Category Archives: moral reasoning

Four Out of Five Babies Prefer Victims to Bullies

At just 10 months old babies already have a sense of sympathy and right and wrong. This recent study (published yesterday in PLOS ONE and therefore FREE!) has a good write-up in LiveScience.

Because 10-month-olds can’t yet express sympathy verbally, Kyoto University researcher Shoji Itakura and colleagues turned to a common tactic in baby-brain research: using simple animations to determine what infants prefer. They showed 40 babies an animation of a blue ball and a yellow cube.

Half of the infants watched a short clip in which the blue ball chased the yellow cube around the screen, hitting it seven times before finally squishing it against a wall. The other half of the group saw the same movements, including the squishing, but the two shapes moved independently without interacting.

In some cases, the “bully” and “victim” roles were swapped, so that the yellow cube was the bad guy. After watching the show, the babies were shown a real yellow cube and a real blue ball, and given the chance to reach for one of the objects.

In cases where the babies had seen one shape beating up on the other, they overwhelmingly reached for the victim, 16 out of 20 times.

The seeming-silliness of studying babies via videos of shapes and then letting them choose real shapes reflective of the video they just watched is really not silly at all – it is fantastic experimental design. And the data is terrific too. Yes, moral sense within 10 months of birth.

Baby brains develop incredibly quickly. And it is a longstanding truism of studies of babies that there is probably more there than what you can detect. Improved experiments will find more and more. We are the deficient ones; they know more than we can know that they know.

Anyway, I think this is a win not only for morality and its innateness (and a great follow up study would be to see if babies with older siblings have modified outcomes in any way), but also for babies themselves. For those like Peter Singer who would allow infanticide, I would hope that this gives some pause. Babies are not just lumps. They are thinking and moral beings. Even newborns and prenatals can do some pretty fantastic things. We should recognize that many of the limitations that we perceive in babies are not in the babies, but rather in us. (Not that I think that human value relies on our abilities/lack-of-limitations in any case.)

The moral history of humanity has shown, I think, that it is better to draw the bounds of humanity too wide and include too many (not that this has ever happened), rather than too narrow and include too few (the human default morality).

As a last thought, and to explore the above too-narrow-boundaries-of-humanity problem with in-group and out-group, it might be interesting to condition the children to perceive the victim shape as out-group and the bully shape as in-group. Give them all toys and clothes marked with a blue ball. Give mom and dad the same markings. Then show them the video of the blue ball squashing the yellow cube.  See if the babies-prefer-victims theory still holds then. If not, then we’ll have begun to see the origins of “drawing the moral bounds too narrow” as well.

Catholicism and Conscience

One of my jobs at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center is to provide web resources for a project on Catholicism and Conscience. I’ll just cut and paste a bit here then send you over to that site to read the rest:

The Catholic tradition on conscience is very extensive, while being quite unified. One may wonder, if the teaching is so unified, why there would be so much to say. The reason is because the tradition is unified on a tension. The first pole of the tension is that under no circumstances should one violate one’s conscience – one must always follow even an erring conscience. The other pole of the tension is that, at the same time, a rightly formed conscience is expected to concur with Catholic teaching. These two moral requirements, that one should follow one’s conscience and that one should follow Church teachings, are potentially in conflict. The requirements may not align, and if so, then a point of tension has appeared between an individual’s conscience and the Church’s teachings.

Here I will endeavor to provide only a brief overview of the immense literature surrounding the Catholic understanding of conscience. In the first section I will provide some background to the subject of conscience, in the second some examples of perennial issues that arise in the discussion of conscience, and in the third some current examples of conscience in the news.

The site is a work in progress so if you have any feedback by all means leave it as a comment here (you can’t leave comments on the Center’s page). Particularly leave a comment if you know of any current news stories involving Catholicism and conscience rights (please provide a link), I will add it to the section at the end (“Current Flashpoints”) where we are compiling contemporary cases. Two prime cases being the HHS mandate on contraceptive insurance coverage, and the new tendency of some bishops to use of “affirmations of faith” with diocesan employees (in that particular case the requirement has been temporarily withdrawn).

Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Taken Alive: A Moral Victory

Good job to the Boston Police Department!

Taking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev alive is a very good thing. I don’t know if he was wearing a suicide bomb, but given his and his brother’s blatant disregard for human life (and reports that his brother was wearing one) I wouldn’t be surprised. And in that case the BPD did a huge job – they not only saved the lives of any other innocent victims Tsarnaev might have killed, they saved his life too.

The best possible outcome is still, then, possible – Tsarnaev might say he is sorry. It might not happen, but if it does we should rejoice because that would deflate the terrorist cause; he would be acknowledging that he and his cause were wrong. And that is a powerful witness to keep others away from it. And it would help restore Tsarnaev’s own humanity – he needs to have his sense of right and wrong corrected. It will also show that moral behavior on our part pays off.

When Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan it was only a half-victory for the USA, as I noted at the time. We not only acted outside the law, but we denied him the ability to apologize. That would have been the ultimate victory – the apology of our foremost enemy – and we lost it by killing him. We denied ourselves the opportunity for a moral victory. And as we continue our “War on Terror” we continue to deny ourselves the opportunity for this highest victory.

No matter how unlikely the apology is, we still need to give our enemy that chance. It is not only better for them, it is better for us. Even though distorted towards vice, they are human too. Because in a deep way treating one’s enemy as a human denies the dichotomy of “us” and “them.” It makes us all “us.”

If we deny the humanity of our enemy, we reinforce their denial of ours.  The only way to end this war is by mutual respect or total annihilation, and as I said before, we aren’t going to choose the second path. So we better get started on the path to the first.

In this act of good law enforcement, the BPD respected the humanity of someone who attacked us as an enemy. We need more of this behavior towards those who call themselves our enemies. So once again, good job Boston PD. When BPD officers (and I hesitate to bring it up, but it is the truth and we should never shy away from it) brutalized the peaceful Occupy Boston protesters that was a low-point, but today you have show us the better way.

Let this be a formative moment for our nation, to direct us to defend justice with compassion and respect even for those who deny it to us. We need the moral high ground, not only for the sake of our enemies, not only for the sake of those watching, but for our sake, for us, to keep us human.

And on that note I will end with a link to a story from World War Two. It is a must-read, about a German pilot sparing an American B-17, but I’ll just excerpt one quote.

“People think of the rules of war primarily as a way to protect innocent civilians from being victims of atrocities,” she says. “In a much more profound sense, the rules are there to protect the people doing the actual fighting.”

The code is designed to prevent soldiers from becoming monsters.”

Today we did not become monsters. That might sound like a hollow hurrah, but it is not just a negative, it is much more than that.

Instead we became humans.

Responding to the Murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School

Several posts on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings have come out, and I just want to share some here.

Why do teachers protect their students during a shooting? Because they care deeply about their students.

We see it again at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and we stand in awe of this courage and commitment to young lives. What is it that compelled principal Dawn Hochsprung to charge the shooter who threatened her school and kids? What prompted teacher Victoria Soto to position herself before a huddle of students, making herself the shooter’s target?

During the Virginia Tech massacre, Holocaust survivor and engineering professor Liviu Librescu gave his life while his students escaped, blocking the door with his body, while he was shot through the door. Many Sandy Hook teachers acted similarly. Let their heroism be remembered.

Gun control is a pro-life issue, by the way. I have heard people claim otherwise. Fr. James Martin:

Gun control is a religious issue. It is just as much of what many religious people call a “life issue” or a “pro-life issue,” as is abortion, euthanasia or the death penalty (all of which I oppose), and programs that provide the poor with the same access to basic human needs as the wealthy (which I am for). There is a “consistent ethic of life” that views all these issues as linked, because they are.

More on the idolatry of guns:

BACK IN 1990, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) issued this warning: “The religious community must … take seriously the risk of idolatry that could result from an unwarranted fascination with guns, which overlooks or ignores the social consequences of their misuse.” Two decades later, about 660,000 more Americans have been killed by guns, with a million more injured.

Yes, 660,000 dead in 22 years. That’s a Civil War scale death toll, and we call it normal. One million since 1968. The British paper The Telegraph comments:

The statistics are even more heart-breaking when applied to the young. The slaughter of children by gunfire in the United States is 25 times the rate of the 20 next largest industrial countries in the world combined. If you add them all up, since the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968, well over a million Americans, children and adults, have been shot to death, and even now 80 people die in this manner every day. The terrible slaughter on Friday is not as unusual as it should be.

And what about other nations without firearms, are they not plagued by illegal guns with no-one able to stop them? How about Japan? In 2006, they had only two firearms deaths. Two. In 2008 the US had 12,000.

Of the world’s 23 “rich” countries, the U.S. gun-related murder rate is almost 20 times that of the other 22. With almost one privately owned firearm per person, America’s ownership rate is the highest in the world; tribal-conflict-torn Yemen is ranked second, with a rate about half of America’s.

But what about the country at the other end of the spectrum? What is the role of guns in Japan, the developed world’s least firearm-filled nation and perhaps its strictest controller? In 2008, the U.S. had over 12 thousand firearm-related homicides. All of Japan experienced only 11, fewer than were killed at the Aurora shooting alone. And that was a big year: 2006 saw an astounding two, and when that number jumped to 22 in 2007, it became a national scandal. By comparison, also in 2008, 587 Americans were killed just by guns that had discharged accidentally.

But what price freedom? Don’t we need all these guns to protect us from government tyranny? If one is that paranoid, one should consider that perhaps widespread gun ownership is exactly what the tyrannical powers want right now. A population in fear. A population without trust, fragmented. No Second-Amendment-mandated militias organized to “save” you. Yes, if you are one of those types, you have already been had.

Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power… I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.

But ultimately, this is about some kind of freedom, right? People want guns.

“How could we have let this happen?”

It is a horrible question because the answer is so simple. Make it easy for people to get guns and things like this will happen.

Children will continue to pay for a freedom their elders enjoy.

This matter is our choice.  We have unwittingly, collectively, chosen something horrible.  But we can choose again and choose better. We do not have to live like this.

I pray that we as a nation find the strength to make a better choice. Deuteronomy 30:19:

This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.


If you contributed one of the links, thank you.

Information is not value free

If printing a gun is the equivalent to the liberation of the printing press, as Cody Wilson claims (see video), then critically thinking about information has hit hard times. Meaning: ideology and violence have become the only methods of “real” communication.

While, I understand that access to information can be empowering, I believe the philosophy behind the Defense Distributed project is oversimplified, naive, and partially paranoid. It does not take into account that we live in a world made complex by a growing population, poverty, restricted resources, and various governmental and economic systems. While I may agree that not all politicians have “the greater good” or the individual rights in mind, these concepts alone deserve greater contemplation than Hobbesian (i.e., “life is nasty, brutish, and short”), Marxian-utopian (i.e., elitist politicians are corrupt and want to only maintain the status quo), libertarian (i.e., we exist only as an aggregate of individuals and as such deserve unfettered access to anything we want, when we want it) cracker-jack platitudes.—-yet.html

Is Geoengineering Now Inevitable? Or, Is the Only Solution to a Technological Problem More Technology?

Scaling the Heights of the Scala Naturae (Wikipedia)

Once a year I teach a course at Santa Clara University called “Energy, Climate Change, and Social Justice.” I love teaching it. The premise is to help engineering graduate students learn how to think ethically about the problems generated by global warming, with an eye towards coming up with innovative solutions. We look at conventional and renewable energy sources, vulnerabilities that different areas and people’s of the world face due to global warming, and potential policy solutions to help get the world on track towards carbon neutrality or negativity.

But this year a strange thought continually crossed my mind as I was teaching the course. Is active human control over the climate now inevitable?  A few months ago a friend of mine at another university had expressed to me the wish that humans would not be responsible for the Earth’s environment – not responsible for the climate, not responsible for the weather, not responsible for the deaths and destruction and rising oceans. To him it seemed much better that such events were not blameworthy, that things could just happen and they would not be anyone’s fault. The idea of filing a lawsuit over climate change just seemed very wrong. Shouldn’t there just be some things that no-one is responsible and guilty for? Would that not be a better world?

I was unsure how to respond, but the question remained on my mind. I agree that a world where humans were not responsible for the climate might be a better world, but I’m not sure we can ever go back. Here is my thinking. Continue reading

Brian’s Links 16 April 2012: Can You Find a Theme?

“Riding the Booster.” This video is simply amazing – the solid rocket booster goes up and it comes back down again. I must say, I got a bit dizzy after booster separation. But worth the ride!

Benedict XVI has been dubbed “The Green Pope” for his environmental concern. I like it, and not just because my last name is Green. Here’s a report from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Climate Change.

Ever wondered if your brain was messing with your ability to judge and reason correctly? Well, it is: here is a list of cognitive biases. And the bias I address in some of my research, teleological bias, isn’t even on this immense list. (Teleological bias is the tendency to infer purposes where there are none, e.g., the lightning striking your dog really was a random accident, not because you named your dog Zeus.)

The thought experiment of “ethical autocorrect.”

So, all your traceable purchases are being traced and compiled in myriad computers.  The easy way to stop store-centered ones is to pay cash (like a criminal) and never use those store “clubs.” But the internet is tracking you too! Here are some more sophisticated responses for the internet. And if you tell your Facebook friends to warn them, it just gives the trackers more info on you!

The Nobel Peace Prize committee is under investigation for straying from the prize’s original purpose…

Contagious twitching. A very strange case.

Muggers just need a nice dinner and some conversation.

The case of the Millionaire Metaphysician. For more info see

The Guerrilla Grafters, surreptitiously turning non-fruiting city trees into fruiting ones. I like it.

Is it wrong to father 400 children through sperm donation? (And if not, then where is the cutoff? Is there one?) Because of sperm banks, some guys are “fathering” (in a biological sense only) an immense number of children.  This is not insignificant; this is the human gene pool being altered here, not to mention people’s lives.

English Muslim baroness warns Christians to stand up for their religion.

And how to prove the absurdity of the Supreme Court case “Citizens United”? Colbert is on it. Because Mitt Romney is a serial killer. Corporation are people. Bain Capital repeatedly bought and broke up corporations, killing them. Therefore Romney’s a serial killer. I love absurdity. This link to the Colbert Report will get you the video in case the embedded video below has failed. (The embed is a mirror copy of the original (removed for some kind of YouTube terms violation) and likely won’t be alive for long.) This is a few months old, but still just as pertinent.

What Kant Can Teach Us In The Catholic Church vs. HHS Mandate Case

Kant reminds us that we think of law as being universal and objective.  Therefore, we need to think about what happens when we make a law, because that law applies to everyone universally, not just to the case we are thinking about.  

I doubt that Immanuel Kant will be able to convince any of my conservative Catholic friends that the HHS mandate with the Hawaii exception is a workable compromise for an imperfect system.*  (Well, maybe Kant himself could, but my use of Kant probably won’t convince anyone). At the same time, I am teaching Kant this week in my intro Ethics course and so I have the categorical imperative on my mind as the HHS mandate question rages on.  Thus, I thought it might be helpful to apply Kant to this conundrum and see if there was not something to learn from the 18th Century German philosopher.   I am by no means a Kantian, but I do think his emphasis on the universality of moral law is something we need to always keep in mind, and this case is a perfect example.

For those not familiar with Kant’s work, here is a quick and dirty summary:  Kant said that ethics boils down to one’s duty to do uphold what he called the categorical imperative.  That’s just a fancy way of saying a universal duty – a duty that applies to everyone, always.  There is only one categorical imperative for Kant: that we should never do any action that we wouldn’t want everyone else to do.  It’s a modification of the golden rule.   So Kant says that we shouldn’t lie because if we lie when “it is necessary” then we would have to allow everyone to lie when necessary.  If we allow everyone to lie when necessary, the we would never know if someone was telling the truth or lying out of necessity, and the whole institution of trust would break down.  In short, our actions are only morally legitimate if we can say that we would want everyone else to do the same action.

So lets think about Kant in terms of the health care mandate.  What is the maxim that is at stake here?

Continue reading

The Illusion of Validity vs. Phronesis

Last night I was lucky enough to catch KQED’s Forum with Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. One of the most interesting concepts that he mentioned last night was what he calls the “illusion of validity.” The idea is that oftentimes the stories we know, tell ourselves, and interpret our experience through can be misleading (perhaps that’s really not so earth-shattering). Even in instances where we may really think we see something, interpret it, and are highly confident in our interpretation, our conclusions can be totally wrong (he points this out especially among financial advisors who often cannot predict market directions regardless of knowledge).

Yet, Kahneman differentiates this from expertise. Over long periods of time, if we are engaged in a practice that involves trial and error wherein we can learn from our mistakes and there is a regularity in the phenomenon we are looking at, we can develop a skill–something akin to Aristotle’s notion of phronesis (or practical wisdom).

I find Kahneman’s work interesting and intend to look into it further. The concept of the “illusion of validity” will be of interest, perhaps, to those also who utilize Bourdieusian theory in their work. Bourdieu’s notion of “illusio” (i.e., a socialized interest in the particular culture and social position within one lives) combined with his concept of “misrecognition” and Kahneman’s “illusion of validity” are worth comparing and maybe even integrating.

If these stories we tell ourselves or these internalized social schemas really filter and organize the internal and external stimulus we experience, there are interesting implications to explore in the realm of practical ethics and even in the study of how religious beliefs may either affect behavior or at least the interpretation of behavior.


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