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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy
Showing posts with label Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fiction. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Evangelical literary tradition and moral foundations theory

Christopher Douglas
The Journal of American Culture
Originally published 26 Feb 24

Here is an excerpt:

What can MFT tell us about the topography of evangelical ethics as displayed in its bestselling fiction of the last 20 years? In many ways, there is nothing surprising in these findings. As Haidt himself suggests, the five primary foundations discernably track onto political orientations, with conservatives balancing all five criteria but liberals prioritizing care and fairness (as equality): “it's not just members of traditional societies who draw on all five foundations; even within Western societies, we consistently find an ideological effect in which religious and cultural conservatives value and rely upon all five foundations, whereas liberals value and rely upon the harm and fairness foundations primarily” (Haidt, 2007, 1001). Or, in updated form: “Liberals have a three-foundation morality, whereas conservatives use all six” (Haidt, 2012, 214). The Shack seems to aptly confirm this insight, prioritizing care, fairness-as-justice, and egalitarianism at the expense of loyalty, authority, and purity. These values reflect the author's liberal sensibilities that were suggested when Young tweeted criticism of Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tapes were released (Douglas, 2020, 508n3). LaHaye's conservative credentials, meanwhile, are well known—early partner to Jerry Falwell in the formation of the Moral Majority, fundraiser for the Institute for Creation Research, and so on—and the Left Behind series suggests a mix of moral foundations that does not so much find a balance among all six foundations (as Haidt discovered seems to be true of “Very Conservatives”) as express a sort of Extremely Conservative sensibility. The Shack and the Left Behind series reflect the considerable range of white evangelical politics, but also reflect the fact that white evangelicals tilt heavily conservative, forming the most important demographic of the Republican base, voting for Donald Trump by 77 and 84% in 2016 and 2020, respectively (Igielnik et al., 2021).

Here is my summary:

The article explores the moral foundations of two evangelical best-selling novels: The Shack by William Paul Young and Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. It uses Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) to analyze how these seemingly very different novels prioritize different moral values.

Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) identifies five core moral foundations:
  • Care/Harm: Protecting others from harm and promoting their well-being.
  • Fairness/Cheating: Ensuring that people are treated justly and receive what they deserve.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal: Standing by your group and upholding your commitments.
  • Authority/Subversion: Respecting legitimate authority figures and hierarchies.
  • Sanctity/Degradation: Purity, avoiding disgust and respecting the sacred.
The Shack by William Paul Young grapples with the kidnapping, abuse, and murder of a child. It focuses on the themes of care/harm and fairness. The protagonist, Mack, wrestles with how God could allow such a tragedy to occur and how fairness can be achieved. The novel explores the idea of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is a series about the Rapture and the End Times. It emphasizes the moral foundations of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. The series depicts a world where good and evil are clearly defined and a battle between God and the Antichrist is about to unfold. The in-group of Christians is loyal to God and resists the authority of the Antichrist. The series emphasizes the importance of following God's will and upholding Christian values.

The article argues that MFT helps explain the enduring appeal of these novels.  The Shack resonates with readers who seek comfort and answers in the face of tragedy. Left Behind appeals to readers who feel like they are part of an embattled community and who believe in a clear distinction between good and evil.

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Gordian Knot of Disposition Theory: Character Morality and Liking

Matthew Grizzard, Jialing Huang, Changhyun Ahn, and others
Journal of Media Psychology.


Morally ambiguous characters are often perceived to challenge Zillmann’s affective disposition theory of drama. At the heart of this challenge is the question: “To what extent can liking be independent of character morality?” The current study examines this question with a 2 (Disposition: Positive vs. Negative) × 3 (Character Type: Hero, Antihero, Villain) between-subjects factorial experiment that induces variance in liking and morality. We assess the influence of these orthogonal manipulations on measured liking and morality. Main effects of both manipulations on the measured variables emerged, with a significant correlation between measures. Regression analyses further confirm that liking is associated with perceived morality and vice versa. Because variance in morality was induced by the liking manipulation and variance in liking was induced by the morality manipulation, the assumptions of disposition theory regarding morality and liking seem accurate. Future research directions are provided that may help reconcile and integrate the seeming challenge of morally ambiguous characters with affective disposition theory.

The research is here.

Here is a link to a separate paper on Moral Pornography as it applies to comic book heroes and villains.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Rationalization is rational

Fiery Cushman
Uploaded July 18, 2018


Rationalization occurs when a person has performed an action and then concoct the beliefs and desires that would have made it rational. Then, people often adjust their own beliefs and desires to match the concocted ones. While many studies demonstrate rationalization, and a few theories identify its underlying cognitive mechanisms, we have little understanding of its its function. Why is the mind designed to construct post hoc rationalizations of its behavior, and then to adopt them? This design may accomplish an important task: to transfer information between the many different processes and representations that influence our behavior. Human decision-making does not rely on a single process; it is influenced by reason, habit, instincts, cultural norms and so on. Several of the processes that influence our behavior are not organized according to rational choice (i.e., maximizing desires conditioned on belief). Thus, rationalization extracts implicit information—true beliefs and useful desires—from the influence of these non-rational systems on behavior. This is not a process of self-perception as traditionally conceived, in which one infers the hidden contents of unconscious reasons. Rather, it is a useful fiction. It is a fiction because it imputes reason to non-rational psychological processes; it is useful because it can improve subsequent reasoning. More generally, rationalization is one example of broader class of “representational exchange” mechanisms, which transfer of information between many different psychological processes that guide our behavior. This perspective reveals connections to theory of mind, inverse reinforcement learning, and reflective equilibrium.

The paper is here.

Asking patients why they engaged in a behavior is another example of useful fiction.  Dr. Cushman suggests psychologists ask: What made that worth doing?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Predatory Journals Hit By ‘Star Wars’ Sting

By Neuroskeptic
Originally published July 19, 2017

A number of so-called scientific journals have accepted a Star Wars-themed spoof paper. The manuscript is an absurd mess of factual errors, plagiarism and movie quotes. I know because I wrote it.

Inspired by previous publishing “stings”, I wanted to test whether ‘predatory‘ journals would publish an obviously absurd paper. So I created a spoof manuscript about “midi-chlorians” – the fictional entities which live inside cells and give Jedi their powers in Star Wars. I filled it with other references to the galaxy far, far away, and submitted it to nine journals under the names of Dr Lucas McGeorge and Dr Annette Kin.

Four journals fell for the sting. The American Journal of Medical and Biological Research (SciEP) accepted the paper, but asked for a $360 fee, which I didn’t pay. Amazingly, three other journals not only accepted but actually published the spoof. Here’s the paper from the International Journal of Molecular Biology: Open Access (MedCrave), Austin Journal of Pharmacology and Therapeutics (Austin) and American Research Journal of Biosciences (ARJ) I hadn’t expected this, as all those journals charge publication fees, but I never paid them a penny.

The blog post is here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why We Believe Obvious Untruths

Philip Fernbach & Steven Sloman
The New York Times
Originally published March 3, 2017

'How can so many people believe things that are demonstrably false? The question has taken on new urgency as the Trump administration propagates falsehoods about voter fraud, climate change and crime statistics that large swaths of the population have bought into. But collective delusion is not new, nor is it the sole province of the political right. Plenty of liberals believe, counter to scientific consensus, that G.M.O.s are poisonous, and that vaccines cause autism.

The situation is vexing because it seems so easy to solve. The truth is obvious if you bother to look for it, right? This line of thinking leads to explanations of the hoodwinked masses that amount to little more than name calling: “Those people are foolish” or “Those people are monsters.”

Such accounts may make us feel good about ourselves, but they are misguided and simplistic: They reflect a misunderstanding of knowledge that focuses too narrowly on what goes on between our ears. Here is the humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing — all of our world-altering innovations — were made possible by this ability. Chimpanzees can surpass young children on numerical and spatial reasoning tasks, but they cannot come close on tasks that require collaborating with another individual to achieve a goal. Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Pornography and the Philosophy of Fiction

John Danaher
Philosophical Disquisitions
Originally published February 9, 2017

Here are two excerpts:

Pornography is now ubiquitous. If you have an internet connection, you have access to a virtually inexhaustible supply of the stuff. Debates rage over whether this is a good or bad thing. There are long-standing research programmes in psychology and philosophy that focus on the ethical and social consequences of exposure to pornography. These debates often raise important questions about human sexuality, gender equality, sexual aggression and violence. They also often touch upon (esoteric) aspects of the philosophy of speech acts and freedom of expression. Noticeably neglected in the debate is any discussion of the fictional nature of pornography and how it affects its social reception.

That, at any rate, is the claim made by Shen-yi Liao and Sara Protasi in their article ‘The Fictional Character of Pornography’. In it, they draw upon a number of ideas in the philosophy of aesthetics in an effort to refine the arguments made by participants in the pornography debate.


The more important part of the definition concerns the prompting of imagination. Liao and Protasi have a longish argument in their paper as to why sexual desire (as an appetite) involves imagination and hence why pornographic representations often prompt imaginings. That argument is interesting, but I’m going to skip over the details here. The important point is that in satisfying our sexual appetites we often engage the imagination (imagining certain roles or actions). Indeed, the sexual appetite might be unique among appetites as being the one that can be satisfied purely through the imagination. Furthermore, the typical user of pornography will often engage their imaginations when using it. They will imagine themselves being involved (directly or indirectly) in the represented sexual acts.

The blog post is here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Supreme Court to Consider Legal Standard Drawn From ‘Of Mice and Men’

Adam Liptak
The New York Times
Originally published August 22, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

Under medical standards from 1992, endorsed in Judge Cochran’s 2004 opinion, Mr. Moore was not intellectually disabled, the appeals court said. The court added that the seven factors listed in the 2004 opinion weighed heavily against Mr. Moore. He had, for instance, worn a wig during the robbery and tried to hide his shotgun in two plastic bags, which prosecutors said was evidence of forethought and planning.

In dissent, Judge Elsa Alcala said the 1992 medical standards used by the majority were “outdated and erroneous.” As for the seven factors, she wrote that “the Lennie standard does not meet the requirements of the federal Constitution.”

“I would set forth a standard,” Judge Alcala wrote, “that does not include any reference to a fictional character.”

The article is here.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds

By Keith Oatley
Trends in Cognitive Science
(2016) Volume 20, Issue 8, p 618–628

Here is an excerpt:

What is the basis for effects of improved empathy and theory-of-mind with engagement in fiction? Two kinds of account are possible, process and content, and they complement each other.

One kind of process is inference: engagement in fiction may involve understanding characters by inferences of the sort we make in conversation about what people mean and what kinds of people they are. In an experiment to test this hypothesis, participants were asked to read Alice Munro's The Office, a first-person short story about a woman who rents an office in which to write. In one condition, the story starts in Munro's words, which include ‘But here comes the disclosure which is not easy for me. I am a writer. That does not sound right. Too presumptuous, phony, or at least unconvincing’. In a comparison version, the story starts with readers being told directly what the narrator feels: ‘I’m embarrassed telling people that I am a writer …’ , p. 270). People who read the version in Munro's own words had to make inferences about what kind of person the narrator was and how she felt. They attained a deeper identification and understanding of the protagonist than did those who were told directly how she felt. Engagement in fiction can be thought of as practice in inference making of this kind.

A second kind of process is transportation: the extent to which people become emotionally involved, immersed, or carried away imaginatively in a story. The more transportation that occurred in reading a story, the greater the story-consistent emotional experience has been found to be. Emotion in fiction is important because, as in life, it can signal what is significant in the relation between events and our concerns [42]. In an experiment on empathetic effects, the more readers were transported into a fictional story, the greater were found to be both their empathy and their likelihood of responding on a behavioral measure: helping someone who had dropped some pencils on the floor. The vividness of imagery during reading has been found to improve transportation and to increase empathy. To investigate such imagery, participants in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine were asked to imagine a scene when given between three and six spoken phrases, for instance, ‘a dark blue carpet’ … ‘a carved chest of drawers’ … ‘an orange striped pencil’. Three phrases were enough to activate the hippocampus to its largest extent and for participants to imagine a scene with maximum vividness. In another study, one group of participants listened to a story and rated the intensity of their emotions while reading. In a second group of participants, parts of the story that raters had found most emotional produced the largest changes in heart rate and greatest fMRI-based activations.

The article is here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Episode 35: Does Reading Harry Potter Make You Moral?

Very Bad Wizards Podcast

Special guest Will Wilkinson joins the podcast to talk about whether fiction makes us better people, and to discuss his recent Daily Beast article that trashed Dave's profession and livelihood. Also, Dave and Tamler try to make sense of Ancient Greek justice in a myth about incest, adultery, daughter-killing, husband-killing, matricide, cannibalism, and trash talking to disembodied heads.