PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

Lecture 25

 - Tying up Loose Ends


Professor Gendler begins with brief introductory remarks about the course’s methodology, explaining the approach that was taken to reading and presenting various articles. She continues with a discussion of Cass Sunstein’s work on social norms, looking particularly at his account of the willingness to pay/willingness to accept distinction. The lecture continues with a consideration of how this distinction-–and the heuristic reasoning that gives rise to it–-might be used to explain our responses to the trolley problem. In the final segment of the lecture, Professor Gendler offers a way of thinking systematically about relations among the political philosophical views of Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature

PHIL 181 - Lecture 25 - Tying up Loose Ends

Chapter 1. Introductory Remarks [00:00:00]

Professor Tamar Gendler: OK. So today’s lecture is devoted, in some sense, to the tying up of loose ends. I have from you, 29 single-spaced pages worth of questions, which you asked in your directed exercise nine. And I’m going to answer all of them in detail. Actually I’m not going to answer all of them in detail. I’m going to try to pick out some of the ones that I think will be of general interest and welcome those of you whose questions aren’t answered to come by during office hours.

So one way to think about what we do when we encounter an article in this class is thinking about what you do when you encounter a building for the first time–say, the Eiffel Tower– and are given guidance about how to make sense of that building. So one of the things that I’ve tried to do for each of the articles or books that we’ve read is just to give you a sense of its general shape. To give you a sense of what’s distinctive about it, to give you a sense of how it’s structured internally and how that internal structure determines what it is that we’re able to do with that article and what it is that that article is able to illuminate.

But I’ve tried, in certain cases, to give you a sense of the neighborhood in which that article can be found, just as in talking about the Eiffel Tower, I might show you where in Paris it’s located. Or I might try to give you a sense of how that article relates to other approaches of the same kind–how the Eiffel Tower relates to other iconic monumental buildings. The question of the relation between the individual articles that we read for today and the larger framework is primarily something that I’ll discuss in Thursday’s lecture. Though I’ll get at some of it in comparing and contrasting the political philosophy views today.

What I want to do a bit more of today is to look at some of the details of some of the arguments and articles and writings that we’ve considered in the way that we might look at part of a building and ask how it’s structured there, recognizing that in so doing, there’s lots of other parts of the building to which we don’t pay attention. Or we might want to ask, with respect to what sort of problem is the building constructed? Here are the plans for the Eiffel Tower. So the goal in today’s lecture is, with regard to a number of the questions that you raised in your directed exercise nine, to look at some of the details of some of the arguments and, to a smaller extent, to put those in a larger framework.

Now in so doing, it’s important for me to acknowledge that there are a tremendous number of interesting questions that you asked that I’m not even going to come close to answering. There were a large number of very interesting questions about the connections between the political philosophy of Rawls and Nozick, for example, and the U.S. Constitution. I’m not going to have anything to say about that. There were questions asked about the childhoods of the various authors that we read and how that might have affected their views. I’m not going to have much to say about that. And perhaps my favorite question: I was asked, if I could have coffee at Blue State with any one of the authors that we had read this semester, who would I choose? And I guess I wouldn’t choose Robert Nozick because he wouldn’t want to go to Blue State. But beyond that it’s hard to know how to answer that question.

So what I’m going to do today is basically in three parts. The first large part of the lecture, I’m going to go over in some detail a leftover item from our lecture two classes ago. That is, say a little bit about Cass Sunstein on norms. And I’m going to use that as a way of segueing into certain puzzles that we face about heuristics and the question of how those fit into the dual processing tradition. But that will also be a major focus of Thursday’s lecture. So please don’t be disappointed if I don’t get to your question in that section. And then I’ll close that section by identifying for you, a cluster of courses that you might be interested in taking if that was the part of this class that interested you most.

I’ll then have some things to say about the political philosophy section of the course. And I’ll close today’s lecture with the moral philosophy section of the course, each time indicating places to go next if you were particularly moved by some of the readings that we did.

Chapter 2. Cass Sunstein on Social Norms [00:05:21]

So let’s start with a somewhat detailed introduction to what it is that Cass Sunstein said in the 1996 article that we read for last Tuesday’s class. What Sunstein is attempting to do in that piece is to identify the ways in which our attitudes towards certain kinds of behaviors on our part and the part of others towards certain sorts of decisions on our part and the part of others are affected by what he calls, drawing from a large body of sociological literature, social norms.

Social norms are basically social attitudes of approval and disapproval that specify, through the kinds of tacit mechanisms that human beings as social primates have for expressing disapproval and approval of one’s and other’s actions. That is, social attitudes of approval and disapproval specifying what ought to be done and what ought not to be done. Subtle things like nuanced facial expressions, approaches, avoidances, all of the social cues to which we are extraordinarily sensitive in infancy, to which we are extraordinarily sensitive in our early years, to which we are absolutely, exquisitely sensitive in middle school and high school. And to which we continue to be sensitive throughout our life.

What Sunstein points out is that social norms determine social meanings. That is, they determine the attitudes and commitments that a particular type of conduct signals. So, he points out, if you fasten your seatbelt in a country where seatbelt use is not the norm then you express in so doing implicit criticism of the ability of your driver to navigate the car effectively on the highway. Fastening your seatbelt is an insult. When my family and I rent cars in Eastern Europe, where my husband is from, rental cars typically come, if you don’t rent them from a major agency, with a small metal plate that you can slide into the seatbelt lock without having a seatbelt attached to it so that the annoying beeping sound goes off and you don’t have to wear your insulting seatbelt. Whereas in nations where seatbelt use is the norm, where seatbelt use is in fact the law, the failure to fasten your seatbelt is an expression of disrespect.

When I was growing up my family, to my great embarrassment, separated its vegetable scraps from its paper scraps and put them in the backyard into a compost heap. The social meaning of a compost heap in the 1970s in suburban Massachusetts was one of non-normativity. It was one of an expression, perhaps, that we were more socially conscious than our neighbors, perhaps thought we were better than our neighbors. But whatever it was it wasn’t a way of fitting in. It is now the case in large portions of America that a compost heap or the carrying of a recyclable bag or the replacement of your light bulb with a full-spectrum long-term bulb simply expresses respect for the environment rather than an outlier attitude.

My Hungarian nephew, when he came to visit us this summer, wore what he thought to be very stylish Iron Maiden t-shirts, which in Budapest were in expression of cool. In our suburban Connecticut environment, his actions were often misperceived as rebellious because of the social signals that his clothing sent.

So the reason that I had you read the Sunstein article in the context of our political philosophy discussion was to point out to you how many more layers of complexity there are when we start thinking about what kind of social structures are legitimate. There was, in addition, a very particular question about the Sunstein article, which was raised in the context of our feedback page, about which I want to say a small bit by way of transition. So one of the students asked whether I could characterize Sunstein’s somewhat complicated argument about willingness to pay and willingness to allow. So what we’re doing now is we’re looking at a very particular girder of a very particular argument.

So Sunstein in that article, you may recall, introduces a discussion of what’s known as the endowment effect, which is basically the tendency of human beings to demand more to give up an owned object than they would be prepared to pay to acquire that object. And the term for how much it is that somebody’s willing to sell something for is WTA, willingness to accept payment, whereas the term for that which somebody’s willing to pay for an object is WTP, or willingness to pay. It turns out that if I have a beautiful Yale mug, which I seek to sell to you, that our assessments of its value will very often differ. I may well say that I won’t part with my beautiful mug for anything less than $10. Whereas you say, “I wouldn’t buy your crappy old mug for anything more than $5.” Even if, when we alter the situation and you have the mug and I don’t, our responses are inverted. I wouldn’t buy your crappy old mug for anything more than $5 and you wouldn’t part with it for anything less than $10.

Now Sunstein, 15 years ago in this article, hypothesizes that what explains this effect is primarily something about social norms. It looks like, at least to some extent, that he was wrong about that. At least that he was wrong that social norms fully explain the phenomena. Because research done in Laurie Santos lab at this very university in the last five years seems to suggest that something akin to the endowment effect can be found even in Capuchin monkeys. A tendency to value more that which is yours than that which is not, even when the objects are identical. That said, there is still reason to think that Sunstein is on to something when he argues that the willingness to pay, willingness to allow distinction, in some ways is tracking something about social meaning.

So he points out that in a series of studies done in the context of behavioral economics with WEIRD subjects near the University of Chicago, for at least Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic, adults, it looks like this asymmetry is rather profound. So he described this study, the details of which I had thought I would go through but I won’t, in which what you see is a rather radical asymmetry in subject’s willingness to either acquire an object from another or part with an object that they own.

Sunstein’s response to these sorts of cases is to suggest that the difference here has a lot to do with social norms and meanings. So that being willing to, for example accept a certain amount of money to allow the extinction of a species has a very different social meaning than–what you might think of as structurally the same–accepting, or being willing to pay a certain amount of money to prevent the extinction of the species. Whether you consider the state of the world where the species is extinct or whether you consider the state of the world where the species is present and it’s your job to save it, to be the baseline, turns out to affect people’s evaluation of it.

And Sunstein suggests in the article, more generally, that numerous of our actions, numerous of our decisions, are driven at least in part by internal and external social meaning. And that, as a consequence, an effective mechanism for influencing actions and decisions is to influence the social meanings of those actions and decisions. So that, he suggests, it turns out to be an inevitable role of government to regulate behavior by the affirmation or introduction or disavowal of certain kinds of social meaning. And we address the issue of this sort of indirect non-rational control of behavior in the context of our discussion of Plato on censorship.

Chapter 3. Responses to the Trolley Problem [00:16:56]

Now this distinction between willingness to pay and willingness to allow, the details of which we’re now going to set aside, can be used to think about one of the examples, which we talked about in many lectures and which we’ll talk about again on Thursday. Namely, the fact that there is an undeniable tendency of people, this class included, to respond differently to the classic trolley case, where one diverts a trolley from a track where it’s about to hit five onto a track where it’s about to hit one, and trolley cases involving pushing someone off a bridge.

So whereas the first one among you produced only 15% of you saying that it was prohibited to turn the trolley, the second case, the one where you’re asked to push the fat man off the bridge, thereby killing one and saving five, produced among you a 78% conclusion that the act was forbidden. Next lecture we’ll talk a lot about how to reconcile intuitions about particular cases with more general principled commitment. But what I want to do now is just, by way of answering a couple of questions, point out to you three different ways that one might respond to what’s going on in this asymmetry.

One might, making use of the vocabulary that Sunstein just introduced, say that what’s going on in the case of fat man is a case where one’s being asked to accept a cost. Accept the cost of having one die in order to save five. Whereas what’s going on in the case of the switch is that one’s being asked to pay a cost–something that wasn’t part of the calculus to begin with–pay a cost of having one die to save five. And we know as a matter of general theory, that the way human–and perhaps even non-human–primate accounting works, that that the cost of accepting something feels higher to us than the cost of paying. So perhaps what’s going on in the trolley cases is that we are assimilating them, by means of a heuristic mechanism that we often use, to a familiar kind of reasoning process, one that may or may not be tracking our moral commitments.

Or perhaps as the cases were originally suggested to show, what we’re tracking here in our different responses is a deep and profound morally real distinction between violating rights and considering utility, where in cases that violating rights comes into play, letting one die or killing one in order to save five is morally wrong. Whereas in cases where rights don’t come into play, letting one die or killing one to save five is morally acceptable. Or perhaps what’s going on in this case is, as Josh Greene suggests on the basis of his neuroimaging work, that in one of the cases we’re responding emotionally and in the other case we’re responding rationally.

What the first and the third, but not the second, response have in common–that is, what the two responses that suggest we should take as differentially informative our responses to the fat man case and our responses to the bystander case suggest–is that in thinking about these cases we are thinking about one of them primarily with one mode of thought and the other primarily with another mode of thought. And throughout the course, we have been introduced to the fact that in every intellectual tradition there has been a suggestion that human understanding of the world proceeds in multiple ways.

The contemporary scientific vernacular of this makes use of the notion of dual processing. It suggests that there are two systems: System one and system two. Where system one is evolutionarily primitive and shared with non-human animals, whereas system two is evolutionarily recent and shared, if with any animals at all, only with those closest to us in the evolutionary tree. System one is unconscious or preconscious whereas system two is conscious. System one is automatic whereas system two is controlled. System one is effortless whereas system two is effortful. System one is fast whereas system two is slow. System one is associative whereas system two is rule-based.

Now one of the things that we’ve done throughout the course is to look at various ways of getting at the distinction that this particular version gets at without trying to decide which of these frameworks is the one that’s most useful in all contexts. But rather, by recognizing that in certain domains it may be useful to speak, as Plato does, of spirit and appetite pulling in one direction and reason pulling in another. That it might be useful in some contexts to speak as I do of alief causing certain kinds of nonreflective behaviors while belief causes certain kinds of reflective ones. That it might be useful in some contexts to speak of heuristics as causing us to respond in one sort of way and full cognition–or reflection–causing us to respond in another.

But it’s important to know that in picking out those three particular ways that we looked at this overarching distinction, that we neglected to look at the many, many other sorts of dual processing accounts. Here are 15 or so taken from the Evans article that we read in mid-January. And that for the purposes of our discussion in this course, the similarities among these views are more relevant than the differences. If however, you are intrigued by the set of questions, which I’ve just quickly run through, there are numerous places to go next. Most of the courses offered by the cognitive science program look at the sorts of issues that I’ve just been discussing. How is human reasoning affected by structural features of the brain? To what extent can we systematize the sorts of errors that human beings seem to make in reasoning? To what extent are those sorts of errors–or what we call errors–actually effective means for navigating various sorts of environments?

You can also look at these sorts of questions in the context of social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, and there will be numerous courses offered in psychology next year that will go in much more depth into the questions that I’ve just been mentioning. The School of Management offers courses in behavioral economics, which are open to undergraduates who have the requisite background. And in the context of the philosophy department, there are historical courses that look seriously and in depth at Plato alone. Indeed there’s a course this semester that just reads Plato’s Republic. There are courses that look at Aristotle or Aristotle’s ethics. Courses that look at each of the authors that we’ve been considering. So intrigued by what we’ve just talked about, many places to go.

Chapter 4. Hobbes, Rawls, and Nozick [00:26:54]

Second big cluster of topics that I want to address questions with regard to. I was asked–perhaps because they came so recently–by almost a third of the questions, to discuss again the relation between Nozick and Rawls and to say something, perhaps, about how that fits together with Hobbes and the social contract theory. So borrowing from my colleague Thomas Pogge, here’s a helpful way for thinking about the difference among the three of them. And I’ll give you first an overview of the difference and then try to present you with a systematic explanation of just where Hobbes, Rawls and Nozick are similar and different.

So all three of them are working in what is known as the social contract tradition. All three of them are making the contention that it is in a certain kind of interest on the part of human beings to contract into a certain sort of social structure even if in so doing they give up some of their freedom. Hobbes argues that it is of prudential utility for us to engage in a social contract. We are better off than we would have been had we not been part of a state. But the state of nature to which Hobbes appeals is a purely imaginary one. It is a hypothetical contract, whose value to us is prudential.

Rawls suggests that it is of moral utility for us to engage in the sort of social contract that the Rawlsian state represents. We imaginarily go into the original position behind the veil of ignorance. And in so doing come up with something morally worthy.

Nozick, in contrast to Rawls, is concerned with how things actually came into being. But like Rawls is interested in what sort of moral justification that provides.

So whereas Hobbes is interested in what a hypothetical contract tells us about what’s prudential for us, Rawls is interested in what a hypothetical contract tells us about what’s moral and Nozick is interested in what a certain historical set of events, where that stands with respect to morality.

So let’s start by looking at Hobbes’ argument. Hobbes presents us, in Leviathan, with what he calls the state of nature. An imaginary situation, what “manner of life there would be with no common power to fear.” Where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” And he suggests that our prudential aim, that which is of use to us, is to escape the state of nature. Why? Because all of us have a “fear of death, the desire for commodious living, and the hope that by our industry we might obtain it.” But, says Hobbes, that gives rise, if we think about the fact that being in the state of nature is bad for us, to a number of rationally mandated conclusions, of which we examined three. These are what Hobbes calls the laws of nature. The things, which we realize rationality demands of us if we have the prudential aim of commodious living. In particular, we need to seek peace if there’s a chance of obtaining peace and if not reserve for ourselves the right of war. First law of nature. We need to lay down our rights to the extent that others are willing to do the same. Second law of nature. And we need to perform our covenants, that is keep our promises, assuming that others are willing to do the same.

But there is a structural problem with our doing so. The structural problem is the one articulated by the Prisoner’s Dilemma. And because of that, says Hobbes, the only way that we can do what rationality demands of us: seek peace, lay down our rights and perform our covenants, thereby acting on the first half of each of these clauses, is if we institute an authoritarian government. A civil power sufficient to compel non-defection in a prisoner’s dilemma. So note the four key steps. Because I’m going to go through these next with Rawls and next with Nozick. We’re interested in a situation, a rationally mandated conclusion and a structurally mandated mechanism.

So how does it go for Rawls? Rawls says, look. Let’s consider the following hypothetical situation. The original position, where we sit behind the veil of ignorance, not knowing who we will be in society, and choose the basic structures by which our society will be governed. The aim that we engage in this activity with is the aim of articulating the conditions of a just society. Why? Because “justice is the first virtue of social institutions just as truth is the first virtue of theoretical systems.” It is the aim of articulating a political philosophy to come up with one that respects our moral norms. Just as it is Hobbes’s aim in articulating the constraints that govern a legitimate political society to identify one that respects our prudential norms.

What then is the rationally mandated conclusion of taking this hypothetical situation and this particular aim? Well, says Rawls, just as Hobbes thought, thinking about the structure of the state of nature gives us, through rationality, the three laws of nature. So too does Rawls think, thinking about the structure of the original position with the aim of developing a moral society, give us the principles of justice. In particular, the first equal liberty principle: that in no circumstances are the fundamental rights of the one to be sacrificed for the utility of the many.

And second, that to the extent that there are inequalities in the society, those are to be associated with positions fairly open to all and in such a way that they are advantageous to the least well off. Moreover, Rawls thinks not just about a hypothetical situation and the moral aim and the rationally mandated conclusion that we can draw from that, but also about what sort of mechanism, what sort of structure that tells us society needs to have. And his suggestion is that it becomes roughly one with equality and basic rights and duties. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, an equal responsibility to make a contribution to the upkeep of the community as a whole. And because of facts about efficiency, Rawls is ready to, at least tentatively, endorse, as one effective mechanism towards this, a market economy with some tendency towards redistribution.

So notice that it is an argument almost parallel to the one that Hobbes makes. We take a hypothetical situation. We have an aim. We reason our way through the situation and determine certain sorts of constraints. And then we identify what kind of social structure that gives us. Let’s look next at what that gives us in the context of Nozick.

Nozick’s interested, not in a hypothetical situation, but in a historical situation. In particular, he’s interested in what we should do about the fact that a particular distribution of resources has resulted from a series of just transfers. A series of transfers where property was acquired in a legitimate way and transferred in a legitimate way regardless of what that pattern produced. Notice that although we read only Nozick’s discussion of justice in holdings and consequently we looked at a rather narrow question of under what conditions it is legitimate to own property, that Nozick’s argument with respect to holdings can be generalized with respect to any sort of decision that people make. What makes holdings legitimate on Nozick’s picture is that they are the result of a legitimate process. And as a consequence, any sort of contract that we enter into in a way that Nozick will call free will end up being in the same historical category. So what Nozick is interested in is the question: given that things as a matter of historical contingency happen to end up the way they are in terms of the distribution of goods and in terms of the distribution of contracts, what sort of moral force does that have?

Nozick’s goal is to determine whether this distribution of holdings–that is property–and contracts–that is commitment–is a legitimate one. And his suggestion is that as long as property is justly acquired and justly transferred, then whatever distribution results from that is a just distribution. And you’ll recall that we looked in some detail at Nozick’s idea of just acquisition, where he basically says, an object is legitimately held if it was acquired in a way where the value that you add to the object makes your possession of it leave others no worse off than they would be had you not acquired the object. And where just transfers are any that are engaged in voluntarily.

One result of that, as we know from the Wilt Chamberlain example, is that even if we begin with a perfectly even distribution of goods across individuals, it’s almost guaranteed that we will end up with an unequal one. And notice that exactly the same sort of argument that can be raised for distribution of property can be raised for the distribution of obligations. So Nozick’s interested in historical situation. He has a moral aim, namely determining whether the distribution is just. And the conclusion that he draws, as a result of thinking about that structure, is that any intervention into justly generated distributions of holdings or contracts is a violation of rights. After all, the only things that matter to whether holdings are just, on Nozick’s picture, is whether they were justly acquired of justly transferred.

And the fact that, as a matter of coordination problems of the kind that we face in the problem of the commons, the fact that that will inevitably result in distributions that are unequal is of no concern to the sort of historical picture that Nozick has. Likewise, the fact that as the result of historical contingency, I may end up contracted in a way that leaves me subordinate to you is, according to Nozick, in no way unjust because no intervention into a justly generated process can be performed without violating rights. So the structurally mandated mechanism which Nozick ends up advocating is that of the minimal state.

So what’s the picture among our political philosophers? The idea is this. Hobbes is interested in thinking about what a hypothetical state of nature, considered from the perspective of prudence, tells us is rational. What it tells us is rational are certain laws of nature, the enforcement of which is possible only through the introduction of an authoritarian state. Rawls asks us to think hypothetically from the position of the veil of ignorance, what it would take for us to have a moral society, concludes that it would be governed by the principles of justice, and identifies as a mechanism what I’ve called, because there wasn’t much room here, “Sweden.”

And Nozick asks what we can do given that an actual distribution arose as the result of a bunch of fair transfers and concludes that if our goal is to respect rights, then the only state which is legitimate is the minimal state.

So we spent roughly four classes on political philosophy. Where to go if you want more? The Philosophy department offers political philosophy courses, both survey courses and courses on each of the individuals that we’ve read. You can take a course surveying political philosophy from Plato past Nozick. Or you can take a course on any one of the individual authors. The Political Science department, likewise, offers historically structured courses and courses on our individual authors. Nearly every course listed in the Ethics, Politics and Economics department is a course that will address the kinds of questions that I just mentioned in this chart. And in the context of the Economics department and indeed in three or four other departments, you can think about game theory as a way of representing these structures or think about policy in the context of an economic framework.

It’s 11:19. I will integrate the discussion of morality and the answers to those questions into our final lecture on Thursday. But it’s my hope that even if I didn’t answer all 500 of the questions that I was asked for today that the lecture gave you some sense of how some of the pieces fit together. And we’ll continue on Thursday.

[end of transcript]

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