What I said at the Mars Hill Panel

I recently participated in a Mars Hill Panel with Azim Shariff, Steve Bilynskyj, and Beth Bilynskyj on the the question “Can We Be Good Without God?”  Here’s what I had to say:

The question we’re discussing today is whether we can be good without god.  This question could be understood in two different ways.  It could be a question about motivation: is it possible for a human animal to do good and be good without believing in god?  Second, it could be a question about grounding: is it possible for a human animal to do good or be good if there is no god regardless of whether that person believes in god.  Azim Shariff is going to focus on the first question.  I’ll focus on the second.

It seems to me that there are two useful ways to approach the grounding question.  I’d like to explore both.

Consider first a polemic.  We want to know whether it’s possible for a human animal to be good even if there is no god.  I think the best way to show that something is possible is to show that it’s actual.  With this in mind, suppose that two things could be established: first, there is no god, and second, there is goodness.  If that were true – if it were actual that there was goodness without god, then of course it would also be possible that there was goodness without god.

To establish that there is no god, the atheist can engage in three tactics.  First, she can consider and reject all plausible arguments for the existence of god.  Second, she can argue directly against the existence of god.  Third, she can explain why, even if there is no god, belief in god is so prevalent.  I don’t have time to do this exhaustively tonight, but I think that all three tasks can be accomplished.  Among the best-known arguments for the existence of god are the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the teleological argument, the scripture argument, and Pascal’s wager.  The cosmological argument rests on the false premise that the universe itself needs a cause.  The ontological argument mistakenly treats existence as a property.  The teleological argument based on the teleology of life has been debunked by neo-Darwinism; the teleological argument based on the apparent fine-tuning of physical parameters mistakes low probability for intentional design.  The scripture argument is a non-starter, since it assumes that a document riddled with falsehoods, inconsistencies, and impossibilities was divinely inspired.  Finally, Pascal’s wager is not actually an argument for the existence of god; it’s an argument for believing in god even though one recognizes that the existence of god is at best remarkably unlikely.

I’ll now turn to arguing against the existence of god.  One thing the atheist can say at this point is that, since there are no good arguments for the existence of god, we should conclude that there is no god.  After all, the burden of proof is on the person who wants to argue that something exists, not the person who rejects that claim.  Evil people like Donald Rumsfeld flippantly say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.  But when you do your very best to find evidence and don’t turn anything up, that is evidence of absence.  Just so in the case of god: if the best arguments for the existence of god are unsuccessful, that’s evidence that there is no god.  But there are also direct arguments to be made against the existence of god.  Perhaps the most persuasive is the argument from evil, which I’ll explore in three forms.  All three versions begin by pointing out that any god worth believing in, worshiping, and taking direction from would have to be both powerful and good.  They then argue that no such god exists.  The first way to establish this claim is by thinking about natural disasters.  Consider the tsunami of December 24, 2004, which killed an estimated 150,000 people and destroyed the homes of literally millions more.  Would a good and powerful god allow such an event?  I think not.  Or consider leukemia, which kills about 25,000 children every single year.  Would a good and powerful god allow innocents to suffer in this way?  Would a good and powerful god create humans in such a way that they were susceptible to this disease?  Again, I think not.  Finally, instead of worrying about the evils that god allows, one could point directly at the evils that god, according to religious scriptures, perpetrates.  In both Christianity and Islam, for instance, god is thought to punish insubordination – either mere failure to believe in god, or failure to comply with some divine commandments – with eternal damnation.  This torment is supposedly infinitely worse, in both duration and intensity, than all the suffering that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe.  As David Lewis pointed out, this makes god infinitely worse than Hitler and Stalin.

The last part of the atheist argument is to explain why, despite the fact that there is no god, theism is so prevalent.  It’s a complex story, but the most important part of it is this: for evolutionary reasons, humans are wildly oversensitive agent-detectors, which leads us to see divine agency in anything we can’t explain.

I’m happy to discuss any of this further, but for now I’m going to treat the first premise – that there is no god – as established.  If it can also be shown that there is goodness, then we are done: it’s possible for us to be good without god because it’s actually the case that some of us are good despite the non-existence of god.  This premise is, I think, much easier to establish.  We all know people who are at least somewhat good.  My favorite example is Paul Slovic, an emeritus professor here at UO who works on understanding the causes of and preventing genocide.

What I’m claiming to have established then, is that there is no god but there is goodness.  From this is directly follows that we can be good without god.  But perhaps this polemical approach strikes you as too aggressive.  Maybe you think that the arguments for the existence of god are more persuasive than I do.  Maybe you think Paul Slovic is not a good person – nor is anyone else.  Let’s grant for the sake of argument, then, that god exists.  Let’s also grant that god judges some things to be good and wants us to promote them.  Here’s a further question: is something good because god says so, or is it rather the case that god says so because it’s independently good?  I think that god doesn’t make something good just by commanding it.  After all, if god could do this, then god could arbitrarily decide to make rape, murder, torture, genocide, pedophilia, and investment banking good.  And god could arbitrarily decide to make love, friendship, community, freedom, and creativity bad.  This is connected with the argument from evil that I mentioned earlier.  A god who commanded us to give up love, friendship, freedom, and creativity – a god who insisted that we instead pursue rape, murder, torture, genocide, pedophilia, and investment banking – wouldn’t be worthy of our admiration and obedience.  Such a god would be evil, as would anyone who followed his commands.

How am I so sure that a god who issued such commands would be evil?  Because I think we have an independent notion of what’s good.  There are lots of ways of spelling out that notion, but one I find especially attractive that human animals have certain needs and capabilities, and that what’s good for us is for our needs to be met and our capabilities promoted.  A comprehensive list of needs and capabilities is hard to formulate, but here’s a good start: 1) life, which involves having a long enough life and a life worth living, 2) bodily health, which involves nourishment, shelter, and reproductive health, 3) bodily integrity, which involves freedom of movement, freedom from assault and abuse, and reproductive choice, 4) mental freedom, which involves having an adequate education, a wide-ranging imagination, and creative expression, 5) emotional integrity, which involves the capacity to having loving attachments to people and the ability to feel the full range of human emotions, 6) practical reason, which involves being able to formulate your own conception of a good life, 7) affiliation, which involves the capacity for friendship and political organization, 8) other species, which involves our need to live with and in nature, including other mammals, other animals more generally, plants, and the rest of biology, 9) play, and 10) political and material control.

What’s good for someone is for their life to be high on all ten of these dimensions.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that the only life worth living is very high on all dimensions.  It’s comparative: the higher you are on each dimension, the better off you are.  On this view, morality is a system of institutions, norms, rules, values, judgments, and actions that answers to these needs and capabilities.  One system of morality is better than another to the extent that it meets more needs and promotes more capabilities.

There will inevitably be trade-offs, with some people and cultures putting more emphasis on some capabilities than others.  There might be no principled way of choosing one set of weights over another in every case.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize a culture – including and especially our own – for failing to meet needs and to promote capabilities when it could.  This has two implications.  First, things are good for biological and psychological – not divine – reasons.  If we can be good at all, we can be good without god.  Second, there are constraints on moral relativism.  Whether a certain way of behaving is acceptable depends on the moral system in place in the relevant culture, but whether that system is binding in the first place depends on whether it meets needs and promotes capabilities sufficiently well.  Criticizing your own culture because it callously leaves needs unsatisfied and undermines capabilities is an important moral act.  This includes criticizing the predominance of a religion like Christianity, which systematically undermines bodily health, bodily integrity, mental freedom, emotional integrity, practical reason, affiliation, and political control.

Draft chapters of moral psychology textbook

I’m writing a textbook on moral psychology for Polity.  Some of the material was piloted in an undergraduate honors seminar I taught this winter.  Much of it is new material (though related to my other work and drawing as carefully as I can on others’).  I’m going to be putting draft chapters up on this blog.  I’d be extremely grateful for comments, suggestions, questions, and criticisms.

Here’s a tentative table of contents:


1. Preferences

2. Agency

3. Emotion

4. Virtue

5. Intuition

6. Moral disagreement

7. Altruism

8. Development

Coda: The future of moral psychology

This post is a draft of the intro.

1 Setting the stage


Moral psychology is the systematic inquiry into how morality works (when it does work) and breaks down (when it doesn’t work).  The field therefore incorporates questions, insights, models, and methods from various parts of psychology (personality psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology), sociology, anthropology, criminology, and of course philosophy (applied ethics, normative ethics, metaethics).  These fields are – or at least can be – mutually informative.  Indeed, one guiding theme of this book is that moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind.  Given their characteristically synoptic perspective, philosophers are ideally situated to organize and moderate a productive conversation among these sciences.  Nevertheless, there is always the risk that investigators with different training and expertise may misinterpret, misconstrue, or misunderstand one another.  In this book, I attempt to put the relevant disciplines in dialogue.  They sometimes speak with different accents, jargons, vocabularies, even grammars.  My aim is to make their conversation intelligible to the reader, even if they cannot all be brought to speak exactly the same language in the same way.

Systematic inquiry depends on systematic questions.  Science is not just a collection of facts.  It’s not even a collection of facts about the same thing or class of things.  Imagine how stupid it would be to conduct moral psychology by assembling all and only the motives that every person has ever had while responding to a moral problem (assuming this to be possible in the first place).  This would be an utterly disorganized, uninformative, overwhelming mess.  In the annals of the illustrious British Royal Society, you find descriptions of “experiments” like this: “A circle was made with powder of unicorne’s horn, and a spider set in the middle of it, but it immediately ran out severall times repeated.  The spider once made some stay upon the powder” (Weld 1848, p. 113).  This would be a caricature of bad science if it hadn’t happened.  We might call this empiricism run amok.  Science doesn’t just ask what happens, as if this were a question that, when completely answered, would satisfy human inquirers.  Science asks questions systematically.  It asks, for instance, what the effect of X on Y is.  It asks whether that effect is mediated by M.  It asks whether the effect is moderated by Z.[1]  It attempts to determine which small set of variables, organized in what configuration, accounts for the variability observed and experimentally induced in the field of inquiry.

In this endeavor, science is guided by insightful identification of relevant variables, careful distinction between similar phenomena, creative elaboration of alternative models, and skeptically imaginative construction of potential counterexamples.  As the economist Paul Krugman put it recently on his blog, you can’t just let “the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking.  If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming).”[2]  One way to help make theorizing explicit rather than implicit is asking systematic questions.

Unfortunately, in universities and in the contemporary education system more broadly (especially, to my chagrin, in the United States) we typically spend far too much time answering (and learning to answer) questions and far too little asking (and learning to ask) questions.  So, in this introduction, I’ll try to show how questions are asked, how they become more nuanced and complicated, and how conditions of adequacy for answers are (tentatively) established.

Here’s a moral question I’ve asked myself:

What should I do to him for her?

Picture this: I’m headed to work on a downtown subway car at 8:30 AM.  Two seats to my right, a 20-something woman is intently reading a magazine, obviously somewhat tense because a man is standing over her, leaning in a bit too close, leering slightly, and alternating between asking her name and telling her to smile.  She’s presumably on her way to work and obviously uninterested in his conversation.  She rolls her eyes and sighs.  He seems obnoxious but mostly harmless.  She casts about from time to time.  Is she looking for help? for someone to share a moment of derisive eye contact with? for reassurance that, if her unwelcome interlocutor escalates to insulting or assaulting her, fellow passengers will not remain apathetic bystanders?


2 Patiency


What should I do to him for her?  This question presupposes an immense amount.

First, it presupposes patiency[3] – that is, the fact that things happen to people.  My fellow commuter can be made uncomfortable.  She can feel threatened.  She can be threatened.  She can be assaulted.  Things – some of them good and some of them quite bad – can happen to her.  Some of them might be done by that jerk who keeps insinuating himself on her attention.  The fact that good and bad things can happen to her – that she is, in technical terms, a patient – is presupposed by my question.

Things can also happen to him.  He can be ignored and accommodated.  He can be egged on.  He can, alternatively, be confronted and challenged.  He can be distracted or redirected.  The fact that good, bad, and neutral things can happen to him – that he too is a patient – is also presupposed by my question.

Finally, things can happen to me.  One reason I might do nothing is that I’m afraid of what might happen to me if I confront or even merely accost him.  Probably nothing – but I’m useless in a fight, and strangers can be unpredictable.  She might express gratitude to me for intervening.  Alternatively, she might be annoyed that a second stranger has made her business his business.  I aim to be helpful, which among other things includes stymieing creeps, but I also aim to avoid trampling through strangers’ lives uninvited.  As I decide what to do, her patiency, his patiency, and my patiency are all quite salient.

Things happen to people.  When they do, we have an example of patiency.  In other words, when something happens to someone, she is the patient of (is passive with respect to) that event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us patients, and how our patiency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Several chapters of this book are directly related to patiency.  For instance, in chapter 1 on preferences, we will see that some philosophers argue that your life goes well to the extent that your preferences are satisfied.  In other words, your life is better when you get what you want than when you don’t get it.  If you, like most people, want to be healthy, but you end up contracting influenza, your life goes worse.  Something happens to you that contravenes your preferences.  On the flipside, if you, like most people, prefer temperate weather to frigid cold, and the weather where you are is temperate, then your life goes better.  Something happens to you that satisfies your preferences.  In chapter 4, on virtue, we will see that benevolence is typically considered a virtue.  What makes someone benevolent?  Wishing others well, and at least sometimes acting successfully on those wishes.  If a benevolent person helps you in some way, you are the patient of her action.  An extreme version of benevolence – altruism – will be discussed in chapter 7.  An altruist doesn’t just wish others well and do things for their sake; she does so at significant cost to herself.  Finally, in chapter 8, we will consider moral development.  None of us grows up in a social vacuum.  We are all raised by someone, such as a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle.  We are all patients of the myriad interventions our caretakers make in our lives, which lead us to cultivate good (or bad, or mixed) character.

Thus, patiency is a crucial concept in moral psychology.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her patiency, his patiency, and my own patiency.  This is an example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


3 Agency


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes agency.  Things don’t just happen to people: sometimes people do things.

Return to the example of the woman on the train.  She might do something.  She might stand up and walk to the next train car.  She might lean back and hold her magazine up in front of her face, blocking the stranger’s attempt to make eye contact and muffling his voice.  She might tell him off.  She might scream.  She might kick him in the shin.

Likewise, he might do something.  He might continue to bug her until she escapes the train car.  He might sit down next to her.  He might call her a bitch.  He might throw his hands in the air and walk away.  He might switch to bothering someone else.  He might grow bored and start playing with his smartphone.

I, too, might do something.  (There’d be little point in asking myself what I should do if I couldn’t!)  If my usual wariness of strangers holds up, I might cautiously eye the situation and hope impotently that nothing too bad happens.  I might instead stride over and command him to stop bothering her.  More helpfully, I might stroll over and ask her a nonchalant question that lets her redirect her attention without seeming to be too rude to him.

People do things.  When they do, we have an example of agency.  In other words, some person is the agent of (is active with respect to) some event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us agents, and how our agency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to agency.  Chapter 1 discusses how our preferences affect our choices, and hence our actions.  It’s tempting to assume that our preferences are fairly stable, at least once we reach adulthood.  Empirical research suggests otherwise.  It’s even more tempting to assume that our preferences are transitive: if I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla and prefer vanilla to strawberry, then I’d better prefer chocolate to strawberry.  Again, empirical research suggests that, at least in some cases, transitivity breaks down.  To what extent can we be the authors of our own actions if our preferences are unstable and inconsistent?  Chapter 2 is about the relation between deliberative agency on the one hand and implicit biases on the other hand.  The vast majority of people in the developed world would, if asked, reject racist and sexist beliefs.  But social psychologists have demonstrated that most of us nevertheless implicitly accept and even act on racist and sexist associations.  When we do, are we really expressing our own agency?  If we aren’t, what’s going on?  Chapter 3 asks whether we are more or less agentic when we are motivated by emotions.  Particularly intense emotions seem to come over us like a hurricane, swamping our planning, deliberation, and even our agency.  But deficits in emotion have been shown to correlate with demonstrably bad decision-making.  Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the Kantian rejection of emotions on the one hand and the Humean embrace of them on the other.  Chapter 4 connects agency with virtue, which for many theorists is a matter of acting in accordance with practical reason.  Psychological research over the last several decades has demonstrated that the human capacity for slow, careful, deliberative reasoning is much more limited than most philosophers have presupposed.  The vast majority of our decision-making relies on quick, unconscious, vaguely emotional mental shortcuts.  Does this undermine our agency (as many suppose), or does it instead enable us to expand our agentic engagement with the world and each other?

If people were incapable of agency, if they were entirely passive beings, the contours of whose lives were completely determined by outside forces, there wouldn’t be much for moral psychologists to think about.  We could construct theories about what it meant for one person to have a better life than another, what it meant for one person to have as good a life as possible for such an impoverished creature, what it meant for such a life to improve or deteriorate.  But that would be about it.  The introduction of agency greatly complicates moral psychology.  Now, things don’t just happen to us; we do things.  Some of those things turn out as we want or intend them to.  Others don’t.  This imposes some constraints on what it means to act well, to be a successful agent.  Sometimes we do what we want, but then we are disappointed by the result.  This suggests that we need a better understanding of our own preferences, a topic of chapter 1.  Sometimes we accomplish one goal but in so doing thwart our striving for a second goal.  This suggests that we need to understand agency holistically, so that it involves progress towards a complete set of goals without too much self-undermining.

Thus, agency, like patiency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her agency, his agency, and my own agency.  This is a further example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


4 Sociality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes sociality.  Things happen to people: they get sick, they enjoy pleasant weather, they endure the many small indignities of youth and the even more numerous small indignities of aging.  People do things: they stand up and walk away, they shrink into their seats, they write books.  In many interesting cases, though, one person does something to someone else.  Indeed, some of the examples I gave above had this flavor.  The only reason I asked myself what I should do to him for her was that he was doing something to her in the first place: he was harassing her.  As I deliberated about what to do, I considered the fact that there were things she might do to him, such as pointedly ignoring him, additional things he might do to her, such as insulting her, and various things I might do to him on her behalf, such as confronting him for harassing her.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.


Y is a patient. Y is not a patient.
X is an agent. X harasses Y.X kicks Y in the shin.

X confronts Y.

X stands up.X shrinks into his seat.

X writes a book.

X is not an agent. Y gets sick.Y enjoys pleasant weather.

Y grows old.

Table 1: agency x patiency examples

As table 1 illustrates, people can be simple patients, to whom things just happen; they can be simple agents, who just do things; but they can also be complex agents and patients: they can do things to each other.  In such cases, agency and patiency are inextricably intertwined.  One person’s agency is the cause or even a constitutive part of another person’s patiency.  One person’s patiency is the effect of another person’s agency.  When asked, “What happened to you?” my fellow commuter would be giving an incomplete answer if she responded, “I was harassed.”  Being harassed is not like enjoying pleasant weather; it’s not something that can happen to someone all on their own.  A more complete answer would be, “I was harassed by a stranger.”  Likewise, if someone later asked the creep, “What did you do on the train?” he would be giving an incomplete response if he answered, “I harassed.”  Harassing isn’t like standing up; it’s not something someone can do all on their own.

We can represent these relations with the following schematic diagram.[4]

 agent-patient 1x

Figure 1: agent-patient relation


In this diagram (and others of its sort that I’ll use below), a dot represents a person.  An arrow proceeding away from a dot represents that person exercising agency.  An arrow pointing at a dot represents that person enduring patiency (good, bad, or neutral).  I’ll put a box around each such relation.

Figure 1 represents the simplest sort of sociality: one agent does something to another agent.  A more complex form of sociality occurs when two people are agents and patients with respect to each other at the same time: you do something to me while I do something to you.  For instance, we dance together, each making suggestions to the other through subtle bodily movement, gestures, glances, and words. Call this interactivity.  Figure 2 represents interactive sociality of this sort.


agent-patient 1x interactive


Figure 2: agent-patient relation


Things happen to people; people do things; sometimes, these are the same event.  But sociality is often more complicated than that.  Interactivity is one source of complexity, but a minor one.  Another source of complexity is the possibility – indeed, the prevalence – of recursively embedded agent-patient relations.  This might sound frighteningly technical, but don’t worry.  Recursion is all over the place, and I’m certain that you’re already familiar with it, if only informally.  Recursion is a process in which objects of a given type are generated by or defined in terms of other objects of the same type.  For instance, think of your ancestors.  What makes someone an ancestor of yours?  The answer to this question relies on recursion: the parents of X are ancestors of X (that’s the non-recursive step) and ancestors of ancestors of X are ancestors of X (that’s the recursive step).  Your grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of your parents.  Your great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of your parents.  Your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of the parents of your parents.  The great-great-grandparents of your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the ancestors of your ancestors.  And so on.

Social agent-patient relations can also be recursively embedded.  The majority – probably the vast majority – of the complexity of moral psychology derives from such embedding.  In fact, the example I started off with has a recursive structure.  When I asked myself what I should do to him for her, I was thinking of myself as an agent who acts on a preexisting agent-patient relationship.  After all, I would have had no reason to intervene if he hadn’t been harassing her in the first place.

 agent-patient 2x

Figure 3: recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Figure 3 illustrates the situation in which one person acts on a second person acting on a third person.  Since this relation is recursive, it can be expanded yet another step (and another, and another…), as illustrated in figure 4.

agent-patient 3x

Figure 4: doubly recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Although figure 4 might seem complicated, I think we can pretty easily conjure up a situation that it characterizes.  For instance, imagine that I decide to stride over to the creep and tell him to cut it out.  As I move towards him, my friend, who realizes what a foolhardy thing I’m about to do, grabs me by the wrist and whispers “no no NO!”  My friend acts on me acting on him acting on her.  This sort of thing happens, I suggest, all the time.  And, as you can see, the more recursion there is, the most complicated the situation becomes.

Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Sociality is what makes moral psychology so complicated but also so interesting.  In a way, it’s the underlying theme of every chapter of this book but it features most prominently in chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8.  In chapter 3 on emotion, we will see that emotions often function as signaling devices.  When I display anger, I signal to you that I am prepared and committed to reacting aggressively to offenses.  When you display disgust, you signal to me that the object of your disgust is contaminated and to-be-avoided.  Emotional signaling fits well into the recursive embedding structure discussed here.  When I display anger towards you, I also often signal to other people that they should be indignant over the offense you’ve caused me (a relationship like the one in figure 3).  When you display contempt towards my behavior, you also often signal to other people that they should feel superior to me.  Chapter 4 on virtue focuses primarily on the interlocking virtues of trustingness and trustworthiness.  Chapter 6 on moral disagreement investigates the ways in which sociality influences agreement on moral values, norms, heuristics, and decisions.  Chapter 7 on altruism is especially concerned with the potential tension between evolutionary theory and altruistic norms.  Chapter 8 explores the ways in which interlocking, recursively-structured agent-patient relations influence moral development.

Thus, sociality, like patiency and agency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that greatly complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from our sociality, that is, from the fact that I can act on him acting on her.  This is another example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


5 Reflexivity and temporality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes reflexivity.  People do things; things happen to people; people do things to people.  In some cases, the agent and the patient are the same person.  In other words, people can do things to themselves.  This is easiest to see if we also introduce the last main conceptual presupposition of my question: temporality.  As I decide what to do to him for her, here are some considerations that might cross my mind:

If I don’t intercede somehow, I’ll feel guilty all day.

If I manage to distract him without starting a fight, I’ll be proud.

If I act like a coward now, I’ll be cultivating bad habits.

All of these considerations involve thinking of my future self as the patient of my current self as agent.  Another way of putting the same point is that I’m taking a social perspective on myself: on the one hand, me-now is the agent who does something to a patient; on the other hand, me-in-the-future is the patient to whom something is done by that agent.  These concepts also interact with sociality and the recursive embedding of agent-patient relations.  For instance, suppose I make a bad decision on Monday (agent) that leads me to make an even worse decision on Tuesday (patient-to-Monday-me) that leads me to suffer immensely on Wednesday (patient-to-Tuesday-me).  This is the sort of structure represented in figure 3, except that all three nodes represent me – just at different stages of my life.

Whenever we engage in long-term projects – especially long-term projects that are meant to have some effects on our future selves – patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality are all involved.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us reflexive and temporal, and how our reflexivity and temporality figure in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to reflexivity and temporality.  The instability of preferences discussed in chapter 1 is a temporal instability, and it threatens agency because human agency as we normally conceive of it is meant to be temporally extended.  I don’t just do things now.  I do things now so that I can do and experience things later.  If my preferences change in the meantime, then setting myself up to do or experience something later seems pointless: what if I no longer want to do or experience that?  What if I’ve just wasted my effort?  The interaction between deliberative agency and implicit biases discussed in chapter 2 concerns, among other things, whether I’m able to reflectively endorse my own choices.  Emotions, discussed in chapter 3, can function as social signals; they can also function as commitment devices.  If I have a particular emotion, I’m committing myself (if only unconsciously and tentatively) to a plan of action in the future.  If I act wrongly, one of the things that may happen to my future self is the suffering of remorse.  Virtue, discussed in chapter 4, is acquired (according to Aristotle and many who follow in his footsteps) through long-term, goal-directed cultivation; I have a plan for my own life over time, which I proceed to carry out, making me both the agent and the patient of myself over the course of months, years, and even decades.  Intuitions, discussed in chapter 5, are arguably the automatic deliverances of capacities that have been built up over time through exposure to various theories, considerations, and arguments.

Reflexivity and temporality complicate moral psychology in various ways.  This is easiest to see if we imagine creatures that are just like humans in other ways but who have no long-term memory, no sense of self, and no capability to plan, to feel proud of their accomplishments, or to experience remorse.  Although such creatures would be patients (things would happen to them) and agents (they would do things) who were in some ways social (they would do things to each other), they would be very unlike us insofar as they could not intentionally do things to and for themselves, could not be grateful to or disappointed with their past selves, could not engage in long-term projects, and could not enjoy long-term friendships.  Clearly, these are crucial aspects of human moral psychology.

Thus far, we have explored five crucial concepts in moral psychology: patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  I don’t want to suggest that these are the only concepts moral psychologists find worth studying, but I do think they are among the most central.  Other important concepts will crop up throughout this book.  Some, such as emotion and intuition, will be treated at greater length.  Others, such as imagination and mindfulness, will receive less attention.  I encourage you to follow up on any and all of the concepts that capture your interest, and will provide lists of secondary sources at the end of each chapter to help direct and slake your curiosity.  In the remainder of this introduction, I will characterize some of the major normative theories that you might already be aware of in terms of their emphases on patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  After that, I’ll conclude by considering objections to moral psychology that might be raised because of the ever-fraught relationships among contingency, necessity, and normativity.  In particular, I’ll focus the truism that one can never deduce an ought from an is.


6 Comparing emphases of major moral theories


In the history of Western philosophy, four major moral theories have emerged: utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, and care ethics.  Since it’s likely that you’ve encountered at least some of these views before reading this book, in this section, I compare how they relate to the five main concepts in moral psychology


6.1 Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism is the best-known variety of a family of views known as consequentialism.  According to consequentialism, the goodness of an act is determined solely by the goodness of the consequent state of affairs.  This view is typically combined with positions on what makes a state of affairs good and a theory of right action.  For instance, hedonist act utilitarianism says that the only thing that contributes to the goodness of a state of affairs is pleasure, that the only thing that detracts from the goodness of a state of affairs is pain, and that an action is right just in case it maximizes the amount of goodness in the consequent state of affairs.

Pleasure and pain are mental states that humans and other animals enjoy and suffer.  Thus, utilitarians and other consequentialists place their primary emphasis on patiency.  Jeremy Bentham, one of the foremost utilitarian thinkers in philosophical history, put the point well while asking what determines whether a creature has moral worth and bears moral consideration:


Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse?  But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.  But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail?  the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (1823, chapter 17, footnote)


For someone like Bentham, it doesn’t matter whether you can engage in reasoning (including the practical reasoning required for agency and the reflexivity required for long-term planning).  It doesn’t matter whether you can talk.  The main moral question for him is whether you can suffer, whether things can happen to you – in particular, bad and painful things.

Utilitarianism thus gives pride of place to patiency and de-emphasizes agency and reflexivity.  Bentham’s lack of concern for talking might lead one to think that he and other utilitarians have no regard for sociality.  In one sense, that’s correct.  However, utilitarians and other consequentialists also tend to think that every being capable of suffering matters equally.  And they recognize that people are capable of both inflicting suffering on one another and alleviating one another’s suffering.  For this reason, utilitarians put a great deal of emphasis on sociality, though deriving that emphasis from its relation to patiency and suffering.

Lastly, utilitarians tend to put great emphasis on temporality.  What I have in mind here is the fact that the consequences of an action are typically construed not just as what happens immediately afterwards but as everything that flows from the action.  Everything, for all time?  At the very least, everything that could be foreseen by a very intelligent and dedicated investigator.  Utilitarians care so much about such long-term consequences that they have debates about population ethics, asking questions such as “How many people should there be?” (Blackorby, Bossert, & Donaldson 1995)


6.2 Kantian ethics


Kantian ethics, also sometimes called ‘deontological ethics’, puts most emphasis on the two concepts that utilitarianism deemphasizes (agency and reflexivity) while according less weight to the concepts utilitarianism emphasizes (patiency, sociality, and temporality).  Kant thought that an account of moral obligation could be derived from the structure of agency itself.  He called this the categorical imperative because it applies to every agent in every action they undertake regardless of their desires, preferences, and values.  The best-known formulation of the categorical imperative states that you must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421).  This book is not an introduction to major moral theories, let alone the history of philosophy, so I will not go into much detail interpreting the categorical imperative.  Kant’s idea, though, is that simply in virtue of being an agent you are constrained to act from some motives rather than others.  Clearly, then, agency figures importantly in Kantian ethics.

The other core concept that receives primary emphasis in Kantian ethics is reflexivity.  This is already somewhat evident from the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which requires you to reflect on and extrapolate from your own motives, but it comes into focus if we consider the third formulation: act as if you were through your maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends (4:439).  On this view, a moral act is one that can be self-legislated, i.e., an act that is in accordance with a law one could give not only to others but also to oneself.

Agency and reflexivity have pride of place in Kantian ethics, but the other three concepts receive some attention.  Patiency and sociality get their due in the second formulation of the categorical imperative: treat humanity – whether your own or someone else’s – never merely as the means to some end but always as an end in its own right.  In this formulation, we can see that Kant cares not only about agency but also about what’s done to people.  He thinks it’s always wrong to treat someone as a mere means to your own end.  However, patiency matters for Kant only derivatively because he thinks that what’s wrong about treating someone as a mere means is that, in so doing, you don’t respect their agency.  Thus, the importance of what happens to us and what we do to each other depends on the antecedent importance of agency.

Finally, Kantian ethics doesn’t totally discount temporality (Kant argues that we have an imperfect duty to develop our own talents, for instance), but it also doesn’t place primary emphasis on it.


6.3 Virtue ethics


Virtue ethics is a family of views that focuses less on what it’s right to do and more on what sort of person it’s good to be.  A good person is someone with many virtues (compassion, courage, honesty, trustworthiness) and few vices (selfishness, laziness, unfairness, rashness).  Ancient Greek philosophers were basically all virtue ethicists of one kind or another.  Plato emphasized the virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.  Aristotle famously thought that every virtue was a middle state between a pair of vices.  For instance, courage is the disposition to fear neither too many things nor too few things, to fear them neither too intensely nor not intensely enough, to fear them neither for too long nor for too short a period, and so on.

Utilitarian ethics focuses primarily on patiency, sociality, and temporality; Kantian ethics focuses primarily on agency and reflexivity.  Virtue ethics has a more balanced approach (this isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing – it’s just a matter of emphasis), putting moderate emphasis on all five central concepts.  A virtuous person is characteristically active, doing things for reasons.  A virtuous person is also quite social.  Aristotle, for instance, devotes two whole chapters (out of ten) of the Nicomachean Ethics to friendship and another to justice.  Additionally, because virtue ethicists are concerned with the shape of a person’s whole life and the slow acquisition of virtuous traits, they pay more attention to temporality and moral development than utilitarians and Kantians.  They place slightly less emphasis on patiency and reflexivity, though these too figure in the account.


6.4 Care ethics


The other three views surveyed in this section are venerable, traditional approaches to morality.  The ethics of care is much more recent.  The dawn of care ethics can be dated with some precision to the publication, in 1982, of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.  In her book, Gilligan explored the ways in which women (at least the women she interviewed) tend to talk in terms of care, emphasizing personal relationships and attachments (motherhood, siblinghood, friendship, etc.) and the special responsibilities that flow from these.  She accused existing moral theories, such as Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1971) Kantian approach to moral psychology, with ignoring and even sometimes denigrating such caring relationships in favor of a completely impartial, legalistic notion of rights and justice.  Although this criticism is somewhat overstated (as I mentioned above, Aristotle devotes twice as much attention to friendship as he does to justice), popular versions of both utilitarian and Kantian ethics clearly deserve Gilligan’s rebuke.  Since 1971, various philosophers, including Kittay, Noddings, and Slote, have formulated moral theories in the wake of Gilligan’s critique.

Like the other theories canvassed here, care ethics is actually a family of views.  What unites them is their emphasis on personal, face-to-face relationships and attachments, as well as their recognition that we all come into this world as completely helpless, dependent, screaming, fragile lumps of flesh.  Care ethicists therefore focus primarily on human sociality and patiency, with derivative interest in agency (someone has to do the caring, in addition to being cared for, after all) and temporality.  Reflexivity receives little attention in the care tradition.

major moral theories

Figure 5: Emphases of the four major moral theories


These differences in emphasis are illustrated graphically in figure 5.


7 Is and ought


To some people, the idea of combining scientific psychology with philosophical ethics to investigate moral psychology will seem only natural.  Philosophy helps to set the terms of the investigation (in this case, patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality), proposes questions and models, dreams up potential counterexamples; psychology empirically determines whether the terms refer to anything in the world, answers the questions, tests the models, and determines whether the potential counterexamples can be realized.  Psychology as an academic discipline split off from philosophy less than two centuries ago; it’s unsurprising that the two fields would sometimes collaborate.  To other people, though, this project might seem to be doomed from the start.  Science studies how things are, whereas philosophy studies how things ought to be and how they must be.  Science can never, even in principle, help to answer philosophical questions.

As you’ve probably guessed, I disagree, and for several reasons.  First, science can investigate modal reality (how things not only are but can and can’t be).  To the extent that we accept the truism that people can’t be morally required to do things or be ways that are impossible, scientific investigation of moral psychology constraints moral theory.  Second, scientific psychology can also investigate not just whether various kinds of behavior, character, and attachments are possible but also how demanding it would be for people to act, be, and relate in those ways.  The harder it is to live up to a moral theory’s requirements, the more suspicious we should be of that theory.  This is not to say that morality can’t make legitimate demands on us, just that the more extravagant those demands grow, the more suspicious we should be of the theory that generated them.  Third, even if we decide to hold onto very demanding norms, psychological science can help us to see how to live up to those norms.  In the same way, even if we hold onto extremely idealized norms of physical health, biological science can help us to see how to approximate those norms in our own lives.

Finally, morality is an important part of human behavior and cognition; as such, it’s something psychologists want to study, even if their investigations never end up suggesting revisions to moral norms.  The idea that this aspect of psychology is simply off-limits, as if philosophers could somehow call “dibs” on it, is preposterous.  As Levitin put it, those who think that science cannot study values typically commit a fallacy: “they seem to have confused making value judgments, which is incompatible with scientific objectivity, with studying objectively how other people make them – a phenomenon as amenable to psychology study, in principle, as other forms of human learning and choice” (1973, p. 491).  Moral psychology doesn’t aim to replace utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, or the ethics of care.  In the case of care, this should be especially obvious: the entire edifice of care ethics was inspired by empirical research on moral psychology!  Instead of taking their ball and going home, philosophers need to learn to share their insights, theories, and models with their scientist neighbors.

It’s not all good news for traditional normative ethics, though.  Moral theories have empirical presuppositions.  Moral psychology can investigate those presuppositions.  Sometimes, to the moral theorist’s delight, they turn out to be well-supported.  Sometimes their foundations look pretty shaky.  The relation between philosophy and psychology doesn’t need to involve confrontation or scorn, though.  A better attitude for both sides to take, I contend is one of curiosity and intellectual humility.  A curious investigator is tentatively committed to her views, but she’s also delighted to find out that she’s wrong because that spurs her to construct a better model, a stronger theory, a more nuanced hypothesis.  There’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for philosophers and only philosophers to investigate.  By the same token, there’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for psychologists and only psychologists to investigate.  If you don’t believe me now, perhaps you will when you finish this book.

[1] For more on mediation and moderation see Baron & Kenny (1986).

[2] Paul Krugman, March 17, 2014, on his blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” in a post titled “Sergeant Friday was not a Fox”

[3] When a term appears for the first time in boldface, it is a technical term that is defined in the glossary at the end of the book.

[4] I am here indebted to James Wilk.

Philosophical Reflections on Steve Kardynal’s Chatroulette Videos

Steve Kardynal is a comedian and YouTube sensation.  Among his many schticks, the most famous are his chatroulette videos.  Chatroulette is a video chat site that connects strangers to one another.  Soon after it was launched, it became a favorite for exhibitionists and voyeurs.  In an early video, Kardynal — who has a shapely, shaved body and a full beard — danced in a bikini with his face out of frame, waiting for his partners to react.  I don’t know how many partners he cut to make this short video, but the ones he chose were all men who were pretty clearly looking for likeminded women.  Just as his partners are getting into the sexy dance, Kardynal leans towards the camera, revealing his gender.  Here’s one typical reaction:

15 disgust


As Dan Kelly would tell you, that face expresses disgust.  Disgust is a nasty emotion.  It seems to have evolved to detect both poisons (thus the feeling of oral incorporation and the near-retching expression) and diseases/parasites (thus the sense of contamination, the urge to purify, and the taboo-like way in which disgustingness is transmitted by touch).  Some things are almost universally disgusting: bugs, vermin, feces, incest.  Some things are disgusting only in certain cultures (various foods, various moral violations, various forms of — for want of a better word — perverse sexual practices).  Our disgust reactions are on a hair trigger and, once set in motion, nearly incorrigible.  They’re expressed by a characteristic facial expression across cultures: the “gape face.”  This expression is extremely hard to repress and extremely easy to detect.  Moreover, when it’s detected, it tends to trigger a kind of emotional empathic contagion: if I see you make the gape face and recognize it as an expression of disgust (even unconsciously), I’ll typically make the gape face myself and feel a tinge of disgust — perhaps even at the same object.

When we view something as disgusting, we tend to think of it as corrupt, degraded, and dehumanized.  Of course, if you’re staring at a pile of shit and feeling disgust, being incapable of seeing the shit as humanized in some way is fine.  But if you feel disgust towards another person, this can be morally problematic.  Kelly and Morar (following Nussbaum) argue that disgust should never be encouraged as a moral emotion because it is so easily triggered, incorrigible, and dehumanizing.  Lynne Tirrell points out that the the road to the Rwandan genocide was paved with dehumanizing metaphors for Tutsis.  They were over and over again referred to as cockroaches and snakes — both universal objects of disgust.  Likewise, the Nazis referred to Jews as vermin.  In Uganda just recently, the president called homosexuals disgusting while defending a new anti-gay law.  Indeed, I would be surprised if genocide or systematic dehumanizing persecution has ever occurred without the enablement of disgust.

What does this have to do with Steve Kardynal?  Kardynal’s genius, I contend, is to crowd out people’s disgust reactions to homosexuality with another emotion: joy.  In his later chatroulette videos, he flamboyantly dances in costume to pop hits (Katy Perry’s “Peacock,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” and — most recently — Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You“).  If you haven’t seen them yet, take a few minutes to watch at least one of them before reading on.

What does it mean to crowd out an emotion with another emotion?  I suggest that some basic emotions (contempt, anger, disgust, fear, surprise, sadness, joy) can be experienced by a given person at the same time, whereas others — perhaps for neurological reasons, perhaps for other reasons having to do with embodiment — simply cannot.  When emotions combine, they produce a hybrid emotion that has characteristics of both.  For instance, horror is a combination of disgust and fear.  Fright is a combination of surprise and fear.  A eureka moment is a combination of surprise and joy.  Schadenfreude seems to be a hybrid of contempt and joy.

Some emotions, though, seem impossible or at least extremely difficult to combine.  Can sadness and joy be combined?  Perhaps: there’s a certain kind of relief that comes with the death of a loved one who has been suffering tremendously, but it’s unstable.  In my experience, the two seem to oscillate over time, rather than being fully present together at the same time.  Assuming a catalogue of seven basic emotions (there are controversies about the exact number, which some claim is as low as four and some claim is as high as eight), there are 21 pairwise comparisons:

hybrid emotionsPerhaps not all of these are physiologically or psychologically possible. Our lacking a word for some of them is defeasible evidence.  Neurological studies of emotions that indicate different brain activation patterns for different emotions would be another.  Disgust is processed in the insula, unlike the majority of other emotions.  Perhaps joy dampens that activation. (I literally don’t know, and lack sufficient acquaintance with the neuro literature to say whether there’s any evidence one way or the other.  If a reader knows the answer and has some citations, I’d be most grateful.)  A third source of incompatibility could be in more peripheral parts of the body.  For instance, disgust is an avoid emotion, whereas joy is an approach emotion.  Disgust is low-arousal, whereas joy is high arousal.  Even if the brain regions that mediate these emotions don’t dampen one another’s activity, it could be that they are endocrinologically or dispositionally incompatible.

At the very least, it seems that full-fledged disgust and full-fledged joy are uneasy bedfellows.  Kardynal’s hilarity sometimes triggers such an overwhelming feeling of joy that his chatroulette partners can’t help but lose their disgust — often in just a few seconds.  His videos demonstrate this.  My favorite is this trio of surprise, followed just one second later by disgust, followed just three seconds later by joy:

2 surprise2 disgust2 joySome of Kardynal’s partners evince only one emotion, some two.  It might be that there’s a little fear mixed in here and there (though of course he’s completely incapable of threatening them).  Here’s a catalogue of some of the best expressions; some faces crop up more than once:


1 surprise


5 surprise


6 surprise


9 surprise



3 disgust


6 disgust


7 surprise


8 disgust


10 disgust


11 disgust


12 surprise & disgust


13 disgust



5 joy


7 joy


9 joy


13 joy


14 joy


Incidentally, lots of people look surprised when they first connect with Kardynal.  Lots of people end up filled with joy.  So far as I can tell, none of the women express disgust.



Google Ngram and the Genealogy of Values

In his funeral oration, Pericles described Athenians as valorous, democratic, just, cultured, open, refined, knowledgeable, deliberative, daring, generous, liberal, versatile, adventurous, noble, dutiful, honorable, free, and patriotic.  In his parody of Pericles, the Menexenus, Plato has Socrates (quoting Aspasia) describe them as just, pious, aristocratic / democratic / meritocratic, equal, free, compassionate (described as vice!), and pure Hellene.  Speaking more in his own voice, in the Republic, Plato calls temperance, wisdom, courage, and justice the primary human virtues.  Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contains a large catalogue of virtues: courage, temperance, generosity, magnificence, magnanimity, pride, good-temper, honesty, wit, justice, and friendship.  Hume has an even more capacious list, which includes at least 70 distinct virtues.

In some recent work, I’ve been examining the geographical diversity of values by mapping out the value-laden terms used in the obituaries of various local newspapers.  Another way to explore values, though, is temporally.  In particular, I’m interested in how values rise and fall relative to one another.  One obvious example is the pride/humility pair.  For the ancients, pride was a virtue and humility a vice.  Christianity reversed that.  What other reversals — in emphasis if not in valence — have occurred?

To help explore this question, I’ve begun using google’s ngram lab, which tracks the usage of terms in google’s massive database over the decades and even centuries.  Here are some (very) preliminary results.

First, it looks like humility and pride have done another dosey doe:

pride vs humility


The x-axis represents the year of publication.  The y-axis represents the percentage of total words published that year.  Thus, we can see that ‘humble’ was used more often than ‘proud’ until the late 19th century, during which it took a nosedive.  Of course, this ngram doesn’t tell us whether people were saying “you should be humble/proud” or “you shouldn’t be humble/proud,” but the collapse of ‘humble’ is striking.

Second, consider the three most common terms in the deontic square of opposition: ‘obligatory’, ‘permissible’ (not obligatory not to do), and ‘forbidden’ (obligatory not to do).  (I leave out omissible, since it’s a philosophers’ term.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 2.26.18 PM


Two things are worth noting about this.  First, the forbidden gets more play than the obligatory throughout the writings of the last 400 years.  This should be unsurprising to anyone who’s aware of the Knobe effect and various other demonstrations that norm violations get a lot more attention than norm-conformity.  Second, starting in the late 19th century, permissibility crossed over obligation.  What does that mean?  I suggest that a plausible interpretation is that — as social strictures loosened — the zone of the merely permissible was opened up.  James Fishkin calls this “the zone of indifference or permissibly free personal choice” (1982, p. 23), and argues that any adequate moral theory should recognize it.  But notice that, from a historical point of view, his claim looks like an innovation.  This is not to say that he’s wrong, of course, but it does suggest that he might be drawing on a rather narrow, culturally-bound set of intuitions.

Third, take a look at the ngram comparing ‘autonomy’ with ‘obedience’:

autonomy vs obedience


The period between 1850 and 1950 seems to have been a time of great change!  Obedience, another Christian virtue, plumets while autonomy experiences a study rise.

Fourth, consider the basic emotions (fear, sadness, surprise, contempt, anger, and disgust).  Every language has words for them.  Every culture uses the same basic facial expression to signal them.  They are keyed to different important features of our environments and social worlds.  How have the words that refer to them been used historically?

basic emotionsFear — the emotion that tracks threats — is the clear winner.  But there are some interesting changes as well.  Contempt — the emotion that tracks and enforces socialhierarchy — surged in the late 18th century then experienced a slow but steady decline.  Meanwhile, anger and surprise have seen a slight rise in recent decades.  Does this suggest anything?  Well, social hierarchy is still here, but its pervasiveness and hegemony have declined somewhat.  I’m not sure how to interpret the results for ‘anger’ and ‘surprise’.

One last ngram — and one that would have made Nietzsche happy: ‘bad’ versus ‘evil:

bad evil

Nietzsche famously argues in the first essay of the Genealogy of Morals that Christianity instigated a slave revolt in morals, during which the good/bad distinction was inverted into the evil/good distinction. (What was good in the aristocratic culture became evil in Christian culture, while what was bad in aristocratic culture became good in Christian culture.) This ngram suggests thatm to the extent that ‘evil’ is on the decline and ‘bad’ is on the rise, this inversion has been partially undone.

Thoughts on methodology?  Suggestions for other comparisons?  Questions?


Basic emotions & Aristotle’s doctrine of the golden mean

Aristotle famously argued that every virtue is a mean — in respect of emotion and action — between vices.  Two vices?  Well, the paradigmatic examples involve exactly two: courage is a mean between rashness and cowardice; good-temper is a mean between irascibility and un-irascibility; etc.  Robert Roberts has argued for a multi-dimensional understanding of the golden mean thesis, drawing in particular on virtues like humility.  Humility is opposed not just to arrogance and diffidence, but also to vanity.  Thus, it’s centrally located among several vices, not a mean between a pair.  One might think that courage could be complicated in the same way.  After all, Aristotle says that it’s a mean with respect not only to fear but also to confidence.  Is it possible for someone to be deficient with respect to fear but not excessive with respect to confidence?  Is it possible for someone to be excessive with respect to fear but not deficient with respect to confidence?  If the answer to either of these questions is affirmative, then courage will be opposed by more than two vices.

This approach to the virtues — enumerating them and then elucidating them by explaining which emotions and behaviors relate to them — can be useful.  Presumably, if we have a word for a trait, that trait has had some importance in human history, even if, like ‘sinister / dexter’ that importance has largely abated outside of baseball.  Another approach to the virtues, however, is to start from the emotions or behaviors with respect to which they would be means, and then figure out or baptize them.  Which emotions?  There are so many.  A good place to start is the so-called “basic emotions,” which, according to the psychologist Paul Ekman, are discrete, measurable, physiologically distinct, an culturally universal.  What are these basic emotions?  Researchers disagree about their cardinality (4? 6? 7?), but for my purposes it’s good enough to start with the original six: disgust, contempt, anger, fear, surprise, and sadness.

The six basic emotions

I assumed that someone must have done this already, but…. The theory of basic emotions has only been around for decades, not centuries.  We’ll catch up eventually, if I have anything to do with it.

One of these basic emotions is already familiar: Aristotle claimed that the virtue with respect to fear is courage.  In other words, courage involves, among other things, the disposition to fear the right thing at the right time for the right reason in the right way with the right intensity and so on.  The vice of excess is cowardice (fearing too intensely, too many things, for too many reasons, etc.).  The vice of deficiency is rashness (fearing not intensely enough, too few things, for too few reasons, etc.).  Fear tracks, when it functions well, threats.

What about the other five?

Aristotle claims that the virtue with respect to anger is good-temper, and that the vices are irascibility (excess) and unirascibility (deficiency).  I disagree.  I contend that the virtue with respect to anger is justice, and that anger tracks harms.  Someone who gets angry at the right things for the right reasons at the right time to the right degree and so on is someone whose sense of injustice is well-tuned.  By contrast, someone who witnesses injustice and feels not a tinge of anger seems to me to be morally suspect.  On the flipside, someone who’s prepared to be outraged at the most minor (perceived) infraction is vicious in the other direction.  (I realize that Martha Nussbaum disagrees.)

Consider next disgust.  What would it mean to be well-attuned to feeling disgust — to be disgusted by the right things, at the right time, for the right reason, to the right degree, and so on?  Presumably, disgust tracks impurity.  To be well-attuned to disgust, then, would involve an appropriate sense of purity and impurity.  Dan Kelly and Nicolae Morar argue that disgust towards other people is never morally appropriate because disgust dehumanizes its object.  The Rwandan genocide was fueled to some extent by the labeling of Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’ (Lynn Tirrell walks through this in her forthcoming “Genocidal Language Games”); anti-semitism and other forms of ethnic, racial, and gender animus often invoke disgust against the target outgroup.  That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s inappropriate to be disgusted by rotting meat, which presumably isn’t human to begin with.  I suggest that the virtue with respect to disgust is a sense of purity or cleanliness, and that the attending vices are squeamishness/prudishness (excess) and corruption (deficiency).

Contempt?  Could there possibly be a virtue with respect to contempt?  Nietzsche certainly thought so; he celebrated “the great contempt.”  Macalester Bell also thinks so, though she only celebrates the mild contempt.  Contempt is a downward-looking emotion.  Anger seems to be more horizontal, whereas resentment is upward-looking.  Is it ever OK to look down one’s nose at someone, at some action, or at some disposition of character?  I think so.  Some things (and people, let’s admit) are better than others, at least on certain very important dimensions.  When that order gets leveled or inverted, contempt may be called for.  If this is on the right track, the virtue of being well-attuned with respect to contempt is something like good taste.  The vices would be bad taste (deficiency) and snobbishness (excess). (Incidentally, we’ve now covered the CAD triad.)

The two remaining emotions are surprise and sadness.  At first blush, it might sound odd to think that there could be a virtue (or vice) with respect to surprise, but it seems to me fairly clear that someone who isn’t surprised by anything is either a god or in some way (intellectually) vicious.  I suggest that the virtue with respect to surprise is curiosity (or maybe wonder), and that the vices are jadedness/cynicism (deficiency) and naivete (excess).  Finally, sadness tracks losses.  If you’re not attached to anyone or anything, there’s not much that can sadden you.  So I suggest that the virtue with respect to sadness is an appropriate level of attachment, hence care.  The attendant vices would then involve caring too little (and hence not being saddened by enough things or to the right extent) — apathy — and caring too much (and hence experiencing as losses things that a well-attuned agent would shrug off) — something like fragility or neuroticism or depression.

One thing to notice about this taxonomy is that many of the virtues and vices it turns up don’t fit easily into traditional taxonomies.  Curiosity/wonder is an intellectual virtue.  Good taste is social and even aesthetic.  Care has only recently come into its own through the philosophical work that followed in the wake of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.  This could be taken to mean that my approach is on the wrong track.  I think otherwise.  Perhaps, instead, the problem is that virtues have been catalogued willy-nilly, and that something like the theory of the basic emotions could bring some order to them.

A map of the values of the noteworthy

I here present a map of the values associated with the noteworthy, courtesy of my ongoing collaboration with Andrew Higgins (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) and Jacob Levernier (University of Oregon).  This map was generated from data that I collected from obituaries in the New York Times.  These obituaries are much different from the ones we’ve looked at previously.  Unlike obituaries in local papers, which are typically written by kin or next-of-king, these are commissioned from professional writers.  Also unlike obits in local papers, which are about ordinary folk, these about noteworthy individuals.  Additionally, they tend to be quite a bit longer than local obits and somewhat more critical.  There’s also a huge gender divide: for each obit about a woman, there are roughly six about men.  That makes the gender-comparisons less helpful.  The map in this post is based on about 70 obituaries.  To get a really robust map, I’d probably have to look at 200 or more.  Anyway, without further ado, here’s the map:

NYTAs before, you’ll want to open this image in a separate tab and zoom in to see what’s really going on.  In this map, edge color indicates gender (blue for me, red for women).  As I mentioned, there weren’t that many women, so this is probably not that informative.  As usual, edge width represents the number of times the connected pair of terms co-occurred in a single obituary.  Also as usual, the size of a term represents the number of times it co-occurred with other terms.  In this case, the color of a term indicates its modularity.  As a reminder, modularity is a kind of cluster analysis.  Terms of the same color tend to co-occur with each other and not with other terms.

In Andrew’s words, very lightly edited, “This network is very different, both in terms of structure and content. In terms of structure, we have more clusters with high clustering coefficients, less overall interconnectivity. But that’s an obvious result of (1) the small number of obits, and (2) the fact that lots of descriptions are given in each. The more interesting feature of this network is the content. If there were any evidence against the hypothesis that we only speak well of the dead, this would be it. There are so many seemingly vicious traits ascribed to some of these people.  It seems like we’re getting a more complete picture of the person, perhaps because of the extra space available for describing the person in full. Here are the top descriptions, in order of weighted degree (i.e., the number of terms that co-occurred with the given term across the whole sample):  honored (269), author (246), leader (237), veteran (162), civil rights advocate (125), teacher (100).”
A few more thoughts from me: I didn’t explicitly note how many of these people had been divorced (some more than once), but I’d guess it was something like 80%; it seems like being famous enough to get an obit in the Times is not good for your family-life.
It’s interesting to compare this map with the Schwartz theory of basic human values.  Here’s a quick-and-dirty summary of his model:
Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 11.16.34 AM
Each sector in the figure above represents a value that many many people say they endorse.  Sectors that are adjacent to each other tend to correlated positively.  Sectors that are opposite each other tend to correlate negatively.  To what extent do our modules map onto this model?
Here’s my first-blush read on the modules:
purple (on the left): The biggest term is ‘author’.  The cluster around it seems to have to do mostly with being unapologetically critical of tradition, institutions, etc.  This is a very intellectual set of traits.  Intuitively, this cluster should correlate negatively with tradition, conformity, and security, which would place it among the hedonism, stimulation, and self-direction values.  Hedonism doesn’t seem to fit, but the other two do to some extent.  Schwartz glosses stimulation in terms of excitement, novelty, and overcoming challenge; he glosses self-direction in terms of independent thought and action.
dark green (top left): I’d summarize this one as a kind of autonomy.  Like the purple cluster, it involves breaking the rules, but it’s not breaking the rules in order to change them or criticize them.  It’s breaking the rules because you don’t care about the rules.  Thus, this cluster seems to involve elements from both the self-direction and the achievement sectors.
kelly green (middle and top right): This is the closest, I think, to our family/friends/christian category in the local maps.  It’s about commitment to community.  That involves some improvement of community, like the purple cluster, but seems to be more taking it for granted that the community is already good and worth supporting.  This cluster seems to match pretty well the security, conformity, and tradition sectors of the Schwartz model.
yellowish brown (far right): This is clearly the lawyer category.  Lots of intelligence and smartness, not much morality.  It’s not clear to me whether this matches any of the Schwartz values.
grey (bottom): This is another political category.  Unlike the purple cluster, it’s not about cutting into the soul of one’s community.  Unlike the kelly green cluster, it’s not about leading the dominant part of society.  It seems to be more about leading the oppressed.  This cluster seems to involve elements of both the power sector and the universalism & benevolence sectors.
There are a few other, smaller clusters, which I’m reluctant to try to interpret.


We thus get some partial overlap with the Schwartz model but also some conflict with it.  We’ll need to continue thinking about this contrast as our research develops.


A woman is a woman and a man ain’t nothin but a man

In our continuing exploration of the words we use to talk about the dead, Andrew Higgins, Jacob Levernier, and I have created an “omnibus” map of the traits and other values associated with men and women across the country.  Our sample draws from Eugene, Flint, Wasilla, and Amherst.  (Eventually, we will be adding lots of other towns… it’s hard work reading hundreds of obits!)  As usual, size represents interconnections, edge width represents co-occurrences, and centrality represents, well, centrality.  In addition, color in this map represents gender: the bluer the term, the more its associated with men; the redder the term, the more it’s associated with women.  Here it is:

Female (Red) vs Male (Blue)


If you zoom in, you’ll see a number of unsurprising gender-differences. For example, men are much more likely to be described as veterans, while women are much more likely to be described as cooks. We don’t need to mine obituaries to realize that World War II happened and that woman still disproportionately work as homemakers. But there are also some surprising differences, given the prevalence of traditional gender roles in American society. Women are more likely to be described as courageous. Men are more likely to be described as helpful. Women are more likely to be described as independent and spirited. Men are more likely to be described as understanding and affectionate. There are also some surprising lacks of difference. Most notably, men and women are equally associated with family, with volunteering, with having a sense of humor, and with leadership.

Here’s another version of the same map, with the terms replaced by nodes of various sizes:

Nodes View - Female (Red) vs Male (Blue)