epistemic injustice to the powerful

Miranda Fricker defines epistemic injustice as harm to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower.  In her book on the topic, she focuses primarily on testimonial injustice, which harms a potential informant.  When you are the victim of testimonial injustice, you know (or are at least in a good enough position to know, given the issue), but your word is not taken as seriously as it should be.  She also discusses, at less length, hermeneutic injustice, which occurs when someone has a kind of knowledge implicitly but — for unfair reasons — lacks the conceptual resources to articulate that knowledge.  (Witness the need to name evils like sexual harassment and marital rape.)

Understandably, Fricker focuses on epistemic injustices perpetrated against the oppressed.  She pays much less attention to epistemic injustices that more typically accrue to the powerful.  I dub one such form of epistemic injustice negative epistemic injustice.  The motivating thought here is that people have an epistemic right not only to be listened to when they are or might be right; they also have an epistemic right to be told when they are or might be wrong.  Whereas the relatively powerless are more likely to experience positive epistemic injustice (being told that they are wrong or being assumed to be wrong when they’re not), the powerful are more likely to experience negative epistemic injustice (being told that they are right or being assumed to be right when they’re not).

It’s hardly an insight that the powerful are often surrounded by yes-men, that the emperor is the last to find out that he’s naked because no one is willing to disabuse him of his mistake.  The insight here — if there is one — is that this is an obvious form of epistemic injustice.

(I recently stumbled across this idea while fuming about the fact that Joshua Greene, a highly-regarded neuroscientist at Harvard, remains ignorant of the fact that Phineas Gage did not become, for all anyone knows, a sociopathic drifter after his head was punctured by a railroad spike in a freak accident.)

This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mind: Chapter on Responsibility and Implicit Bias

Here’s a draft of the chapter of my moral psychology textbook. It’s on implicit bias and responsibility.  This one was much more depressing to write than the one on preferences.  As always, questions, comments, suggestions, and criticisms are most welcome.


“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

~ William Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.289-290

1 Some incidents

At 12:40 AM, February 4th, 1999, Amadou Diallo, a student, entrepreneur, and African immigrant, was standing outside his apartment building in the southeast Bronx. In the gloom, four passing police officers in street clothes mistook him for Isaac Jones, a serial rapist who had been terrorizing the neighborhood. Shouting commands, they approached Diallo. He headed towards the front door of his building. Diallo stopped on the dimly lit stoop and took his wallet out of his jacket. Perhaps he thought they were cops and was trying to show them his ID; maybe he thought they were violent thieves and was trying to hand over his cash and credit cards. We will never know. One of them, Sean Carroll, mistook the wallet for a gun. Alerting his fellow officers, Richard Murphy, Edward McMellon, and Kenneth Boss, to the perceived threat, he triggered a firestorm: together, they fired 41 shots at Diallo, 19 of which found their mark. He died on the spot. He was unarmed. All four officers were ruled by the New York Police Department to have acted as a “reasonable” police officer would have acted in the circumstances. Subsequently indicted for second-degree murder and reckless endangerment, they were acquitted on all charges.

Like so many others, Sean Bell, a black resident of Queens, had some drinks with his friends at a club the night before his wedding, which was scheduled for November 25th, 2006. As they were leaving the club, though, something less typical happened: five members of the New York City Police Department shot about fifty bullets at them, killing Bell and permanently wounding his friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. The first officer to shoot, Gescard Isnora, claimed afterward that he’d seen Guzman reach for a gun. Detective Paul Headley fired one shot; officer Michael Carey fired three bullets; officer Marc Cooper shot four times; officer Isnora fired eleven shots. Officer Michael Oliver emptied an entire magazine of his 9 mm handgun into Bell’s car, paused to reload, then emptied another magazine. Bell, Benefield, and Guzman were unarmed. In part because Benefield’s and Guzman’s testimony was confused (understandably, given that they’d had a few drinks and then been shot), all of the police officers were acquitted. New York City agreed to pay Benefield, Guzman, and Bell’s fiancée just over seven million dollars (roughly £4,000,000)in damages, which prompted Michael Paladino, the head of the New York City Detectives Endowment Association, to complain, “I think the settlement is a joke. The detectives were exonerated… and now the taxpayer is on the hook for $7 million and the attorneys are in line to get $2 million without suffering a scratch.”

In 1979, Lilly Ledbetter was hired as a supervisor by Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Initially, her salary roughly matched those of her peers, the vast majority of whom were men. Over the next two decades, her and her peers’ raises, which when awarded were a percentage of current salary, were contingent on periodic performance evaluations. In some cases, Ledbetter received raises. In many, she was denied. By the time she retired in 1997, her monthly salary was $3727. The other supervisors – all men – were then being paid between $4286 and $5236. Over the years, her compensation had lagged further and further behind those of men performing substantially similar work; by the time she retired, she was making between 71% and 87% what her male counterparts earned. Just after retiring, Ledbetter launched charges of discrimination, alleging that Goodyear had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits, among other things, discrimination with respect to compensation because of the target’s sex. Although a jury of her peers found in her favor, Ledbetter’s case was appealed all the way to the American Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 against her. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito argued that Ledbetter’s case was unsound because the alleged acts of discrimination occurred more than 180 days before she filed suit, putting them beyond the pale of the statute of limitations and effectively immunizing Goodyear. In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, loosening such temporal restrictions to make suits like hers easier to prosecute.

Though appalling, Ledbetter’s example is actually unremarkable. On average in the United States, women earn 77% of what their male counterparts earn for comparable work. A longitudinal study of the careers of men and women in business indicates that Ledbetter’s case fits a general pattern. Although no gender differences were found early-career, by mid-career, women reported lower salaries, less career satisfaction, and less feelings of being appreciated by their bosses (Schneer & Reitman 1994). Over the long term, many small, subtle, but systematic biases often snowball into an unfair and dissatisfying career experience.

Why consider these cases together? What – other than their repugnance – unites them? The exact motives of the people involved are opaque to us, but we can speculate and consider what we should think about the responsibility of those involved, given plausible interpretations of their behavior and motives. This lets us evaluate related cases and think systematically about responsibility, regardless of how we judge the historical examples used as models. In particular, in this chapter I’ll consider the question whether and to what extent someone who acts out of bias is responsible for their behavior. The police seem to have been in some way biased against Diallo and Bell; Ledbetter’s supervisors seem to have been in some way biased against her. To explore the extent to which they were morally responsible for acting from these biases, I’ll first discuss philosophical approaches to the question of responsibility. Next, I’ll explain some of the relevant psychological research on bias. I’ll then consider how this research should inform our understanding of the moral psychology of responsibility. Finally, I’ll point to opportunities for further philosophical and psychological research.

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Ramsifying virtue theory

Draft of a paper to be published in Current Controversies in Virtue Theory.  My controversy is over the question “Can people be virtuous?”  My respondent is James Montmarquet.  Other contributors to the volume include Heather Battaly, Liezl van Zyl, Jason Baehr, Ernie Sosa, Dan Russell, Christian Miller, Bob Roberts, and Nancy Snow.

Ramsifying virtue theory 

Can people be virtuous? This is a hard question, both because of its form and because of its content.

In terms of content, the proposition in question is at once normative and descriptive. Virtue-terms have empirical content. Attributions of virtues figure in the description, prediction, explanation, and control of behavior. If you know that someone is temperate, you can predict with some confidence that he won’t go on a bender this weekend. Someone’s investigating a mysterious phenomenon can be partly explained by (correctly) attributing curiosity to her. Character witnesses are called in trials to help determine how severely a convicted defendant will be punished. Virtue-terms also have normative content. Attributions of virtues are a manifestation of high regard and admiration; they are intrinsically rewarding to their targets; they’re a form of praise. The semantics of purely normative terms is hard enough on its own; the semantics of “thick” terms that have both normative and descriptive content is especially difficult.

Formally, the proposition in question (“people are virtuous”) is a generic, which adds a further wrinkle to its evaluation. It is notoriously difficult to give truth conditions for generics (Leslie 2008). A generic entails its existentially quantified counterpart, but is not entailed by it. For instance, tigers are four-legged, so some tigers are four-legged; but even though some deformed tigers are three-legged, it doesn’t follow that tigers are three-legged. A generic typically is entailed by its universally quantified counterpart, but does not entail it. Furthermore, a generic neither entails nor is entailed by its counterpart “most” statement. Tigers give live birth, but most tigers do not give live birth; after all, only about half of all tigers are female, and not all of them give birth. Most mosquitoes do not carry West Nile virus, but mosquitoes carry West Nile virus. Given the trickiness of generics, it’s helpful to clarify them to the extent possible with more precise non-generic statements.

Moreover, the proposition in question is modally qualified, which redoubles the difficulty of confirming or disconfirming it. What’s being asked is not simply whether people are virtuous, but whether they can be virtuous. It could turn out that even though no one is virtuous, it’s possible for people to become virtuous. This would, however, be extremely surprising. Unlike other unrealized possibilities, virtue is almost universally sought after, so if it isn’t widely actualized despite all that seeking, we have fairly strong evidence that it’s not there to be had.

In this paper, I propose a method for adjudicating the question whether people can be virtuous. This method, if sound, would help to resolve what’s come to be known as the situationist challenge to virtue theory, which over the last few decades has threatened both virtue ethics (Alfano 2013a, Doris 2002, Harman 1999) and virtue epistemology (Alfano 2011, 2013a, Olin & Doris 2014). The method is an application of David Lewis’s (1966, 1970, 1972) development of Frank Ramsey’s (1931) approach to the implicit definition of theoretical terms. The method needs to be tweaked in various ways to handle the difficulties canvassed above, but, when it is, an interesting answer to our question emerges: we face a theoretical tradeoff between, on the one hand, insisting that virtue is a robust property of an individual agent that’s rarely attained and perhaps even unattainable and, on the other hand, allowing that one person’s virtue might inhere partly in other people, making virtue at once more easily attained and more fragile.

The basic principle underlying the Ramsey-Lewis approach to implicit definition (often referred to as ‘Ramsification’) can be illustrated with a well-known story:

And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, “There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.” And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” And Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man.”

Nathan uses Ramsification to drive home a point. He tells a story about an ordered triple of objects (two people and an animal) that are interrelated in various ways. Some of the first object’s properties (e.g., wealth) are monadic; some of the second object’s properties (e.g., poverty) are monadic; some of the first object’s properties are relational (e.g., he steals the third object from the second object); some of the second object’s properties are relational (e.g., the third object is stolen from him by the first object); and so on. Even though the first object is not explicitly defined as the X such that …, it is nevertheless implicitly defined as the first element of the ordered triple such that …. The big reveal happens when Nathan announces that the first element of the ordered triple, about whom his interlocutor has already made some pretty serious pronouncements, is the very person he’s addressing (the other two, for those unfamiliar with the 2nd Samuel 12, are Uriah and Bathsheba[1]).

The story is Biblical, but the method is modern. To implicitly define a set of theoretical terms (henceforth ‘T-terms’), one formulates a theory T in those terms and any other terms (henceforth ‘O-terms’) one already understands or has an independent theory of. Next, one writes T as a single sentence, such as a long conjunction, in which the T-terms t1…, tn occur (henceforth ‘T[t1…, tn]’ or ‘the postulate of T’). The T-terms are replaced by unbound variables x1…, xn, and then existentially quantified over to generate the Ramsey sentence of T, which states that T is realized, i.e., that there are objects x1…, xn that satisfy the Ramsey sentence. An ordered n-tuple that satisfies the Ramsey sentence is then said to be a realizer of the theory.

Lewis (1966) famously applied this method to folk psychology to argue for the mind-brain identity theory. Somewhat roughly, he argued that folk psychology can be treated as a theory in which mental-state terms are the T-terms. The postulate of folk psychology is identified as the conjunction of all folk-psychological platitudes (commonsense psychological truths that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows, and so on). The Ramsey sentence of folk psychology is formed in the usual way, by replacing all mental-state terms (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘pain’, etc.) with variables and existentially quantifying over those variables. Finally, one goes on to determine what, in the actual world, satisfies the Ramsey sentence; that is, one investigates what, if anything, is a realizer of the Ramsey sentence. If there is a realizer, then that’s what the T-terms refer to; if there is no realizer, then the T-terms do not refer. Lewis claims that brain states are such realizers, and hence that mental states are identical with brain states.

Lewis’s Ramsification method is attractive for a number of reasons.[2] First, it ensures that we don’t simply change the topic when we try to give a philosophical account of some phenomenon. If your account of the mind is wildly inconsistent with the postulate of folk psychology, then – though you may be giving an account of something interesting – you’re not doing what you think you’re doing. Second, enables us to distinguish between the meaning of the T-terms and whether they refer. The T-terms mean what they would refer to, if there were such a thing. Whether they in fact refer is a distinct question. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Ramsification is holistic. The first half of the twentieth century bore witness to the fact that it’s impossible to give an independent account of almost any psychological phenomenon (belief, desire, emotion, perception) because what it means to have one belief is essentially bound up with what it means to have a whole host of other beliefs, as well as (at least potentially) a whole host of desires, emotions, and perceptions. Ramsification gets around this problem by giving an account of all of the relevant phenomena at once, rather than trying to chip away at them piecemeal.

Virtue theory stands to benefit from the application of Ramsification for all of these reasons. We want an account of virtue, not an account of some other interesting phenomenon (though we might want that too). We want an account that recognizes that talk of virtue is meaningful, even if there aren’t virtues. Most importantly, we want an account of virtue that recognizes the complexity of virtue and character – the fact that virtues are interrelated in a whole host of ways with occurrent and dispositional mental states, with other virtues, with character more broadly, and so on.

Whether Lewis is right about brains is irrelevant to our question, but his methodology is crucial. What I want to do now is to show how the same method, suitably modified, can be used to implicitly define virtue-terms, which in turn will help us to answer the question whether people can be virtuous. For reasons that will become clear as we proceed, the T-terms of virtue theory as I construe it here are ‘person’, ‘virtue’, ‘vice’, the names of the various virtues (e.g., ‘courage’, ‘generosity’, ‘curiosity’), the names of their congruent affects (e.g., ‘feeling courageous’, ‘feeling generous’, ‘feeling curious’), the names of the various vices (e.g., ‘cowardice’, ‘greed, ‘intellectual laziness’), and the names of their congruent affects, (e.g., ‘feeling cowardly’, ‘feeling greedy’, ‘feeling intellectually lazy’). The O-terms are all other terms, importantly including terms that refer to attitudes (e.g., ‘belief’, ‘desire’, ‘anger’, ‘resentment’, ‘disgust’, ‘contempt’, ‘respect’), mental processes (e.g., ‘deliberation’), perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features (e.g., ‘being alone’, ‘being in a crowd’, ‘being monitored’), and evaluations (e.g., ‘praise’ and ‘blame’).

Elsewhere (Alfano 2013), I have argued for an intuitive distinction between high-fidelity and low-fidelity virtues. High-fidelity virtues, such as honesty, chastity, and loyalty, require near-perfect manifestation in undisrupted conditions. Someone only counts as chaste if he never cheats on his partner when cheating is a temptation. Low-fidelity virtues, such as generosity, tact, and tenacity, are not so demanding. Someone might count as generous if she were more disposed to give than not to give when there was sufficient reason to do so; someone might count as tenacious if she were more disposed to persist than not to persist in the face of adversity. If this is on the right track, the postulate of virtue theory will recognize the distinction. For instance, it seems to me at least that almost everyone would say that helpfulness is a low-fidelity virtue whereas loyalty is a high-fidelity virtue. Here, then, are some families of platitudes about character that are candidates for the postulate of virtue theory:


(A) The Virtue / Affect Family

(a1) If a person has courage, then she will typically feel courageous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically feel generous when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(a3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically feel curious when there is sufficient reason to do so.




(an) ….


(C) The Virtue / Cognition Family

(c1) If a person has courage, then she will typically want to overcome threats.

(c2) If a person has courage, then she will typically deliberate well about how to overcome threats and reliably form beliefs about how to do so.




(cn) ….


(S) The Virtue / Situation Family

(s1) If a person has courage, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against overcoming a threat.

(s2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against giving resources to someone.

(s3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically be unaffected by situational factors that are neither reasons for nor reasons against investigating a problem.






(E) The Virtue / Evaluation Family

(e1) If a person has courage, then she will typically react to threats in ways that merit praise.

(e2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically react to others’ needs and wants in ways that merit praise.

(e3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically react to intellectual problems in ways that merit praise.






(B) The Virtue / Behavior Family

(b1) If a person has courage, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b2) If a person has generosity, then she will typically act so as to benefit another person when there is sufficient reason to do so.

(b3) If a person has curiosity, then she will typically act so as to solve intellectual problems when there is sufficient reason to do so.






(P) The Virtue Prevalence Family

(p1) Many people commit acts of courage.

(p2) Many people commit acts of generosity.

(p3) Many people commit acts of curiosity.

(p4) Many people are courageous.

(p5) Many people are generous.

(p6) Many people are curious.






(I) The Cardinality / Integration Family

(i1) Typically, a person who has modesty also has humility.

(i2) Typically, a person who has magnanimity also has generosity.

(i3) Typically, a person who has curiosity also has open-mindedness.






(D) The Desire / Virtue Family

(d1) Typically, a person desires to have courage.

(d2) Typically, a person desires to have generosity.

(d3) Typically, a person desires to have curiosity.






(F) The Fidelity Family

(f1) Chastity is high-fidelity.

(f2) Honesty is high-fidelity.

(f3) Creativity is low-fidelity.






Each platitude in each family is meant to be merely illustrative. Presumably they could all be improved somewhat, and there are many more such platitudes. Moreover, each family is itself just an example. There are many further families describing the relations among vice, affect, cognition, situation, evaluation, and behavior, as well as families that make three-way rather than two-way connections (e.g., “If a person is courageous, then she will typically act so as to overcome threats when there is sufficient reason to do so and because she feels courageous.”). For the sake of simplicity, though, let’s assume that the families identified above contain all and only the platitudes relevant to the implicit definition of virtues. Ramsification can now be performed in the usual way. First, create a big conjunction (henceforth, simply the ‘postulate of virtue theory’). Next, replace each of the T-terms in the postulate of virtue theory with an unbound variable, then existentially quantifies over those variables to generate the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Finally, check whether the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is true and – if it is – what its realizers are.

After this preliminary work has been done, we’re in a position to see more clearly the problem raised by the situationist challenge to virtue theory. Situationists argue that there is no realizer of the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory. Moreover, this is not for lack of effort. Indeed, one family of platitudes in the Ramsey sentence specifically states that, typically, people desire to be virtuous; it’s not as if no one has yet tried to be or become courageous, generous, or curious.[3] In this paper, I don’t have space to canvass the relevant empirical evidence; interested readers should see my (2013a and 2013b). Nevertheless, the crucial claim – that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized – is not an object of serious dispute in the philosophical literature.

One very common response to the situationist challenge from defenders of virtue theory (and virtue ethics in particular) is to claim that virtues are actually quite rare, directly contradicting the statements in the virtue prevalence family. I do not think this is the best response to the problem, as I explain below, but the point remains that all serious disputants agree that the Ramsey sentence is not realized.

As described above, Ramsification looks like a simple, formal exercise. Collect the platitudes, put them into a big conjunction, perform the appropriate substitutions, existentially quantify, and check the truth-value of the resulting Ramsey sentence (and the referents of its bound variables, if any). But there are several opportunities for a critic to object as the exercise unfolds.

One difficulty that arises for some families, such as the desire / virtue family, is that they involve T-terms within the scope of intentional attitude verbs.[4] Since existential quantification into such contexts is blocked by opacity, such families cannot be relied on to define the T-terms, though they can be used to double-check the validity of the implicit definition once the T-terms are defined.[5]

Another difficulty is that this methodology presupposes that we have an adequate understanding of the O-terms, which in this case include terms that refer to attitudes, mental processes, perceptions and perceptual sensitivities, behaviors, reasons, situational features, and evaluations. One might be dubious about this presupposition. I certainly am. However, the fact that philosophy of mind and metaethics are works-in-progress should not be interpreted as a problem specifically for my approach to virtue theory. Any normative theory that relies on other branches of philosophy to figure out what mental states and processes are, and what reasons are, can be criticized in the same way.

A third worry is that the list of platitudes contains gaps (e.g., a virtue acquisition family about how various traits are acquired). Conversely, one might think that it has gluts (e.g., unmotivated commitment to virtue prevalence). To overcome this pair of worries, we need a way of determining what the platitudes are. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no precedent for this in the philosophy of mind, despite the fact that Ramsification is often invoked as a framework there.[6] This may be because it’s supposed to be obvious what the platitudes are. Here’s Frank Jackson’s flippant response to the worry: “I am sometimes asked—in a tone that suggests that the question is a major objection—why, if conceptual analysis is concerned to elucidate what governs our classificatory practice, don’t I advocate doing serious opinion polls on people’s responses to various cases? My answer is that I do—when it is necessary. Everyone who presents the Gettier cases to a class of students is doing their own bit of fieldwork, and we all know the answer they get in the vast majority of cases” (1998, 36–37). After all, according to Lewis, everyone knows the platitudes, and everyone knows that everyone knows them, and everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows them, and so on. Sometimes, however, the most obvious things are the hardest to spot. It thus behooves us to at least sketch a method for carrying out the first step of Ramsification: identifying the platitudes. Call this pre-Ramsification.

Here’s an attempt at spelling out how pre-Ramsification should work: start by listing off a large number of candidate platitudes. These can be all of the statements one would, in a less-responsible, Jacksonian mood, have merely asserted were platitudes. It can also include statements that seem highly likely but perhaps not quite platitudes. Add to the pool of statements some that seem, intuitively, to be controversial, as well as some that seem obviously false; these serve as anchors in the ensuing investigation. Next, collect people’s responses to these statements. Several sorts of responses would be useful, including subjective agreement, social agreement, and reaction time. For instance, prompt people with the statement, “Many people are honest,” and ask to what extent they agree and to what extent they think others would agree. Measure their reaction times as they answer both questions. High subjective and social agreement, paired with fast reaction times, is strong but defeasible evidence that a statement is a platitude. This is a bit vague, since I haven’t specified what counts as “high” agreement or “fast” reaction times, but there are precedents in psychology for setting these thresholds. Moreover, this kind of pre-Ramsification wouldn’t establish dispositively what the platitudes are, but then, dispositive proof only happens in mathematics.

It’s far beyond the scope of this short paper to show that pre-Ramsification works in the way I suggest, or that it verifies all and only the families identified above. For now, let’s suppose that it does, i.e., that all of the families proposed above were validated by pre-Ramsification. Let’s also suppose that we have strong evidence that the Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is not realized (a point that, as I mentioned above, is not seriously contested). How should we then proceed?

Lewis foresaw that, in some cases, the Ramsey sentence for a given field would be unrealized, so he built in a way of fudging things: instead of generating the postulate by taking the conjunction of all of the platitudes, one can generate a weaker postulate by taking the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of most of the platitudes. For example, if there were only five platitudes, p, q, r, s, and t, then instead of the postulate’s being , it would be (p&q&r&s)v(p&q&r&t)&…&(q&r&s&t). In the case of virtue theory, we could take the disjunction of each of the conjunctions of all but one of the families of platitudes. Alternatively, we could exclude a few of the platitudes from within each family.

Fudging in this way makes it easier for the Ramsey sentence to be realized, since the disjunction of conjunctions of most of the platitudes is logically weaker than the straightforward conjunction of all of them. Fudging may end up making it too easy, though, such that there are multiple realizers of the Ramsey sentence. When this happens, it’s up to the theorist to figure out how to strengthen things back up in such a way that there is a unique realizer.

The various responses to the situationist challenge can be seen as different ways of doing this. Everyone recognizes that the un-fudged Ramsey sentence of virtue theory is unrealized. But a sufficiently fudged Ramsey sentence is bound to be multiply realized. It’s a theoretical choice exactly how to play things at this point. More traditional virtue theorists such as Joel Kupperman (2009) favor a fudged version of the Ramsey sentence wherein the virtue prevalence family has been dropped. John Doris (2002) favors a fudged version wherein the virtue/situation and virtue/integration families have been dropped. I (2013) favor a fudged version wherein the virtue / situation family has been dropped and a virtue /social construction family has been added in its place. The statements in the latter family have to do with the ways in which (signals of) social expectations implicitly and explicitly influence behavior. The main idea is that having a virtue is more like having a title or social role (e.g., you’re curious because people signal to you their expectations of curiosity) than like having a basic physical or biological property (e.g., being over six feet tall). Christian Miller (2013, 2014) drops the virtue prevalence family and adds a mixed-trait prevalence family in its place, which states that many people possess traits that are neither virtues nor vices, such as the disposition to help others in order to improve one’s mood or avoid sliding into a bad mood.

In this short paper, I don’t have the space to argue against all alternatives to my own proposal. Instead, I want to make two main claims. First, the “virtue is rare” dodge advocated by Kupperman and others who drop the virtue prevalence family has costs associated with it. Second, those costs may be steeper than the costs associated with my own way of responding to the situationist challenge.

Researchers in personality and social psychology have documented for decades the tendency of just about everybody to make spontaneous trait inferences, attributing robust character traits on the basis of scant evidence (Ross 1977; Uleman et al. 1996). This indicates that people think that character traits (virtues, vices, and neutral traits, such as extroversion) are prevalent. Furthermore, in a forthcoming paper (Alfano, Higgins, & Levernier forthcoming), I show that the vast majority of obituaries attribute multiple virtues to the deceased. Not everyone is eulogized in an obituary, of course, but most are (about 55% of Americans, by my calculations). Not all obituaries are sincere, but presumably many are. Absent reason to think that people about whom obituaries differ greatly from people about whom they are not written, we can treat this as evidence that most people think that the people they know have multiple virtues. But of course, if most relations of most people are virtuous, it follows that most people are virtuous. In other words, the virtue-prevalence family is deeply ingrained in folk psychology and folk morality.

Social psychologists think that people are quick to attribute virtues. My own work on obituaries suggests the same. What do philosophers say? Though there are some (Russell 2009) who claim that virtue is rare or even non-existent with a shrug, this is not the predominant opinion. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984, p. 199) claims that “without allusion to the place that justice and injustice, courage and cowardice play in human life very little will be genuinely explicable.” Philippa Foot (2001), following Peter Geach (1977), argues that certain generic statements characterize the human form of life, and that from these generic statements we can infer what humans need and hence will typically have. For the sake of comparison, consider what she says about a different life form, the deer. Foot first points out that the deer’s form of defense is flight. Next, she claims that a certain normative statement follows, namely, that deer are naturally or by nature swift. This is not to say that every deer is swift; some are slow. Instead, it’s a generic statement that characterizes the nature of the deer. Finally, she says that any deer that fails to be swift – that fails to live up to its nature – is “so far forth defective” (p. 34). The same line of reasoning that she here applies to non-human animals is meant to apply to human animals as well. As she puts it, “Men and women need to be industrious and tenacious of purpose not only so as to be able to house, clothe, and feed themselves, but also to pursue human ends having to do with love and friendship. They need the ability to form family ties, friendships, and special relations with neighbors. They also need codes of conduct. And how could they have all these things without virtues such as loyalty, fairness, kindness, and in certain circumstances obedience?” (pp. 44-5, emphasis mine).

In light of these sorts of claims, let’s consider again the defense offered by some virtue ethicists that virtue is rare, or even impossible to achieve. If virtues are what humans need, but the vast majority of people don’t have them, one would have thought that our species would have died out long ago. Consider the analogous claim for deer: although deer need to be swift, the vast majority of deer are galumphers. Were that the case, presumably they’d be hunted down and devoured like a bunch of tasty venison treats. Or consider another example of Foot’s: she agrees with Geach (1977) that people need virtues like honeybees need stingers. Does it make sense for someone with this attitude to say that most people lack virtues? That would be like saying that, even though bees need stingers, most lack stingers. It’s certainly odd to claim that the majority – even the vast majority of a species fails to fulfill its own nature. That’s not a contradiction, but it is a cost to be borne by anyone who responds to the situationist challenge by dropping the virtue prevalence family.

One might respond on Foot’s behalf that human animals are special: unlike the other species, we have natures that are typically unfulfilled. That would be an interesting claim to make, but I am not aware of anyone who has defended it in print.[7] I conclude, then, that dropping the virtue prevalence family is a significant cost to revising the postulate.

But is it a more significant cost than the one imposed on me by replacing the virtue / situation family with a virtue / social construction family? I think it is. This comparative claim is of course hard to adjudicate, so I will rest content merely to emphasize the strength of the virtue / prevalence family.

What would it look like to fudge things in the way I recommend? Essentially, one would end up committed to a version of the hypothesis of extended cognition, a variety of active externalism in the family of the extended mind hypothesis. Clark & Chalmers (1998) argued that the vehicles (not just the contents) of some mental states and processes extend beyond the nervous system and even the skin of the agent whose states they are.[8] If my arguments are on the right track, virtues and vices sometimes extend in the same way: the bearers of someone’s moral and intellectual virtues sometimes include asocial aspects of the environment and (more frequently) other people’s normative and descriptive expectations. What it takes (among other things) for you to be, for instance, open-minded, on this view is that others think of you as open-minded and signal those thoughts to you. When they do, they prompt you to revise your self-concept, to want to live up to their expectations, to expect them to reward open-mindedness and punish closed-mindedness, to reciprocate displays of open-mindedness, and so on. These are all inducements to conduct yourself in an open-minded way, which they will typically notice. When they do, their initial attribution will be corroborated, leading them to strengthen their commitment to it and perhaps to signal that strengthening to you, which in turn is likely to further induce you to conduct yourself in open-minded ways, which will again corroborate their judgment of you, and so on. Such feedback loops are, on my view, partly constitutive of what it means to have a virtue.[9] The realizer of the fudged Ramsey sentence isn’t just what’s inside the person who has the virtue but also further things outside that person.

So, can people be virtuous? I hope it isn’t too disappointing to answer with, “It depends on what you mean by ‘can’, ‘people’, and ‘virtuous’.” If we’re concerned only with abstract possibility, perhaps the answer is affirmative. If we are concerned more with the proximal possibility that figures in people’s current deliberations, plans, and hopes, we have reason to worry. If we only care whether more than zero people can be virtuous, the existing, statistical, empirical evidence is pretty much useless.   If we instead treat ‘people’ as a generic referring to human animals (perhaps a majority of them, but at least a substantial plurality), such evidence becomes both important and (again) worrisome. If we insist that being virtuous is something that must inhere entirely within the agent who has the virtue, then evidence from social psychology is damning. If instead we allow for the possibility of external character, there is room for hope.[10]


[1] Nathan is also using an extended metaphor. My point is clear nevertheless.

[2] An alternative is the “psycho-functionalist” method, which disregards common sense in favor of (solely) highly corroborated scientific claims. See Kim (2011) for an overview. For my purposes, psycho-functionalism is less appropriate, since (among other things) it is more in danger of changing the topic.

[3] I seem to be in disagreement on this point with Christian Miller (this volume), who worries that people may not be motivated to be or become virtuous. In general, I’m even more skeptical than Miller about the prospects of virtue theory, but in this case I find myself playing the part of the optimist.

[4] I am here indebted to Gideon Rosen.

[5] It might also be possible to circumvent this difficulty, which anyway troubles Lewis’s application of Ramsification to the mind-brain identity theory, by using only de re formulations of the relevant statements. See Fitting & Mendelsohn (1999) for a discussion of how to do so.

[6] Experimental philosophers have started to fill this gap, but not in any systematic or consensus-based way.

[7] Micah Lott (personal communication) has told me that he endorses this claim, though he has a related worry. In short, his concern is to explain how, given the alleged rarity of virtue, most people manage to live decent enough lives.

[8] For an overview of the varieties of externalism, see Carter et al. (forthcoming).

[9] I spell out this view in more detail in Alfano & Skorburg (forthcoming). For a treatment of the feedback-loops model in the context of the extended mind rather than the character debate, see Palermos (forthcoming).

[10] I am grateful to J. Adam Carter, Orestis Palermos, and Micah Lott for comments on a draft of this paper.

The semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility

Here’s a draft of a paper (co-authored with Markus Christen and Brian Robinson) on the semantic neighborhood of intellectual humility.  We are replicating in German and Mandarin, so those who are familiar with Wilfrid Sellars should think of this as the first step in a seriously scientific dot-quotation research programme.

1. Introduction

The study of personality and conceptions of personality has been pursued by psychologists and other researchers in various ways, including among others observations in laboratory settings and field experiments, correlational studies of survey responses, and psycholexical analyses. The present research embodies the latter methodology, and is informed by both philosophical theory and mathematical modeling tools developed in physical science.

Psycholexical analysis dates back to Francis Galton’s Measurement of Character (1884). The basic idea is that, all else being equal, a natural language is more likely to include a predicate for a property to the extent that the property is important to those who speak the language. This is not to say that every phrase or term refers. There are no unicorns despite the existence of the term ‘unicorn’. Nor is it to say that everything worth talking about is already represented by a phrase or singular term. Words are sometimes coined because new phenomena come into existence or become important; words are also sometimes coined because extant phenomena could not otherwise be parsimoniously described and explained. Sometimes a speaker coins words to describe or explain phenomena for which a word already exists, but of which the coiner is ignorant. So words that are synonyms (or nearly so) emerge, further emphasizing the importance of the phenomena referred to. Regardless, the rough generalization that there is a strong positive correlation between the importance of phenomena in the lives of the speakers of a language and the probability of the existence of a term in the language that refers to those phenomena is hard to deny. If this is on the right track, studying psychological language is an indirect way of studying the psychological properties people care about.

Psychologists in the psycholexical tradition don’t stop there, though. They also typically argue that the semantic structure of a language reflects to some extent the perceived structure of the phenomena described by the language. In personality psychology, this insight was famously used by Allport & Odbert (1936) to create a semantic taxonomy of thousands of personality-relevant terms, which they argued represents how people conceive of personality. Of course, the step from language to people’s conception of personality is not identical to the step from their conception of personality to actual personality, but it’s natural to think that there will be at least a positive correlation – if only a weak one – between how we think about personality and how personality actually is. This two-step connection (from language about personality to conceptions of personality, from conceptions of personality to actual personality) has been empirically validated by personality models such as the Big Five (Peabody & Goldberg 1989) and Big Six (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997).

The Big Six includes an H factor that represents facets of personality related to honesty and humility. Intellectual humility seems to involve a consciousness of the limits of one’s knowledge, including sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively (Roberts & Woods 2007), though others regard it as more of a “second-order” open-mindedness (Spiegel 2012). In our age of information, intellectualhumility has grown all the more relevant. However, little conceptual or empirical work has explored this trait. We think that the psycholexical approach is especially promising in the investigation of intellectual humility because questionnaires are likely to be especially unreliable as measures of this construct. Someone who is genuinely humble is unlikely to report being humble, and someone who reports being humble is unlikely to be humble. Humility – whether intellectual, moral, or otherwise – seems to involve a paradox of self-reference.

Additionally, our investigation is motivated by Aristotle’s insight, reiterated in contemporary philosophy by Roberts & Wood (2007), that a virtue (i.e., a positive value-laden personality disposition or dimension of individual difference) is often best understood in the context of related virtues and the vices they oppose. Put a different way, by contextualizing a term for a virtue in the constellation of its near-synonyms and its near-antonyms, we can create a perspicuous representation of the meaning of the term.

For these reasons, we propose to investigate the trait of intellectual humility psycholexically by comparing ‘intellectual humility’ with both its antonyms and synonyms.

2. Method

Our analysis is based on the assumption that the practice of language is precipitated in dictionaries, lexicons, and other wordbooks. Of particular interest is the thesaurus – a language reference book or database organized to help its users find words related to a concept but having slightly different shades of meaning or connotation. Thesauruses reflect what people in their daily use of language – in particular when writing text – consider semantically similar to a given term. In other words, a thesaurus lists synonyms in a broad sense. Modern thesauruses also list antonyms, which are then again related to a set of their own synonyms.

The present research explores the semantic space of intellectual humility by first identifying the most common synonyms and antonyms of ‘intellectual humility’. Next, by referring to the thesaurus.com database (the largest online thesaurus for American English), we associate each identified term with a word-bag, which is the set of synonyms listed for that term. The semantic constellation of a term t is thus an ordered pair (t, {tsyn1, tsyn2, tsyn3, …, tsynn}), whose first element is t itself and whose second element is t’s word-bag, i.e., the set of synonyms of t (including t itself). By comparing semantic constellations, we then create a similarity metric by calculating the relative overlap of each pair of word-bags. The similarities calculated in this way are then used in a novel clustering and visualization tool that generates a semantic map of the terms involved.

More specifically:

1)    We identified potential synonyms and antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’ in three ways:

  1. We searched philosophy and psychology journals for articles that discuss intellectual humility; we found 24 papers or related texts (such as calls for proposals, abstracts, and papers).
  2. We performed an Internet search for entries on ‘intellectual humility’ and found 20 entries that dealt in a significant way with the concept.
  3. We identified scales that are used in psychology for constructs that have some similarity to intellectual humility (e.g., the H factor of the Big Six personality inventory).

In all these texts, we identified terms that are used to represent the meaning of ‘intellectual humility’ or its relevant vices.

2)    Four raters that have experience with the philosophical topic of intellectual humility assessed all terms collected in step 1 to determine whether they could be used to express the concept of intellectual humility or a related vice. A term was kept on the list if three out of four raters agreed to do so. In this way, we identified 52 synonyms and 69 antonyms for ‘intellectual humility’. Each term was represented at least in noun form and usually in adjective form also: for example, {tolerance, tolerant}.

3)    We identified all entries for each term generated in step 2 in the thesaurus.com database to generate word-bags for each synonym and antonym. For example, the word-bag for ‘tolerance’ included all entries on thesaurus.com for the term set {tolerance, tolerant}.

4)    Next, we calculated the similarity in overlap between every pairwise combination of word-bags. For example, the word-bag of ’tolerance’ contains 55 terms and the word-bag of ’broadmindedness’ contains 40 terms. 12 terms are contained in both word-bags. Hence, the similarity between ‘tolerance’ and ‘broadmindedness’ is 12/40 = 0.3. In this way, the similarity measures are always between 0 (no similarity) and 1 (one word-bag is completely contained in the other word-bag).

5)    We checked for highly similar terms (overlaps > 0.5).[1] We collapsed the word-bags of these terms into a single word-bag to reduce the number of synonyms/antonyms. Conceptually, it’s unclear whether terms that share more than half of their semantic constellations represent genuinely distinct constructs. In this way, we reduced the number of synonyms from 52 to 39 and the number of antonyms from 69 to 46. When two terms were collapsed, our raters kept the term that in their estimation was better known. A new word-bag was created combining those of the two collapsed terms. In cases where the word-bag of term X overlapped with two or more terms by > 0.5 whose mutual overlap was, however, below the cutoff-value, the raters determined collapsing based on the highest mutual overlaps. This occurred 2 times for the synonyms and 8 times for of the antonyms. For all condensed word-bags, the similarities were re-calculated. Step 5 was not iterated.

6)    The similarity measures obtained in this way were then used as inputs in a visualization algorithm called superparamagnetic agent mapping, which employs self-organizing agents governed by the dynamics of a clustering algorithm inspired by spin physics to generate denoised low-dimensional representations. To conceptualize this mapping, imagine each term as a particle that naturally repels all other particles. However, as overlap between two terms increases, they become more attracted to each other. Thus, superparamagnetic agent mapping typically produces clumping, where several particles clump together (connoting similarity) while collectively repelling a different cluster (connoting collective difference between the two clusters). It has been shown (Ott et al. 2014) that this method is superior to standard methods such as factor analysis, principal components analysis, and multidimensional scaling in preserving the topology of the data space with clustered data. Since such a map will never precisely display the real topology of the original, high-dimensional space, we calculated for each point on the map the sum of the differences between the point and all its neighbors both in the map and in the original space (normalized to the longest distance in either case). The lower this sum, the better the map displays the real distance distribution of a point from its neighbors in the original space, so this number is a proxy for the quality of the map. To increase the heuristic value of the maps, we rescaled the sizes of the points themselves so that larger points indicate greater topological certainty.

7)    Finally, using the same clustering paradigm in an adapted version from (Ott et al. 2005), we identified clusters on the map generated in step 6.

Step 7 generates the maps below that are then used to inform our reasoning about intellectual humility.

3. Results

We produced three maps to convey our results. Figure 1 is the synonym map, showing the degree of overlap among intellectual humility’s 39 synonyms. The terms predominantly cluster into three groups. The first group (displayed in green) we have labeled the Sensible Self and is exemplified by terms such as ‘comprehension,’ ‘responsiveness’, and ‘mindfulness’. We take this cluster to be representative of the notion that an intellectually humble person will be open and responsive to new ideas and information. The second (pink) cluster we call the Inquisitive Self; it is illustrated by terms such as ‘curiosity’, ‘exploration’, and ‘learning’. The difference between the Sensible Self and the Inquisitive Self indicates that there is some difference between seeking new information or ideas and being open to them when they are presented. Third, we have named the blue cluster the Discreet Self, which is typified by ‘humility’, ‘decency’, and ‘unpretentiousness’. Finally, some terms (shown in black) have intermediate positions among these groups (e.g., ‘flexibility’ and ‘tolerance’) and do not fit neatly within any cluster.


Figure 1: IH Synonym map.

Figure 2 shows the results of the antonym map, displaying the degree of overlap between intellectual humility’s 46 antonyms. The first result to notice is that almost all the terms are aligned along one dimension and cluster at each endpoint. We take this to represent the distinction between underrating and overrating. The larger, red cluster can be thought of as the Overrated Self, and includes terms such as ‘vanity, ‘pride’, and ‘arrogance’. This cluster suggests that one way not to be intellectually humble is to be overly focused on one’s own high status. Overrating oneself is not, however, the only way to fail to be intellectually humble. The opposite endpoint has two closely related clusters that indicate two other ways. There is the Underrated Other in purple (typified by terms such as ‘bias’, ‘prejudice’, and ‘unfairness’) and the Underrated Self cluster in orange, which is similar in that it involves underrating, but the object of underrating is oneself. This cluster is characterized by terms such as ‘diffidence’, ‘timidity’, and ‘acquiescence’. This cluster suggests that there is such a thing as being too humble, such that one’s lack of pride ceases to have any positive value. It is worth noting how close the two (orange and purple) underrated clusters are relative to the (red) overrated cluster. This indicates that there is a higher degree of similarity based on the nature of the rating (over or under) than on who is being evaluated (self or other). Finally, we again see several terms (such as ‘hubris’, ‘chutzpah’, and ‘aloofness’) in white circles in the middle of the line, indicating that these terms do not fit within any cluster. This result should not be surprising since one can be aloof by either overrating oneself or underrating others (or both).


Figure 2: IH Antonym map.

Finally, we mapped all synonyms and antonyms together. We have preserved the colors from the two previous maps. The resulting map preserves many of the structural features of the previous maps, but with a few significant changes. First, it reveals that for the antonyms the linear structure along the poles of the Overrated Self and the Underrated Other is mainly preserved, whereas the terms on the Underrated Self (orange) are in the same region as the terms for the Discreet Self (blue) from the synonym set. Additionally, the distinction between the terms for the Sensible Self (green) and Inquisitive Self (pink) is no longer discernible. This second merger merely indicates that the difference between the Inquisitive Self and the Sensible Self is large enough to be significant when compared to the Discreet Self, but small enough not to be significant when compared to intellectual humility’s antonyms.


Figure 3: Unified synonyms and antonyms map.

4. Discussion & Conclusion

From these results, there are three points we wish to draw out for discussion. First, there is the matter of what the clusters represent. In the antonyms map, we take each cluster to represent a distinct vice, i.e., a different way one can fail to be intellectually humble. For the synonyms, however, two possibilities exist. It might be that each cluster represents a distinct trait, all three of which go by the same name of ‘intellectual humility’. Opposing this semantic diversity thesis is the alternate interpretation that sees each cluster representing a different facet of the single trait of intellectual humility.

Second, consider the merging of the synonym-based Discreet Self and antonym-based Underrated Self in the combined map. We see two possible interpretations. It might be that the discreet aspect of intellectual humility is essentially akin to underrating oneself. Snow (1995) and Taylor (1985) both argue that humility essentially involves recognizing one’s low status or personal faults. If this is right, then either the discreet aspect of humility is more of a vice than a virtue, or the underrated aspect of humility’s antonyms is more of a virtue than a vice. Either way, the valence of one or both of these semantic clusters may need to change. Alternatively, there might be two different traits picked out by these clusters – one a virtue and the other a vice – that are behaviorally similar enough that they are easily conflated. Someone who underrates herself will behave very similarly to a discreet person. They will both not regularly speak up about controversial topics, in praise of themselves, or for their own rights and entitlements, making it difficult to differentiate them behaviorally. There could, however, be an underlying psychological difference that typically goes unobserved. The discreet person may not often attend to evaluating herself, but when she does so, she does it accurately. One who underrates herself, however, may pay significant attention to her own merits, but regularly devalue them. Further research on the behavioral and psychological aspects of intellectual humility and its contraries may help to answer this question.

The final point relates back to the Big Six personality inventory (Ashton et al. 2004; Saucier 1997). As mentioned earlier, the H factor is meant to represent facets of personality related to honesty and humility. The 100-item revised version measures the participant’s humility (specifically her modesty) by having her indicate (dis)agreement with statements such as “I am an ordinary person who is no better than others.” We worry that the Big Six therefore includes in its H dimension items that are better understood as contrary to humility, not allied with or constitutive of it.



Allport, G. & Odbert, H. (1936). Trait-names: A Psycho-lexical Study.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Ashton, M., Lee, K., Perugini, M., Szarota, P., de Vries, R., Di Blas, L., Boies, K., De Raad, B. (2004). A six-factor structure of personality-descriptive adjectives: Solutions from psycholexical studies in seven languages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86:2, 356-366.

Galton, F. (1884). Measurement of Character.

Ott, T., Eggel, T., Christen, M. (2014). Generating Low-Dimensional Denoised Embeddings of Nonlinear Data with Superparamagentic Agents. Proceedings of the 2014 International Symposium on Nonlinear Theory and its Applications (NOLTA), Lucerne, Switzerland, September 14-18.

Ott, T., Kern, A., Steeb, W.-H., Stoop, R. (2005). Sequential Clustering: Tracking Down the Most Natural Clusters. Journal of Statistical Mechanics: theory and experiment: P11014.

Peabody, D, & Goldberg, L. (1989). Some determinants of factor structures from personality-trait descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57:3, 552-567.

Roberts, R. & Wood, J. (2007). Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology. Oxford University Press.

Saucier, G. (1997). Effects of variable selection on the factor structure of person descriptors. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73:6, 1298-1312.

Spiegel, J.G. (2012). Open-mindedness and intellectual humility. Theory and Research in Education. 10:27-38


[1]This cut-off value was chosen based on a logarithmic count of the long-tailed distance distribution such that the tail was cut off before the beginning of the main mode of the distribution (i.e., the largest mode in a multi-modal distribution).

the recognition heuristic and epistemic injustice

Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.

The Defense of Poesy, by Sir Philip Sidney

It’s easy, especially for a white man like me, to take for granted my capability to assert.  If I want to say something — in person, on a blog, to a reporter, to an administrator at my university — all I have to do is open my mouth or start typing.  What could be simpler?

But any particular act of asserting, like any speech act at all, is possible only because it originates in a complex linguistic, social, and cultural matrix.  Some elements of this matrix are obvious and uncontroversial when pointed out.  I can’t say something to you if we don’t speak the same language and have no a way of translating from my language to yours.  Likewise, I can’t make an assertion if I’ve established a reputation, like the boy who cried ‘wolf!’, as unreliable: in that case, any intelligent interlocutor would treat the probability of p given that I said ‘p’ as equivalent to the prior probability of p:

P(p | Mark says ‘p) = P(p)

P(wolf | boy cries ‘wolf!’) = P(wolf)

My word would carry no weight one way or the other.  It’s unclear whether I’ve even made an assertion when my word has no weight — especially if I know in advance that I’m so distrusted.

What if I’ve established no reputation one way or another?  You might think that, in such a scenario, the default should be to trust me, to give my word some, though of course not dispositive, weight.  Call this default assertoric empowerment: an epistemic agent S is default-empowered to assert that p for a range R of propositions just in case S’s saying that p (when p is in R) typically carries some evidentiary weight even with strangers. (I’m drawing here on Searle’s idea of empowerment in The Construction of Social Reality.)

For other kinds of speech acts, it’s obvious that constraints are placed on empowerment.  Not just anyone can issue me directives.  “Eat your vegetables” carries some force when my wife says it to me, but not when the bus boy at a restaurant says it to me.  “Class dismissed” will end my class when I say it, but it won’t end my class when you say it or your class when I say it.  I can’t promise to give you the Grand Canyon for your birthday because I don’t own, and have no way of acquiring, the Grand Canyon.  One needs to be suitably empowered to give people orders, to declare X to be Y, or to promise to Z.

For “pushy” speech acts such as directives and declaratives, default empowerment is highly circumscribed.  There are very few things that any given person is assumed by default to be able to command others to do.  “Stop harming me” is probably one, though that presupposes that the speaker is in fact being harmed.  “Don’t harm me” might work a little better.  Likewise, there are very few things that any given person is assumed to be able to declare.  I can’t declare myself President, declare myself tenured, or name your baby.  Most default declarative empowerments seem to have to do with voluntary affiliations.  I can declare myself a Christian, or an atheist, or a socialist, or gay.  Historically, though, even these kinds of affiliations couldn’t be declared by default.  After the Peace of Westphalia, a German peasant couldn’t declare his own religious affiliation: it was declared for him by his prince.  Until very recently, it was impossible to self-identify as homosexual because there was no concept or word for the category.  Even after the words and concepts were forged, self-declaring as gay was not default-empowered: someone who tried might, instead of being acknowledged, face electroshock therapy.  In 2013, Bangladesh recognized a third gender category of hijras, who are neither men nor women.

Not so, one might think, with assertions.  Unless one is explicitly disempowered because one is severely mentally ill, a very young child, or a notorious liar, one is default-empowered to assert that p for a very wide range R.  I want to challenge this assumption.  Just for starters, consider the fact that in ancient Greece the testimony of a slave was admissible as evidence in a trial only if it was acquired under torture.  This shows that belonging to a certain social category has been enough, historically, to disempower someone from making an assertion unless very special steps were taken.  Surely, though, things have improved in the ensuing centuries.  But how much?  Even in progressive Sweden, a woman’s “no” still means “yes.”  In the USA, a black man’s saying “I’m not resisting arrest” can still lead to charges of… resisting arrest.  Sad to say, default assertoric empowerment does not characterize the epistemic lives of many, many people: whether you’re empowered to say that p depends on which social category you belong to.  In this post, I’ll just assume that it’s clear that the examples of assertoric disempowerment I’ve mentioned are repugnant.  Those who share my sensibilities will agree that women should be default-empowered to say (and mean) no, that black people should default-empowered to say (and mean) that they’re not resisting arrest, and that it should never be a condition on someone’s assertoric empowerment that s/he first be tortured.

It’s useful, then, to distinguish normative assertoric empowerment from descriptive assertoric empowerment.  On the one hand, default assertoric empowerment shouldn’t depend on the social category the speaker belongs to.  On the other hand, it often does.  What seems to happen all too often can be captured by a relativized version of the empowerment schema:

An epistemic agent S of socio-cultural category C is default-empowered to assert that p for a range R of propositions just in case S/C’s saying that p (when p is in R) typically carries some evidentiary weight.

When descriptive default assertoric empowerment diverges from normative default assertoric empowerment because of the role of the C-variable, we have an instance of social-categoriy-based-epistemic injustice.  In other words, if your belonging to a social category that should be irrelevant to whether you are empowered to say that p disempowers you from saying that p, you have been wronged.  (On the other side of the coin, if you are unfairly privileged to say that p only because you belong to a particular social category, a different sort of epistemic injustice has been committed.)  I won’t even attempt to lay out a general account of when people of a given category should or should not be default-empowered to assert that p.  For one thing, I don’t have the space here.  For another, I have no idea how to do so.  What I do want to try in the balance of this post is to convince you that a particularly pernicious form social-category-based epistemic injustice, in which people’s capacity to make assertions is undermined, is rife in the news — in particular, in the coverage of violent ongoing conflicts.

People don’t have time to travel the world in search of everything worth knowing.  We rely on reporters and newspapers to tell us what’s worth knowing.  We expect that, if we’ve chosen an epistemically responsible paper to read, then if it systematically ignores something, that thing isn’t worth knowing about.  One way in which epistemic injustice can crop up, then, is that people who have important assertions to make are systematically ignored because of where they’re from.  If you won’t be heard — and you know that you won’t be heard — then you cannot speak.  If you cannot speak even though you have something important to say, and your silence is determined by the social group you belong to, then epistemic injustice has occurred.

In decades of research, Gerd Gigerenzer and his collaborators have shown that the degree to which something is covered in the news is highly predictive of whether people in other countries recognize that thing.  Moreover, people seem to use the fact that they recognize something to decide whether it is large on some important dimension.  This “recognition heuristic” can be a powerful epistemic tool when the importance of something correlates with how much it gets covered in the news, and hence how many people recognize it and think it’s important.  For instance, Americans are surprisingly good (and better than Germans) at saying which of two German cities is bigger because they tend to recognize only some of them, and almost always say that the one they recognize is bigger.  Likewise, Germans are surprisingly good (and better than Americans) at saying which of two American cities is bigger because they tend to recognize only some of them, and almost always say that the one they recognize is bigger.

Population is an important dimension of a city, so it reflects well on major newspapers that their coverage (and hence our recognition and decision-making) tracks city population pretty well.  Indeed, correlations between population, news coverage, and proportion of people recognizing a city tend to be at least .60 and as high as .86.  On the plausible assumption that people from different cities have roughly as much of note to say as one another, high correlations like this indicate that epistemic justice is being served.  In other research, however, I’ve started to document problems with this model when cities outside of the US and Europe are thrown into the mix (see this post and follow-ups on my blog).  Although the correlation between population and coverage is .83 for the New York Times‘s coverage of German cities and .77 for Argentine cities, it’s a measly .41 for Turkish cities and drops to .19 when cities from Germany, Argentina, Turkey, Thailand, and Nigeria are considered together.  Ignoring for the sake of brevity a lot of important caveats, the reason for the international discrepancy is that cities outside of Europe are covered much, much less than those in Europe.  Here’s a graph that represents the correlations between ordinal population ranking and ordinal NYT coverage ranking for Germany and the rest of the world:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 3.49.56 PM


Note the many cities, some of which are quite large, tied for last place with 0 mentions in the NYT.  If you lived in one of those cities between 2000 and 2010 (the dates covered by my analysis), you could not speak to the world — at least, not through the NYT.  Geography determines communicative destiny.

One might think that I’m overstating the case.  After all, maybe nothing important is going on in cities outside of Europe.  Maybe entire cities have lost their default assertoric empowerment because they have nothing worth saying.  Surely, though, you’d admit that whether people are meeting violent deaths in a given area would make that area remarkable.  If a newspaper fails to cover large-scale violence, then it is committing epistemic injustice against the survivors and victims, who presumably want to say something worth hearing about their plight.  The number of people killed in armed conflict is an important dimension of the such a horrific event.  One would hope, then, that the amount of news coverage would correlate well with the severity of the horror.  Sadly, this is not so.  To show this, I correlated the number of violent deaths in 2013 in a given area with the number of articles in the NYT that mentioned killing in the area in question.  There were 17 conflicts in which at least 100 people were killed (an arbitrary cutoff I imposed before looking at any correlations).  The correlation between the number of deaths in 2013 and the number of articles mentioning those deaths in 2013 was a paltry .28.  Here’s a scatterplot:

Screen Shot 2014-02-15 at 4.23.57 PM


The blue line is a regression line for the data.  It’s got a shadow around it indicating the 95% confidence interval.  Basically, what this means is that we can be 95% certain that the true regression line lies somewhere in the shaded area.  Notably, this means that, although the point-estimate of the correlation is .28, the real correlation could be positive, negative, or zero.  In other words, for all we know from this data, there is no correlation between the number of people killed in a violent conflict and the number of times that conflict is mentioned in the NYT.

My facehole talks

I did an interview with Bob Talisse (Vanderbilt) about Character as Moral Fiction for the New Books in Philosophy podcast.  Recording available (for free! 😉 here.

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.


















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.

Extended Prolepsis 5: Abilism & Epistemic Dependence

The final objection to be considered comes from John Turri (current volume) and Duncan Pritchard (forthcoming).[1]  Virtue reliabilism as it has been discussed thus far is the view that knowledge is true belief that is due to a reliable disposition of the cognitive agent.  Though we find it convenient to say that some dispositions are reliable and others unreliable, cognitive dispositions differ in their reliability in a gradable rather than an absolute way.  We judge a belief to be (categorically) reliably produced if it is produced (comparatively) reliably enough.  Another way of putting this is that knowledge is true belief that manifests cognitive ability, and the level of ability in question comes on a sliding scale.  We judge a belief to be (categorically) a manifestation of ability if it is (comparatively) a manifestation of enough ability. (Or enough of a manifestation of ability; the two can come apart.) Yet another way of putting this is that knowledge is true belief that is the product of cognitive agency, and that the level of cognitive agency in question comes on a sliding scale.  We judge a belief to be (categorically) a product of cognitive agency if it is (comparatively) a manifestation of enough cognitive agency. (Or enough of a manifestation of cognitive agency; again, the two can come apart.) Reliability, cognitive ability, cognitive agency – a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  The point is that a threshold needs to be crossed before we are willing to say that someone’s true belief counts as knowledge.

Although some of the details of their accounts differ, Pritchard and Turri both argue that the key to saving (or replacing) virtue reliabilism is lowering the threshold.  For Turri (current volume), knowledge is to be defined as a “true belief manifesting cognitive ability,” or, more fully, “approximately true belief manifesting cognitive power.”  Cognitive ability or power in turn is defined thus (following Doris 2002, p. 19):

If a person possesses a cognitive ability to detect the truth (of a certain sort when in certain conditions), then when she exercises that ability and forms a belief (on relevant matters and in relevant conditions), she will form a true belief at a rate exceeding chance.[2]

From here, the rescue of virtue reliabilism is straightforward: clearly when people use heuristics, they exercise some degree of cognitive ability.  The recognition heuristic is better than chance, after all.  So, when they get it right by using the recognition heuristic (or any other heuristic that works better than chance), they know what they truly believe.  Note that this is a significant lowering of the threshold.  As long as the cognitive agent is better than chance, she’s good enough.  Her true belief might not be reliably produced (where reliability is understood to set a very high bar), but it is produced by a disposition that’s better than chance.  Turri (in press) has convincingly argued that at least some cases of knowledge (such as knowledge produced by explanatory reasoning) are unreliably produced.  His claim in this context is that true beliefs produced by heuristics are further examples of such knowledge

Pritchard (forthcoming) argues in a similar way that people who arrive at true beliefs via heuristics are knowers.  For him, the key distinction is between robust and modest virtue epistemology.[3]  Robust virtue epistemology defines knowledge purely in terms of virtue.  Modest virtue epistemology, by contrast, requires virtue only as a necessary – not a sufficient – condition for knowledge.  For independent reasons, Pritchard rejects robust virtue epistemology, so he sees the fact that it is inconsistent with epistemic situationism merely as further evidence in favor of modest virtue epistemology.  But is modest virtue theory threatened as well?  Not according to Pritchard.  The further condition he adds to knowledge is epistemic dependency, which has both positive and negative aspects:

It is positive when an agent exhibits a relatively low degree of cognitive agency, and yet qualifies as having knowledge nonetheless due to factors outwith her cognitive agency, such as epistemically friendly features of the environment. […] And it is negative when an agent exhibits a high degree of cognitive agency – such that they would ordinarily count as having knowledge – and yet they lack knowledge nonetheless due to factors outwith their cognitive agency.

For instance, someone who naively asks a knowledgeable passerby for directions to a landmark can end up knowing the way to the landmark, despite exercising a relatively low degree of cognitive agency.  By contrast, even a thorough and careful investigator can be fooled by an even more thorough and clever deceiver, and hence end up with true beliefs that do not count as knowledge despite exercising a high degree of cognitive agency.  Pritchard contends that people who get things right when using heuristics or when open-minded-because-in-a-good mood are like the person who naively asks someone for directions: despite exercising a low degree of cognitive agency, their true beliefs count as knowledge.  After all, they did exercise some cognitive agency (they used a heuristic rather than flipping a coin; they were luckily open-minded), and that was enough, given their epistemically friendly environment.  Pritchard goes so far as to say that,

in order for the situationist challenge to impact even on modest virtue epistemology it needs to demonstrate in a wide range of cases not just that the agent’s cognitive success, where it occurs, is not primarily creditable to her exercise of her cognitive abilities / intellectual virtues, but moreover that the agent’s cognitive success is not in any significant way the product of her cognitive abilities / intellectual virtues.

Like Turri, Pritchard wants to lower the threshold: as long as the dispositions that lead to true beliefs involve some degree of cognitive agency, they can give us knowledge.

I doubt that, if the threshold is set as low as Turri and Pritchard argue, my arguments would go through.  One question, then, is whether it is legitimate to lower the threshold as they suggest.[4]  In these kinds of arguments, it’s often hard to find any principled position that is also reasonable (or a reasonable position that is also principled).  I’ll try, however, to raise some doubts about the lowering of the threshold.  Consider a student taking a multiple choice test, with four potential answers per question.  As in the popular game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, she has a “life line”: once during the test, she can ask the teacher to eliminate two of the four potential answers for a given question.  Suppose that she encounters a question where she has absolutely no clue which answer is right.  She uses her lifeline, reducing the number of potential answers to two, then guesses.  As it turns out, she guesses correctly.  Does it make sense to say that she knows the answer to this question?  One might object that she doesn’t believe that she got it right, since she was guessing.  Suppose further, then, that had already decided that one of the four potential answers was wrong, and that it was the one she didn’t choose.  Now she does believe that the selected answer is correct.  Does she know?  I contend that she does not.  If this is correct, then Turri and Pritchard’s weakening of the conditions on knowledge does not work.  After all, she did manifest cognitive ability (Turri): she used a lifeline to narrow the choices.  And she did her success is, in a significant way, due to her exercise of cognitive agency (Pritchard).  I don’t know to what extent my intuition that she nevertheless lacks knowledge might be shared and withstand scrutiny, but it does raise concerns about the weakness of both Turri’s and Pritchard’s definitions of knowledge.  They may end up counting too many beliefs as knowledge.

But suppose that I’m off the reservation here.  There’s at least one further thing to say about their revisions to reliabilism.  In virtue ethics, it’s not uncommon to say that an action is right if it manifests at least one virtue and no vices.  In the same way, Turri and Pritchard may want to revise their accounts to say that knowledge is a true belief that manifests at least one intellectual virtue (ability, bit of agency) and no intellectual vices (infirmities).  Taking this suggestion would not just follow the analogy, but also support their solution to the so-called value problem.  The problem is this: how, if at all, is knowledge than true belief?  It’s arguably the problem discussed near the end of Plato’s Meno, and it has loomed large in recent epistemology.  For both Pritchard (XXX) and Turri (2011, 2013, inspired by Zagsebski 2009), the solution to the problem is not that knowledge is prudentially more valuable (it’s not, since the person who truly believes that p will act the same as the person who knows that p), but that knowledge is an achievement, and achievements are in generally more valuable than non-achievements that result in the same state of affairs.

Consider, then, a somewhat ignorant American who successfully uses the recognition heuristic to rank the 83 most populous German cities in order of size.  Does he know that he got the order right?  He’s clearly manifesting an ability and exercising cognitive agency.  I’ve already suggested that this might not be enough to qualify his true belief as knowledge, but suppose my threshold argument is unsound.  There’s a further concern here.  Our imaginary agent manifests a cognitive ability, but in so doing he also manifests a cognitive disability.  Indeed, his ability doesn’t just coincide with but depends on his disability.  He would not be empowered to use the recognition heuristics if he were not sufficiently ignorant of German geography.

Moreover, most of the factors that make the recognition reliable, to the extent that it is reliable, are beyond the ken and control of the cognitive agent.  The strength of the ecological correlation is typically something he doesn’t know about, nor something he has any power over.  The strength of the surrogate correlation (the correlation between the mediator and his recognitional capacities) is, likewise, largely not up to him.  A few cognitive agents might know about and intentionally exploit these correlations, but most people do so automatically and unknowingly.  This suggests a further point: the recognition heuristic, if it is a source of knowledge, is an ability that is located largely outside the skin of the cognitive agent.  Both the processes that lead to a high ecological correlation and the processes that lead to a high surrogate correlation are largely external.  This suggests that, if virtue reliabilism is to cope with epistemic situationism, it must also cope with a version of the extended mind hypothesis, which I have elsewhere dubbed the extended character hypothesis (Alfano 2013, forthcoming a, forthcoming, d, forthcoming e).[5]

[1] I do not have space to consider objections to my positive account of factitious virtues, but since no criticism of this account has been published, that would have to wait anyway.

[2] Though I should note that Doris says “markedly above chance,” not just “exceeding chance.”

[3] For more on this distinction, see Kallestrup & Pritchard (2013).

[4] Another avenue, which I do not explore here, is to argue that reliability is a high-fidelity rather than a low-fidelity virtue, as discussed in Character as Moral Fiction (pp. 31-34, 72-82).

[5] See also Koralus & Mascaranhas (forthcoming) on how the dialectical process of questioning and answering makes us rational, to the extent that we are.

Extended Prolepsis 4.3: Gigernezer to the rescue, continued further

[UPDATE: I decided to add Turkey, which ended up making things look even worse for G&G.]

Perhaps stocks aren’t the best place to use the recognition heuristic.  Gigerenzer & Goldstein (1996, p. 651) refer to the cities task as their “drosophila,” so if the recognition heuristic works anywhere, it should work here.  Despite their impressive results, however, there is cause for concern about the fruit fly’s health.  As Kelman (2011) points out, the recognition heuristic may not work as well when the cities are not in North America or Western Europe.  Goldstein & Gigerenzer (2002, p. 86) somewhat implausibly claim that the fact that they’ve replicated their results for cities in the USA and Germany means that the results “stand up” in “different culture[s].”  In an attempt to see whether this is actually the case, I imitated their methodology for determining ecological correlations for some non-WEIRD countries: in addition to Germany, I looked at cities in Turkey, Argentina, Nigeria, and Thailand.  Ecological correlations reported by Goldstein & Gigerenzer (2002) were .72 for Die Zeit’s mentions of American cities and .70 for the Chicago Tribune’s mentions of German cities.  Instead of the Chicago Tribune, which has a shockingly useless web search function, I used the New York Times, limiting my search to articles published in the first decade of the 21st century.  Otherwise, I followed their methodology exactly.  I first created a list of every city in the relevant country with a population of at least 100,000.  Next, I searched the Times for articles that mentioned the city and the country by name.  I then computed the ecological correlations for each country, as well as a worldwide ecological correlation, in which all cities were included.  The initial results, along with comparative data from Goldstein & Gigerenzer (2002, p. 86) are presented in Table XXX


# of applicable cities

Ecological correlation



















Table XXX: Worldwide ecological correlations

A few remarks on these data are in order.  First, I replicated Goldstein & Gigerenzer’s (2002) strong ecological correlation for German cities.  Second, despite the fact that I chose countries from multiple continents, the ecological correlations remained fairly high, with the Thai ecological correlation coming in at a whopping .98.  Third, despite these impressive data, the worldwide ecological correlation was much lower, in large part because goings on in Germany receive much more coverage than those in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America.

The almost absurdly high ecological correlation for Thailand, along with the low worldwide correlation led me to delve a bit deeper into the data.  One thing that became immediately apparent was that much of the strength of these correlations is due to the top few cities’ receiving the lion’s share of media attention.  Turkish cities received 13,634 mentions, of which 3090 went to Istanbul.

Thai cities received 1973 mentions, of which 1510 went to Bangkok.

Nigerian cities received 2657 mentions, of which 1150 went to Lagos.

Argentine cities received 5695 mentions, of which 3320 went to Buenos Aires.

German cities received 172,488 mentions, of which 135,000 went to Berlin.

Could it be that these big cities carried most of the weight of the correlation?  To explore this question, I re-ran the correlations, excluding first the most populous, then the two most populous, then the three, four, and five most populous cities in each zone.  The ecological correlations did not stand up too well to this outlier-removal exercise, as illustrated in Table XXX.


# of applicable cities

Ecological correlation






















































Table XXX: Worldwide ecological correlations, ex top five cities

A few more remarks are now in order.  First, it appears that, even in the German case, most of the ecological correlation is driven by the top few cities.  The same trend held for all other countries.  Second, this trend was actually reversed for the worldwide ecological correlation, presumably because the methodology removed Istanbul, Lagos, Bangkok, Ankara, and Izmir, which were covered much less than Berlin (#6 in population) despite their somewhat similar size.  Third, although the ecological correlations dissipated, in all but a few cases (Thailand EC-1 and EC-2), they remained positive, though much more modest.

One thing that should now be evident is how very sensitive the drosophila is to slight perturbations.  Is the recognition heuristic a reliable guide to which of two cities is larger?  The answer is that it depends.  It depends on whether the cities are in the same country.  It depends on whether the cities are in the USA or Western Europe, on the one hand, or the rest of the world on the other.  It depends on whether one of the cities is the most populous (or second most populous, or third…) in the entire country.  But if Goldstein & Gigerenzer (2002) are right, people do not take these caveats into account when applying the recognition heuristic.  Results like these should make us wary of accepting Fairweather & Montemayor’s (forthcoming) account of frugal virtues.

Extended Prolepsis 4.2: Gigerenzer to the Rescue, continued

[This is a continuation of this post.]

Key to Fairweather & Montemayor’s argument for frugal virtues are the claims that “heuristic reasoning implements threshold evaluations for selected criteria that exploit reliable features of task environments” (emphasis theirs) and so can be a source of knowledge “when properly selected in the right environments.”  Now that we’ve seen how complex are the relations among criteria, mediators, and recognitional capacities, achieving this goal may not seem so straightforward.

Consider an epistemic agent making an inference.  She could consciously select a criterion about which to make a heuristic inference, and certainly sometimes people do so.  This would enable her to choose a criterion that is suitably connected via environmental and social mediators to her recognitional capacities.  More often than not, though, people don’t engage in conscious selection.  Indeed, one of the cornerstones of research on heuristics is that people tend to use them automatically, not consciously.  This raises the possibility that heuristics will be used on criteria to which they are not adapted.

Next, our epistemic agent needs to select a heuristic to apply.  There are many in the heuristic toolbox.  As with the criterion, this selection can be conscious and intentional.  Gigerenzer has a lucrative consulting practice through which he designs carefully tested heuristics for decision-makers such as doctors and businesses.  By and large, however, this second selection will also be an automatic process.[1]  Thus, even if someone selects a suitable criterion, she may end up applying the wrong heuristic to it.

There is also the possibility that some of the feedback loops from recognition (or whatever other psychological capacity is used) to the criterion or the mediators may damage the accuracy or reliability of the heuristic inference.   Presumably, this is part of the explanation of the sometimes swift and unexpected changes in fashion.  As the band Tower of Power puts it, “What’s hip today, might become passé” – in part because it is hip (and recognized) today.

If these stumbling blocks can be circumnavigated, the frugal virtues approach would be promising.  In some instances, I’m sure they can.  Hospitals that shell out large sums to have Gigerenzer’s team design a heuristic for them are likely have a well-selected criterion, to use the heuristic they paid for rather than one that they had been using (perhaps unconsciously) before, and to see to it that their use of the heuristic does not ricochet back on the mediators or the criterion.  But what about ordinary people making ordinary inferences?  Here the news is not so good.  In Character as Moral Fiction I described studies by Tversky and Kahneman that attempted to get people to stop using the representativeness heuristic when it was not suited to the inference at hand.  Recalcitrance ruled the day.  Goldstein & Gigerenzer (2002, p. 81-3) report a pair of experiments in which participants could use the recognition heuristic to make inferences about the size of various German cities.  They did so 90% of the time when the heuristic was well-suited to the inference, and 92% of the time when it was ill-suited to the inference.  In other words, at least for one criterion, people were completely insensitive to evidence against the trustworthiness of the recognition heuristic.

If this sort of result holds generally – if people tend to use heuristics willy nilly – then, even though heuristics can be a source of knowledge “when properly selected in the right environments,” they are not sources of knowledge for creatures like us.  It’s hard to get a read on this.  Life is not a controlled experiment.  But indications are not heartening.  For instance, Borges, Goldstein, Ortmann, & Gigerenzer (1999) famously found that, when the criterion was not a city’s population but the prospects of a publicly-traded company’s stock, a portfolio based on the recognition heuristic performed surprisingly well.  Over a six-month period, a portfolio based on the best-recognized stocks outperformed portfolios based on the least-recognized stocks and the market as a whole.  But don’t call your broker just yet.  Other researchers have attempted in vain to replicate this effect.  Andersson & Rakow (2007) ran four studies with seven sets of participants from all around the world, but failed to find any support for the recognition-based portfolio’s success.  They conclude that “recognition is, on average, simply a near random method of selecting stocks with respect to their profitability” (p. 36).  Likewise, Boyd (2001) attempted to replicate the effect to no avail.  This might seem unsurprising.  After all, one reason we hear about companies is that they are innovative, powerful, and profitable, but another is that they are the exact opposite.  Here’s a graph of newspaper headlines mentioning the ‘AIG’, courtesy of Google Trends:

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Figure XXX: Headlines mentioning ‘AIG’ over time

This should drive home the import of the domain-specificity of the recognition heuristic.  The domains are very small indeed, but our reasoning is not sensitive to this fact.  As Kelman (2011) points out, even on the cities task, the recognition heuristic delivers disappointing results when the participants are Americans and the cities aren’t in North America or Western Europe.  As of the writing of this paper, Guangfo is the 12th most populous urban zone in the world, but most Americans have never heard of it.   Results like these should make us wary of accepting Fairweather & Montemayor’s (forthcoming) account of frugal virtues.

[This last point is made more forcefully here.]

[1] Adam Morton (2000) explores the possibility of a meta-heuristic that automatically selects which first-order heuristic to apply.