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March 28, 2012

Moral Reasoning

Here’s a question to ponder. Steven Landsburg poses two scenarios that require one to make a moral choice. Here's the first:

Question 1: If forced to choose, which of these nightmare scenarios would you prefer?
Scenario A: An evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he destroys all human life; otherwise he goes home.

Scenario B: The same evil alien flips 7 billion coins, one for each person on earth. He destroys anyone whose coin comes up heads.

And here's the second:

Question 2: Suppose you’re happily married. If forced to choose, which of these nightmare scenarios would you prefer?
Scenario A: An evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he kills you and your spouse; otherwise he goes home.

Scenario B: The same evil alien flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he kills just you; if it comes up tails, he kills just your spouse.

What interests me here is not so much the answers to the questions, but the rationalization he provides for his choices (which, though our eventual choices were identical, was 180 degrees out from why I chose as I did). The striking difference in our rationalization (or moral reasoning) reminded me of something I read the other day:

My old professor, David Berman, liked to talk about what he called the "typical mind fallacy", which he illustrated through the following example:

There was a debate, in the late 1800s, about whether "imagination" was simply a turn of phrase or a real phenomenon. That is, can people actually create images in their minds which they see vividly, or do they simply say "I saw it in my mind" as a metaphor for considering what it looked like?

Upon hearing this, my response was "...Of course we have mental imagery. Anyone who doesn't think we have mental imagery is either such a fanatical Behaviorist that she doubts the evidence of her own senses, or simply insane."

...The debate was resolved by Francis Galton, a fascinating man who among other achievements invented eugenics, the "wisdom of crowds", and standard deviation. Galton gave people some very detailed surveys, and found that some people did have mental imagery and others didn't. The ones who did had simply assumed everyone did, and the ones who didn't had simply assumed everyone didn't, to the point of coming up with absurd justifications for why they were lying or misunderstanding the question.

...Dr. Berman dubbed this the Typical Mind Fallacy: the human tendency to believe that one's own mental structure can be generalized to apply to everyone else's.

It's stunning to think how many areas of life this typical mind fallacy applies to: politics, relationships between men and women, parenting, learing to manage people at work.

The one thing I took away from 4 years of tutoring math is that we really don't think in the same ways at all. An explanation that resonates with one student is completely ineffective with another. I used to believe that in order to fully grasp a concept, students need to be able to relate it to something they already know, whether through experience or formal learning. But I now believe that although the ability to relate new knowledge to existing knowledge is important, so is the actual process by which people process information.

We keep looking for a simple rule that will explain why we have so much trouble understanding each other, and there isn't one. And arguably, the biggest impediment to understanding people who differ from us is the assumption that we can generalize from our own thought processes: that we are the template others ought to conform to.

Early in their 20-year marriage, Mr. Ford, a 61-year-old retired social-studies teacher, began to feel his wife didn't fully reciprocate his affection. She rarely initiated hugs and kisses. And while she let him hold her hand sometimes, Mr. Ford says he could tell she didn't really enjoy it. He began to pull away. "I didn't want to waste my time," he recalls. "If the marriage isn't working so well, I can go fish or hunt or work on my studies or business relationships." He worried the relationship wouldn't last.

Then Ms. Ford asked her husband what was wrong. He told her, "I need more physical closeness, and not necessarily sex." She reminded him that she had been raised in a German-American household that wasn't "huggy-kissy." She told him she prefers to show love through actions—making a nice home, planning vacations, setting up get-togethers with his family. "I was raised in a very bonded family that showed their love by spending time together," she says.

The Spousal Unit and I are the opposite of this couple - I am less emotionally reserved and enjoy physical displays of affection. Yet I am generally far less troubled by the prolonged separations typical of military life than he is. Over the last three decades, though, each of us has changed. He now enjoys and actively initiates what psychologists call bonding behaviors and I have come to appreciate the value of emotional reserve.

In an age where economic security and family ties no longer seem to be the prime reasons for marrying, I often wonder whether this gradual appreciation for how others think - and the subsequent modification of our self-centered (in the literal sense) world view - doesn't provide a valuable benefit to society as well as the individuals involved?

Posted by Cassandra at March 28, 2012 08:27 AM

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Comments

So long as we're speaking hypothetically, here, and there aren't any evil aliens reading this blog, then as to Question 1 I'd take Choice B. My reasoning is quite simple: It would take an awful long time for even a supremely evil alien to flip a coin 7 billion times. In the mean time I (and a lot lot of other humans) could keep ourselves busy dying from everything else in the universe that's trying to kill us (and ultimately succeeding).

As for Question 2, the answer for me must be A. If I'm happily married, then I'd rather be happily dead with my spouse than be unhappily widowed. Of course, mrs. rdr may differ, but I let her work that out with the alien.

Posted by: spd rdr at March 28, 2012 09:22 AM

I kill the alien or die trying. I guess I'm just bull headed like that... :-)

Posted by: Pogue at March 28, 2012 09:46 AM

I chose B in both scenarios for the same reasons: in both cases, B minimizes the harm and someone is left alive.

In the first scenario, I figured it would be better for half the human race to be killed off than all of it.

In the second, I reasoned that it would be better for our children, parents, and family members if one of us were to die than both of us.

I suppose I could be accused of bean counting, but that's what went through my mind. I suppose you could also rationalize both my choices by saying that I considered future generations in both. I didn't consider being remembered at all, though I might have if given more time.

Posted by: Evil Aliens, Inc. at March 28, 2012 09:49 AM

If you take an average of 4 seconds to flip a coin, it would take 324,074 days, or 887 years for our hypothetical alien to flip a coin 7 billion times for each human now alive on earth.

Maybe he/she/it would get bored after a while. Or maybe he would get interested in Direct TV.

What would Paul Erhlich think?

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 28, 2012 11:37 AM

Don, you ignorant slut :)

How dare you apply math and... ummm... logic to a hypothetical scenario? And isn't that *just* like a man?

Seriously, I jumped right past the mechanics, mainly because I have no idea how long it would take an Evil Gaia-Destroying Alien to flip a coin. For all I know, he might have some way to suspend time whilst he flips the coin 700 times... or those funky alien coins (and why are Evil Gaia-Destroying Aliens still using primitive metal-based currency anywho?) might have different properties from our coins.

Being unrepentantly female, I jumped right past the part that didn't interest me (the mechanics of coin flipping) to the part that did interest me (given that I have to decide, how do I make that decision, and why?).

IOW, I thought about this differently than I would have if said Evil Alien were actually standing in front of me asking me to choose between planetary oblivion and a life in which I was smart enough to know who Paul Ehrlich was without Googling his name :)

Being a proud resident of the Land of Bedwetting Socialists, I will confess to temporarily confusing Paul Ehrlich with the former Rethug governor of the crabcake state :p


Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2012 11:55 AM

Yes, I think the differences in how people think and perceive are considerable...a kind of "diversity" that doesn't get much attention.

A psych professor who spoke at a management class I once attended suggested that people have a strong tendency to hire people who are psychologically *like them*....and that this tendency should be resisted, because if you hire people that think like you, then you will all have the same blind spots and happily march off the cliff together.

Posted by: david foster at March 28, 2012 12:11 PM

... this tendency should be resisted, because if you hire people that think like you, then you will all have the same blind spots and happily march off the cliff together.

Boy is that ever true!

I get annoyed by people (and firms) that use Myers-Briggs like some kind of cafeteria Chinese astrology, but there is real value in understanding - and appreciating - different modes of making decisions and interpreting the world.

One of the things that most delights me about having male friends is that they just don't see the world the way I do. This can be frustrating, but it's also an endless source of wonderment to me. And despite the male tendency to say, "men are simple", guys really are not simple and not all alike.

There are what I'd call male tendencies, but they are moderated by personality and thinking style and a gazillion other influences that I probably do not want to know more about :p

Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2012 12:57 PM

Alas for technology. If the evil alien is willing to use a virtual coin, he could use a computer and do the 7 billion coin flips for everyone in roughly 2 seconds.


My choices would be 1.B and probably 2.A. Guarantee some survival for the multitudes when choosing for the human race; but personally, I want to live or die with my (hypothetical) spouse.

(But good point about guaranteeing a survivor for remaining kin; must be a perspective you get after having kids and grandkids)

Posted by: SirHamster at March 28, 2012 02:47 PM


...must be a perspective you get after having kids and grandkids

That has definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things. I honestly don't know if I would have answered differently in my early 20s. Probably.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2012 03:09 PM

I would probably wind up as an outtake for the Stupid Human Tricks reality show on the Orion Nebula Public Broadcasting system, but I'd take the Pogue approach.

"If you take an average of 4 seconds to flip a coin, it would take 324,074 days, or 887 years for our hypothetical alien to flip a coin 7 billion times for each human now alive on earth."

Three words,
massively parallel processing...

Marvin says we're done for.

*adjust shades, laughs*

Posted by: Zaphod at March 28, 2012 03:34 PM

I always had a hard time learning in school. Once I get it - I GET IT - but getting there....

I prefer learning by doing - and visual means - not reading textbooks.

Then I have known people with phenomenal rote memories who ace tests - but if you throw some curves at them on the subject - they are bambozzled.

Best examiner I ever had on this subject was years ago, getting my private pilots license - a CFI - Certified Flight Instructor - named Karl Harder - heck in the 70s he was so old I think he taught the Wright Brothers how to fly - but he was so well thought of they named an airport after him when he died.

Anyway he is questioning me on various subjects before we take the flight test - shows me a sectional chart (large aviation map which is full of arcane symbols) - hardly used these days so I'm told) - anyway, he said "I want to go from here to there - what is the best way and what should I look out for?"

No BS, just use the knowledge you are supposed to have to practical use -

Posted by: Bill Brandt at March 28, 2012 03:43 PM

Good questions, Cass. Let me raise a few points.

1) On 'minds working alike': there is an important distinction to make within what we are calling "minds," between reason and faculties. Imagination is a faculty, and it is possible to have it or not, in just the same way as it is possible to have the faculty of sight or not. (Aristotle, by the way, certainly did have it: his "imagination," which is where we get the concept originally, is literally a faculty of re-imaging things we have seen.)

By the same token, we know that we can value different things at different rates: I take that to be your main point about the two games. In making a decision in the second case, for example, his concept is that would choose B if we value being remembered; but it would not have occurred to me that being remembered was a concern. What was of concern to me was, 'If both of us should die, who would look after our child?'

So, faculties can differ, and certainly values can differ. I still think that we cannot have different orders of reason. You may remember T99's proof from our discussion of horses:

I never know that anyone is "thinking," except insofar as they can communicate something to me that reminds me of the internal process I identify by the work "thinking." Horse and dogs do that to a limited extent by showing me that they are remembering things or have solve problems.
In other words, we must share an order of reason if we can understand each other well enough to work out the rules of the other's game. We know that horses share ours to a limited extent because we can observe them working out how our locking mechanisms work, and using those rules for their own purposes; and so forth.

Thus, the fact that we can sort out that some people are making use of a faculty that others lack is both evidence of a difference in human faculties, but also a proof of the unity of the order of reason itself. Otherwise, we would not be able to communicate well enough to understand from the communication that we were having very different experiences. We wouldn't be able to sort out that we value different things.

Insofar as the order of reason differs between men and women (say), the proof would come if we could find areas in which absolutely no amount of communication or interaction allowed us to understand the other. Those areas may exist, but ironically, we can't know just where they are because we can't understand each other well enough to sort out how we differ.

2) You say, "In an age where economic security and family ties no longer seem to be the prime reasons for marrying, I often wonder whether this gradual appreciation for how others think - and the subsequent modification of our self-centered (in the literal sense) world view - doesn't provide a valuable benefit to society as well as the individuals involved?"

What is it you want to get out of that? The opportunity for a unity of souls across the sex divide -- so that we have 'one flesh' that expresses both aspects of human nature, and not merely the nature of man or the nature of woman -- is one of the marital goods identified by Aquinas and others. They would hold that it is a good to be pursued in addition to the principle end (which is the production and education of the next generation, so that civilization endures another generation), not instead of it.

If you want to make an argument to the contrary, you might argue that this was an adequate good to stand in the place of the principal end in at least some cases. You'd want to delimit that carefully, though, because it would seem to license a kind of "marriage" I know that you are strongly opposed to on other grounds: after all, the various kinds of plural marriage would seem to offer even greater opportunities for expanding understanding intimate relationships, and getting over being self-centered in favor of respecting the interests of others.

In order to avoid that, you might try establish limits of intimacy (no more than two, because...) or balance (no more men than women, because...) or both. However, if you do that, it's not clear why marriage is the right institution for developing this principle. After all, what we need in society is not intimacy, but the ability to treat people well even though we are not intimates and do not share the same bonds; and in spite of the fact that we can't expect society to always be balanced.

That might suggest that it's best to leave marriage for its main purpose, and take the side benefits as a kind of extra bonus. But maybe you only meant that; in which case you are on the same page as Aquinas, who thought that this was something else nice that happens to come from marriage, a kind of extra bonus.

Posted by: Grim at March 28, 2012 04:12 PM

Maybe the coin has already been flipped for both scenarios, and it just hasn't come back down--the Big Bang was the latest flip.

Or what if I snatch the coin in mid-air, interrupting the flip?

We're all Schrodinger's (or xmblltsszzz's) Cat, in either case.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at March 28, 2012 04:46 PM

...we must share an order of reason if we can understand each other well enough to work out the rules of the other's game. We know that horses share ours to a limited extent because we can observe them working out how our locking mechanisms work, and using those rules for their own purposes; and so forth.

That sounds reasonable to me. My main point here was that different people will reason their way through a problem using different methods (and applying different values along the way). But I definitely agree that a half decent reasoning process should be objectively understandable to others.

Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2012 04:47 PM

Insofar as the order of reason differs between men and women (say), the proof would come if we could find areas in which absolutely no amount of communication or interaction allowed us to understand the other. Those areas may exist, but ironically, we can't know just where they are because we can't understand each other well enough to sort out how we differ.

Thank God :)

what we need in society is not intimacy, but the ability to treat people well even though we are not intimates and do not share the same bonds; and in spite of the fact that we can't expect society to always be balanced.

That might suggest that it's best to leave marriage for its main purpose, and take the side benefits as a kind of extra bonus. But maybe you only meant that; in which case you are on the same page as Aquinas, who thought that this was something else nice that happens to come from marriage, a kind of extra bonus.

I don't think there's a broad general agreement as to the purpose of marriage anymore. Americans seem to think about it more from the standpoint of love or soulmates or something like that.

I agree that love is important, but think the primary purpose of marriage is something more like partnership/family. Whether or not a couple has children, a new family is formed when two people marry.

I suppose what I meant here was somewhere in between, "Gee - that's a nice bonus" and "In a world where people now view marriage as one of many alternate lifestyle choices to be canceled at will, maybe the possibility of moderating our natural tendency to be self-centered benefits society at large".

I realize that's probably pretty Pollyanna-ish, but then that would be me :p

Posted by: Cassandra at March 28, 2012 04:54 PM

Maybe the coin has already been flipped for both scenarios, and it just hasn't come back down--the Big Bang was the latest flip....Or what if I snatch the coin in mid-air, interrupting the flip?

I think I just slipped into an alternate universe, bereft of the comforting presence of a Supreme Being who continually assures me that he would be out healing the oceans and ensuring a beatific state of perfect social justice... if only he didn't have to deal with pesky elected officials who refuse to rubber stamp his decisions.

Posted by: Schrodinger's Cat at March 28, 2012 05:03 PM

Watch out, Mr. Hines, or you may find yourself immortal.

Posted by: Grim at March 28, 2012 05:15 PM

Watch out, Mr. Hines, or you may find yourself immortal.

Or permanently dead. Or both, forever--or not yet. Time is, after all, a multidimensional volume.

Withal, the link provides one more example of differing modes of reasoning arriving at the same conclusion--as well as a demonstration that it's not necessary for one to understand the other's mode in order to understand the other's answer.

Here's a more accessible demonstration of that. A friend of mine emigrated from China as a young adult, and she has a daughter who was raised from birth in American culture. The daughter has the best of both worlds because of her mother's efforts: steeped in American culture, she has all of the the American (and generally Western) approaches to life and to reaching solutions to life's problems. But her mother ensured that the daughter also well understood Chinese culture--the daughter is fully capable of those approaches and solution developments using Chinese memes, also. She can, then, use the approaches most suitable--to her--to deal with a particular question.

So it is with individuals. It's also why successful leaders don't surround themselves with yes men. It's why marriage might still be, occasionally, a merging into 'one flesh' that expresses both aspects of human nature, and not merely the nature of man or the nature of woman. But I strongly hope never to merge the minds, as well. Nor my wife nor I want to live in an echo chamber.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at March 28, 2012 05:53 PM

1: I picked B, for the reason that it's better for only half the human race to die than all of it.
2: I picked A. So far, we don't have any children to worry about, and whatever my husband's fate is, I want to share it (and vice versa). If we *did* have children, though, as agonizing as it would be, I think I would pick B, just to ensure that someone was left alive to care for them.

I found the Wall Street Journal article interesting because that's exactly the same situation I faced with my then-boyfriend, now-husband when we first started dating. My family is very closed-off and emotionally restricted (German-American--actually Prussian-American), while his family is much more emotionally expressive than mine. They're also *much* more "touchy"--they're always hugging each other, patting each other on the back, and so on) because that's how they show affection. In my family we showed affection through intellectual, cerebral conversation about abstract topics. His family simply doesn't talk like that; their conversation tends to center on family events. When I first started dating my now-husband, it was a real culture shock. I had to learn that the fact that he actually said "I love you" and that he wanted to hug me and hold my hand *didn't* mean that he was immature, childish, and unable to control his emotions (he is far from being any of those things), and to get used to the fact that he just didn't really enjoy the kinds of long, drawn-out, in-depth conversations that I was used to having with my family members.

The thing is, I think if I *had* gotten involved with someone closer to my family's emotional style, I would have been miserable. Over the years, I've grown to deeply value and cherish my husband's emotional expressiveness and the ways in which he shows affection. I know being with him has helped me to access sides of myself that probably would have remained closed off otherwise, and that I've become more caring and compassionate since I've been with him. I wonder if that's why opposites attract--so that we can learn from each other and grow as people.

Posted by: colagirl at March 29, 2012 09:54 AM

You know, even if our alien friend takes only 1 second per coin flip, we'd still be reproducing faster than he can kill...

Posted by: Dexter Trask at March 29, 2012 05:10 PM

",,,we'd still be reproducing faster than he can kill..."

Or at the very least, even if we die trying, we'll go with smiles on our faces.

Posted by: The Wizzerd of Izz at March 29, 2012 05:46 PM

1A, 2A
I'm selfish.
I have a 50:50 chance of living in all cases.
In 1, if I'm alive I want everyone else.
Why? Because if half are gone the remaining 50% are going to be seriously weird after the event.
In 2, if I'm alive, I want my wife, not a 50% chance of having her.

Posted by: tomg51 at March 30, 2012 11:41 AM

Yawn. You just now found out about this stuff? You should have been reading more autieblogs. Those of us with the "A" have long since figured out that we don't think like the normals, or often even like each other.

Posted by: Justthisguy at April 1, 2012 12:23 PM

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