Monthly Archives: November 2014

“the self is moral”

Summarizing a body of empirical research, the Duke psychologist Nina Strohminger argues that what constitutes our identity is our moral character, not (for instance) the memories that we have stored so far. Asked what characteristics a soul would hypothetically carry into another body, subjects choose the soul’s moral character. Asked which psychological changes would make someone into a new person, subjects select moral changes above total amnesia or an inability to recognize moral features. Given a chance to improve their own moral character with an imaginary pill, people say they would decline because that would mean abandoning their selves.

According to Strohminger, “moral features” constitute “the most important type of information we can have about another person.” She continues:

So we’ve been thinking about the problem precisely backwards. It’s not that identity is centred around morality. It’s that morality necessitates the concept of identity, breathes life into it, provides its raison d’être. … What is it to know oneself? … When we dig deep, beneath our memory traces and career ambitions and favourite authors and small talk, we find a constellation of moral capacities. This is what we should cultivate and burnish, if we want people to know who we really are.

I would like to connect this discussion to psychological research on how we perceive the identities of ordinary objects, such as apples and chairs. (This link may have been made already; I have not looked.) According to experiments by Sloman, Love, and Ahn, people perceive as integral or essential those features of an object that could not change without affecting many other features. Therefore, a network model is useful. Think, for instance, of the many features of an apple (its crunchy texture, sweet taste, origins on a tree, function of protecting seeds, color, size, role in Greek myths, etc). These features can be seen as nodes in a conceptual network. The nodes that we see as more definitive of appleness are the ones that have higher network centrality.

Likewise, I would model any person as holding many ideas in his or her head at any time. The individual ideas are all subject to change. Some are linked to others, forming a large, complex, and evolving conceptual network. Some of the nodes are moral ideas, however you define morality. When we think of another person’s identity, we should not cite just one or a few clear-cut principles or virtues. That would reduce the complex person to an abstraction. But we should have in mind a cluster of connected–although not always mutually consistent–nodes that are relatively central to that person’s whole network. These nodes cannot change without setting off a cascade of other changes that may be sufficient to alter the person’s whole character.

In short, as Strohminger writes, “the self is moral”–and I would add that the moral self is a network of ideas defined by the cluster(s) of relatively central nodes. That is what our souls would take with us into new bodies or a new life.

sometimes it’s better to listen

Sometimes you should recognize that your own voice doesn’t have any special value and concentrate on listening and learning instead. (Perhaps the president should have thought that way before he made his brief and palid address last night.) I have been thinking about Ferguson today, but I would yield my time to others more eloquent and better placed to comment than I. For instance:

do younger Americans think they lack the knowledge to vote responsibly?


According to a HuffPost/YouGov survey reported by Ariel Edwards-Levy, younger Americans are the most likely to believe that you should only vote if you are well-informed. According to the same poll, younger Americans guess that a majority of their fellow citizens vote in midterm years. They overestimate national turnout far more than older people do. Yet many of these younger respondents do not vote themselves. (We know that actual youth turnout is only about 20-25% in midterm elections). They must see themselves as outliers–in a bad way. They are critical of their own political knowledge and believe that other people know more than they do.

The ones who do vote are quite well informed. According to the exit polls, 77% of 18-29s who voted this November claimed to have followed the midterm election at least “somewhat closely.” But many others may have told themselves that they don’t know enough to vote. As I said to Edwards-Levy, “If anything, they might be putting themselves through too stringent a test.”

Of course, you should inform yourself before you vote. But I don’t think our main problem is uninformed people casting ballots; it’s people staying home because they are actually uninformed or think they are. It is hard to collect political information all on your own just so that you can vote. The traditional solution is to enroll people in multi-purpose organizations that are also conduits for political information. But those organizations are shrinking. As I said in the article, “Twenty or thirty years ago, there were devices for getting information to working-class young people like labor unions, which they belonged to still, and also churches. … Those things have really weakened, so they’re kind of on their own. If you’re a high school dropout and you’re working at Walmart, there’s no way for you to get information except for you to actively seek it.”

viewing concessions dampens rancor

In the Atlantic, Robert Wright describes research that my team at Tufts University conducted in partnership with him. He summarizes the research question:

Suppose you’re a conservative or a liberal, and you’re watching a debate, and the debater you consider your ideological opponent throws in a “to be sure” sentence—a sentence that qualifies his or her basic policy position, underscoring some point of agreement with your ideological ally. Will that make you more favorably disposed to the person—more likely to take their views seriously, less likely to demonize them?

This was the method:

The study involved some 1,600 people, about half of whom identified themselves as liberal and half as conservative. Everyone watched an excerpt from one of two debates: one between Tim Noah and Glenn Loury on whether the minimum wage should increase, and one between Sarah Posner and Michael Dougherty on whether the government should be able to mandate that employer-provided health insurance cover contraceptives.

The excerpt shown to each viewer was short, but it clearly conveyed which person supported which position—in other words, who was the conservative and who was the liberal (on the issue in question, at least). For half of the viewers, the clip also included, at the end, a segment in which the speaker on the other side of the ideological fence from them added a to-be-sure.

Our conclusions:

The researchers at Tufts found that “viewing a concession created a more positive reaction to the ideological opponent.” Viewers who saw their ideological opponent make a concession were less likely than viewers who saw no concession to call their ideological ally the more credible of the two or the more knowledgeable of the two. And they were less likely to say they liked the ally more than the opponent.

Finally, Wright draws out two implications:

First, a message to people on the left and right who opine in public: Don’t forget to throw in a to-be-sure sentence; it may sound like a “concession,” but it could wind up helping your cause, especially if your cause includes not seeing America consumed by bitter acrimony. And it’s especially advisable to do this when you’re in “enemy territory”—when liberals are on Fox News, when conservatives are on MSNBC.

Second, it would be nice if the formats that mediate our discourse made it practical to add a to-be-sure sentence. For example, a pet crusade of mine is to change the structure of Twitter in a way that, while maintaining the 140-character limit on tweets, would nonetheless make it easier to add a short elaboration.

the cultural change we would need for climate justice

One way to think about climate change is that “we” (however you define that) have the wrong relationship to nature. We are exploitative and wasteful. We must change our basic orientation to save the world and ourselves: “The survival of the globe is dependent on a fundamental, philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature.”

I have three concerns about this approach. First, I don’t believe a fundamental philosophical shift is coming. If we need it but it’s implausible, then resignation ensues. Second, this stance seems inappropriately moralistic, based on beliefs about the superiority of unadulterated creation and the fallenness of humankind that I don’t share. It is not intrinsically bad for people to change the world. The question is whether we are improving it or making it worse. Third, even if the philosophical position implied in this view is correct, a lot of people won’t share it for principled reasons of their own–thus it is politically divisive.

A different way to think about climate change is that putting carbon into the atmosphere is an externality (a way of changing the world for the worse) that is free right now. If we taxed emissions at a rate equal to the public cost, people would cut back–a lot. If the biggest economies of the world imposed a carbon tax on their own economies, they could bend the curve. The tax would cost money, but it would generate revenue that could cover a big cut in current taxes. My Tufts colleague Gilbert Metcalfe testified to the US Senate that if we taxed carbon at $20 per ton, we could cut payroll taxes by about 1.5 percent and come out even. I don’t know if a tax of that size, enacted simultaneously in the US, EU, China, and Japan, would do the trick. In a different paper, Metcalfe notes that we cannot be sure how much tax is necessary to stabilize the climate (pp. 512-13). But if we need more than $20/ton, then we can also cut payroll taxes more deeply. William Nordhaus recommends a tax equal to 1 percent of GDP.

Why don’t we do this? Because of interest group pressure by carbon producers and a global prisoner’s dilemma. If the US enacts a tax but no one else does, the results are insufficient, and that gives us a reason not to enact the tax. Industry opponents make this point explicitly.

Note that we can explain our failure to act without blaming ourselves for having the wrong fundamental orientation to nature. The overuse of carbon is a classic collective action problem of the type that inevitably arises when goods are public. Such problems can be solved by appropriate policies, such as taxing the externalities. To get decent policies requires a political struggle and the application of countervailing power against carbon producers. In turn, building an effective political movement requires confidence in rather conventional tools: elections, laws, and treaties. In the face of organized opposition, this is a hard enough task. If we believe that we first need a fundamental change in our culture and souls, I fear we will overestimate the magnitude of the task and thus decrease the odds of success.

There is, however, a more modest cultural shift that we do need: we must reinvigorate our engagement with public life. There is little question that citizens of the major democracies are dispirited about government and about the potential of their own political action. The climate change movement is wonderfully diverse and heterogeneous, but Harry Boyte argues that it still fails to offer a model of broad-based, effective, and authentic political action. Any viable model would have to appeal across a wide spectrum to be effective. We have seen such models before, and they have achieved more difficult reforms than a tax equal to one percent of GDP. But people do need confidence in their ability to change systems.

See also: Sen on Climate Change.