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

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Extortion, intuition, and the dark side of reciprocity

Bernhard, R., & Cushman, F. A. 
(2021, April 22). 


Extortion occurs when one person uses some combination of threats and promises to extract an unfair share of benefits from another. Although extortion is a pervasive feature of human interaction, it has received relatively little attention in psychological research. To this end, we begin by observing that extortion is structured quite similarly to far better-studied “reciprocal” social behaviors, such as conditional cooperation and retributive punishment. All of these strategies are designed to elicit some desirable behavior from a social partner, and do so by constructing conditional incentives; the main difference is that the desired behavioral response is an unfair or unjust allocation of resources during extortion, whereas it is often a fair or just distribution of resources for reciprocal cooperation and punishment. Thus, we conjecture, a common set of psychological mechanisms may render these strategies successful. We know from prior work that prosocial forms of reciprocity often work best when implemented inflexibly and intuitively, rather than deliberatively. This both affords long-term commitment to the reciprocal strategy, and also signals this commitment to social partners. We argue that, for the same reasons, extortion is likely to depend largely upon inflexible, intuitive psychological processes. Several existing lines of circumstantial evidence support this conjecture.

From the Conclusion

An essential part of our analysis is to characterize strategies, rather than individual behaviors, as “prosocial” or “antisocial”.  Extortionate strategies can be  implemented by behaviors that “help” (as  in  the case of a manager who gives promotions to those who work uncompensated hours), while prosocial strategies can be implemented by behaviors that harm (as in the case of the CEO who finds out and reprimands this manager).   This manner of thinking at the level of strategies, rather than behavior, invites a broader realignment of our perspective on the relationship between intuition and social behavior. If our focus were on individual behaviors, we might have posed  the question, “Does intuition support cooperation or defection?”.  Framed  this way,  the recent literature could be taken to suggest the answer is “cooperation”—and,  therefore, that intuition promotes prosociality. Surely this is often true, but we suggest that intuitive cooperation can also serve antisocial ends. Meanwhile, as we have emphasized, a prosocial strategy such as TFT  may  benefit  from intuitive (reciprocal) defection. Quickly, the question, “Does intuition support cooperation or defection?”—and  any  implied  relationship to the question  “Does intuition support prosocial or antisocial behavior?”—begins to look ill-posed.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

New Feed Information

Hi All!! 

If you are reading this, you have subscribed to Ethics and Psychology, email version.

On July 1, 2021, Google's feedburner will discontinue.  I have signed up with Follow.It, a free feedburner. 

Tomorrow (June 30, 2021), I will be uploading email addresses to the new email feed system.

Please bear with me, as I do this all on a volunteer basis.

Your future emails will be from Follow.It.  Therefore, you may want to check your spam filter, in case the new emails land there.

Best wishes-

John D. Gavazzi, PsyD ABPP
Ethics Nerd, Morality Fan

What Matters for Moral Status: Behavioural or Cognitive Equivalence?

John Danaher
Cambridge Quarterly Review of Healthcare Ethics
2021 Jul;30(3):472-478.


Henry Shevlin’s paper—“How could we know when a robot was a moral patient?” – argues that we should recognize robots and artificial intelligence (AI) as psychological moral patients if they are cognitively equivalent to other beings that we already recognize as psychological moral patients (i.e., humans and, at least some, animals). In defending this cognitive equivalence strategy, Shevlin draws inspiration from the “behavioral equivalence” strategy that I have defended in previous work but argues that it is flawed in crucial respects. Unfortunately—and I guess this is hardly surprising—I cannot bring myself to agree that the cognitive equivalence strategy is the superior one. In this article, I try to explain why in three steps. First, I clarify the nature of the question that I take both myself and Shevlin to be answering. Second, I clear up some potential confusions about the behavioral equivalence strategy, addressing some other recent criticisms of it. Third, I will explain why I still favor the behavioral equivalence strategy over the cognitive equivalence one.


The second problem is more fundamental and may get to the heart of the disagreement between myself and Shevlin. The problem is that Shevlin seems to think that behavioural evidence and cognitive evidence are separable. I do not think that they are. After all, cognitive architectures do not speak for themselves. They speak through behaviour. The human cognitive architecture, for example, is not that differentiated at a biological level, particularly at the cortical level. You would be hard pressed to work out the cognitive function of different brain regions just by staring at MRI scans and microscopic slices of neural tissue. You need behavioural evidence to tell you what the cognitive architecture does.  This is what has happened repeatedly in the history of neuro- and cognitive science. So, for example, we find that people with damage to particular regions of the brain exhibit some odd behaviours (lack of long term memory formation; irritability and impulsiveness; language deficits; and so on). We then use this behavioural evidence to build up a functional map of the cognitive architecture. If the map is detailed enough, someone might be able to infer certain psychological or mental states from patterns of activity in the cognitive architecture, but this is only because we first used behaviour to build up the functional map.

Monday, June 28, 2021

You are a network

Kathleen Wallace
Originally published

Here is an excerpt:

Social identities are traits of selves in virtue of membership in communities (local, professional, ethnic, religious, political), or in virtue of social categories (such as race, gender, class, political affiliation) or interpersonal relations (such as being a spouse, sibling, parent, friend, neighbour). These views imply that it’s not only embodiment and not only memory or consciousness of social relations but the relations themselves that also matter to who the self is. What philosophers call ‘4E views’ of cognition – for embodied, embedded, enactive and extended cognition – are also a move in the direction of a more relational, less ‘container’, view of the self. Relational views signal a paradigm shift from a reductive approach to one that seeks to recognise the complexity of the self. The network self view further develops this line of thought and says that the self is relational through and through, consisting not only of social but also physical, genetic, psychological, emotional and biological relations that together form a network self. The self also changes over time, acquiring and losing traits in virtue of new social locations and relations, even as it continues as that one self.

How do you self-identify? You probably have many aspects to yourself and would resist being reduced to or stereotyped as any one of them. But you might still identify yourself in terms of your heritage, ethnicity, race, religion: identities that are often prominent in identity politics. You might identify yourself in terms of other social and personal relationships and characteristics – ‘I’m Mary’s sister.’ ‘I’m a music-lover.’ ‘I’m Emily’s thesis advisor.’ ‘I’m a Chicagoan.’ Or you might identify personality characteristics: ‘I’m an extrovert’; or commitments: ‘I care about the environment.’ ‘I’m honest.’ You might identify yourself comparatively: ‘I’m the tallest person in my family’; or in terms of one’s political beliefs or affiliations: ‘I’m an independent’; or temporally: ‘I’m the person who lived down the hall from you in college,’ or ‘I’m getting married next year.’ Some of these are more important than others, some are fleeting. The point is that who you are is more complex than any one of your identities. Thinking of the self as a network is a way to conceptualise this complexity and fluidity.

Let’s take a concrete example. Consider Lindsey: she is spouse, mother, novelist, English speaker, Irish Catholic, feminist, professor of philosophy, automobile driver, psychobiological organism, introverted, fearful of heights, left-handed, carrier of Huntington’s disease (HD), resident of New York City. This is not an exhaustive set, just a selection of traits or identities. Traits are related to one another to form a network of traits. Lindsey is an inclusive network, a plurality of traits related to one another. The overall character – the integrity – of a self is constituted by the unique interrelatedness of its particular relational traits, psychobiological, social, political, cultural, linguistic and physical.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

On Top of Everything Else, the Pandemic Messed With Our Morals

Jonathan Moens
The Atlantic
Originally posted 8 June 21

Here is an excerpt:

The core features of moral injury are feelings of betrayal by colleagues, leaders, and institutions who forced people into moral quandaries, says Suzanne Shale, a medical ethicist. As a way to minimize exposure for the entire team, Kathleen Turner and other ICU nurses have had to take on multiple roles: cleaning rooms, conducting blood tests, running neurological exams, and standing in for families who can’t keep patients company. Juggling all those tasks has left Turner feeling abandoned and expendable. “It definitely exposes and highlights the power dynamics within health care of who gets to say ‘No, I'm too high risk; I can't go in that patient's room,’” she said. Kate Dupuis, a clinical neuropsychiatrist and researcher at Canada’s Sheridan College, also felt her moral foundations shaken after Ontario’s decision to shut down schools for in-person learning at the start of the pandemic. The closures have left her worrying about the potential mental-health consequences this will have on her children.

For some people dealing with moral injury right now, the future might hold what is known as “post-traumatic growth,” whereby people’s sense of purpose is reinforced during adverse events, says Victoria Williamson, a researcher who studies moral injury at Oxford University and King’s College London. Last spring, Ahmed Ali, an imam in Brooklyn, New York, felt his moral code violated when dead bodies that were sent to him to perform religious rituals were improperly handled and had blood spilling from detached IV tubes. The experience has invigorated his dedication to helping others in the name of God. “That was a spiritual feeling,” he said.

But moral injury may leave other people feeling befuddled and searching for some way to make sense of a very bad year. If moral injury is left unaddressed, Greenberg said, there’s a real risk that people will develop depression, alcohol misuse, and suicidality. People suffering from moral injury risk retreating into isolation, engaging in self-destructive behaviors, and disconnecting from their friends and family. In the U.K., moral injury among military veterans has been linked to a loss of faith in organized religion. The psychological cost of a traumatic event is largely determined by what happens afterward, meaning that a lack of support from family, friends, and experts who can help people process these events—now that some of us are clawing our way out of the pandemic—could have serious mental-health repercussions. “This phase that we’re in now is actually the phase that’s the most important,” Greenberg said.

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Making moral principles suit yourself

Stanley, M.L., Henne, P., Niemi, L. et al. 
Psychon Bull Rev (2021). 


Normative ethical theories and religious traditions offer general moral principles for people to follow. These moral principles are typically meant to be fixed and rigid, offering reliable guides for moral judgment and decision-making. In two preregistered studies, we found consistent evidence that agreement with general moral principles shifted depending upon events recently accessed in memory. After recalling their own personal violations of moral principles, participants agreed less strongly with those very principles—relative to participants who recalled events in which other people violated the principles. This shift in agreement was explained, in part, by people’s willingness to excuse their own moral transgressions, but not the transgressions of others. These results have important implications for understanding the roles memory and personal identity in moral judgment. People’s commitment to moral principles may be maintained when they recall others’ past violations, but their commitment may wane when they recall their own violations.

From the General Discussion

 Moral disengagement mechanisms (e.g., distorting the consequences of actions, dehumanizing victims)
help people to convince themselves that their actions are permissible and that their ethical standards need not apply in certain contexts (Bandura, 1999; Bandura et al., 1996; Detert et al., 2008). These disengagement mechanisms are thought to help people to protect their favorable views of themselves.
Note that convincing oneself that a particular action is morally acceptable in a particular context via moral disengagement entails maintaining the same level of agreement with the overarching moral principles; the principle just does not apply in some particular context. In contrast, our findings suggest that by reflecting on their own morally objectionable actions, people’s agreement with the overarching, guiding principles
changes. It is not that the principle does not apply; it is that the principle is held with less conviction.


Normative ethical theories and religious traditions that offer general moral principles are meant to help us to understand aspects of ourselves and our world in ways that offer insights and guidance for living a moral life (Albertzart, 2013; Väyrynen, 2008). Our findings introduce some cause for doubt about the stability of moral principles over time, and therefore, their reliability as accurate indicators of moral judgments and actions in the real world.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Rugged American Individualism is a Myth, and It’s Killing Us

Katherine Wasson
Hastings Center
Originally published 4 June 21

The starkest picture of rugged American individualism is one we learned in school. A family moves West to settle the land and struggles with the elements.  Yet, even in these depictions, settlers needed help to raise a barn or harvest crops. They drew on the help of others and reciprocated in return. In the 21st century few Americans live in any way close to this largely self-sustaining lifestyle. Yet, the myth of rugged individualism is strong and persistent.

The reality for all of us is that none survive or flourish without the help of others. Whether it is within a family, peer group, school, religious institution, or wider community, all of us have been helped by others. Someone somewhere encouraged us, gave us a break or an opportunity, however small.  Some have experienced random acts of kindness from strangers. The myth of rugged individualism, which often means “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” is outdated, was never completely accurate, and is harming us.

Holding tightly to this myth leads to the misperception that an individual can do (or not do) whatever they want in society and no person or, perhaps especially, government entity can tell them otherwise. People say, “As long as my choice doesn’t harm anyone else, I should be able to do what I want.” How they know their action does not harm anyone else is unclear and there are examples from the pandemic where personal choice does harm others. In bioethics we recognize this view as an expression of individual autonomy; the freedom to govern oneself.  Yet, such blinkered views of individual autonomy are misguided and inaccurate. Everyone’s autonomy is limited in society to avoid harm to the self or others. We enforce seatbelt and drunk driving laws to these ends. Moreover, that we rely on others to function in society has been made very clear during the pandemic. We need others to provide food and education, collect our garbage, and conduct the scientific research that informs our knowledge of the virus. These contributions support the common good.

We have seen rugged individualism on full display during the coronavirus pandemic. It can lead to a disregard for the worth and value of others. While many people observed public health restrictions and guidelines, others, including some elected officials, refused to wear masks and are now refusing vaccination. Those who cling to their individualism seem to view such restrictions as unnecessary or unacceptable, an infringement on their individual rights and freedoms. They are not willing to sacrifice a degree of their freedom to protect themselves or others. The result has been 33,264,650 cases and 594,568 deaths in the United States and counting. 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Updated Physician-Aid-in-Dying Law Sparks Controversy in Canada

Richard Karel
Psychiatric News
Originally posted 27 May 21

Here is an excerpt:

Addressing the changes for people who may be weighing MAID for severe mental illness, the government stated the following:

“If you have a mental illness as your only medical condition, you are not eligible to seek medical assistance in dying. … This temporary exclusion allows the Government of Canada more time to consider how MAID can safely be provided to those whose only medical condition is mental illness.

“To support this work, the government will initiate an expert review to consider protocols, guidance, and safeguards for those with a mental illness seeking MAID and will make recommendations within a year (by March 17, 2022).

“After March 17, 2023, people with a mental illness as their sole underlying medical condition will have access to MAID if they are eligible and the practitioners fulfill the safeguards that are put in place for this group of people. …”

While many physicians and others have long been sympathetic to allowing medical professionals to help those with terminal illness die peacefully, the fear has been that medically assisted death could become a substitute for adequate—and more costly—medical care. Those concerns are growing with the expansion of MAID in Canada.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Experimental Regulations for AI: Sandboxes for Morals and Mores

Ranchordas, Sofia
Morals and Machines (vol.1, 2021)
Available at SSRN: 


Recent EU legislative and policy initiatives aim to offer flexible, innovation-friendly, and future-proof regulatory frameworks. Key examples are the EU Coordinated Plan on AI and the recently published EU AI Regulation Proposal which refer to the importance of experimenting with regulatory sandboxes so as to balance innovation in AI against its potential risks. Originally developed in the Fintech sector, regulatory sandboxes create a testbed for a selected number of innovative projects, by waiving otherwise applicable rules, guiding compliance, or customizing enforcement. Despite the burgeoning literature on regulatory sandboxes and the regulation of AI, the legal, methodological, and ethical challenges of regulatory sandboxes have remained understudied. This exploratory article delves into the some of the benefits and intricacies of employing experimental legal instruments in the context of the regulation of AI. This article’s contribution is twofold: first, it contextualizes the adoption of regulatory sandboxes in the broader discussion on experimental approaches to regulation; second, it offers a reflection on the steps ahead for the design and implementation of AI regulatory sandboxes.


In conclusion, AI regulatory sandboxes are not the answer to more innovation in AI. They are part of the path to a more forward-looking approach to the interaction between law and technology. This new approach will most certainly be welcomed with reluctance in years to come as it disrupts existing dogmas pertaining to the way in which we conceive the principle of legal certainty and the reactive—rather than anticipatory—nature of law. However, traditional law and regulation were designed with human agents and enigmas in mind. Many of the problems generated by AI (discrimination, power asymmetries, and manipulation) are still human but their scale and potential for harms (and benefits) have long ceased to be. It is thus time to rethink our fundamental approach to regulation and refocus on the new regulatory subject before us.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Against Empathy Bias: The Moral Value of Equitable Empathy

Fowler, Z., Law, K. F., & Gaesser, B.
Psychological Science
Volume: 32 issue: 5, page(s): 766-779


Empathy has long been considered central in living a moral life. However, mounting evidence has shown that empathy is often biased towards (i.e., felt more strongly for) close and similar others, igniting a debate over whether empathy is inherently morally flawed and should be abandoned in efforts to strive towards greater equity. This debate has focused on whether empathy limits the scope of our morality, with little consideration of whether it may be our moral beliefs limiting our empathy. Across two studies conducted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (N= 604), we investigate moral judgments of biased and equitable feelings of empathy. We observed a moral preference for empathy towards socially close over distant others. However, feeling equal empathy for all is seen as the most morally and socially valuable. These findings provide new theoretical insight into the relationship between empathy and morality with implications for navigating towards a more egalitarian future.

General Discussion

The present studies investigated moral judgments of socially biased and equitable feelings of empathy in hypothetical vignettes. The results showed that moral judgments of empathy are biased towards preferring more empathy for a socially close over socially distant individual. Despite this bias in moral judgments, however, people consistently judged feeling equal empathy as the most morally right. These findings generalized from judgments of others’ empathy for targets matched on objective social distance to judgments of one’s own empathy for targets that were personally-tailored and matched on subjective social distance across subjects.  Further, participants most desired to affiliate with someone who felt equal empathy. We also found that participants’ desire to affiliate with the actor in the vignette mirrored their moral judgments of empathy.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Drug Overdose Deaths Up 30% in Pandemic Year, Government Data Show

Joyce Frieden
MedPage Today 
Originally published 1 June 2021

Mortality from all types of drug overdoses increased by a whopping 30% over a 1-year period, Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), reported at the FDA Science Forum.

Data from the National Center for Health Statistics from October 2019 to October 2020 shows that mortality from overdoses from all types of drugs increased 30%, from 70,669 deaths in October 2019 to 91,862 deaths in October 2020, "and I think that that is a number that is very, very chilling," Volkow said at the forum. Among those overdose deaths in both years, more than half came from synthetic opiates -- "the most notable presence is fentanyl," she said. There was also a 46% increase in overdose deaths from other psychostimulants, mainly methamphetamine, and a 38% increase in deaths from cocaine overdoses.

Having any kind of substance use disorder (SUD) also affects the risk of getting COVID-19, she continued. According to a study done by Volkow and colleagues, "Regardless of the specific type of substance use disorder -- legal or illegal -- there was a significant increase in the likelihood of people that have a substance use disorder to become infected," she said. Their study, which included electronic health records from 7.5 million patients with an SUD diagnosis, found that patients with a recent SUD diagnosis -- within the past year -- were nearly nine times more likely to contract COVID-19 than patients without that diagnosis; for those with opioid use disorder in particular, their odds of contracting COVID were 10 times higher.

How relationships bias moral reasoning: Neural and self-report evidence

Berg, M. K., Kitayama, S., & Kross, E.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 95, July 2021, 104156


Laws govern society, regulating people's behavior to create social harmony. Yet recent research indicates that when laws are broken by people we know and love, we consistently fail to report their crimes. Here we identify an expectancy-based cognitive mechanism that underlies this phenomenon and illustrate how it interacts with people's motivations to predict their intentions to report crimes. Using a combination of self-report and brain (ERP) measures, we demonstrate that although witnessing any crime violates people's expectations, expectancy violations are stronger when close (vs. distant) others commit crimes. We further employ an experimental-causal-chain design to show that people resolve their expectancy violations in diametrically opposed ways depending on their relationship to the transgressor. When close others commit crimes, people focus more on the individual (vs. the crime), which leads them to protect the transgressor. However, the reverse is true for distant others, which leads them to punish the transgressor. These findings highlight the sensitivity of early attentional processes to information about close relationships. They further demonstrate how these processes interact with motivation to shape moral decisions. Together, they help explain why people stubbornly protect close others, even in the face of severe crimes.


• We used neural and self-report methods to explain people's reluctance to punish close others who act immorally.

• Close others acting immorally, and severe immoral acts, are highly unexpected.

• Expectancy violations interact with motivation to drive attention.

• For close others, people focus on the transgressor, which yields a more lenient response.

• For distant others, people focus on the immoral act, which yields a more punitive response.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Artificial intelligence research may have hit a dead end

Thomas Nail
Originally published 30 April 21

Here is an excerpt:

If it's true that cognitive fluctuations are requisite for consciousness, it would also take time for stable frequencies to emerge and then synchronize with one another in resting states. And indeed, this is precisely what we see in children's brains when they develop higher and more nested neural frequencies over time.

Thus, a general AI would probably not be brilliant in the beginning. Intelligence evolved through the mobility of organisms trying to synchronize their fluctuations with the world. It takes time to move through the world and learn to sync up with it. As the science fiction author Ted Chiang writes, "experience is algorithmically incompressible." 

This is also why dreaming is so important. Experimental research confirms that dreams help consolidate memories and facilitate learning. Dreaming is also a state of exceptionally playful and freely associated cognitive fluctuations. If this is true, why should we expect human-level intelligence to emerge without dreams? This is why newborns dream twice as much as adults, if they dream during REM sleep. They have a lot to learn, as would androids.

In my view, there will be no progress toward human-level AI until researchers stop trying to design computational slaves for capitalism and start taking the genuine source of intelligence seriously: fluctuating electric sheep.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Preparing for the Next Generation of Ethical Challenges Concerning Heritable Human Genome Editing

Robert Klitzman
The American Journal of Bioethics
(2021) Volume 21 (6), 1-4.

Here is the conclusion

Moving Forward

Policymakers will thus need to make complex and nuanced risk/benefit calculations regarding costs and extents of treatments, ages of onset, severity of symptoms, degrees of genetic penetrance, disease prevalence, future scientific benefits, research costs, appropriate allocations of limited resources, and questions of who should pay.

Future efforts should thus consider examining scientific and ethical challenges in closer conjunction, not separated off, and bring together the respective strengths of the Commission’s and of the WHO Committee’s approaches. The WHO Committee includes broader stakeholders, but does not yet appear to have drawn conclusions regarding such specific medical and scientific scenarios (WHO 2020). These two groups’ respective memberships also differ in instructive ways that can mutually inform future deliberations. Among the Commission’s 18 chairs and members, only two appear to work primarily in ethics or policy; the majority are scientists (National Academy of Medicine, the National Academies of Sciences and the Royal Society 2020). In contrast, the WHO Committee includes two chairs and 16 members, with both chairs and the majority of members working primarily in ethics, policy or law (WHO 2020). ASRM and other countries’ relevant professional organizations should also stipulate that physicians and healthcare professionals should not be involved in any way in the care of patients using germline editing abroad.

The Commission’s Report thus provides valuable insights and guidelines, but multiple stakeholders will likely soon confront additional, complex dilemmas involving interplays of both science and ethics that also need urgent attention.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Wise teamwork: Collective confidence calibration predicts the effectiveness of group discussion

Silver, I, Mellers, B.A., & Tetlock, P.E.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 96, September 2021.


‘Crowd wisdom’ refers to the surprising accuracy that can be attained by averaging judgments from independent individuals. However, independence is unusual; people often discuss and collaborate in groups. When does group interaction improve vs. degrade judgment accuracy relative to averaging the group's initial, independent answers? Two large laboratory studies explored the effects of 969 face-to-face discussions on the judgment accuracy of 211 teams facing a range of numeric estimation problems from geographic distances to historical dates to stock prices. Although participants nearly always expected discussions to make their answers more accurate, the actual effects of group interaction on judgment accuracy were decidedly mixed. Importantly, a novel, group-level measure of collective confidence calibration robustly predicted when discussion helped or hurt accuracy relative to the group's initial independent estimates. When groups were collectively calibrated prior to discussion, with more accurate members being more confident in their own judgment and less accurate members less confident, subsequent group interactions were likelier to yield increased accuracy. We argue that collective calibration predicts improvement because groups typically listen to their most confident members. When confidence and knowledge are positively associated across group members, the group's most knowledgeable members are more likely to influence the group's answers.


People often display exaggerated beliefs about their skills and knowledge. We misunderstand and over-estimate our ability to answer general knowledge questions (Arkes, Christensen, Lai, & Blumer, 1987), save for a rainy day (Berman, Tran, Lynch Jr, & Zauberman, 2016), and resist unhealthy foods (Loewenstein, 1996), to name just a few examples. Such failures of calibration can have serious consequences, hindering our ability to set goals (Kahneman & Lovallo, 1993), make plans (Janis, 1982), and enjoy experiences (Mellers & McGraw, 2004). Here, we show that collective calibration also predicts the effectiveness of group discussions. In the context of numeric estimation tasks, poorly calibrated groups were less likely to benefit from working together, and, ultimately, offered less accurate answers. Group interaction is the norm, not the exception. Knowing what we know (and what we don't know) can help predict whether interactions will strengthen or weaken crowd wisdom.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Biased Benevolence: The Perceived Morality of Effective Altruism Across Social Distance

Law, K. F., Campbell, D., & Gaesser, B. 
(2019, July 11). 


Is altruism always morally good, or is the morality of altruism fundamentally shaped by the social opportunity costs that often accompany helping decisions? Across five studies, we reveal that, although helping both socially closer and socially distant others is generally perceived favorably (Study 1), in cases of realistic tradeoffs in social distance for gains in welfare where helping socially distant others necessitates not helping socially closer others with the same resources, helping is deemed as less morally acceptable (Studies 2-5). Making helping decisions at a cost to socially closer others also negatively affects judgments of relationship quality (Study 3) and in turn, decreases cooperative behavior with the helper (Study 4). Ruling out an alternative explanation of physical distance accounting for the effects in Studies 1-4, social distance continued to impact moral acceptability when physical distance across social targets was matched (Study 5). These findings reveal that attempts to decrease biases in helping may have previously unconsidered consequences for moral judgments, relationships, and cooperation.

General Discussion

When judging the morality of altruistic tradeoffs in social distance for gains in welfare advocated by the philosophy and social movement of effective altruism, we find that the perceived morality of altruism is graded by social distance. People consistently view socially distant altruism as less morally acceptable as the person not receiving help becomes socially closer to the agent helping. This suggests that whereas altruism is generally evaluated as morally praiseworthy, the moral calculus of altruism flexibly shifts according to the social distance between the person offering aid and the people in need. Such findings highlight the empirical value and theoretical importance of investigating moral judgments situated in real-world social contexts.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Lazy, Not Biased: Susceptibility to Partisan Fake News Is Better Explained by Lack of Reasoning Than by Motivated Reasoning

Pennycook, G. & Rand, D. G.
Cognition. (2019)
Volume 188, July 2019, Pages 39-50


Why do people believe blatantly inaccurate news headlines (“fake news”)? Do we use our reasoning abilities to convince ourselves that statements that align with our ideology are true, or does reasoning allow us to effectively differentiate fake from real regardless of political ideology? Here we test these competing accounts in two studies (total N = 3,446 Mechanical Turk workers) by using the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) as a measure of the propensity to engage in analytical reasoning. We find that CRT performance is negatively correlated with the perceived accuracy of fake news, and positively correlated with the ability to discern fake news from real news – even for headlines that align with individuals’ political ideology. Moreover, overall discernment was actually better for ideologically aligned headlines than for misaligned headlines. Finally, a headline-level analysis finds that CRT is negatively correlated with perceived accuracy of relatively implausible (primarily fake) headlines, and positively correlated with perceived accuracy of relatively plausible (primarily real) headlines. In contrast, the correlation between CRT and perceived accuracy is unrelated to how closely the headline aligns with the participant’s ideology. Thus, we conclude that analytic thinking is used to assess the plausibility of headlines, regardless of whether the stories are consistent or inconsistent with one’s political ideology. Our findings therefore suggest that susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than it is by partisan bias per se – a finding that opens potential avenues for fighting fake news.


• Participants rated perceived accuracy of fake and real news headlines.

• Analytic thinking was associated with ability to discern between fake and real.

• We found no evidence that analytic thinking exacerbates motivated reasoning.

• Falling for fake news is more a result of a lack of thinking than partisanship.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Diagnostic Mistakes a Big Contributor to Malpractice Suits, Study Finds

Joyce Friedan
Originally posted 26 May 21

Here are two excerpts

One problem is that "healthcare is inherently risky," she continued. For example, "there's ever-changing industry knowledge, growing bodies of clinical options, new diseases, and new technology. There are variable work demands -- boy, didn't we experience that this past year! -- and production pressure has long been a struggle and a challenge for our providers and their teams." Not to mention variable individual competency, an aging population, complex health issues, and evolving workforces.


Cognitive biases can also trigger diagnostic errors, Siegal said. "Anchor bias" occurs when "a provider anchors on a diagnosis, early on, and then through the course of the journey looks for things to confirm that diagnosis. Once they've confirmed it enough that 'search satisfaction' is met, that leads to premature closure" of the patient's case. But that causes a problem because "it means that there's a failure to continue exploring other options. What else could it be? It's a failure to establish, perhaps, every differential diagnosis."

To avoid this problem, providers "always want to think about, 'Am I anchoring too soon? Am I looking to confirm, rather than challenge, my diagnosis?'" she said. According to the study, 25% of cases didn't have evidence of a differential diagnosis, and 36% fell into the category of "confirmation bias" -- "I was looking for things to confirm what I knew, but there were relevant signs and symptoms or positive tests that were still present that didn't quite fit the picture, but it was close. So they were somehow discounted, and the premature closure took over and a diagnosis was made," she said.

She suggested that clinicians take a "diagnostic timeout" -- similar to a surgical timeout -- when they're arriving at a diagnosis. "What else could this be? Have I truly explored all the other possibilities that seem relevant in this scenario and, more importantly, what doesn't fit? Be sure to dis-confirm as well."

Monday, June 14, 2021

Bias Is a Big Problem. But So Is ‘Noise.’

Daniel Kahneman, O. Sibony & C.R. Sunstein
The New York Times
Originally posted 15 May 21

Here is an excerpt:

There is much evidence that irrelevant circumstances can affect judgments. In the case of criminal sentencing, for instance, a judge’s mood, fatigue and even the weather can all have modest but detectable effects on judicial decisions.

Another source of noise is that people can have different general tendencies. Judges often vary in the severity of the sentences they mete out: There are “hanging” judges and lenient ones.

A third source of noise is less intuitive, although it is usually the largest: People can have not only different general tendencies (say, whether they are harsh or lenient) but also different patterns of assessment (say, which types of cases they believe merit being harsh or lenient about). 

Underwriters differ in their views of what is risky, and doctors in their views of which ailments require treatment. 

We celebrate the uniqueness of individuals, but we tend to forget that, when we expect consistency, uniqueness becomes a liability.

Once you become aware of noise, you can look for ways to reduce it. For instance, independent judgments from a number of people can be averaged (a frequent practice in forecasting). 

Guidelines, such as those often used in medicine, can help professionals reach better and more uniform decisions. 

As studies of hiring practices have consistently shown, imposing structure and discipline in interviews and other forms of assessment tends to improve judgments of job candidates.

No noise-reduction techniques will be deployed, however, if we do not first recognize the existence of noise. 

Noise is too often neglected. But it is a serious issue that results in frequent error and rampant injustice. 

Organizations and institutions, public and private, will make better decisions if they take noise seriously.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Philosophy in Science: Can philosophers of science permeate through science and produce scientific knowledge?

Pradeu, T., et al. (2021)
British Journal of the Philosophy of Science


Most philosophers of science do philosophy ‘on’ science. By contrast, others do philosophy ‘in’ science (‘PinS’), i.e., they use philosophical tools to address scientific problems and to provide scientifically useful proposals. Here, we consider the evidence in favour of a trend of this nature. We proceed in two stages. First, we identify relevant authors and articles empirically with bibliometric tools, given that PinS would be likely to infiltrate science and thus to be published in scientific journals (‘intervention’), cited in scientific journals (‘visibility’) and sometimes recognized as a scientific result by scientists (‘contribution’). We show that many central figures in philosophy of science have been involved in PinS, and that some philosophers have even ‘specialized’ in this practice. Second, we propose a conceptual definition of PinS as a process involving three conditions (raising a scientific problem, using philosophical tools to address it, and making a scientific proposal), and we ask whether the articles identified at the first stage fulfil all these conditions. We show that PinS is a distinctive, quantitatively substantial trend within philosophy of science, demonstrating the existence of a methodological continuity from science to philosophy of science.

From the Conclusion

A crucial and long-standing question for philosophers of science is how philosophy of science relates to science, including, in particular, its possible impact on science. Various important ways in which philosophy of science can have an impact on science have been documented in the past, from the influence of Mach, Poincaré and Schopenhauer on the development of the theory of relativity (Rovelli [2018]) to Popper’s long-recognized influence on scientists, such as Eccles and Medawar, and some recent reflections on how best to organize science institutionally (e.g. Leonelli [2017]). Here, we identify and describe an
approach that we propose to call ‘PinS’, which adds another, in our view essential, layer to this picture.

By combining quantitative and qualitative tools, we demonstrate the existence of a corpus of articles by philosophers of science, either published in philosophy of science journals or in scientific journals, raising scientific problems and aiming to contribute to their resolution via the use of philosophical tools. PinS constitutes a subdomain of philosophy of science, which has a long history, with canonical texts and authors, but, to our knowledge, this is the first time this domain is delineated and analysed.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Science Doesn't Work That Way

Gregory E. Kaebnick
Boston Review
Originally published 30 April 21

Here is an excerpt:

The way to square this circle is to acknowledge that what objectivity science is able to deliver derives not from individual scientists but from the social institutions and practices that structure their work. The philosopher of science Karl Popper expressed this idea clearly in his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies. “There is no doubt that we are all suffering under our own system of prejudices,” he acknowledged—“and scientists are no exception to this rule.” But this is no threat to objectivity, he argued—not because scientists manage to liberate themselves from their prejudices, but rather because objectivity is “closely bound up with the social aspect of scientific method.” In particular, “science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective,’ but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists.” Thus Robinson Crusoe cannot be a scientist, “For there is nobody but himself to check his results.”

More recently, philosophers and historians of science such as Helen Longino, Miriam Solomon, and Naomi Oreskes have developed detailed arguments along similar lines, showing how the integrity and objectivity of scientific knowledge depend crucially on social practices. Science even sometimes advances not in spite but because of scientists’ filters and biases—whether a tendency to focus single-mindedly on a particular set of data, a desire to beat somebody else to an announcement, a contrarian streak, or an overweening self-confidence. Any vision of science that makes it depend on complete disinterestedness is doomed to make science impossible. Instead, we must develop a more widespread appreciation of the way science depends on protocols and norms that scientists have collectively developed for testing, refining, and disseminating scientific knowledge. A scientist must be able to show that research has met investigative standards, that it has been exposed to criticism, and that criticisms can be met with arguments.

The implication is that science works not so much because scientists have a special ability to filter out their biases or to access the world as it really is, but instead because they are adhering to a social process that structures their work—constraining and channeling their predispositions and predilections, their moments of eureka, their large yet inevitably limited understanding, their egos and their jealousies. These practices and protocols, these norms and standards, do not guarantee mistakes are never made. But nothing can make that guarantee. The rules of the game are themselves open to scrutiny and revision in light of argument, and that is the best we can hope for.

This way of understanding science fares better than the exalted view, which makes scientific knowledge impossible. Like all human endeavors, science is fallible, but still it warrants belief—according to how well it adheres to rules we have developed for it. What makes for objectivity and expertise is not, or not merely, the simple alignment between what one claims and how the world is, but a commitment to a process that is accepted as producing empirical adequacy.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Record-High 47% in U.S. Think Abortion Is Morally Acceptable

Megan Brenan
Originally posted 9 June 21

Americans are sharply divided in their abortion views, including on its morality, with an equal split between those who believe it is morally acceptable and those who say it is morally wrong. The 47% who say it is acceptable is, by two percentage points, the highest Gallup has recorded in two decades of measurement. Just one point separates them from the 46% who think abortion is wrong from a moral perspective.

Since 2001, the gap between these readings has varied from zero to 20 points. The latest gap, based on a May 3-18 Gallup poll, is slightly smaller than last year's, when 47% thought abortion was morally wrong and 44% said it was morally acceptable. Americans have been typically more inclined to say abortion is morally wrong than morally acceptable, though the gap has narrowed in recent years. The average gap has been five points since 2013 (43% morally acceptable and 48% morally wrong), compared with 11 points between 2001 and 2012 (39% and 50%, respectively).

Democrats and political independents have become more likely to say abortion is morally acceptable. Sixty-four percent of Democrats, 51% of independents and 26% of Republicans currently hold this view.

Causal judgments about atypical actions are influenced by agents' epistemic states

Kirfel, L. & Lagnado, D.
Cognition, Volume 212, July 2021.


A prominent finding in causal cognition research is people’s tendency to attribute increased causality to atypical actions. If two agents jointly cause an outcome (conjunctive causation), but differ in how frequently they have performed the causal action before, people judge the atypically acting agent to have caused the outcome to a greater extent. In this paper, we argue that it is the epistemic state of an abnormally acting agent, rather than the abnormality of their action, that is driving people's causal judgments. Given the predictability of the normally acting agent's behaviour, the abnormal agent is in a better position to foresee the consequences of their action. We put this hypothesis to test in four experiments. In Experiment 1, we show that people judge the atypical agent as more causal than the normally acting agent, but also judge the atypical agent to have an epistemic advantage. In Experiment 2, we find that people do not judge a causal difference if no epistemic advantage for the abnormal agent arises. In Experiment 3, we replicate these findings in a scenario in which the abnormal agent's epistemic advantage generalises to a novel context. In Experiment 4, we extend these findings to mental states more broadly construed and develop a Bayesian network model that predicts the degree of outcome-oriented mental states based on action normality and epistemic states. We find that people infer mental states like desire and intention to a greater extent from abnormal behaviour when this behaviour is accompanied by an epistemic advantage. We discuss these results in light of current theories and research on people's preference for abnormal causes.

From the Conclusion

In this paper, we have argued that the typicality of actions changes how much an agent can foresee the consequences of their action. We have shown that it is this very epistemic asymmetry between a normally and abnormally acting agent that influences people’s causal judgments. Both employee and party organiser acted abnormally, but when acting, they also could have foreseen the event of a dust explosion to a greater extent. While further research is needed on this topic, the connection between action typicality and epistemic states brings us one step closer to understanding the enigmatic role of normality in causal cognition.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Moral Extremism

Spencer Case
Wuhan University, Penultimate Draft for
Journal of Applied Philosophy


The word ‘extremist’ is often used pejoratively, but it’s not clear what, if anything, is wrong with extremism. My project is to give an account of moral extremism as a vice. It consists roughly in having moral convictions so intense that they cause a sort of moral tunnel vision, pushing salient competing considerations out of mind. We should be interested in moral extremism for several reasons: it’s consequential, it’s insidious – we don’t expect immorality to arise from excessive devotion to morality – and it’s yet to attract much philosophical attention. I give several examples of moral extremism from history and explore their social-political implications. I also consider how we should evaluate people who miss the mark, being either too extreme in the service of a good cause or inconsistent with their righteous convictions. I compare John Brown and John Quincy Adams, who fell on either side of this spectrum, as examples.


Accusations of extremism are often thrown around to discredit unpopular positions. It seems fair for the person accused of being an extremist to ask: “Who cares if I’m an extremist, or if the position I’m defending is extreme, if I’m right?” I began with quotes from three reformers who took this line of reply. I’ve argued, however, that we should worry about extremism in the service of good causes. Extremism on my account is a vice. What it consists in, roughly, is an intense moral conviction that prevents the agent from perceiving, or acting on, competing moral considerations when these are important. I’ve argued that this vice has had baleful consequences throughout history. The discussion of John Brown and John Adams introduced a wrinkle: perhaps in rare circumstances, extremists can also confer certain benefits on a society. A general lesson from this discussion is that we must occasionally look at our own moral convictions, especially the ones that generate the strongest emotions, with a degree of suspicion. Passion for some righteous cause doesn’t necessarily indicate that we are morally on the right track. Evil can be insidious, and even our strongest moral convictions can morally mislead.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Towards a computational theory of social groups: A finite set of cognitive primitives for representing any and all social groups in the context of conflict

Pietraszewski, D. (2021). 
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-62. 


We don't yet have adequate theories of what the human mind is representing when it represents a social group. Worse still, many people think we do. This mistaken belief is a consequence of the state of play: Until now, researchers have relied on their own intuitions to link up the concept social group on the one hand, and the results of particular studies or models on the other. While necessary, this reliance on intuition has been purchased at considerable cost. When looked at soberly, existing theories of social groups are either (i) literal, but not remotely adequate (such as models built atop economic games), or (ii) simply metaphorical (typically a subsumption or containment metaphor). Intuition is filling in the gaps of an explicit theory. This paper presents a computational theory of what, literally, a group representation is in the context of conflict: it is the assignment of agents to specific roles within a small number of triadic interaction types. This “mental definition” of a group paves the way for a computational theory of social groups—in that it provides a theory of what exactly the information-processing problem of representing and reasoning about a group is. For psychologists, this paper offers a different way to conceptualize and study groups, and suggests that a non-tautological definition of a social group is possible. For cognitive scientists, this paper provides a computational benchmark against which natural and artificial intelligences can be held.

Summary and Conclusion

Despite an enormous literature on groups and group dynamics, little attention has been paid to explicit computational theories of how the mind represents and reasons about groups. The goal of this paper has been, in a conceptual, non-technical manner, to propose a simple but non-trivial framework for starting to ask questions about the nature of the underlying representations that make the phenomenon of social groups possible—all described at the level of information processing. This computational theory, when combined with many more such theories—and followed by extensive task analyses and empirical investigations—will eventually contribute to a full accounting of the information-processing required to represent, reason about, and act in accordance with group representations.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Action and inaction in moral judgments and decisions: ‎Meta-analysis of Omission-Bias omission-commission asymmetries

Jamison, J., Yay, T., & Feldman, G.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 89, July 2020, 103977


Omission bias is the preference for harm caused through omissions over harm caused through commissions. In a pre-registered experiment (N = 313), we successfully replicated an experiment from Spranca, Minsk, and Baron (1991), considered a classic demonstration of the omission bias, examining generalizability to a between-subject design with extensions examining causality, intent, and regret. Participants in the harm through commission condition(s) rated harm as more immoral and attributed higher responsibility compared to participants in the harm through omission condition (d = 0.45 to 0.47 and d = 0.40 to 0.53). An omission-commission asymmetry was also found for perceptions of causality and intent, in that commissions were attributed stronger action-outcome links and higher intentionality (d = 0.21 to 0.58). The effect for regret was opposite from the classic findings on the action-effect, with higher regret for inaction over action (d = −0.26 to −0.19). Overall, higher perceived causality and intent were associated with higher attributed immorality and responsibility, and with lower perceived regret.

From the Discussion

Regret: Deviation from the action-effect 

The classic action-effect (Kahneman & Tversky, 1982) findings were that actions leading to a negative outcome are regretted more than inactions leading to the same negative outcomes. We added a regret measure to examine whether the action-effect findings would extend to situations of morality involving intended harmful behavior. Our findings were opposite to the expected action-effect omission-commission asymmetry with participants rating omissions as more regretted than commissions (d = 0.18 to 0.26).  

One explanation for this surprising finding may be an intermingling of the perception of an actors’ regret for their behavior with their regret for the outcome. In typical action-effect scenarios, actors behave in a way that is morally neutral but are faced with an outcome that deviates from expectations, such as losing money over an investment. In this study’s omission bias scenarios, the actors behaved immorally to harm others for personal or interpersonal gain, and then are faced with an outcome that deviates from expectation. We hypothesized that participants would perceive actors as being more regretful for taking action that would immorally harm another person rather than allowing that harm through inaction. Yet it is plausible that participants were focused on the regret that actors would feel for not taking more direct action towards their goal of personal or interpersonal gain.  

Another possible explanation for the regret finding is the side-taking hypothesis (DeScioli, 2016; Descoli & Kurzban, 2013). This states that group members side against a wrongdoer who has performed an action that is perceived morally wrong by also attributing lack of remorse or regret. The negative relationship observed between the positive characteristic of regret and the negative characteristics of immorality, causality, and intentionality is in support of this explanation. Future research may be able to explore the true mechanisms of regret in such scenarios. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Science Skepticism Across 24 Countries

Rutjens, B. T., et al., (2021). 
Social Psychological and Personality Science. 


Efforts to understand and remedy the rejection of science are impeded by lack of insight into how it varies in degree and in kind around the world. The current work investigates science skepticism in 24 countries (N = 5,973). Results show that while some countries stand out as generally high or low in skepticism, predictors of science skepticism are relatively similar across countries. One notable effect was consistent across countries though stronger in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) nations: General faith in science was predicted by spirituality, suggesting that it, more than religiosity, may be the ‘enemy’ of science acceptance. Climate change skepticism was mainly associated with political conservatism especially in North America. Other findings were observed across WEIRD and non-WEIRD nations: Vaccine skepticism was associated with spirituality and scientific literacy, genetic modification skepticism with scientific literacy, and evolution skepticism with religious orthodoxy. Levels of science skepticism are heterogeneous across countries, but predictors of science skepticism are heterogeneous across domains.

From the Discussion

Indeed, confirming previous results obtained in the Netherlands (Rutjens & van der Lee, 2020)—and providing strong support for Hypothesis 6—the current data speak to the crucial role of spirituality in fostering low faith in science, more generally, beyond its domain-specific effects on vaccine skepticism. This indicates that the negative impact of spirituality on faith in science represents a cross-national phenomenon that is more generalizable than might be expected based on the large variety (Muthukrishna et al., 2020) of countries included here. A possible explanation for the robustness of this effect may lie in the inherent irreconcilability of the intuitive epistemology of a spiritual belief system with science (Rutjens & van der Lee, 2020). (If so, then we might look at a potentially much larger problem that extends beyond spirituality and applies more generally to “post-truth” society, in which truth and perceptions of reality may be based on feelings rather than facts; Martel et al., 2020; Rutjens & Brandt, 2018.) However, these results do not mean that traditional religiosity as a predictor of science skepticism (McPhetres & Zuckermann, 2018; Rutjens, Heine, et al., 2018; Rutjens, Sutton, & van der Lee, 2018) has now become irrelevant: Not only did religious orthodoxy significantly contribute to low faith in science, it was also found to be a very consistent cross-national predictor of evolution skepticism (but not of other forms of science skepticism included in the study).

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Shared Reality: From Sharing-Is-Believing to Merging Minds

Higgins, E. T., Rossignac-Milon, M., & 
Echterhoff, G. (2021). 
Current Directions in Psychological 
Science, 30(2), 103–110. 


Humans are fundamentally motivated to create a sense of shared reality—the perceived commonality of inner states (feeling, beliefs, and concerns about the world) with other people. This shared reality establishes a sense of both social connection and understanding the world. Research on shared reality has burgeoned in recent decades. We first review evidence for a basic building block of shared-reality creation: sharing-is-believing, whereby communicators tune their descriptions to align with their communication partner’s attitude about something, which in turn shapes their recall. Next, we describe recent developments moving beyond this basic building block to explore generalized shared reality about the world at large, which promotes interpersonal closeness and epistemic certainty. Together, this body of work exemplifies the synergy between relational and epistemic motives. Finally, we discuss the potential for another form of shared reality—shared relevance—to bridge disparate realities.

From Concluding Remarks

The field of shared reality has made significant progress in advancing understanding of how humans share inner states as a way to connect with each other and make sense of the world. These advancements shed new light on current issues. For instance, exaggerated perceptions of consensus generated by filter bubbles and echo chambers may inflate the experience of shared reality on social media, especially given the intensifying effects of collective attention (Shteynberg et al., 2020) and transmission through social networks (Kashima et al., 2018). By shaping attitudes and ideological beliefs (see Jost et al., 2018; Stern & Ondish, 2018), shared reality can perpetuate insular views and exacerbate ideological divisions. But there is a different kind of shared reality that could be beneficial in this context: shared perceptions of what is worthy of attention. Wanting to establish shared relevance is so central to human motivation that even infants seek to establish it with their caregivers by pointing out objects deserving of co-attention (Higgins, 2016).

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Absolutely Right and Relatively Good: Consequentialists See Bioethical Disagreement in a Relativist Light

H. Viciana, I. R. Hannikainen & D. Rodríguez-Arias 
(2021) AJOB Empirical Bioethics
DOI: 10.1080/23294515.2021.1907476


Contemporary societies are rife with moral disagreement, resulting in recalcitrant disputes on matters of public policy. In the context of ongoing bioethical controversies, are uncompromising attitudes rooted in beliefs about the nature of moral truth?

To answer this question, we conducted both exploratory and confirmatory studies, with both a convenience and a nationally representative sample (total N = 1501), investigating the link between people’s beliefs about moral truth (their metaethics) and their beliefs about moral value (their normative ethics).

Across various bioethical issues (e.g., medically-assisted death, vaccine hesitancy, surrogacy, mandatory organ conscription, or genetically modified crops), consequentialist attitudes were associated with weaker beliefs in an objective moral truth. This association was not explained by domain-general reflectivity, theism, personality, normative uncertainty, or subjective knowledge.

We find a robust link between the way people characterize prescriptive disagreements and their sensibility to consequences. In addition, both societal consensus and personal conviction contribute to objectivist beliefs, but these effects appear to be asymmetric, i.e., stronger for opposition than for approval.

From the Discussion

The evidence is now strong that individuals tend to embrace rather diverse metaethical attitudes regarding moral disagreement, depending on the issues at stake (eg. Cova & Ravat 2008; Pölzler & Cole-Wright 2020). Thus, we believe that the time is ripe for empirical bioethics to update this assumption.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Vignette 38: Psychotherapy Without Medication

Beau Propion sought therapy from Dr. Pfizer.  At the initial session, Dr. Pfizer evaluated the patient as suffering with a moderate form of depression.  Mr. Propion indicated he did not want to take antidepressant medication, because he had read all the horrible adverse effects of antidepressant medication on the internet.  Given the moderate signs and symptoms, Dr. Pfizer understood the patient’s decision and agreed to engage in a psychotherapy relationship with the patient.  The main treatment goal was to decrease signs and symptoms of depression.

As treatment progressed, Mr. Propion became more significantly depressed.  He presented with more significant symptoms of depression.  Signs and symptoms included sleeping too much, weight gain, fatigue, passive suicidal ideation, procrastination, and poor concentration.  He recently started taking days off from work because of the severity of the depressive symptoms.

During a session, Dr. Pfizer broached the subject of antidepressants, because Dr. Pfizer knows that medication can be helpful, especially in more significant forms of depression.  As expected, Mr. Propion declines a referral for medication evaluation.  Dr. Pfizer is concerned about the patient and calls you for a consultation.

What are the ethical issues involved in this case?

What are the clinical issues involved in this situation?

What are the ramifications about the therapeutic relationship?

What course of action would you suggest to Dr. Pfizer?

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Scientific panel loosens ’14-day rule’ limiting how long human embryos can be grown in the lab

Andrew Joseph
Originally posted 26 May 2021

An influential scientific panel cracked open the door on Wednesday to growing human embryos in the lab for longer periods of time than currently allowed, a step that could enable the plumbing of developmental mysteries but that also raises thorny questions about whether research that can be pursued should be.

For decades, scientists around the world have followed the “14-day rule,” which stipulates that they should let human embryos develop in the lab for only up to two weeks after fertilization. The rule — which some countries (though not the United States) have codified into law — was meant to allow researchers to conduct inquiries into the early days of embryonic development, but not without limits. And for years, researchers didn’t push that boundary, not just for legal and ethical reasons, but for technical ones as well: They couldn’t keep the embryos growing in lab dishes that long.

More recently, however, scientists have refined their cell-culture techniques, finding ways to sustain embryos up to that deadline. Those advances — along with other leaps in the world of stem cell research, with scientists now transmogrifying cells into blobs that resemble early embryos or injecting human cells into animals — have complicated ethical debates about how far biomedical research should go in its quest for knowledge and potential treatments.

Now, in the latest updates to its guidelines, the International Society for Stem Cell Research has revised its view on studies that would take human embryos beyond 14 days, moving such experiments from the “absolutely not” category to a “maybe” — but only if lots of conditions are first met.

“We’ve relaxed the guidelines in that respect, we haven’t abandoned them,” developmental biologist Robin Lovell-Badge of the Francis Crick Institute, who chaired the ISSCR’s guidelines task force, said at a press briefing.