Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How will you celebrate Cesar Chavez Day?

On Thursday, we’ll be one of ten states officially observing Cesar Chavez Day. Looking for something to do? Maybe listen to a recent Donald Trump speech!

Trump, the likely republican nominee (!), favors going further than we already do to enforce restrictions on immigration from Mexico. He favors these policies because he thinks Mexican immigrants “are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Even more often, Trump justifies his policies, which include a “huuge wall,” in terms of the economic and fiscal costs of Mexican immigration. Last year, for instance, he said, “The effects on jobseekers have been disastrous.” An ad he ran in January purported to show people “pouring across the southern border.”

During the 1960s and 70s, Chavez had a similar concern that Mexican immigrants would disadvantage American workers, mainly workers who were members of his United Farm Workers union. The typical concern is that new entrants willing to work for less will depress wages. This led Chavez to take drastic measures to restrict movement across the Mexico border. For example, he directed his union officials to investigate farms and report undocumented workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and to picket in front of INS offices demanding that they crack down on undocumented workers. The most controversial episode occurred in 1973 when Chavez helped organize an Arizona Minutemen-like hundred-mile “wetline” encampment of UFW workers to prevent those he sometimes referred to as “illegals” and “wetbacks” from entering the US at the Mexico border. According to reports of the incident in a New York Times story, the UFW representatives used “clubs, chains and five-foot-long flogging whips comprised of intertwined strands of barbed wire” to beat back job-seeking Mexicans.

Of course, Chavez and Trump’s concerns about the social and economic effects of immigration are silly. As reported by The Economist, violent crime has dropped over the last 30 years while immigration from Mexico was increasing (sorry, full story gated). And Brookings reports that immigration increases incomes and opportunities for Americans.

But the moral and political philosophy of Chavez and Trump’s preferred policies are even more worrisome. They advocate standing between and forcibly interfering with people who would otherwise be able to trade or work with each other. Again, I think they do this for economically dubious reasons, but let’s assume they’re right. Let’s also assume that, for some reason, it’s morally appropriate to implement policies that prioritize the economic interests of Americans over those of Mexicans. Even if it is, that’s still very different from forcibly interfering with Mexicans (as well as the Americans they would otherwise be able to trade or work with) in order to prioritize the interests of (some other) Americans. I just can’t see how to justify that.

For example, my oldest daughter is interested in getting a job at a used bookstore this summer. Now, I prioritize her interests over those of every other person who also wants to have that job. She isn’t just a fellow citizen, she’s my daughter and I love her. A lot. Still, I just can’t see how that could justify me using force to interfere with a voluntary agreement between the bookstore owner and someone else’s daughter or son who also wants that job. Surely it would be wrong of me to do that.

But why should that case be different than similar cases involving Mexican workers? If the priority I assign to my daughter’s interests doesn't justify my use of coercion to prevent others from getting the job my daughter wants, how does the priority others might assign to fellow citizens justify their use of coercion against people who were born in Mexico?

For that matter, why should it be permissible to coercively interfere with Mexican migration (as well as the Americans who want to trade or work with them) but impermissible to coercively interfere with internal migration? After all, job markets don’t care where the increased competition for scarce jobs comes from. If Chavez and Trump’s mercantilist arguments for barring migrants from Mexico work, the same considerations should apply to migrants wherever they come from. Should we build a wall to protect our economic interests from job seekers from Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, in addition to Mexico, to keep out those who want to trade, work or live with people here in California? How huuge should it be? I can’t think of a single anti-immigration argument that, in principle, couldn’t also justify restrictions on internal migration.

One more example: in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a massive migration into the US workforce. There was over that time, in fact, a supply shock of about 27 million women. Was this influx of, for the most part, lower-wage workers bad for domestic wages or the economy more generally? Well, of course not, but should that even matter in an evaluation of whether or not policies designed to keep women out of the work force are justified? I don’t think so. Such policies were illiberal. We should think the same thing about restrictive immigration policies.

I actually don’t recommend using your time off on Thursday to listen to a Donald Trump speech. You might instead read up on my favorite March holiday.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Saturday, March 26, 2016

What idea, commonly regarded as a profound truth, would you most like to see exposed as false, misguided or nonsensical?

Dan Weijers:  Seeking happiness willl only get you less of it.
Many philosophers, including some sympathetic to hedonism seem to endorse an edict of what might be called “sages’ common sense for the ages”: the direct pursuit of happiness leads to unhappiness. Some, with a penchant for speaking loosely, refer to this as the paradox of happiness; even if you think happiness is the greatest good, you should, on pain of unhappiness, act as if some other thing, such as beneficence, is in fact the holder of that lofty title. So, hedonist or not, happiness should not be the foremost conscious goal of activity. 
Research on happiness, both empirical and conducted solely from within the oft-toured hallways of a beautiful mind, has borne out reasons in support of the paradox of happiness. Happiness, it seems, is fleeting, fragile, and facile – all of which decrease the value of striving for, and reveling in, happiness. 
But, as is plain as day to this unenlightened soul, the more sophisticated, specific, contextually embedded, and accurate happiness research becomes, the more we will learn how to pursue happiness effectively while holding it as our greatest and most immediate goal. Sometimes pursuing immediate pleasure will lead to the most happiness overall, such as when seemingly minor pleasurable happenstances make us momentarily more satisfied with our whole lives, and more likely to help a stranger in need. With a practical wisdom based on happiness research and personal experience, we will be able to pursue happiness in a way that increases it, both in the short and long term.

Kyle Swan: We must apply ethics.
The way many philosophers apply ethics is deeply misguided.

Don't get me wrong. Ethics is inherently practical (or normative) and so moral principles are always relevant for questions about what to do. But I see a pretense and false precision in the way philosophers often do or teach it.
Here’s the procedure: 1) think really, really hard about what’s really good or right (donning a pained, squinty face seems to help). 2) Apply it. That’s (usually) it. 
So they identify the value or principle that provides the basis for judgments of right and wrong, followed by the behavior, rules or policies to discourage people from doing the bad things. They apply the ethics. They tell us how to make things right.

But this tends to run roughshod over reasonable disagreements in people’s beliefs and values. Moral rules should be authoritative, but this smacks of authoritarianism. It ignores the wisdom of local, evolved customary rules that reflect the negotiated settlements and practices people have hit upon to lubricate social interaction. These are the rules that have currency in the sense that the relevant people have internalized them and acknowledge them to be authoritative. If the philosopher’s recommended application of the ethics is too different from local custom, it will fail and may even make things worse. The top-down imposition of rules that conflict with the values and commitments of people who are expected to implement and follow them are likely to meet with resistance and inventive, unforeseen ways around those rules.

Brad Dowden:  There is a force of gravity.
People say there is a gravitational force, and that it makes apples fall to the ground and the moon go round. It does not. There is no force of gravity. There are many forces, but gravity is not one of them. When an apple falls to the ground, it is not pulled by a force that acts in a straight line. Instead, all objects are following the shortest path they can through curved spacetime, and our space is radically curved near massive objects such as the Earth. 
Gravity does exist, but it’s not a force. It is the curvature of the field of spacetime itself. Thanks to the curvature of this field, apples fall and the moon orbits the Earth. Last month we discovered gravitational waves produced by the nasty collision of two massive black holes. The collision produced more power by a factor of 50 than all the power of all the stars in that galaxy of 100 billion stars plus the power of all the other 100 billion galaxies in our universe, but the gravitational waves of that collision didn’t travel through space to Earth. Instead they were ripples in space itself. Thankfully the ripples were very weak by the time they arrived. If we’d been near the collision, our bodies would have been stretched back and forth from 12 feet to 3 feet every thousandth of a second, but this change in height would not have been due to any force on us.

Saray Ayala: Humans are the most advanced species on earth.
The idea I would like to see exposed as false is that humans are the most advanced species on the planet. Both religion and science tell us that humans are superior to any other living thing: humans exceed all other beings on Earth in cognitive skills; humans stand out in their capacity to feel many complex emotions, their success at developing advanced technologies, their need to seek meaning in life and the ability to create it, their moral status and intrinsic value, etc. Some of these properties are sometimes predicated of other species, but humans are always at the top. Either we are the only ones who have these properties, or we have more of them, or have them in a way that matters more. 
Unfortunately, this (false) sense of superiority is combined with the sense of entitlement to subdue what we take to be inferior to us. For many, our aim on this planet is to control nature. This need to control what surrounds us is destroying the planet, exhausting its resources, annihilating biodiversity, making life impossible for other species (and many fellow humans, too). And the more we think we control nature, the more reassured we feel in our superiority, creating a vicious cycle. If we were to realize that we are not at the top, perhaps we would reconsider our relationship with other living beings and the environment. Perhaps we would change from “need to control” mode to “need to collaborate” mode. 

Thomas Pyne:  Only science can tell us what's real.

According to the best current computational theory of vision, the visual system takes retinal stimulation and produces a ‘primal sketch’ sensitive to ‘blobs,’ ‘edges,’ and ‘boundaries’. 
Then comes a ‘2 ½ D sketch’, presenting boundaries, discontinuities, and distance as of surfaces. 
Then comes a 3-D model of surfaces and volumes. Now we’re no longer working on ‘proximal stimuli’ (stuff hitting the nerve endings) but ‘distal stimuli’: representing stuff in the real world.

Finally our cognitive system presents us a full visual experience: a barmaid behind a counter. 
If the distal stimuli were caused by a barmaid, we would be seeing the barmaid.
But there’s no barmaid.

There’s only a painting, Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies Bergere.

Two descriptions:
1. Manet has exploited his artist’s intuitive understanding of computational theory in order:
a. to get us to see a distribution of paint on a canvas as a picture of a barmaid.
b. to put a picture of a barmaid in the painting.
2. In turn, the computational theory explains:
a. how we see a distribution of paint on a canvas as a picture of a barmaid
b. how we see the picture of the barmaid in the painting
The science of the first paragraph is, it seems to me, utterly neutral between (a) and (b) in each. Yet the question remains:  Is there a picture of a barmaid or not?

Russell DiSilvestro: God only helps those who help themselves.
Chances are you have heard or even thought this one. I first heard it, thought it, and repeated it as a kid. But Wikipedia recently taught me that Jay Leno gets folks in NYC to list it on tape more than any other idea as one of the Ten Commandments; that about 75% of teenagers recently polled claimed it was the main message of the Bible; that Ben Franklin wrote it in his Poor Richard's Almanac; and that it has precursors as ancient as Aesop’s fables and as diverse as the Quran (“Trust in God but tie your camel.”). 
Perhaps what makes it widespread is that it echoes a ring of truth. Even theists who profess to believe in divine intervention in the affairs of this life know that they must still work by the sweat of their brow for many things, even many quintessentially religious things (like prayer, and memorizing scripture, and practicing the pipe organ before Sunday morning). 
What makes this phrase pernicious, in my view, is the cluster of things that it often really conveys or implies in context: that God only helps those who help themselves; that those who are helpless (say, poor, homeless, and/or addicted to something that wrecks their life) have only themselves to blame; and that God, for lack of anything better to do, actively enjoys sitting back and watching them suffer for their laziness. Fortunately, this theological picture is as truthless as it is ruthless.

Christina Bellon: Training in ethics will make you a better person.
Philosophers like this idea because we believe it highlights the value of philosophical inquiry. Relying on common or folk ethics risks reinforcing the suspect heritage and often contradictory guidance it provides. The value of ethics training comes as clarity in reasoning about moral principles, enhanced ability to derive right action from them, and refined justification and evaluation of one’s own and others’ actions. In short – analytic skills. But do these make us better people – better friends, citizens, employees, soldiers, bankers, researchers, etc.?

Recent evidence indicates that ethics training, at least as philosophers have been conducting it, does not work. It makes us very good at arguing about ethics. But, it does not make us better at doing what is right. What these studies show is improved analytic skills and enhanced positive attitudes toward ethical behavior, but this does not translate into action. Self-reporting surveys indicate that we are no more inclined to act rightly AFTER ethics training than before. That is, we know what we ought to do, but still cannot bring ourselves to do it.

What does correlate with improved ethical behavior is modification of the action-environment – improving the responsibility practices within which individuals must act. When people not only know what they ought to do, but are enabled and encouraged to do it, then confidence and commitment come along for the ride. Confidence and commitment aren’t demonstrated in a sit down test or an essay. They are lived.

G. Randolph Mayes: People are fundamentally selfish.
This view is most commonly held by informed realists who see through the bullshit that clouds the judgment of peope who remain innocent of logic and science. At least that is how they seem to see themselves. 
Their usual argument runs as follows: At a biological level, people's actions are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Take any example of apparently unselfish, altruistic behavior- Susan works three nights a week helping adults learn to read; George compromises his ability to get an A in helping Kevin to pass. In each case, if you look closely, you will find that they are only doing it because they are getting something out of it for themselves
Let's give them that. The clear implicit assumption here is that if I expect to derive any utility from an action, then it is purely selfishly motivated. That doesn't sound like science to me. 
For concepts like altruism and selfishness to be scientifically interesting they have to admit of degrees. If you like, you can define a purely altruistic action as one in which an agent provides benefits to others while deriving no benefit herself. Then your view amounts to the startling claim that nobody is perfect. 
Truth: Real people engage in actions that benefit others more than they benefit themselves on a day to day basis. All but the ickiest of defectors on the social contract have a strong instinctive impulse to treat others decent even at their own expense

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Passing the monkey and deciding how to decide

We frequently find ourselves facing decisions about pressing and important matters with less than ideal knowledge concerning relevant background information, possible outcomes, and contributing influences.  We often have to make the decision, but without the resources or time to gather the information we would need to be sure it's the right one.

We  make decisions under uncertainty whenever we treat illness, make an investment, plan for retirement, drive home from work, or buy a bagel. Some of these decisions involve serious outcomes that will have big impacts on our lives if we choose poorly. In others the worst case scenario for a poor decision is trivial.

It stands to reason that the resources—time, money, energy, thought—we invest into making a decision should be proportional to its importance. It is as irrational to deliberate for more than a few seconds about the optimal place to sit on the bus as it is to get married on the strength of a perfect first date. Our sense of the importance of our decisions is captured in what economists call the expected value of our actions.

This chart represents the ideal, linear relationship between the resources we should put into a decision and its relative importance.  As the importance of a decision goes up, so should the resources we put into making it. 

The mistakes above and below the line deserve some specific analyses and strategies.  The triangle on the bottom right represents all the cases where we invest more resources into making a decision than its relative importance warrants.  You spend twenty minutes agonizing over which frozen yogurt flavor to get; you go buy bug spray and spend extra time applying it and warning everyone about the dangers of Zika virus;  you avoid a potentially fun camping trip because you’re worried about serial killers. 

What’s the harm in these cases?  We waste valuable time, energy, and thought on some decision that won’t make a commensurate level of contribution, positive or negative, to our lives.

Economists define the value of a particular outcome as the probability of that outcome multiplied by its utility.  Sometimes the outcomes we waste energy worrying about are unimportant because their utility is very low: You would have been just as happy with the chocolate velvet cake frozen yogurt as you would have been with the strawberry tart, but you thought about it, talked about it, and dedicated time and mental resources to it as if the wrong decision would be dire. You acted like your efforts to decide would make a real difference to your future self.  Alternatively, the outcomes can have low importance because their probability is vanishingly small:  the combined odds of getting the Zika virus, being pregnant, and having birth defects are astronomically low.

What should we do in these cases?  Make a quicker, better assessment of the relative importance of the decision and scale back how much we’re thinking about it.  The outcome you’re worrying about doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, or it’s more remote and lower risk than you think it is.  You’ve got to get better at noticing sooner that the expected value is low because there is too little utility or it is highly unlikely.  In these cases, you need to think less.  Flip a coin and get on with your life. Or you can just relinquish the decision and let someone else make it for you.  My colleague Randy Mayes calls this “passing the monkey.”   

Now let’s consider the other class of mistakes, above and to the left of the ideal range.  These are cases where the decision involves a matter of higher relative importance, but we didn’t give it the appropriate amount of attention before deciding.  We shotgunned a decision, with too little information; we decdided while the jury was still out deliberating.  These are decisions that are impulsive, hasty, or inattentive.  We failed to see that considerations of utility and probability gave this case a high expected value.  You tossed aside that envelope from the DMV with a warning about the fine on your late registration going up $200.  You floored it when the light turned yellow and then red at the busy intersection.  You left your bike unlocked in front of the Starbucks because you were just running in for a second.  You got caught up in a false sense of scarcity in the last minutes of an Ebay auction and paid more money for an item than it costs on Amazon new.  Your positive feelings about the friendly and attractive car salesman make you more positively inclined to sign the loan papers and you end up payments you can't afford.

What’s going on in these cases?  Generally, as the amount of relevant and valuable information declines, so does the quality of the decision.  Poor quality decisions result in a higher error rate.  We might not get it wrong, but we are more likely to.  And in important matters, a wrong decision has more disastrous consequences.  So in these cases, we disengaged from the analysis and information gathering phase of the decision process too soon.  We decided before information that could have led to a better, lower error rate decision might have come to light.  More reflection about the probabilities, or about the utility would have elevating our estimate of the expected value.    

What should we do in these cases?  Slow down, focus, and engage more of what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2 faculties.  Consider the dire consequences a decision made in haste might have.  Reflect on the risk and utility of the outcomes and put the appropriate amount of resources into the decision.   

With every decision we make in life comes a decision about how to decide, one we often make badly without realizing it. Learning to apportion our decision-making resources to the problems that really matter is a big step toward getting more of them right. 

Matthew McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Friday, March 4, 2016

Seizing valuables from Syrian asylum seekers: a fair practice or an affront to dignity?

Today's post is by guest blogger Chong Choe-Smith.

In January 2016, Denmark passed a law allowing the seizure of jewelry and other valuables from asylum seekers, possibly setting precedent for other states overwhelmed by the influx of asylum seekers from Syria and other parts of the world. Some are criticizing the law as an affront to dignity, reminiscent of how Nazi Germany stole jewelry and valuables from Jews en route to concentration camps. If Denmark’s law is also wrong, what exactly is wrong about it?

Let's consider the question from a Kantian perspective and begin by using Kant’s categories of perfect and imperfect duties. But before answering this question, it may be helpful to explain my use of the phrase “asylum seekers” instead of “refugees.” According to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), a refugee is a person, who is outside of his or her country and cannot return as a result of “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” An asylum seeker is a person who is claiming refugee status, but whose claim has not yet been verified. Most of those who are fleeing Syria and other war-torn areas are asylum seekers and not refugees.

From a Kantian perspective, perfect duties can be characterized as duties to respect humanity in oneself and others that must be obeyed without exception. Perfect duties are duties of right, such as the duty to tell the truth. Imperfect duties can be characterized as duties with room for a person to exercise discretion or free choice (Metaphysics of Morals 6:390). Imperfect duties include the duty of beneficence (i.e., making the happiness of others one’s end) (MM 6:450). The duty of beneficence is a duty, but one has discretion as to how one goes about fulfilling that duty.

With this in mind, we can ask ourselves: Is Denmark’s duty to Syrian asylum seekers a perfect or imperfect duty? While it is not impossible to argue that countries have a perfect duty to Syrian asylum seekers, it would be difficult to prove. One could argue that a country has such a duty, for example, either because it is in some way responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Syria or because every state should take in a fair share of asylum seekers. Such arguments are difficult to prove because they rely on controversial facts or causal connections or particular conceptions of justice.

Denmark’s duty to Syrian asylum seekers, I think, fits more squarely in the category of an imperfect duty as a duty of beneficence. From a Kantian perspective, Denmark, as with other countries, have a general duty of beneficence to promote the happiness of others in need and, in particular, to help those in dire circumstances who are fleeing violence or the threat of violence.

Some may argue that what is wrong with the law is that beneficence and payment for services don’t mix. Even Kant explains that beneficence involves helping others “without hoping for something in return” (MM 6:453). But it also is reasonable for Denmark to say that helping with the Syrian “refugee crisis” is one thing and providing public services free of charge is another. Denmark can open its borders without hoping for something in return, but someone still has to pay for food, shelter, education, healthcare, and other services.

As mentioned earlier, an imperfect duty is a duty, but a duty over which one has discretion as to how one goes about fulfilling it. It is up to Denmark to decide the reasonable terms of fulfilling its duty. Denmark is a constitutional monarchy that provides universal services, such as education and healthcare, in exchange for relatively high taxes. Danes pay into a system and, in return, they receive benefits.

Syrians are entering Denmark and seeking shelter and services. Why shouldn’t they also have to pay in accordance with their ability to pay? If they have valuables worth over 10,000 Danish kroner ($1,453), under the new law, these valuables can be confiscated. Seems fair and reasonable, no?

Well, maybe Denmark is not out of the woods just yet. It is not clear how the new Danish law will be implemented, but let’s assume the reports are accurate that the law allows for the confiscation of jewelry and other valuables.

What I would suggest is that maybe what is wrong with the law has to do with how the payment is being collected. Kant says that humanity has inner worth, a dignity, and the proper response to dignity is respect (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 4:434-435). He also says that we have a perfect duty to respect humanity in others, i.e., to treat oneself and others as an end and never merely as a means (GMM 4:428). We respect humanity in others by treating them as ends, i.e., free and rational agents, who are capable of discerning the obligations of the moral law and setting ends for themselves. We respect humanity in others by allowing them to make their own decisions. 

One way to characterize what exactly is wrong with the new law is that, even if Denmark is reasonably exercising its discretion in imposing a tax or fee, it fails to treat asylum seekers as ends, as free and rational agents who are capable of making decisions for themselves. What exactly is wrong is not that Denmark is imposing a tax or fee, but how Denmark is collecting the tax or fee, namely, through the involuntary seizure of property.

There were clearly many abhorrent things about Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews, but one of the most generally repulsive aspects of it was the failure to accord them even a modicum of human dignity. Denmark is obviously no Nazi Germany, but the involuntary seizure of personal property is also an affront to human dignity, and an uncomfortable reminder that even generally humane nations can begin to lean in that direction.

Chong Choe-Smith
Department of Philosophy
Georgetown University

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How can we answer for answerability?

Today's post is by guest blogger Hannah Tierney

Jenny McCarthy is a celebrity in the United States and a prominent anti-vaccine activist. She is the president of Generation Rescue, a non-profit that advocates the view that autism is at least partially caused by vaccines, and has written several books promoting this view. Since 2007, she’s been featured on several media outlets where she’s been asked to defend her views on the relationship between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. In many of these interviews, it’s clear that those questioning McCarthy are trying to hold her morally responsible for her view by demanding that she justify her position—by holding her answerable. Despite these numerous calls for McCarthy to justify herself, she hasn’t changed her view on vaccines (Although in a 2010 interview with Frontline, McCarthy clarifies the position of her group) In fact, calling on McCarthy to defend herself in the public sphere arguably only serves to legitimize her views and expose them to larger audiences. Though the CDC determined that measles was eliminated in 2000, due in large part to an increase in the refusal to vaccinate, a record number of measles cases were reported in 2014. If we think that McCarthy’s position on vaccines is incorrect and her advocacy of the position is blameworthy, how can we hold her responsible for her behavior without reinforcing the very behavior we find blameworthy?

Cases like these pose a problem for philosophers who work on moral responsibility. Following the work of T. M. Scanlon, many philosophers argue that there is a relationship between moral responsibility and answerability—the demand for justification. Of course, philosophers have argued about how exactly responsibility and answerability relate to each other. But both those who argue that moral responsibility should be identified with answerability (Smith 2012) and those who argue that answerability only captures one facet of moral responsibility (Shoemaker 2011) face a problem.  

In many cases, when we attempt to hold someone morally responsible for an action by demanding that they answer for their behavior, the person, rather than see the error in their ways, can become even more confident in their reasons for action and refuse to alter their behavior. This can have quite damaging effects when the behavior in question is dangerous, violent, or qualifies as a public health risk. Such cases place those who defend the relationship between moral responsibility and answerability in a precarious position. If the very means by which we hold people responsible for blameworthy behavior only serves to worsen that blameworthy behavior, then it’s hard to see why we should hold people morally responsible in the first place. And, if the answerability account of moral responsibility can’t easily be operationalized, then perhaps we should look for another theory of moral responsibility. Though those who defend the answerability account have remained relatively silent on how to successfully hold an agent answerable, the behavioral sciences can help address this question. By developing an account of answerability that is informed by this research, answerability theorists can shield themselves from the worry that their view can never be successfully operationalized.
The case of Jenny McCarthy is not an isolated incident. Objecting to people’s beliefs is notoriously ineffective in changing those beliefs. Confirmation bias (Lord et al. 1979)—the tendency to accept evidence that supports one’s previously held beliefs and discount evidence that doesn’t—is a robust phenomena that has been found in a wide variety of contexts. The backfire effect is perhaps even more pernicious, indicating that when given evidence against a belief, people will reject the evidence and hold the original belief even more strongly (Nyhan & Reifler 2010). Asking people to give their reasons for their beliefs is also unsuccessful when it comes to changing their beliefs (Fernbach 2013). But if neither objecting to people’s views nor asking them to provide their reasons causes them to see the error in their ways, how are we to successfully hold people answerable? Is answerability a misguided account of moral responsibility?

Those who defend an answerability account of moral responsibility, whether they think answerability just is moral responsibility or answerability captures only a facet of moral responsibility, remain vague about how we can successfully hold people answerable. Angela Smith argues: “In my view, to say that an agent is morally responsible for some thing is to say that the agent is open, in principle, to demands for justification regarding that thing” (Smith 2012, 578). But we can demand justification in many different ways, and we can do so more or less successfully.  Though asking an agent to respond to arguments against her view or asking her to list her reasons are demands for justification, they are largely ineffective when it comes to getting agents to jettison morally problematic beliefs and curbing morally blameworthy behavior. Are there more effective ways to demand justification from moral agents? This is a question that the behavioral sciences can help illuminate.
One recent study indicates that asking people to explain their beliefs and the policies they endorse is more effective at reigning in extreme beliefs than asking people to respond to objections to their views or listing their reasons for their beliefs (Fernbach 2013). In particular, getting participants to explain the causal mechanisms at play in the political policies they endorse undermines the illusion of deep understanding many participants felt, which makes it more likely for participants to adopt less extreme policy beliefs. Fernbach and his collaborators also found that the call for explanation made it less likely for participants to donate money to organizations that supported their previously held political positions. Not only did the demand for explanation reign in extreme beliefs, it also played a role in changing participants’ behavior.

Answerability theorists may be right that holding people morally responsible should involve a demand for justification. But how we demand justification matters when it comes to altering people’s morally blameworthy beliefs and behavior. Thus, answerability theorists should focus on developing operational views of answerability, which are informed by the behavioral sciences.
Hannah Tierney
Department of Philosophy
The University of Arizona 

Works Cited

Fernbach, P., T. Rogers, C. Fox, and S. Sloman. 2013. Political extremism is supported by an illusion of understanding. Psychological Science 24: 939-946.

Lord, C., L. Ross, and M. Lepper. 1979. Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The
effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37: 2098-2109.

Nyhan, B. & Reifler, J. 2010. When corrections fail: The persistence of political
misperception. Political Behavior 32: 303-330.

Scanlon, T. M.  2008. Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame. Cambridge, MA: Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press.

Shoemaker, D. 2011. Attributability, answerability, and accountability: Toward a wider
theory of moral responsibility. Ethics 121: 602-632.

Smith, A. 2012. Attributability, answerability, and accountability: In defense of a unified
account. Ethics 122: 575-589.