement to other future-oriented inquiries. Second, it sets out a methodology and a set of methods for undertaking this study. Third, it gives a practical illustration of what this ‘axiological futurism’ might look like by developing a model of the axiological possibility space that humans are likely to navigate over the coming decades.


• Outlines a new field of inquiry: axiological futurism.

• Defends the role of axiological futurism in understanding technology in society.

• Develops a set of methods for undertaking this inquiry into the axiological future.

• Presents a model for understanding the impact of AI, robotics and ICTs on human values.

From the Conclusion

In conclusion, axiological futurism is the systematic and explicit inquiry into the axiological possibility space for future human (and post-human) civilisations. Axiological futurism is necessary because, given the history of axiological change and variation, it is very unlikely that our current axiological systems will remain static and unchanging in the future. Axiological futurism is also important because it is complementary to other futurological inquiries. While it might initially seem that axiological futurism cannot be a systematic inquiry, this is not the case. Axiological futurism is an exercise in informed speculation.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Immoral actors’ meta-perceptions are accurate but overly positive

Lees, J. M., Young, L., & Waytz, A.
(2021, August 16).


We examine how actors think others perceive their immoral behavior (moral meta-perception) across a diverse set of real-world moral violations. Utilizing a novel methodology, we solicit written instances of actors’ immoral behavior (N_total=135), measure motives and meta-perceptions, then provide these accounts to separate samples of third-party observers (N_total=933), using US convenience and representative samples (N_actor-observer pairs=4,615). We find that immoral actors can accurately predict how they are perceived, how they are uniquely perceived relative to the average immoral actor, and how they are misperceived. Actors who are better at judging the motives of other immoral actors also have more accurate meta-perceptions. Yet accuracy is accompanied by two distinct biases: overestimating the positive perceptions others’ hold, and believing one’s motives are more clearly perceived than they are. These results contribute to a detailed account of the multiple components underlying both accuracy and bias in moral meta-perception.

From the General Discussion

These results collectively suggest that individuals who have engaged in immoral behavior can accurately forecast how others will react to their moral violations.  

Studies 1-4 also found similar evidence for accuracy in observers’ judgments of the unique motives of immoral actors, suggesting that individuals are able to successfully perspective-take with those who have committed moral violations. Observers higher in cognitive ability (Studies 2-3) and empathic concern (Studies 2-4) were consistently more accurate in these judgments, while observers higher in Machiavellianism (Studies 2-4) and the propensity to engage in unethical workplace behaviors (Studies 3-4) were consistently less accurate. This latter result suggests that more frequently engaging in immoral behavior does not grant one insight into the moral minds of others, and in fact is associated with less ability to understand the motives behind others’ immoral behavior.

Despite strong evidence for meta-accuracy (and observer accuracy) across studies, actors’ accuracy in judging how they would be perceived was accompanied by two judgment biases.  Studies 1-4 found evidence for a transparency bias among immoral actors (Gilovich et al., 1998), meaning that actors overestimated how accurately observers would perceive their self-reported moral motives. Similarly, in Study 4 an examination of actors’ meta-perception point estimates found evidence for a positivity bias. Actors systematically overestimate the positive attributions, and underestimate the negative attributions, made of them and their motives. In fact, the single meta-perception found to be the most inaccurate in its average point estimate was the meta-perception of harm caused, which was significantly underestimated.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Social Networking and Ethics

Vallor, Shannon
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 
(Fall 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Here is an excerpt:

Contemporary Ethical Concerns about Social Networking Services

While early SNS scholarship in the social and natural sciences tended to focus on SNS impact on users’ psychosocial markers of happiness, well-being, psychosocial adjustment, social capital, or feelings of life satisfaction, philosophical concerns about social networking and ethics have generally centered on topics less amenable to empirical measurement (e.g., privacy, identity, friendship, the good life and democratic freedom). More so than ‘social capital’ or feelings of ‘life satisfaction,’ these topics are closely tied to traditional concerns of ethical theory (e.g., virtues, rights, duties, motivations and consequences). These topics are also tightly linked to the novel features and distinctive functionalities of SNS, more so than some other issues of interest in computer and information ethics that relate to more general Internet functionalities (for example, issues of copyright and intellectual property).

Despite the methodological challenges of applying philosophical theory to rapidly shifting empirical patterns of SNS influence, philosophical explorations of the ethics of SNS have continued in recent years to move away from Borgmann and Dreyfus’ transcendental-existential concerns about the Internet, to the empirically-driven space of applied technology ethics. Research in this space explores three interlinked and loosely overlapping kinds of ethical phenomena:
  • direct ethical impacts of social networking activity itself (just or unjust, harmful or beneficial) on participants as well as third parties and institutions;
  • indirect ethical impacts on society of social networking activity, caused by the aggregate behavior of users, platform providers and/or their agents in complex interactions between these and other social actors and forces;
  • structural impacts of SNS on the ethical shape of society, especially those driven by the dominant surveillant and extractivist value orientations that sustain social networking platforms and culture.
Most research in the field, however, remains topic- and domain-driven—exploring a given potential harm or domain-specific ethical dilemma that arises from direct, indirect, or structural effects of SNS, or more often, in combination. Sections 3.1–3.5 outline the most widely discussed of contemporary SNS’ ethical challenges.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Reactance, morality, and disgust: the relationship between affective dispositions and compliance with official health recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Díaz, R., & Cova, F. (2021). 
Cognition & emotion, 1–17. 


Emergency situations require individuals to make important changes in their behavior. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, official recommendations to avoid the spread of the virus include costly behaviors such as self-quarantining or drastically diminishing social contacts. Compliance (or lack thereof) with these recommendations is a controversial and divisive topic, and lay hypotheses abound regarding what underlies this divide. This paper investigates which psychological traits separate people who comply with official recommendations from those who don't. In four pre-registered studies on both U.S. and French samples, we found that individuals' self-reported compliance with official recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic was partly driven by individual differences in moral values, disgust sensitivity, and psychological reactance. We discuss the limitations of our studies and suggest possible applications in the context of health communication.

From the General Discussion

However, results for semi-partial correlations paint a different   picture. First, perspective-taking is no longer a significant predictor of past compliance, but only of future compliance. Moreover, correlations coefficients for care values and perspective-taking were no longer the highest:correlations were in the same order of magnitude for care values than for pathogen disgust and psychological reactance, and quite low (<.10) for perspective-taking. This suggests  that, compared to the  effect of pathogen disgust  and  psychological  reactance,  the effect of care values and perspective-taking was for a great part explainable by other variables. On the contrary,  the overall effect of Pathogen Disgust seemed mostly unaffected by  the introduction of other variables, suggesting that its effect is not explained by these other variables.

The effect of perspective-taking on past and future compliance was particularly low for Study 2a, compared to Studies 1a and 1b. What could explain this difference? A first possible explanation is the nature of our sample: two US samples in Studies 1a and 1b, and a French sample  for  Study  2a.  However, it is not  clear why  this  should make a difference to the relationship between perspective-taking and compliance. A second explanation might be that Study  2a  included fewer predictors  than  Studies1a and 1b.  However,  this  seems  unlikely, because the zero-order correlations for perspective-taking were also smaller in Study 2 a third explanation might be timing: as mentioned earlier,Studies 1a and 1 were conducted in the middle of the first wave, while Study 2a was conducted between the first and second French waves, at a time where victims of COVID-19 were far fewer and less present and salient in medias. In absence of actual persons to take the perspective of, perspective-taking might have been less likely to motivate compliance.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Prosocial behavior and altruism: A review of concepts and definitions

Pfattheicher, S., Nielsen, Y. A., & Thielmann, I. 
Current Opinion in Psychology
Available online 23 August 2021


The field of prosociality is flourishing, yet researchers disagree about how to define prosocial behavior and often neglect defining it altogether. In this review, we provide an overview about the breadth of definitions of prosocial behavior and the related concept of altruism. Common to almost all definitions is an emphasis on the promotion of welfare in agents other than the actor. However, definitions of the two concepts differ in terms of whether they emphasize intentions and motives, costs and benefits, and the societal context. In order to improve on the conceptual ambiguity surrounding the study of prosociality, we urge researchers to provide definitions, to use operationalizations that match their definitions, and to acknowledge the diversity of prosocial behavior.

Concluding remarks

Together with many other researchers, we share the excitement about the study of prosocial behavior. To more strongly connect (abstract) theory and (concrete) behavior we need to carefully define and operationalize our constructs. More conceptual work is needed to clearly distinguish prosocial behavior from altruism and other types of prosocial behavior (such as cooperation and helping), and we should take care to avoid using the terms interchangeably. We hope that the present paper will encourage scholars targeting prosocial behavior or altruism in their research to use definitions more often and mindfully—to further develop the exciting field of prosocial behavior.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

We’ve Never Protected the Vulnerable

Aaron Carroll
The Atlantic
Originally posted 5 Sept 21

Here is an excerpt:

The Americans With Disabilities Act provides for some accommodations for people with disabilities or diseases in certain situations, but those are extremely limited. They also apply only to the afflicted. My friend’s wife, a teacher, couldn’t tell her school that she needed special treatment because someone was vulnerable in her life. The school implemented no precautions to reduce her chance of being exposed to illness and getting sick, in order to keep her husband safe at home. Neither could his kids demand changes at their schools. Asking schools to alter their behavior to protect relatives of students may seem like a big ask, but I couldn’t even persuade all of our close friends to get vaccinated against the flu to protect him.

COVID-19 has exposed these gaps in our public solidarity, not caused them. The way we handle influenza is the best example, as the infectious disease that usually causes the highest number of deaths each year. Even though the young and the old are at real risk from flu, along with the immunocompromised, we’ve almost never engaged in any special protections for these groups. I’ve begged people for years to get immunized to protect others, and most don’t listen. Other countries mask more during respiratory-virus seasons; almost no one even thinks of masking here. Few distance from others, even though that’s a more palatable option for most Americans. To the contrary, many people consider it a mark of pride to “tough it out” and come to work while sick, potentially exposing others.

Our current situation with COVID-19 is especially difficult because so many Americans believe they’ve already given more than enough. Any further adjustments to their life, even if they seem small, feel like too much to bear. It’s natural that Americans want to get back to normal, and I’m not arguing that we should lock down until no risk remains. I’m asking that we think about others more in specific settings. We don’t all have to wear a mask all the time, but we could get used to always carrying one. That way, if we are around people who might live with others at high risk, we could mask around them and stand a little farther away. We could cancel our evening plans or miss a concert if we’re sick. Is it really that hard to get a flu shot every year?

Friday, October 1, 2021

The prisoner’s dilemma: The role of medical professionals in executions

Elisabeth Armstrong
Journal of Medical Ethics
Originally posted 7 Sept 21

Here is an excerpt:

Clinician Participation in Executions is Either Wrong or Misguided

Clinicians might participate in executions out of an inappropriate commitment to capital punishment; this position of leveraging medical education and credentials to punish or harm has no grounding in ethical conversation. It is entirely inappropriate to undermine trust in the medical profession in service of one’s political or philosophical beliefs – those ought to be relegated to the voting booths.

However, some practitioners might be present at an execution out of a well-intentioned, but misguided commitment to preventing suffering. Their reasoning is along the lines, “If states are proceeding with an execution, shouldn’t a clinician be present to ensure there is no undue harm or suffering?” Writing on lethal injections, Dr. Sandeep Jahaur writes in the New York Times, “Barring physicians from executions will only increase the risk that prisoners will unduly suffer,” in violation of the Hippocratic Oath and the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution. He points out that no ethics board would allow the testing of execution drugs on human participants, therefore, in the absence of a “controlled investigation” it is important that a doctor is present to assist when things go awry.

Dr. Jahaur adds that if doctors (or other clinicians) do not assist, people with less experience are often called upon to insert catheters, assess and insert the IVs, mix and administer the drugs, monitor a patient’s vital signs, then confirm death; and of course, step in if anything goes wrong. Dr. Atul Gawande agrees that it is unlikely that a lethal injection could be performed without a physician without the occasional tragic mistake. As recently as October of 2014, the lack of involvement from clinicians resulted in the administration of an incorrect drug to an inmate – resulting in forty-three minutes of writhing and groaning before he died.

The Case for Ending Practitioner Participation

There is no denying that these cases of suffering are disturbing and compelling. Ultimately, however, the bioethical case for participation is grossly outweighed by the case against it: medical involvement on any level intrinsically violates the ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice – compromising the foundations of the medical system. (Underline added.)

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Generosity pays: Selfish people have fewer children and earn less money

Eriksson, K., Vartanova, I., et al. (2020)
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 
118(3), 532–544. 


Does selfishness pay in the long term? Previous research has indicated that being prosocial (or otherish) rather than selfish has positive consequences for psychological well-being, physical health, and relationships. Here we instead examine the consequences for individuals’ incomes and number of children, as these are the currencies that matter most in theories that emphasize the power of self-interest, namely economics and evolutionary thinking. Drawing on both cross-sectional (Studies 1 and 2) and panel data (Studies 3 and 4), we find that prosocial individuals tend to have more children and higher income than selfish individuals. An additional survey (Study 5) of lay beliefs about how self-interest impacts income and fertility suggests one reason selfish people may persist in their behavior even though it leads to poorer outcomes: people generally expect selfish individuals to have higher incomes. Our findings have implications for lay decisions about the allocation of scarce resources, as well as for economic and evolutionary theories of human behavior.

From the General Discussion

Our findings also speak to theories of the evolutionary history of otherishness in humans. It is often assumed that evolution promotes selfishness unless group selection acts as a counter-force (Sober & Wilson, 1999), possibly combined with a punishment mechanism to offset the advantage of being selfish (Henrich & Boyd, 2001). The finding that otherishness is associated with greater fertility within populations indicates that selfishness is not necessarily advantageous in the first place. Our datasets are limited to Europe and the United States, but if the mechanisms we sketched above are correct then we should also expect a similarly positive effect of otherishness on fertility in other parts of the world.

Our results paint a more complex picture for income, compared to fertility. Whereas otherish people tended to show the largest increases in incomes over time, the majority of our studies indicated that the highest absolute levels of income were associated with moderate otherishness. There are several ways in which otherishness may influence income levels and income trajectories. As noted earlier, otherish people tend to have stronger relations and social networks, and social networks are a key source of information about job opportunities (Granovetter, 1995).

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A new framework for the psychology of norms

Westra, E., & Andrews, K. (2021, July 9).


Social Norms – rules that dictate which behaviors are appropriate, permissible, or obligatory in different situations for members of a given community – permeate all aspects of human life. Many researchers have sought to explain the ubiquity of social norms in human life in terms of the psychological mechanisms underlying their acquisition, conformity, and enforcement. Existing theories of the psychology of social norms appeal to a variety of constructs, from prediction-error minimization, to reinforcement learning, to shared intentionality, to evolved psychological adaptations. However, most of these accounts share what we call the psychological unity assumption, which holds that there is something psychologically distinctive about social norms, and that social norm adherence is driven by a single system or process. We argue that this assumption is mistaken. In this paper, we propose a methodological and conceptual framework for the cognitive science of social norms that we call normative pluralism. According to this framework, we should treat norms first and foremost as a community-level pattern of social behavior that might be realized by a variety of different cognitive, motivational, and ecological mechanisms. Norm psychologists should not presuppose that social norms are underpinned by a unified set of processes, nor that there is anything particularly distinctive about normative cognition as such. We argue that this pluralistic approach offers a methodologically sound point of departure for a fruitful and rigorous science of norms.


The central thesis of this paper –what we’ve called normative pluralism–is that we should not take the psychological unity of social norms for granted.Social norms might be underpinned by a domain-specific norm system or by a single type of cognitive process, but they might also be the product of many different processes. In our methodological proposal, we outlined a novel, non-psychological conception of social norms –what we’ve called normative regularities –and defined the core components of a psychology of norms in light of this construct. In our empirical proposal, we argued that thus defined, social norms emerge from a heterogeneous set of cognitive, affective, and ecological mechanisms.

Thinking about social norms in this way will undoubtedly make the cognitive science of norms more complex and messy. If we are correct, however, then this will simply be a reflection of the complexity and messiness of social norms themselves. Taking a pluralistic approach to social norms allows us to explore the potential variability inherent to norm-governed behavior, which can help us to better understand how social norms shape our lives, and how they manifest themselves throughout the natural world.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Moral Injury During the CDOVID-19 Pandemic

Borges LM, Barnes SM,  et al. 
Psychol Trauma. 2020 Aug;12(S1):S138-S140. 
doi: 10.1037/tra0000698. Epub 2020 Jun 4. PMID: 32496101.

Here is an excerpt:

Moral injury in COVID-19 may be related to, but is distinct from: 1) burnout, 2) adjustment disorders, 3)
depression, 4) traumatic stress/PTSD, 5) moral injury in the military, and 6) moral distress. Moral injury
may be a contributing factor to burnout, adjustment disorders, or depression, but they are not equivalent. The diagnosis of PTSD requires a qualifying exposure to a traumatic stressor, whereas experiencing a moral injury does not. Moral injury in the military has been addressed in a different population and particularly after deployment, and its lessons may not be generalizable to moral injury during COVID-19, which we are seeing acutely among healthcare workers. Finally, moral distress may be a precursor to moral injury, but the terms are not interchangeable. Previous literature has noted that moral distress signals a need for systemic change because it is generated by systemic issues. Thus, moral distress can serve as a guide for healthcare improvement, and rapid systemic interventions to address moral distress may help to prevent and mitigate the impact of moral injury.

While not a mental disorder itself, moral injury undermines core capacities for well-being, including a
sense of ongoing value-laden actions, competence to face and meet challenges, and feelings of belonging and meaning. Moral injury is associated with strong feelings of shame and guilt and with intense self-condemnation and a shattered core sense of self. Clinical observations suggest that uncertainty in decision-making may increase the likelihood or intensity of moral injury.

In the context of a public health disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledgement of the need
to transition from ordinary standards of care to crisis standards of care can be both necessary and helpful to 1) provide a framework upon which to make difficult and ethically fraught decisions and 2) alleviate some of moral distress and indeed moral injury that may otherwise be experienced in the absence of such guidance. The pandemic forces us to confront challenging questions for which there are no clear answers, and to make “lose-lose” choices in which no one involved ends up feeling satisfied or even comfortable. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

An African Theory of Moral Status: A Relational Alternative to Individualism and Holism.

Metz, T. (2012).
Ethic Theory Moral Prac 15, 387–402. 


The dominant conceptions of moral status in the English-speaking literature are either holist or individualist, neither of which accounts well for widespread judgments that: animals and humans both have moral status that is of the same kind but different in degree; even a severely mentally incapacitated human being has a greater moral status than an animal with identical internal properties; and a newborn infant has a greater moral status than a mid-to-late stage foetus. Holists accord no moral status to any of these beings, assigning it only to groups to which they belong, while individualists such as welfarists grant an equal moral status to humans and many animals, and Kantians accord no moral status either to animals or severely mentally incapacitated humans. I argue that an underexplored, modal-relational perspective does a better job of accounting for degrees of moral status. According to modal-relationalism, something has moral status insofar as it capable of having a certain causal or intensional connection with another being. I articulate a novel instance of modal-relationalism grounded in salient sub-Saharan moral views, roughly according to which the greater a being's capacity to be part of a communal relationship with us, the greater its moral status. I then demonstrate that this new, African-based theory entails and plausibly explains the above judgments, among others, in a unified way.

From the end of the article:

Those deeply committed to holism and individualism, or even a combination of them, may well not be convinced by this discussion. Diehard holists will reject the idea that anything other than a group can ground moral status, while pure individualists will reject the recurrent suggestion that two beings that are internally identical (foetus v neonate, severely mentally incapacitated human v animal) could differ in their moral status. However, my aim has not been to convince anyone to change her mind, or even to provide a complete justification for doing so. My goals have instead been the more limited ones of articulating a new, modal-relational account of moral status grounded in sub-Saharan moral philosophy, demonstrating that it avoids the severe parochialism facing existing relational accounts, and showing that it accounts better than standard Western theories for a variety of widely shared intuitions about what has moral status and to what degree. Many of these intuitions are captured by neither holism nor individualism and have lacked a firm philosophical foundation up to now. Of importance here is the African theory’s promise to underwrite the ideas that humans and animals have a moral status grounded in the same property that differs in degree, that severely mentally incapacitated humans have a greater moral status than animals with the same internal properties, and that a human’s moral status increases as it develops from the embryonic to foetal to neo-natal stages.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Better the Two Devils You Know, Than the One You Don’t: Predictability Influences Moral Judgments of Immoral Actors

Walker, A. C.,  et al. 
(2020, March 24).


Across six studies (N = 2,646), we demonstrate the role that perceptions of predictability play in judgments of moral character, finding that people demonstrate a moral preference for more predictable immoral actors. Participants judged agents performing an immoral action (e.g., assault) for an unintelligible reason as less predictable and less moral than agents performing the same immoral action, along with an additional immoral action (e.g., theft), for a well-understood immoral reason (Studies 1-4). Additionally, agents performing an immoral action for an unintelligible reason were judged as less predictable and less moral compared to agents performing the same immoral act for an unstated reason (Studies 3-5). This moral preference persisted when participants viewed video footage of each agent’s immoral action (Study 5). Finally, agents performing immoral actions in an unusual way were judged as less predictable and less moral than those performing the same actions in a more common manner (Study 6). The present research demonstrates how immoral actions performed without a clear motive or in an unpredictable way are perceived to be especially indicative of poor moral character. In revealing peoples’ moral preference for predictable immoral actors, we propose that perceptions of predictability play an important, yet overlooked, role in judgments of moral character. Furthermore, we propose that predictability influences judgments of moral character for its ultimate role in reducing social uncertainty and facilitating cooperation with trustworthy individuals and discuss how these findings may be accommodated by person-centered theories of moral judgment and theories of morality-as-cooperation.

From the Discussion

From traditional act-based perspectives (e.g., deontology and utilitarianism; Kant, 1785/1959; Mill, 1861/1998) this moral preference may appear puzzling, as participants judged actors causing more harm and violating more moral rules as more moral. Nevertheless, recent work suggests that people view actions not as the endpoint of moral evaluation, but as a source of information for assessing the moral character of those who perform them(Tannenbaum et al., 2011; Uhlmannet al., 2013). Fromthis person-centered perspective(Pizarro & Tannenbaum, 2011; Uhlmann et al., 2015), a moral preference for more predictable immoral actors can be understood as participants judging the same immoral action (e.g., assault) as more indicative of negative character traits (e.g., a lack of empathy)when performed without an intelligible motive. That is, a person assaulting a stranger seemingly without reason or in an unusual manner (e.g., with a frozen fish) may be viewed as a more inherently unstable, violent, and immoral person compared to an individual performing an identical assault for a well-understood reason (e.g., to escape punishment for a crime in-progress). Such negative character assessments may lead unpredictable immoral actors to be considered a greater risk for causing future harms of uncertain severity to potentially random victims. Consistent with these claims, past work has shown that people judge those performing harmless-but-offensive acts (e.g., masturbating inside a dead chicken), as not only possessing more negative character traits compared to others performing more harmful acts (e.g., theft), but also as likely to engage in more harmful actions in the future(Chakroff et al., 2017; Uhlmann& Zhu, 2014).

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The prefrontal cortex and (uniquely) human cooperation: a comparative perspective

Zoh, Y., Chang, S.W.C. & Crockett, M.J.
Neuropsychopharmacol. (2021). 


Humans have an exceptional ability to cooperate relative to many other species. We review the neural mechanisms supporting human cooperation, focusing on the prefrontal cortex. One key feature of human social life is the prevalence of cooperative norms that guide social behavior and prescribe punishment for noncompliance. Taking a comparative approach, we consider shared and unique aspects of cooperative behaviors in humans relative to nonhuman primates, as well as divergences in brain structure that might support uniquely human aspects of cooperation. We highlight a medial prefrontal network common to nonhuman primates and humans supporting a foundational process in cooperative decision-making: valuing outcomes for oneself and others. This medial prefrontal network interacts with lateral prefrontal areas that are thought to represent cooperative norms and modulate value representations to guide behavior appropriate to the local social context. Finally, we propose that more recently evolved anterior regions of prefrontal cortex play a role in arbitrating between cooperative norms across social contexts, and suggest how future research might fruitfully examine the neural basis of norm arbitration.


The prefrontal cortex, in particular its more anterior regions, has expanded dramatically over the course of human evolution. In tandem, the scale and scope of human cooperation has dramatically outpaced its counterparts in nonhuman primate species, manifesting as complex systems of moral codes that guide normative behaviors even in the absence of punishment or repeated interactions. Here, we provided a selective review of the neural basis of human cooperation, taking a comparative approach to identify the brain systems and social behaviors that are thought to be unique to humans. Humans and nonhuman primates alike cooperate on the basis of kinship and reciprocity, but humans are unique in their abilities to represent shared goals and self-regulate to comply with and enforce cooperative norms on a broad scale. We highlight three prefrontal networks that contribute to cooperative behavior in humans: a medial prefrontal network, common to humans and nonhuman primates, that values outcomes for self and others; a lateral prefrontal network that guides cooperative goal pursuit by modulating value representations in the context of local norms; and an anterior prefrontal network that we propose serves uniquely human abilities to reflect on one’s own behavior, commit to shared social contracts, and arbitrate between cooperative norms across diverse social contexts. We suggest future avenues for investigating cooperative norm arbitration and how it is implemented in prefrontal networks.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Hanlon’s Razor

N. Ballantyne and P. H. Ditto
Midwest Studies in Philosophy
August 2021


“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity” – so says Hanlon’s Razor. This principle is designed to curb the human tendency toward explaining other people’s behavior by moralizing it. In this article, we ask whether Hanlon’s Razor is good or bad advice. After offering a nuanced interpretation of the principle, we critically evaluate two strategies purporting to show it is good advice. Our discussion highlights important, unsettled questions about an idea that has the potential to infuse greater humility and civility into discourse and debate.

From the Conclusion

Is Hanlon’s Razor good or bad advice? In this essay, we criticized two proposals in favor of the Razor.  One sees the benefits of the principle in terms of making us more accurate. The other sees benefits in terms of making us more charitable. Our discussion has been preliminary, but we hope careful empirical investigation can illuminate when and why the Razor is beneficial, if it is. For the time being, what else can we say about the Razor?

The Razor attempts to address the problem of detecting facts that explain opponents’ mistakes. Why do our opponents screw up? For hypermoralists, detecting stupidity in the noise of malice can be difficult: we are too eager to attribute bad motives and unsavory character to people who disagree with us. When we try to explain their mistakes, we are subject to two distinct errors:

Misidentifying-stupidity error: attributing an error to malice that is due to stupidity

Misidentifying-malice error: attributing an error to stupidity that is due to malice 

The idea driving the Razor is simple enough. People make misidentifying-stupidity errors too frequently and they should minimize those errors by risking misidentifying-malice errors. The Razor attempts to adjust our criterion for detecting the source of opponents’ mistakes. People should see stupidity more often in their opponents, even if that means they sometimes see stupidity where there is in fact malice. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Execution Hypothesis for the Evolution of a Morality of Fairness

R. Wrangham
Ethics & Politics
XXIII, 2021, 261-282


Humans are both the only species known to have a morality of fairness, and the only species in which the social hierarchy is headed by an alliance (a ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’). I present evidence in support of the argument by Boehm (1999, 2012) that these two features are causally linked. The reverse dominance hierarchy is detectable in the fossil record around 300,000 years ago with the
origin of Homo sapiens. From then onwards, according to the execution hypothesis, an alliance of adult males held the power of life and death over all members of the social group, and they used this power to advance their interests. The result was an intense selective pressure against antisocial behaviour and in favour of prosociality, cooperation and conformity to group norms, whether the norms were beneficial for the group as a whole or merely for the male alliance. The execution hypothesis thus argues that group dynamics have operated for at least 12,000 generations to favour the evolution of moral emotions, many of which are designed to protect individuals from the threat of severe punishment or death at the hands of a dominant alliance of males. 


The Persistent Importance of Moral Enforcement

Ever since Durkheim (1902), hunter-gatherers and others living in small-scale, acephalous bands have been known to live by a set of norms that categorize numerous behaviours as right or wrong.  Morally circumscribed behaviors concern food, sharing, sexuality, marriage partners, emotional expression, disrespect, secret societies and much else, and are the topic of much daily conversation. To judge from one detailed study of Ju/’hoansi Bushmen hunter-gatherers, moral enforcement comes more from punishment than reward, with males being sanctioned more than females (Wiessner, 2005).

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

COVID Medical Coverage is Over: Insurers are restoring deductibles and co-pays, leaving patients with big bills

Christopher Rowland
The Washington Post
Originally posted 18 Sept 21

Here is an excerpt:

But this year, most insurers have reinstated co-pays and deductibles for covid patients, in many cases even before vaccines became widely available. The companies imposed the costs as industry profits remained strong or grew in 2020, with insurers paying out less to cover elective procedures that hospitals suspended during the crisis.

Now the financial burden of covid is falling unevenly on patients across the country, varying widely by health-care plan and geography, according to a survey of the two largest health plans in every state by the nonprofit and nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

If you’re fortunate enough to live in Vermont or New Mexico, for instance, state mandates require insurance companies to cover 100 percent of treatment. But most Americans with covid are now exposed to the uncertainty, confusion and expense of business-as-usual medical billing and insurance practices — joining those with cancer, diabetes and other serious, costly illnesses.

(Insurers continue to waive costs associated with vaccinations and testing, a pandemic benefit the federal government requires.)

A widow with no children, Azar, 57, is part of the unlucky majority. Her experience is a sign of what to expect if covid, as most scientists fear, becomes endemic: a permanent, regular health threat.