Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A thought on experimental philosophy

The New York Times has an article today about an experimental approach to the study of philosophy. I quote a section describing an experiment:
Shaun Nichols and I (Joshua Knobe) thought that people might be drawn toward one view by their capacity for abstract, theoretical reasoning, while simultaneously being drawn in the opposite direction by their more immediate emotional reactions......

To put this idea to the test, we conducted a simple experiment. All participants in the study were told about a deterministic universe (which we called “Universe A”), and all participants received exactly the same information about how this universe worked. The question then was whether people would think that it was possible in such a universe to be fully morally responsible.

But now comes the trick. Some participants were asked in a way designed to trigger abstract, theoretical reasoning, while others were asked in a way designed to trigger a more immediate emotional response. Specifically, participants in one condition were given the abstract question:

In Universe A, is it possible for a person to be fully morally responsible for their actions?

Meanwhile, participants in the other condition were given a more concrete and emotionally fraught example:

In Universe A, a man named Bill has become attracted to his secretary, and he decides that the only way to be with her is to kill his wife and three children. He knows that it is impossible to escape from his house in the event of a fire. Before he leaves on a business trip, he sets up a device in his basement that burns down the house and kills his family.

Is Bill fully morally responsible for killing his wife and children?

The results showed a striking difference between conditions. Of the participants who received the abstract question, the vast majority (86 percent) said that it was not possible for anyone to be morally responsible in the deterministic universe. But then, in the more concrete case, we found exactly the opposite results. There, most participants (72 percent) said that Bill actually was responsible for what he had done.
I think this is a very interesting approach. Of course we live in our universe, not Universe A. My answer for the question in our universe is that since we can predict probabilities of someone committing a specific kind of act (e.g. stealing, selling drugs) from factors describing their background (e.g. parents criminal records, income, neighborhood in which the person was raised), people who appear to have a high a priori probability of committing that act are less morally responsible for actually doing so than would be people with a low a priori probability of committing the act. Indeed, if in the future science evolves sufficiently to better predict the likelihoods of "immoral" acts, say using information about genetics and conditions that influence brain functioning such as prenatal conditions and chemical influences during childhood, then our assignment of moral responsibility should be lower.

If moral responsibility is a probabilistic assessment, that probability is a function of both the variability of peoples' behavior and of our ignorance. Some people behave as might be predicted and some do not. But we don't know what the real probabilities of conformity or non-conformity to optimum predictions, since we can not make those optimum predictions.

More relevant to the theme of this blog, people think with their brains and those brains function not by pure logic but also by emotion and other non-logical influences. Decision making is thus not perfectly logical.

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