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The philosophers want more power

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tamsin shaw

tamsin shaw

Canto: Well I suppose the apparent detection of gravitational waves should be capturing our attention more than anything else right now, but it’s very well described in The Economist, and in many other places, and we’re no astrophysicists, and we did promise to focus a bit more on philosophical issues, so…

Jacinta: But we’re no philosophers. But we’re philosophasters at least, so let’s have a go.

Canto: Well I came across an article on Three Quarks Daily which vaguely gave me the irrits, so with your help I want to explore why.

Jacinta: Right. The essay is called ‘The psychologists take power’, the author is Tamsin Shaw and it was originally published in the New York review of books.

Canto: Yes, and on reading it in full I find it an interesting but confused piece, which seems to take the failings of certain individual psychologists as an example of the failings of psychology as a whole, and even of neurology. Shaw seems to be entering the philosophy versus science debate, on the side of philosophy, but I don’t find her arguments convincing.

Jacinta: The essay seems to divide into two parts, first a general critique of psychology and neurology, which can be summed up by the title of a philosophical essay by Selim Berker, which she quotes approvingly, ‘the normative insignificance of neuroscience’. The second part is an account of how certain professional psychologists, practitioners of the ‘positive psychology’ pioneered by the influential Martin Seligman, colluded with the US government in providing dubious evidence for the psychological effectiveness of torture in eliciting valuable information from ‘enemies of the state’. Shaw clearly wants to link these unethical practices to what she might want to call ‘the normative insignificance of psychology’.

Canto: Yes, and it’s a bit of a dangerous game – you might as well label Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, or Althusser’s murder of his wife, as examples of ‘the normative insignificance of philosophy’.

Jacinta: Ha, well Althusser was declared insane at the time, no doubt by psychologists, who would be examining Althusser to determine whether he was, while strangling his wife, capable of understanding and following the normative rules of his society. Such determinations are hardly normatively insignificant, even though, no doubt, individual psychologists might make different determinations, due to levels of competence, corruption, ideological considerations and so forth.

Canto: Right, but let’s look more closely at Shaw’s essay, and pick it apart.

Jacinta: Okay, but first let’s make a philosophasters’ confession. Shaw mentions eight or so books or sources at the head of her essay, which form the basis of her discussion, but of those we’ve only read one – Pinker’s eloquent tome, The better angels of our nature. And we don’t intend to bone up on those other texts, though no doubt we’ll refer to our own reading in our responses.

Canto: And we are reasonably familiar with Jonathan Haidt’s work and ideas.

Jacinta: So Shaw begins her essay with the overweening ambition of behaviourist extraordinaire B F Skinner, a pretty soft target these days. I have no problems with criticising him, or Freud or any other psychologist whose theories get way out of hand. Shaw’s concerns, though, are specifically about the moral sphere. She feels that a new breed of psychologists, armed with neurological research, are making big claims about moral expertise. Here’s a quote from her essay:

Neuroscience, it is claimed, has revealed that our brains operate with a dual system for moral decision-making.

Canto: I like the ‘it is claimed’ bit. Claimed by who? Someone has put forward that hypothesis I’m sure, along with their reasons, but most neurologists bang on about neurology being a field in its infancy, and most findings are highly contested, it seems to me.

Jacinta: Shaw may be referring to the work of Daniel Kahneman – a psychologist not a neurologist – who distinguished between system 1 thinking (intuitive, less conscious, rough-and ready) and system 2 thinking (reasoned, conscious, more changeable depending on inputs and knowledge). But really there are many dual-process theories going back at least to William James. But Shaw is explicitly referring to the fMRI imaging work of the neurologist Jonathan Cohen, who analysed brain activity when subjects were asked to think about moral hypotheticals.

Canto: Yes and she’s quite straight about describing the two systems apparently highlighted by Cohen’s research and the brain regions associated with them, but becomes scathing in dealing with Joshua Greene, Cohen’s co-researcher, whom she quite deliberately introduces as a mere ‘philosophy graduate student’, whose interpretation of the research she describes thus:

Greene interpreted these results in the light of an unverifiable and unfalsifiable story about evolutionary psychology. Since primitive human beings encountered up-close dangers or threats of personal violence, their brains, he speculated, evolved fast and focused responses for dealing with such perils. The impersonal violence that threatens humans in more sophisticated societies does not trigger the same kind of affective response, so it allows for slower, more cognitive processes of moral deliberation that weigh the relevant consequences of actions. Greene inferred from this that the slower mechanisms we see in the brain are a later development and are superior because morality is properly concerned with impersonal values—for example, justice—to which personal harms and goals such as family loyalty should be irrelevant. He has taken this to be a vindication of a specific, consequentialist philosophical theory of morality: utilitarianism.

Jacinta: Okay, so here’s where psychology – especially evolutionary psychology – first comes under attack. It’s often said to present just so stories, which are necessarily highly speculative, as if they are facts. But I would question whether these speculations, or hypotheses, are unverifiable (forget about falsifiability, a term made popular by Karl Popper but which has come under heavy criticism since, both by scientists and philosophers of science, and I suspect Shaw has simply used it as a ‘double whammy’ to vilify Greene), to me they’re important and useful, and in any case are rarely presented as facts, at least not by the best psychologists.

Canto: So how do you verify this hypothesis, that fast, rough-and-ready responses for dealing with immediate dangers are systematically different from slower, more sophisticated responses that deal with the ‘impersonal violence’, the many restraints, justified or not, on our personal freedoms that we deal with on a daily basis?

Jacinta: Well one obvious way is through neurology, a scientific field still in its infancy as you say. Clearly the system 1 responses would be shared by other complex social mammals, whereas system 2 thinking is much more language-dependent and unique to humans – unless cetaceans have developed complex language, which is far from being out of the question. New techniques for mapping and exploring neural pathways are coming up all the time, as well as non-invasive ways of exploring such pathways in our closest mammalian relatives.

Canto: Good point. So to go to the second part of the above quote, Greene is presented (and I wonder about whether Shaw is fairly or accurately presenting him) as finding system 2 thinking as superior because it deals with more abstract and less personal values, whereas I would prefer to think of this system as a further adaptation, to a human existence that has become more socially complex, systematic and language-based. And in this, I’m apparently in line with the thinking of psychologists Shaw takes aim at:

Many of the psychologists who have taken up the dual-process model claim to be dismissive of philosophical theories, generally. They reject Greene’s inferences about utilitarianism and claim to be restricting themselves to what can be proved scientifically. But in fact all of those I discuss here are making claims about which kinds of moral judgments are good or bad by assessing which are adaptive or maladaptive in relation to a norm of social cooperation. They are thereby relying on an implicit philosophical theory of morality, albeit a much less exacting one than utilitarianism.

Jacinta: But I detect a problem here. You’ve talked about adaptation to the fact of growing social complexity, and the need to co-operate within that complexity. Shaw has written of a ‘norm of social co-operation’, by which she means an ethical norm, because she claims that this is the implicit philosophical theory of morality these psychologists rely on. But that’s not true, they’re not claiming that there’s anything moral about social complexity or social co-operation. We just are more complex, and necessarily more co-operative than our ancestors. So it’s kind of silly to say they’re relying on a less exacting moral philosophy than utilitarianism. It’s not about moral philosophy at all.

Canto: And it gets worse. Shaw claims that this phantom moral ethic of social co-operation is greatly inferior to utilitarianism, so let’s look at that normative theory, which in my view is not so much exacting as impossible. Utilitarianism is basically about the maximising of utility. Act in such a way that your actions maximise utility (act utilitarianism), or create rules that maximise utility (rule utilitarianism). So what’s utility? Nothing that can be measured objectively, or agreed upon. We can replace it with happiness, or pleasure, or well-being, or Aristotle’s eudaemonia, however translated, and the problem is still the same. How do you measure, on a large-scale, social level, things so elusive, intangible and personal?

Jacinta: Yes, and look at how laws change over time, laws for example relating to homosexuality, women’s rights, the protection of minorities, and even business practices, taxation and the like; they’re all about our changing, socially evolving sense of how to co-operate in such a way as to produce the best social outcomes. This can’t be easily bedded down in some fixed normative ethic.

Canto: Yes, Shaw seems to imply that some deep philosophical insight is missing from these psychologists which makes them liable to go off the rails, as the second half of her essay implies, but I’m very doubtful about that. But let’s continue with our analysis:

Rather than adhering to the moral view that we should maximize “utility”—or satisfaction of wants—they are adopting the more minimal, Hobbesian view that our first priority should be to avoid conflict. This minimalist moral worldview is, again, simply presupposed; it is not defended through argument and cannot be substantiated simply by an appeal to scientific facts. And its implications are not altogether appealing.

Jacinta: But surely she’s just assuming that ‘they’ – presumably all the psychologists she doesn’t like, or is it all the psychologists who posit a two-tiered system of decision-making? – take the view that avoidance of conflict is the highest priority.

Canto: Well I must say that Jonathan Haidt seems to take that view, and it’s something I find uncomfortable. So I agree with Shaw that Haidt ‘presupposes that the norm of cooperation should take precedence over the values that divide us’, and that this view is dubious. It’s just that I suspect my own view, that there are values more important than co-operation, is also a ‘presupposition’, though I dislike that word. But more of that later perhaps.

Jacinta: Right, so Shaw refers to the sinister implications of a minimalist Hobbesian worldview, supposedly held by these psychologists. What are they?

Canto: We’ll get there eventually – perhaps. Shaw describes the work of the ‘positive psychology’ movement, stemming from Martin Seligman and practised by Haidt among others, including Steven Pinker, whose book The better angels of our nature was apparently influenced by this movement:

In that extremely influential work Pinker argues that our rational, deliberative modes of evaluation should take precedence over powerful, affective intuitions. But by “rationality” he means specifically “the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games,” rather than any higher-order philosophical theory. He allows that empathy has played a part in promoting altruism, that “humanitarian reforms are driven in part by an enhanced sensitivity to the experiences of living things and a genuine desire to relieve their suffering.” But nevertheless our “ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary.”

And here’s where I see another problem. Pinker is here criticised for not subscribing to any ‘higher-order philosophical theory’, but Shaw doesn’t attempt to outline or give examples of such higher-order theories, though she does refer to empathy – an important factor, but one that doesn’t obviously emerge from philosophy.

Jacinta: Right, and we’ve already referred to utilitarianism and its problems. This reminds me that years ago  I read a sort of primer on ethics, I think it was called Moral Philosophy, in which the author devoted chapters to utilitarianism, Kantianism, rights theory and other ethical approaches. In the final chapter he presented his own preferred approach, a sort of neo-Aristotelianism. I was intrigued that he felt we hadn’t made much progress in philosophical ethics in almost 2,500 years.

Canto: Well, his may be a minority view, but it’s doubtful that our changing laws derive from philosophical work on normative ethics, though this may have had an influence. I do think, with Haidt, that there’s a great deal of post-hoc rationalisation going on, though I’m reluctant – very reluctant actually – to embrace the relativism of values. And this brings me to the nub of the matter, IMHO. To go back to an old favourite of mine, Hume: ‘reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions’. A fairly notorious pronouncement, but I take the passions here to be something very basic – the fundamental drives and instincts, largely unconscious, that characterise us as humans…

Jacinta: But doesn’t Hume break his own is-ought rule here? He says that our passions rule our reason, which may or may not be true, but does it follow that they ought to?

Canto: Please don’t complicate matters. Hume also wrote this, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals:

In all determinations of morality, this circumstance of public utility is ever principally in view, and wherever disputes arise, either in philosophy or common life, concerning the bounds of duty, the question cannot, by any means, be decided with greater certainty, than by ascertaining, on any side, the true interests of mankind.

So these true interests of mankind…

Jacinta: Hang on, so there he goes again, gaily bounding over his own is-ought barrier, saying that in order to work out what we ought to do we need – pretty well absolutely – to determine our interests, what in fact makes us human, what we actually are.

Canto: Well, precisely…

Jacinta: Or what we have evolved to become, which might amount to the same thing. So we need to study our evolution, our genes and genetic inheritance, our brain and its inheritance, and adaptive growth, and maybe the physics of our bodies…

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

our old Scottish mate Davey Hume, doyen of skeptics, whose is-ought distinction has been widely misinterpreted, we suspect

Canto: So we need neurology, and genetics, and palaeontology, and physics and psychology, all of which contribute to an understanding of what we are. Without them, normative ethics would be empty theorising.

Jacinta: So I suppose you’re going to write a rejoinder to this ‘normative insignificance of neurology’ essay? Something like ‘the insignificance of normative ethics without neurology’?

Canto: Ha, well that would require reading Selim Berker’s essay, which I’m not sure about – so many other things to explore. But I should end this discussion by saying a few words about the second half of Shaw’s article – and I’ll pass over many other points she’s made. This section deals with the collusion of some psychologists, practitioners of the above-mentioned ‘positive psychology’, with the CIA and the US Department of Defence in the commission of torture.

Jacinta: And what exactly is this ‘positive psychology’?

Canto: Well, to explain that would require a large digression. Suffice to say for now that it’s about using psychology to make us more resilient, and in some sense ethically superior, or more benign, humans. Shaw dwells on this at some length, but claims that in spite of much rhetoric, these psychologists can only offer what she calls the bare, Hobbesian ethic of avoidance of strife. However, she herself is unable to point to a more robust, or a deeper, ethic. She presumably believes in one, but she doesn’t enlighten us as to what it might be. And this is very striking because the tale of these psychologists’ collusion with the Bush administration  on torture, and the huge financial gain to them in applying ‘learned helplessness’, a theory of Seligman’s, to the application of torture, is truly shocking.

Jacinta: So it would be a question of what, in their make-up, allowed them to engage in such unethical behaviour, and was it the lack of a deep ethical understanding, beyond ‘bare Hobbesianism’?

Canto: Right, and my answer would be that, although two psychologists took up this lucrative offer to ‘serve the state’, there would have been others who refused, and would any of them, on either side, have made their decision on the basis of some rigorous normative ethic?

Jacinta: I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have colluded with that sort of thing for all the terracotta warriors in China, but I’m also sure it wouldn’t have been for deep philosophical reasons. I just have a kind of visceral revulsion for physical violence and bullying as you know, and I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I’d facilitated the premeditated cruel and unusual punishment of others. I’m not even sure if it’s about empathy, but it’s not a particularly reasoned position.

Canto: Yes, and so the only way to understand why some people are more prone to do unethical things – actions outside of the ever-changing standards of community ethics – might be to look at individual psychology, and neurology, and genetics, which takes us further away from normative ethics than ever.

Jacinta: Yes, and didn’t we read, in Sam Kean’s The tale of the duelling neurosurgeons, about a poor fellow in his mid-fifties who suddenly started engaging in paedophile acts, something he had never showed any signs of before? A brain scan revealed a large tumour pressing on parts of the brain responsible for higher-order decision-making (to put it over-simplistically). When the tumour was removed he returned to ‘normal’, until some time later he regressed to paedophile acts. A further scan showed they didn’t remove all the tumour and it had regrown. After another more successful operation he was cured and never diddled again. But the consequences of his actions for his victims when ‘not himself’ would have required him to be punished, on a consequentialist ethical view, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Very good point. And yet, and yet… can it be true that we’ve barely gone further in our ethics than the Golden Rule, or Aristotle’s mean between extremes?

Jacinta: We’re animals, don’t forget. Okay we’re animals that have managed to detect waves from space that are a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton, but we’re still not that good at being nice to each other. And the extent to which we’re able to be nice to each other, and follow social norms, that’s a matter of our individual psychology, our neurology, our individual and cultural circumstances, our genes and our epigenetic profile, so much particular stuff that philosophical ethics, with its generalities, can’t easily deal with.


Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2016 at 8:37 am

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